Source: Fightback/Facebook

On March 24, 2021, members of Workers United Canada Council (WUCC) Local 154 organized an information picket and rally to raise awareness for WoodGreen’s Housing and Homelessness workers’ request for the reinstatement of one to two days per week of remote work during the pandemic. This info picket also raised the demand for pandemic pay for all front-line workers. There were about 50 people in attendance, made up of WoodGreen workers, trade unionists, as well as Labour Fightback activists. The rally had a great energy and received a lot of public support from the cars and pedestrians passing by. In addition, the workers of WUCC Local 154 delivered a solidarity message for the locked out Molson brewery workers of CUBGW Local 325. 

Since March 15 2021, rank and file Housing and Homelessness workers at WoodGreen have run a health and safety campaign to build support and solidarity across their union local and with the broader community and labour movement. WUCC Local 154 has also launched a solidarity letter to create pressure on their employer. Workers are hoping to receive 100 or more letters from community members and the labour movement.

WoodGreen Community Services is one of the largest social services agencies in Toronto located within the East End. WoodGreen provides important community programs including  childcare, newcomer programs, seniors’ services, affordable and supportive housing, youth programs, and mental health services.

Since the rise of the second wave of the pandemic, the Housing and Homelessness workers have been advocating for a reinstatement of the one day per week of remote work. It should be noted that during the first wave, these workers advocated for remote work options which led to the employer approving the initial one to two days of remote work per week.

Unfortunately, WoodGreen management decided to end the remote work options for the Housing and Homelessness workers in August 2020, citing the temporary decrease in COVID-19 cases in Ontario. However, even as the province moved to Stage 3 in the summer of 2020, the guidelines issued still strongly encouraged people to work from home where possible to try to help prevent a second wave from emerging. 

In addition, remote work is part of the advisement issued to housing providers via the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association (ONPHA), of which WoodGreen is a member.  After the release of the new Ontario guidelines in January 2021, ONPHA released an update to their members, saying “As part of the stay-at-home order, [housing] providers must take steps to allow employees to work remotely where possible and support tenants in remaining at home.” 

On the same day that WUCC Local 154 launched the solidarity campaign for health and safety, Ontario’s  Chief Top Medical Officer Dr. David Williams declared the province was entering the third wave of the pandemic. 

In Feb. 2021, the Housing & Homelessness workers launched a group grievance for the reinstatement of remote work.  The grievance represented the entire Housing & Homelessness Department, which includes Building Operators, Maintenance, and Cleaners who are unable to do their work remotely. These workers supported the group grievance as a reduction of staff presence would help to reduce the COVID-19 transmission risk for clients and for all workers who perform duties at the various housing sites. 

This grievance has now been escalated to an expedited arbitration that began on March 29, 2021. When a resolution cannot be met by the grievance structure, the union can decide to escalate it to arbitration. Arbitration is a quasi-judicial process that enables the arbitrator to examine the positions of both the employer and union. After the review of the case, the arbitrator has the final say through a binding arbitration agreement. Generally speaking, arbitration is not a timely process for urgent issues, such as health and safety, as it can often take up to a year for a case to be reviewed. In special cases, an expedited arbitration can be enacted within 21 days of being issued, although a resolution decided upon by the arbitrator can take more time. 

The workers felt it was important to not solely rely on the arbitration system, and therefore launched a solidarity campaign with escalating actions, including the above-mentioned public solidarity letter and the info picket. These methods help increase the confidence of the workers in their struggle, build public awareness and support, and send a strong message to their employer that remote work is essential to the health and safety of all workers of the Housing and Homelessness Department. 

It is worth stating that WoodGreen’s management is choosing to spend valuable funds on lawyer fees to fight workers’ call for the reinstatement of remote work, rather than investing it into much needed community programs. Across the agency, WoodGreen workers are furious that their employer has been refusing to take all necessary measures as recommended by the province to protect the workers and clients in the Housing and Homelessness Department.

While there have been important victories for unions through the use of arbitration, this system cannot guarantee that the process will always be in favour of the workers. For example, when the provincial or federal government passes a law that restricts government funding, like Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 124 which is a one per cent wage and benefit cap on the public sector which also includes the “extended public sector” of non-profit employees. Bill 124 is a direct attack on unions’ collective bargaining rights and this provincial legislation rules out any arbitration awarded to workers. The state as a whole protects the interests of the ruling class and the response to the pandemic reveals how corporations and bosses have been favored for bailouts over people. This situation shows the possible limitations of arbitration and why it is important for workers to organize further actions. 

It is worth noting that WoodGreen workers have been negatively impacted by Bill 124 in their last round of collective bargaining in 2020. During the 2019 Ontario Federation of Labour Convention, WUCC Local 154 delegates joined the call for escalating mass actions up to a provincial general strike to bring down Bill 124 and stop Ford’s attacks on unions and collective bargaining. 

Pandemic pay and sick time for all front-line workers

At the info picket, WoodGreen workers felt it was important to not only advocate for measures that would make their workplace safer but to take a stand for all front-line workers. With the severity of the third wave, front-line workers continue to face a great risk to their health (and the health of their loved ones) to deliver vital services to our communities. During the first wave, the Ford government provided temporary pandemic pay for some front-line workers. However, just as the COVID-19 pandemic did not end in the first wave neither did the health risks that front-line workers are exposed to every day at work. Since the second wave, pandemic pay has not been reinstated by the province despite a higher number of COVID-19 cases, occupied ICU beds, and even deaths. The risk to workers has only gotten worse. 

To add insult to injury, thousands of front-line workers have not received any pandemic pay at all, including early childhood educators, teachers, education workers, transit workers, food service workers, and many more. Labour Fightback demands that pandemic pay should be provided to all front-line workers at double the wages for the hazardous work they perform during the pandemic. It is worth noting that many of the most essential workers are some of the lowest paid with precarious employment.  Glaring examples from the first wave are personal support workers and grocery store workers who received massive public support that put pressure on the bosses and Ford government to initially provide pandemic pay.  In addition, over 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Toronto involve people from racialized communities who are over-represented in lower income jobs. These temporary top-ups of hazard pay should be made permanent to low wage front-line workers to help offset the major wage and racial inequities of essential labour. No worker should be forced to live in poverty due to low wages.

Sick time must also be made available to all workers at full pay. Sick time saves lives and protects the health and safety of all. All workers should be able to take whatever sick time they require. This is especially important for workers who need to take a health-mandated quarantine (such as after potential exposure to the virus or in the case of symptoms). Sick time must be provided at workers’ full rate of pay, so that loss of income does not act as a barrier or a deterrent for any worker who needs to self-isolate. Employers should not only be mandated to provide paid sick time to all workers, they should also increase their benefit banks to include extra sick time to accommodate quarantine measures. For many workers their entire workplace-provided sick time could be utilized if they had one to two public health mandatory quarantines that are 14 days each. In extraordinary times, such as a pandemic, sufficient sick time must be expanded and provided to all workers.

Workers must take action for health and safety

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many deep inequalities in our society. While globally the top billionaires have increased their wealth by over $3.9 trillion since the start of the pandemic, working people and the social services that we depend upon are being left behind. Governments have prioritized bailing out corporations and landlords, while workers struggle to keep their jobs, maintain their housing, and care for their children during the pandemic. Many working people have fared even worse with mass unemployment and evictions. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on mental health and social services are needed now at a critical level. In addition, public transit needs to be massively expanded as many workers, including transit workers themselves, risk their health by the mere act of getting to and from work as they are forced to rely on overcrowded busses and subways. Overcrowding on public transit means that social distancing is next to impossible for passengers and greatly elevates the transmission risk of COVID-19.

The massive COVID-19 outbreaks from the Cargill meatpacking plant in Alberta to the Amazon Warehouse in Brampton are clear indications that profits are being put before the health and safety of workers. The recent death of a bus operator that serviced the transit route to the Amazon plant in Brampton is a call to action to prevent future COVID-19 illnesses and deaths in workplaces. WoodGreen workers are showing the importance of organizing and fighting for health and safety measures to be implemented in their workplaces. Unions and the entire labour movement must support rank and file initiatives by their members, such as the WUCC Local 154 health and safety campaign. In addition, the labour movement needs to build a mass resistance with escalating actions to demand paid sick time, pandemic pay for all front-line workers, as well as fight for workers to have the power and control to determine the health and safety measures needed in their workplaces. In the coming period, our labour movement as a whole must stand together and fight against cuts to social and public services, attacks on unions, systemic racism, and demand an end to the capitalist system that is failing us.