A call for collective action

May 26, 2020

By Hassan Yussuff as published in National Newswatch.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The federal government is introducing new programs almost daily to support millions of Canadians who have been affected by this crisis. Public service employees are doing amazing work getting that support to the people who need it.

Meanwhile, the calls for austerity are already coming fast and furious, heralded by right-wing conservatives, including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even as we see our health care workers struggle with staffing and supplies as the result of decades of cuts in health care spending across the country.

The opinion pages are full of columnists explaining why program spending needs to be cut immediately – without any idea when a recovery will begin. Even arguing that the public service employees who have been doing unprecedented work processing millions of claims at unbelievable speeds should be punished for having job security.

Public service employees play a fundamental role in our democracy, informing our elected representatives and allowing them to make decisions based on evidence – which is a good thing, despite what some say. Our public service is full of subject-matter experts who our political representatives rely on to help them craft the best policies and programs. We should be glad when our leaders take their advice, rather than ignore it – as we’re seeing to the south.

Judging the amount of government spending that goes to public service salaries without referring at all to the work those employees actually do day to day to keep the country running is ludicrous. You cannot reference a productivity agenda without acknowledging the producers of the work.

Equally ludicrous is the leader of the opposition repeating the false message that applications to the CERB benefit are rampant with fraud daily. A vocal minority is concerned that a $2,000 per month benefit will create a population that doesn’t want to work, but waste no time and effort examining the conditions we are asking them to work in.

Being on government benefits should never mean being treated like a criminal – but perhaps especially now as we face global uncertainly and a new future ahead. The real criminals are the ones who are hoarding wealth on the backs of workers.  

We are about to crown the world’s first trillionaire. One man could single-handedly solve world hunger. The same man who gave workers a $2 per hour pay raise in these unprecedented times and is now clawing it back even as his own warehouses continue to see outbreaks and workers demand safer conditions. In Canada, we see employers like Loblaws boosting employee wages by 15 per cent – $2 an hour for those working minimum wage. Meanwhile, the company estimates that the pandemic has resulted in a $751 million increase in quarterly profits.

The wages and benefits of public sector employees do not represent a problem, they represent an example of what is possible. Every working Canadian deserves the security of a good job with a living wage, benefits and paid sick leave. Access to paid sick leave would give workers leeway so they wouldn’t have to choose between their job and their health, meaning fewer workers would feel forced to work while sick – key in slowing the spread of illnesses like COVID-19.

Getting to the recovery has been a group effort. Canadians, as a population, moved swiftly to protect each other.

We are a society that lifts everyone up, and now is not the time to start punching down.

When we plan out the recovery, we cannot return to the careless individualism that has led to the growing inequality we’re seeing globally. Collective action is what flattened the curve, and collective action is where progress lies.

The most important thing that we have seen over the past nine weeks is this: Canada has the capacity to move quickly to protect the most vulnerable. The money is there when we need it and when there is political will.

It’s time to leave the right-wing, me-first thinking in the past where it belongs. We can’t afford to work against each other anymore.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

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