This is a narrow entry into a much wider story. At work some years ago, I developed tightness in my neck, shoulders, and upper back. I went for massage therapy but that helped only for a brief time. I began to develop headaches as well. Then I remembered that the collective agreement negotiated by my union had provision for an ergonomic assessment. I asked to have one done and my employer made the arrangements.
I was soon visited in my office by a professional who watched me at work, mostly on my keyboard. She captured that on video, asked questions and made notes. Within a few days, she produced a report with recommendations. I should get a new office chair; my computer mouse should be moved from its inconvenient location; I should use an ergonomic keyboard; and I should have a larger monitor which could be be moved up and down. It was all done promptly, and my pain and discomfort soon disappeared.
My example pales compared to what thousands of workers have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is instructive, nonetheless. I belonged to a union which long before my arrival on the scene had bargained effectively for a safe workplace. What a contrast to the experience of people during the pandemic working in meat packing plants and long-term care homes, not to mention the migrant farm workers toiling in our fields.
This wider story is described well in a recent report written by economist Jim Stanford called Ten Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Must Change Work for Good. Stanford was until 2016 the chief economist and director of policy for Unifor, Canada’s largest union. He is also founder of the Centre for Future Work, which has offices in Australia and in Vancouver, where he now lives.
Stanford acknowledges that the greatest toll from the pandemic in Canada has been the loss of lives and the continuing health consequences for who survived. But he also describes the “unprecedented economic catastrophe” arising from sections of the economy being shut down to control the pandemic. He says that Canada has experienced a contraction in work and economic activity as deep as, but much faster than, the Great Depression of the 1930s. He says that it will take years “to recreate jobs for the millions of Canadians who have seen their work opportunities evaporate.”
That recovery, he says, will have to be led by government with its unmatched financial and regulatory resources. He says that Canada will have to undertake its own version the Marshall Plan which saw unprecedented investment flow into Europe to rebuild after the Second World War. The Canadian recovery will mean deficits and debt, but Stanford says that governments can manage it. Pursuing austerity amid a pandemic would be catastrophic.
The pandemic has shone a harsh light upon pre-existing inequities. Workers in the long-term care sector did not have the right protective equipment, safety protocols or training to deal with what they faced. Many of those people were part of a just-in-time work force expected to show up when needed and often to work for the minimum wage. Many were employed in multiple locations just to make ends meet and that worsened the spread of the virus. More than 80 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Canada have occurred in long-term care homes.
We have also discovered that crowded working conditions in packing plants were vectors for the spread of COVID-19. More than 1500 infections and several deaths are linked to one Cargill plant near High River, Alberta. Management kept the plants running anyway and governments allowed them to do it. For their part, migrant farm workers are essentially indentured labour, brought to Canada to work for a designated employer who can send them home if they complain. We have allowed these all these conditions to persist but now we all know about them and there is no longer any excuse for inaction.
Workers and unions
To protect their health and livelihoods, Stanford says, workers “will need to exercise more agency and wield more power.” That is another way of saying they will have to bargain collectively because individuals have little to no power in the workplace. They need unions, and those unions must be effective. For one thing, unions will have to improve upon their performance in reaching out to those working in vulnerable sectors. The United Food and Commercial Workers, for example, has provided support to migrant farm workers, even though they were forbidden from organizing in Ontario.
The labour movement can have an impact on what Stanford describes as the “macro and policy level” – promoting reforms in income security programs, occupational health and safety rules, and minimum labour standards. Unions have also advocated for an enhanced Canada Pension Plan, for pharmacare, and public childcare. The latter will be extremely important in the economic recovery from COVID-19 so that women can go back to work.
Fairness and inclusion
Fortunately, Canada has what Stanford calls a “relatively strong and stable trade union movement.” Union membership as a share of total employment remains at about 30 per cent. That is less than previously, but higher than in most comparable countries. Stanford says, as well, that Canadian culture “reflects a fairly broad recognition of the importance of fairness and inclusion.” That is what unions, at their best, are all about and it should bode well for their future.