As the world reacts to the urgent and terrible demands of the global pandemic, the labour movement is also on crisis footing as it fights for health and income protection for workers in the short term. An earlier WCR post describes the Covid-19 Resource Centre maintained by the Canadian Labour Congress, which compiles links and documents by Canadian unions – much of it focused on the immediate information needed by individual workers. Unions are also advocating at the national and provincial levels for improved income supports, employment insurance, guaranteed sick leave for the short term crisis, as well as for sustainable long term economic solutions. The Workers’ Action Centre and the Fight for $15 and Fairness in Ontario issued a press release on March 26, in response to the federal benefits announcement . The complete statement of demands appears in Covid-19: Health Emergency Labour Protections: Urgent comprehensive action is needed to protect workers, communities . Such lobbying and organizing has resulted in a number of emergency-related changes to legislated employment standards across Canada, as described by Michael Fitzgibbon in “The Right to Refuse in a COVID-19 World” in the Canadian Law of Work Forum (March 27) .
In the United States, the Labor Network for Sustainability provides information on rank and file reactions to Covid-19. On April 2, Jeremy Brecher’s Strike column, ” Strike for your Life” summarizes how U.S. and Italian workers are protesting and walking out due to lack of workplace protections. Brecher’s column cites many U.S. examples, expanding on Steven Greenhouse’s article in the New York Times: “Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life? ” (Mar. 30). Brecher also summarizes and cites “The Italian workers fighting like hell to shut down their workplaces” (Mar. 24) . Other overviews of U.S. union actions are: “Walkouts Spread as Workers Seek Coronavirus Protections” in Labor Notes (Mar. 26); “The Strike Wave Is in Full Swing: Amazon, Whole Foods Workers Walk Off Job to Protest Unjust and Unsafe Labor Practices” in Common Dreams (Mar. 30); and “The New Labor Movement” (Axios, April 1).
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has compiled Pandemic News from Unions around the world, including their own documents and those of international affiliates. The ITUC also published 12 governments show the world how to protect lives, jobs and incomes (updated March 30), which ranks the policies of Argentina, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and the UK on their pandemic policies related to paid sick leave, income support, wage support, mortgage, rent or loan relief, and free health care .
After the pandemic subsides
Larry Savage and Simon Black, professors at Brock University, are pessimistic that short term gains will survive a return to “business as usual” in Canada. In “Coronavirus crisis poses risks and opportunities for unions” in The Conversation, they reference Naomi Klein’s theory in The Shock Doctrine to argue: “Moving forward, unions are likely to find it incredibly difficult to negotiate gains for their members who will be expected to “share the pain” of an economic recession not of their making” – even public sector workers such as health care workers. To avoid being branded as selfish, Savage and Black urge unions to: “become champions of converting new temporary income supports, social protections and employment standards into permanent measures designed to rebuild Canada’s tattered social safety net…. oppose bailouts of big corporations that don’t also bail out workers and give employees more say over how industries deemed “too big to fail” are run…. continue to lead the resistance to service cuts and demands to privatize health-care services..”
Other recent articles also emphasize the importance of protecting the voice of workers in the post-pandemic world. Thomas Kochan , Professor and Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research has written that “By working together in these ways in this time of crisis, business and labor might just lay the groundwork for building a new social contract that fills the holes in the social safety net and forges relationships that will serve society well in the future.” His article, “Workers left out of government and business response to the coronavirus” appeared in The Conversation (U.S. edition) (March 20).
The National Labor Leadership Initiative at the Cornell University ILR School convened an online forum titled “Labor’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic “(Mar 31) . The purpose of the forum, and a continuing initiative, is to facilitate the long-term vision of the labour movement. The April press release quotes participant Erica Smiley, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice who states: “This is a moment for us to think about what the new normal is, because I frankly don’t want to get back to the old normal. It wasn’t working for most of us.” The press release also reflects the immediate impacts of the current crisis on a range of workers in the U.S.: “Seven TWU members who work in the NYC public transit system have died from the virus, while their co-workers still go to work every day to keep the system running, without adequate assurances that they will be kept healthy and safe. The IATSE members whose work powers the entertainment and festival scene including Austin’s South by Southwest, one of the first major cancellations of the pandemic, are now out of work indefinitely. Teachers and paraprofessionals have rushed to transition their curricula to online formats, even while coping with the emotional impact of missing their students and the school environment. Nurses are on the frontlines and tending to patients without adequate PPE.”
The Global Stage
The ILO’s Bureau for Workers’Activities (ACTRAV) published “COVID-19: what role for workers’ organizations? arguing that ILO Recommendation 205 on Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience (R205) is an effective instrument for governments, employers and workers organizations to address the COVID-19 pandemic. “This recommendation was adopted with an overwhelming majority of all – governments, employers and workers. It is an international law instrument and Governments are expected to respect its guidance: Workers Organisations can request that it is taken into account.” The ILO maintains an ongoing collection of documents monitoring Covid-19 and the World of Work .
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation takes up the theme of a social contract: “As many governments scramble to pay for sick leave, provide income support or other measures, they have found themselves putting in place the building blocks of a social contract. Let’s keep these in place.” (in “New Social Contract can rebuild our workplaces and economies after COVID-19” in The Medium, (March 18)) . To flesh out that objective, the ITUC will convene virtual and in-person meetings on 24 June, on the theme, “Climate and Employment Proof our Future — a vision for a post-pandemic world”.
In the meantime, the ITUC and the International Organisation of Employers have issued a Joint Statement on COVID-19 which issues an urgent call for coordinated policies, including :
Business continuity, income security and solidarity are key to prevent the spread and protect lives and livelihoods and build resilient economies and societies.
We stress in the strongest terms the important role that social dialogue and social partners play in the control of the virus at the workplace and beyond, but also to avoid massive job losses in the short and medium term. Joint responsibility is needed for dialogue to foster stability.