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Unionized workers are essential allies in the fight to protect vulnerable front-line employees

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Image: frankie cordoba/Unsplash

The current pandemic has illuminated some very distinct inequalities that exist in Canada's workforce. In March, it became glaringly apparent who the essential workers are, and how undervalued they have been. 

Grocery store workers, cleaning staff, health-care workers and many others were granted the title of "essential worker." For a brief moment, pay increases were offered in many grocery stores across Canada (as well as in other sectors). We applauded that finally some recognition and compensation was being offered to workers in a sector which has traditionally been ignored and increasingly marginalized.  

Fast forward to the summer: now the state of the pandemic in many parts of the country has seemed to be partially under control (for now) and cases in some areas are largely declining. 

Our newly crowned "essential workers" had done their duty (and some had gone so far as to give their lives). Predictably, the $2-per-hour "pandemic pay raise" could now be revoked. What a relief for the corporations who oversee them. They could get back to the business of making profits and ensuring that they are going to the truly "needy" (the shareholders). 

In addition to the most tragic loss of lives among some front-line retail workers, the tragedy in all of this is that grocery store workers and indeed other front-line minimum-wage workers finally had a bargaining chip with their employers. Their services were desperately needed to keep our economy running and keep food on our tables. 

Of course, this was always the case, but it became increasingly apparent during this period as we fretted over the safety of our food supply. Arguably, most front-line minimum-wage workers had no choice but to continue to work through the pandemic, though their health and safety was on the line (most notably in early March when plexiglass shields and other protective measures were not yet in place).

Likely, the true risks that many retail workers were facing were not fully understood. Nor were they aware of their rights to a workplace that is safe and free from unnecessary or undue harm. 

Unionized workers in this unique time and place have slowly begun to realize how relatively privileged and fortunate they are. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that you have a union advocating for your health and safety in the workplace (especially in a time when your health and safety might actually be in real jeopardy each time you go to work). 

This sense of comfort and protection does not exist though for many workers in Canada, especially those in some of the most precarious positions. There is a growing realization that there are grave disparities in our system of labour, and in the measures (or lack thereof) in place to offer protection from life-threatening diseases, disability and loss of wages due to illness.

I would argue that we are entering an extremely unusual time where an opportunity exists to make meaningful and long-lasting changes to our current system of labour.

The fight must not be left up to those who are already fighting to pay their bills, to keep their job, to stay healthy and free from a most uncertain disease. Those of us who already have the luxury of having labour protection (i.e. a union) must be the ones to take on this formidable challenge. 

We must be willing to act as advocates and allies to support the "essential workers" who are deemed so essential that they are still being paid minimum wage and still being asked to face wage losses due to illness. If we truly believe in the rights of workers, then it is imperative that we advocate for that right to be afforded to all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized.   

Melissa Johnston is a an elementary teacher and a proud union member who lives in Eastern Ontario. She is passionate about labour and anti-poverty issues in both her local community and on a larger scale. She is obsessed with the written word and hopes her own writing can offer a little enlightenment and (perhaps) some inspiration in these strange times. 

Image: frankie cordoba/Unsplash

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