Op-ed by CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn that first appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on April 13

Ontario MPPs return to the legislature April 14. We’ve been hearing a lot from the government lately. We’re in the grips of a global crisis and our elected officials should be more active than ever. But they’ve left some very important voices out of the discussion: that of front-line workers.

COVID-19 has changed our world. Dramatically and rapidly. No one is more aware of this than the workers on the front lines — in hospitals, long-term care homes, public health, municipal wastewater treatment plants, homeless shelters, community living homes and many more services.

But instead of listening to them, the Ford government has silenced their voices and have neglected to meaningfully consult them. A few weeks ago, the government used its considerable emergency power to issue orders, temporarily overriding parts of hospital workers’ collective agreements.

Similar temporary orders have followed: for long-term care workers, wastewater treatment workers, those in public health, and, now, for developmental service workers — the sector I came out of — who provide supports to Ontarians with intellectual disabilities.

As the president of CUPE Ontario, which proudly represents 280,000 workers, I’ve heard from front-line workers about what this means. Collective agreements provide mechanisms for workers to raise issues, including ones concerning the delivery and accessibility of the critical services Ontarians rely on. Front line public sector workers understand that our working conditions are also the conditions in which Ontarians receive public services.

For years, we have linked the two, calling for increased funding to ensure high quality, publicly delivered services. We’ve raised issues of low wages and unstable work that force workers to cobble together two or three jobs in order to make a living. We’ve lobbied successive governments for increased hospital capacity, a legislated standard of care in long-term care, and regulations to secure our most critical public services like clean drinking water. To override collective agreements is simply to silence front-line workers.

Emergency orders like these are supposed to be temporary. But there are growing signs that the province doesn’t see it the same way and that it will extend these kinds of orders, either with or without new legislation.

And that would be a mistake.

For too long, the voices of front-line workers and their demands for better public services were ignored by government and by our employers.

The last thing any of us can afford is for government to continue to ignore those voices. Whether on the issue of personal protective equipment or staffing, workplace processes for dealing with possible infections or continuity of vital services, their first-hand knowledge will get us through this — together, as united Ontarians.

The best way to achieve that is to actually listen to those workers, communicate openly with the unions representing them, and engage in a process to ensure those opinions are heard by all decision-makers charged with navigating us through this crisis.

Our current collective agreements offer a myriad of ways to do just that, and, as a union dedicated to the health and safety of all Ontarians, we are willing to explore all avenues of consultation and communication with the government to enhance that process.

Now that MPPs are returning to Queen’s Park, we need them to really listen to front-line workers. Our elected officials must refuse to override collective agreements — and they must respectfully consult workers, rather than unilaterally order significant changes to their working conditions and the delivery of services.