Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repaid the same frontline health-care workers he described as “heroes” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with a withering assault on their collective bargaining rights.

On July 21, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed Bills 195 and 197. The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) called it “a dark day for the province’s registered nurses and health-care professionals.” The bills represent a vile attack on health workers already stressed, exhausted and in some cases dying from their struggle to care for COVID-19 patients, even as Ford ramps up his efforts to “reopen” the province.

Each law bears an appropriately Orwellian moniker. Bill 195, the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, extends the provincial emergency act declared earlier in response to the pandemic, with Ford now able to retain some of its measures for up to two years. The bill effectively suspends the collective bargaining agreements of nurses and other health care workers.

Under the terms of Bill 195, employers can override terms of frontline workers’ contracts, unilaterally cancelling vacations, changing shifts and hours of work, denying or cancelling leaves of absence and moving workers to other sites. They can eliminate jobs and reassign staff with no input from the workers. As long as there are no layoffs, the employer can bring in contractors or volunteers to do the jobs of existing workers, who can in turn be reassigned.

Bill 195 also grants Ford sweeping powers, including the ability to effectively bypass the legislature at Queen’s Park by extending emergency powers every 30 days for two years. Ontario Federation of Labour President Patty Coates correctly called the bill “an assault on democracy”.

Not content to override labour contracts, Ford is also attacking foundational protective legislation: Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, amends many pieces of legislation including the Occupational Health and Safety Act. While the risk of spreading COVID-19 is already increasing because of Ford’s plan to reopen workplaces and schools, his bill weakens health and safety measures for workers along with other regulations such as those for environmental protection. Reflecting the anti-democratic nature of Bill 197, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says that Ford himself may have broken the law to speed up its passage, since any amendment to legislation concerning the environment must be made available for public consultation for 30 days. The Ford government, however, introduced the bill only 14 days before it became law.

Passage of the two bills is a slap in the face to health care workers and an act of breathtaking, if typical, hypocrisy from Ford. During National Nursing Week in May, Ford described nurses as “heroes on the frontline of our healthcare system, delivering high quality and compassionate care for patients every day … we recognize all the incredible work our nurses do and thank them for making our health and well-being their top priority.”

Now Ford is directly attacking nurses and health workers, just as  he has attacked practically every other group in Ontario aside from his wealthy friends in big business. Ford was already going on the offensive against nurses and health workers well before the pandemic. The passage of Bill 124 last November imposed a 1% cap on annual wage increases for all public-sector workers, including those in health care. Being less than the rate of inflation, the wage cap amounted to an effective pay cut.

Health care workers in Ontario have no legal right to strike and only limited rights to refuse unsafe work. But in the days before the passage of Bills 195 and 197, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) organized rallies outside hospitals across Ontario. The day after the bills were passed, front-line health workers staged a five-minute in-hospital protest against the extension of emergency powers.

The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), a division of CUPE, led the work interruption. OCHU President Michael Hurley said that union members felt the government’s description of their work as “heroic” was “insincere if it’s followed by the withdrawal on a semi-permanent basis of our basic rights.” Changes to shift times and locations, he noted, were especially hard on members given that 80-85 per cent are women and 35 per cent are single parents. CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn later added that the union was “committed to mobilizing members and communities to apply political pressure to have worker rights restored immediately.”

The Ford regime is taking advantage of health workers’ dedication and concern for patients to attack their rights and well-being. Increasing exploitation of these workers during a pandemic is a declaration of war not just on health workers, but on public health itself. The labour movement must unite to bring down this government.