In a typical year, the Labour Day picnic in Riverside Park is a nice way to end your summer with some pro-labour activism, and a hot dogs with corn on the cob. In the year of COVID-19 though you’ll have to enjoy hot dogs and corn at home, but the camaraderie of Labour Day will be preserved in the form of a parade. Before Monday though, the president of the Guelph & District Labour Council has some thoughts on labour that she wanted to share.
“It’s definitely a disappointment not having the picnic because it is one of our biggest events, and it draws the most attention from members of the public and the community,” Hesch said.
The Guelph & District Labour Council had to make alternative plans for this year’s picnic earlier this year with the likelihood that COVID would still be an issue at the end of summer. Hesch said that she talked to other labour groups to find out what they were planning for this year’s commemoration of the achievements of organized labour; it had to support labour, raise awareness, and be relatively cost-efficient to pull off.
“We were throwing around ideas at one of our Zoom meetings, and there were lots of great ideas, but the car parade I felt was the easiest one to implement and the least expensive,” Hesch explained. “We’ve had a lot of interest in it, and I’m hoping to see most of our members make it out. I think it’ll be fun.”
But Labour Day is not just an occasion for celebration, but for activism. This year, the Canadian Labour Congress is encouraging workers to organize around three key ideals: to replace lost jobs with better ones, to strengthen Canada’s healthcare system, and to “disaster proof” the social safety net by making improvements in access to child care and employment insurance.
“We want to look at public healthcare and make prescriptions available and covered as part of the healthcare system so that people are not paying out of pocket, especially for seniors,” Hesch said. “We’re also looking at making long-term care homes part of the health system as well, and making sure that they are run appropriately and not at a profit.”
Along with that, Hesch is also concerned about the gains that were made and lost during the early days of the pandemic; things like “pandemic pay” for essential workers in grocery stores and other businesses, the ability to take sick days without a doctor’s note, and renewed appreciation for the hard work of teachers and medical professionals.
“The message being sent to the public is that these are essential workers and we can only care about them for a certain amount of time,” Hesch explained. “If anything, this pandemic should have taught us and our governments that we need to make sure we value these workers, they should be getting paid a decent living wage, and that they can afford to contribute to the economy.
“It’s really disappointing to see them reverting back to the way things were before [the pandemic],” Hesch added.
Speaking of things “reverting back to the way they were before”, Hesch also spoke in her other role as the Vice-President and Chief Negotiator of the Upper Grand Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The animosity between the Provincial government and Ontario’s teachers’ union was been renewed in recent days as teachers and their union leaders have been outspoken about their concerns about school safety.
“They’re very anxious,” Hesch said. “They’re fearful, and not just for themselves, but for their students and also for their families because they’re worried that they might get sick and then end up getting their families sick.”
Hesch said that the primary concern of her members is class size. She accused the Provincial government and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce of “cherry picking” the recommendations of the Hospital for Sick Children’s report on the best health practices for re-opening schools while ignoring the biggest one.
“One of the biggest and most important recommendations was class size and to keep class sizes down to 15 so that you can allow for proper social distancing between students and the teachers,” Hesch said.
“The school board did what they could with the money they were given to try and reduce class sizes on average, but the majority of schools still have 25 students or more in a classroom,” she added. “You cannot social distance those desks properly even by taking out the teacher’s desk and other furniture like bookshelves and filing cabinets. There’s just not enough space.”
In a letter to parents from Lecce last week, the Minister said that the re-opening plan was following all the best advice from Canada’s leading medical and scientific experts. “The full suite health and safety protocols unveiled today are strong, informed by medical science, and will be flexible to respond to the changing threat of COVID-19,” Lecce said. “I can assure you we stand ready to respond to the changing reality of this virus.”
Lecce’s reassurances are small comfort because despite the last minute scrambling, Hesch said her teachers are assuming that schools will be shut down again at some point in the new school year.
“[Premier Doug] Ford himself said on the news the other day that there are going to be outbreaks in the schools, and if he needs to shut schools down, he will,” Hesch explained. “Why don’t we just wait to go back and delay the start of the school year until we see what happens if there’s a second wave? That to me, it seems like a waste of a lot of people’s time and effort if we’re just going to end up teaching remotely again anyway.”
Hesch and her union will be demonstrating against the Provincial government again in a day of action that will be held sometime in mid-September about changes to collective bargaining in Bill 195. Hesch said those changes, which received royal assent in July, will allow employers to ignore portions of collective agreements in the naming of being responsive to another wave of COVID-19.
“Employers will be allowed to make extraordinary, undemocratic decisions that will affect workers, and frontline workers in particular,” Hesch added.
The Labour Day car parade route will depart from the St. Ignatious Centre at 11 am, and you can see the parade route map below: