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

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

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

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.