Faced with eroding wages, difficult conditions, and a private employer who refuses to listen, nearly 120 ambulance workers in Newfoundland exercised their democratic right to strike on Jan. 20. Meanwhile, the provincial government is hard at work trying to strip them of that right. Indeed, the province’s House of Assembly scheduled a debate on Monday, Jan. 23 to discuss legislation that would declare private ambulances an “essential” service, forcing them back to work. This would have the effect of killing the strike just two days after it began. In doing so, Liberal Premier Andrew Furey and the entire government are showing their true colours as servants of the bosses who will gladly force workers to live in squalor to protect the profits of Bob Fewer, owner of the company that operates the seven private ambulance companies on strike.
The ambulance operators, as members of Teamsters Local 855, have been engaging in escalating action since Jan. 11, beginning with a work-to-rule campaign. These workers operate across large rural sections of the province, particularly the Avalon and Bonavista peninsulas. The back-breaking conditions faced by these workers are reflected in the strike vote results: of the seven companies run under the Fewer’s Ambulance Service umbrella, the strike vote was 100 per cent at five, with the other two at least 75 per cent. However, this democratic mandate could be rendered irrelevant in an instant by a handful of capitalist politicians.
Premier Furey released a statement on Saturday in which he feigned “serious concerns for the safety and well-being of residents of Newfoundland and Labrador” as cover for this blatant attack on workers’ rights. It is certainly true that ambulance drivers do provide an essential service, especially given the snowstorm that is ravaging the province right now and has led to services like community centres, schools, and walk-in clinics being shut down intermittently. By that same logic, though, it is indefensible that these workers should have to face such dreadful working conditions as they do now. In the words of Hubert Dawe, Teamsters Local 855 business agent, ambulance operators working for Fewer “could make better wages and have a greater quality of life working in a fast-food restaurant”.
Indeed, paramedics often work 24-hour days, do not receive overtime pay, and have been forced to take on more and more management responsibilities. The province’s hybrid system of private and public ambulance services has also led to a severe discrepancy in pay between government and non-government workers. The ambulance operators are striking within the legally permitted period, and yet Furey is attempting to force them back to work. If a strike can be arbitrarily declared illegal at any moment, then the right to strike does not actually exist.
While the government may use the snowstorm as an excuse, they would be just as willing to crush the strike on behalf of the bosses without any such pretense. As a matter of fact, the ambulance workers were initially supposed to vote on strike action back in May, but Labour Minister Bernard Davis used another legislative trick to delay the vote, forcing the local onto a “conciliation board” with Fewer to try to prevent a work stoppage. This is farcical, as Fewer has refused to engage in negotiations for months, and tried to break the strike before it even started. Indeed, the spark of the strike was an incident that occurred during the work-to-rule campaign, where his company reported a worker on a baseless charge of illegal striking, giving the union no choice but to launch proper strike action to defend its members.
A similar situation is taking place in Britain right now, where Rishi Sunak’s government is callously accusing striking nurses of “killing” patients by fighting for better working conditions. Similar rhetoric was used by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce in their attempt to force CUPE education workers back to work, accusing striking workers of harming children by forcing the shutdown of schools.
The Newfoundland government is clearly revealing its role as a servant for business owners, with a clear goal in mind: break the strike and demonize the workers for daring to stand up for themselves. This should not be surprising as the Liberal government has been pursuing an austerity policy which will inevitably lead to more strikes. Therefore, for the capitalists in Newfoundland, it is imperative that they send a message that no resistance will be allowed. This is precisely why it is imperative for the entire movement to rally around the ambulance workers to make sure that they win.
While the NDP at first blocked this bill in the House of Assembly, unfortunately now it looks like they will let it be adopted with interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn saying that the bill tabled to declare the private ambulance workers essential has come “much too late.” Similarly, Hubert Dawe, a leader with Teamsters Local 855, has said that for years the union has been asking to be declared an essential service. We must be clear that supporting legislation that takes away the right to strike is not going to strengthen the workers.
While it is somewhat understandable that, faced with the blunt profiteering of a private capitalist like Bob Fewer, some think that binding arbitration is a solution, this is no guarantee that the workers’ issues will be addressed. If the NDP and the union go along with essential services legislation and binding arbitration offers a horrible deal, if the right to strike is officially taken away, the workers will be left with no options.
The only way to take Fewer’s profiteering out of the equation is to demand that all of the ambulance services be renationalized. While many have claimed that private ambulances are more efficient than public, this has been proven to be incorrect, as the records show that the private ambulances cost up to five times more per patient.
The way forward is class struggle. Newfoundland ambulance operators can defeat back-to-work legislation and Bob Fewer’s profiteering and win good conditions for all ambulance workers. In fact, education workers in Ontario showed what can be done last fall when they went on an illegal strike despite back-to-work legislation and forced Doug Ford to back down. But in order for this to happen, the entire labour movement needs to lend concrete support for these workers. If the government succeeds in breaking the right to strike of ambulance workers, they will use the same tactic against any layer of workers who dares to stick their necks out.
The obvious unions who should be on the front lines of this are unionized health workers in Newfoundland, as well as all other Newfoundland Teamster locals. An injury to one is an injury to all, but a victory for one is a victory for all as well. With this we can build a powerful movement to not only defend the right to strike but also to renationalize these private ambulance services. The ambulance operators can send a powerful message to the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and all of Canada: we will defend our right to strike and we will use it to defend the working class against any attacks!