Despite lockdowns in many major cities, COVID-19 cases continue to rise. This is because transmission is occurring in manufacturing and so-called “essential” services. Bosses are putting profits before health with impunity. Governments are hiding the names of businesses with outbreaks. As the infection and death rate rises, conspicuous in their silence are the leaders of the labour movement. The unions must demand mass workplace testing and shutdowns for any facility with a problem. Organized labour must wake up and take the lead against the pandemic.

Thorncliffe Park work refusal

A recent example of what is possible is to be found in the working class Toronto neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park. This area has one of the highest test positivity rates in Toronto at 16 per cent. Under pressure, the government offered local schools the opportunity of testing the entire school population. This testing revealed that 18 students and one teacher at Thorncliffe Park Public School were infected. Later this number grew to 26 infected. 

Immediately the call went out to close down the school, but the government resisted. They said that the infection rate in the school was lower than the community so it wasn’t a problem. They even sent representatives on the radio to argue against closure. This is a scientifically incoherent argument, as the 16 per cent community rate is just for symptomatic individuals, while at the school asymptomatic students and staff were tested. Rather than caring about public health they were afraid of the repercussions of closures when real testing is done.

Heroically, three teachers at Thorncliffe Park refused to work in the clearly unsafe workplace. While they were supported by their union, it appears that this action was initiated from the bottom up. As is usual, the Ministry of Labour determined that the workplace was safe and ordered a return to work. But the revolt of the workers had emboldened the community and the government had to eat its words. These workers took impressive direct action after concluding their lives, and the lives of their families, were more important than any job. The next day Thorncliffe Park Public School was closed down, and now many other schools in the area have closed after mass testing.

Conspiracy of silence

What is stopping the Thorncliffe Park work refusal from spreading widely? The media is enforcing a conspiracy of silence about workplace outbreaks. One news channel even deleted an article titled, “Public health close Thorncliffe Park Public School after 3 teachers refuse to work due to COVID-19”. They didn’t want this example of successful direct action to spread and give other workers a good idea.

The Ontario government and municipalities are deliberately hiding the names of workplaces with outbreaks in order to protect them from a public backlash. The names of the negligent are being protected so they can continue profiteering, no matter the cost to human life. 

What is equally scandalous are the actions of the media, who refuse to report on such outbreaks. One undisclosed workplace in Peel region reportedly had over 60 cases. It would not be too hard for an investigative journalist to find one of these 60 people, or their quarantining family members, to reveal the name and circumstances of this mass infection. But the media bosses do not care about the clear public interest in revealing this information and are collaborating with the government and corporate cover-up. 

The only way that we can prevent a repeat of such social murder by the bosses is if the negligence of the culprits is revealed to all and the lessons learned. We do not trust the corporations and government to take the necessary actions to halt the second wave. They repeatedly put profits ahead of the health and safety of working class people. There needs to be a major call from the unions and from the NDP: release the names of the businesses with outbreaks! 

Unions must demand mass testing

The government is enforcing willful ignorance. By only allowing symptomatic individuals to be tested the true rate of infection is massively underestimated. This insufficient testing is revealed by the increasing test positivity rate that is more than double what it should be if sufficient testing was occurring. This is especially true in regions with high numbers of manufacturing and essential service workers, like the region of Peel, which has the highest infection rate in Ontario. 

The motives of the government and corporations are very clear. They do not want mass testing for fear of a repeat of Thorncliffe Park. But what is inexplicable is the apparent silence from the labour movement. Where is the voice of the workers?

The trade unions must demand mass testing in every major workplace. Everybody must be tested, even if they have no symptoms. Any workplace found with more than a few incidental cases must immediately be shut down for two weeks. If the bosses refuse then mass work refusals should be organized. Thorncliffe Park shows that this is all possible. 

Upon closure, the workers, together with the union, must engage in a two-week in-depth health and safety review of all work processes, and the impact of the workplace in the community. No expense must be spared. The workplace can only reopen when workers are one-hundred per cent convinced that it is safe, including both production and break areas. But it is not sufficient to just review work conditions inside the plant. The effect of low pay, shift work, poor housing, public transit, and car-pooling also needs to be part of the review. It is pointless to implement best practices inside a factory, if low pay forces 50 workers to cram on a bus to get to work every day. Health and safety must encompass the entire life of the workers, and the complicity of the capitalists in creating those infectious conditions. 

It goes without saying that during shutdown all workers must receive 100 per cent of their pay, just like the Thorncliffe Park teachers. 

Organized labour must wake up!

The silence of the workers’ organizations is a factor that promotes the second wave. The main driver of the second wave is workplace infections. With no organized opposition to the profiteering of the bosses, the government feels it can act with impunity. This is why infection rates keep on rising even when there are lockdowns. The labour leaders must step out of their cozy and safe isolation and take the necessary actions to stop workplace infection. This is literally a life or death struggle.

A program of action must be launched where the labour federations and every union declare war on COVID-19, and the negligence of the bosses. Union leaders need to state clearly that workers will not get sick so that the billionaires can get fat off our bones. Latest reports reveal that Canada’s richest 44 billionaires grew their fortunes by $53 billion from April to October 2020. Workers will not allow death rates to climb so that right-wing governments can cut health while gifting bailouts and tax cuts to these same billionaires. 

The labour movement must launch a campaign on the following demands:

  1. Release the names of all the businesses with outbreaks! No impunity for negligent bosses.
  2. For mass workplace testing of all employees.
  3. Any workplace with more than incidental infection must be shut down for at least two weeks while workers receive full pay.
  4. Support for and mass organization of work refusals when bosses refuse to close unsafe workplaces. If they refuse to test, mass work refusals under the precautionary principle.
  5. Worker- and union-controlled health and safety reviews with no expense spared in stopping work-related infection (including the outside-the-workplace effect of low pay, transit, and shift work).

Only the organized working class can defeat the second wave.