With grievance processes suspended, health care workers turn to direct action

An anonymous source describes the direct action nursing home workers are taking in Ontario, now that grievance processes have effectively been suspended during the public health emergency.

On March 17, Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario. For most, that meant that they could no longer gather in groups, malls and public venues were closed, and they had to stay home while trying to figure out how to pay their bills and buy food. For health care workers, it meant something entirely different.

The emergency declaration suspended large parts of health care collective agreements. Provisions that would govern or restrict the employer’s ability to change schedules, assignments, workplaces, and duties are no longer in effect for the duration of the pandemic. All vacations and all leaves of absence have been cancelled, to the point where when asked, employers have said that they feel that they have the right under the declaration to cancel a maternity leave if they wish, while stating that they hope it doesn’t come to that.

There has been a lot of collateral damage to the usual mechanisms a union uses to deal with issues in the workplace. The so-called hammer of expedited arbitration, where a union can apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to appoint an arbitrator and have a hearing take place within 30 days, isn’t being used right now. The OLRB is routinely failing to respond to these applications, so the provision may as well not exist. In normal times, an order to perform unsafe work can be addressed by a refusal and contacting the Ministry of Labour to conduct an investigation and provide a determination on the safety of the work required. Since COVID-19, the MOL calls in and talks to management, then to the worker, then invariably tells everyone that everything is fine. Employers are simply ignoring grievances because they know they can. Union reps are not able to visit the workplace, as they’ve been classified as “non-essential visitors.”

For some workplaces, this is disastrous. Without a staff rep visiting, and without grievance meetings, they feel that the union doesn’t exist right now. Managers are telling workers things like, “The union can’t help you, they’re not relevant until after the pandemic.” Members are calling their staff reps and pleading with them to do something to help, and nothing is happening since the usual methods are all on hold.

For other workplaces, though, it’s a chance to make progress and build on the gains they’ve made in the past. These units, while they use the grievance procedure, don’t rely on it alone to get things done. Some of these units have a longer history of direct action, others are flexing their muscle for the first time, but all of them are making positive change where they work.

I’d like to share two of their stories. One is a unit that has a history of direct action, one is a unit where they are just realizing their power. Both of the employers shall remain nameless.

Scheduling and assignment

The first is a nursing home that has a history of using coordinated action to achieve gains. In the past, they’ve mobilized the residents and their families to work with them to fight off unpopular management decisions such as contracting out. They routinely band together (pre-COVID) to collectively refuse to allow the employer to fill full-time vacancies with additional part-time shifts. In a number of instances, when a worker has been unjustly suspended, they have collectively refused to take on the suspended shifts, to send a message to the employer. In some cases, the suspended worker has been brought back to work prior to the end of the suspension in order to maintain staffing levels.

The workers in this nursing home are thriving in spite of the current suspension of large parts of their collective agreement. One of the elements of the emergency declaration is an order stating that all health care workers can only work for one employer. When a manager tried to take advantage of the emergency declaration to implement a wildly unpopular 12-hour shift schedule, over half of the workers in that unit banded together and told their manager that if this happened, they would elect to work at a different health care facility, forcing the manager to reverse her decision. 

In another instance, workers were being moved around the facility during their shift, being sent from a non-COVID unit to one with an outbreak, and then back to the non-COVID unit during the same shift. After a brief discussion with management, they were threatened with termination for job abandonment if they refused to return to a non-COVID unit on the same shift. After discussing the situation among themselves, they returned to their manager with an ultimatum – either the movement between units stops immediately, or every worker who is sent back to a non-COVID unit during the same shift would call Public Health and report COVID exposure. They did this knowing that Public Health would quarantine them for 14 days before allowing them to return to work, causing a huge staffing issue for the manager. By working together, they were able to achieve their goals in spite of the dismantling of the grievance procedure.


In another unit, one without a history of direct action, the workers are starting to realize their power. When the emergency order was issued, managers told the stewards that the union isn’t relevant anymore and won’t be until after the pandemic. Grievances were filed and ignored. Stewards approached management to talk about issues, and they were told to go away and come back after the pandemic. Unwilling to wait to deal with urgent and pressing issues, these workers needed another plan. Meetings were held (virtually, of course), and a plan of action was agreed on.

The first order of business for these workers was access to PPE. The Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) has directed that PPE be readily available, but their employer was putting a lot of barriers in the way. A single-procedure mask was provided when they arrived at work, and if they needed another one, or an N95 mask, or gowns, or gloves, they had to go to a manager and request it. There would be a lot of questions first, and the manager would invariably try to dissuade them. Several times, they were told that an N95 mask costs $7, which is the last consideration that there should be regarding safety. As it happens, the manager tasked with guarding and grudgingly dispensing PPE in the evenings was not a healthcare worker herself, but worked in an auxiliary support role. One night, two workers approached and asked for additional PPE, which was refused. One of the workers handed the manager a copy of one of the CMOH directives, which specifically excluded all non-essential visitors and workers from long-term care homes. The manager asked why this was relevant, and the other worker said, “there are three of us standing here, but only two of us are essential workers. There are two ways this can go. We can either get our PPE, and so can anyone else who asks you, or we can send you home right now and call Public Health if you refuse to leave.” The manager called (and woke up) her own director, and the director came down to try to dissuade the workers from the PPE they requested, but they stood firm. Finally, management gave in, and the next morning a new directive was sent out to all the workers advising them that “out of an abundance of caution,” PPE would be freely dispensed. 

Another lever that the workers are using is the media. Their workplace has been prominently featured in the news lately, and it’s not a positive thing. Management, who normally tries to control the spin of any media about their company, have lost control of the narrative. Workers routinely use this to challenge management decisions regarding staffing and quarantine policies. When management implements a change, the workers have a virtual get-together to answer one question: is this dumb, or is this six o’clock news dumb? That phrase has made its way to the shop floor as well, and managers don’t know how to deal with it. 

While a few workers have gone on record with the media, many are more reluctant so a non-employee spokesperson has been selected to pass information on to the media about what’s happening inside the nursing home. In the break room, there is a TV that is usually set to one of the local news channels. A few weeks ago, someone in management blocked all the news channels out of spite. To get around this, the workers have Facebook watch parties during their lunch breaks, sitting six feet apart in the lunch room with the volume on their phones turned up. Management started hinting at discipline to, as they put it, “restore order” at work, but there’s little they can do during a pandemic without putting themselves in a worse situation than they are in already. 

This unit is learning the power of direct action, and getting a taste of their power at work. New workplace leaders are stepping up. Some of the “official” worker leaders are falling by the wayside, while others are taking leading roles in the collective direct action in the workplace.


The conclusion that can be drawn from this is simple. Collective agreements, grievances, arbitrations, and official union channels can be used to mitigate some of the damage that a bad employer can do to workers, but it can’t deal with everything. Not only is it imperfect by design, it can be suspended or made ineffective very easily by the government of the day. 

Grievances can be delayed. Direct collective action can not. Collective agreements can be legislated into uselessness, temporarily as in this case or permanently as in many others historically, but direct collective action cannot. Workplaces that have a framework in place or a proven history of collective direct action are doing far better during the pandemic than those that do not.