Canada’s unions have a plan to move us forward

September 25, 2020

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in The Hill Times

As we transition from reacting to COVID-19 to living with the virus, Canada’s unions are providing a clear blueprint for a robust recovery that leaves no one behind and addresses the inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

Workers and their families have been hit hard by this crisis. Practically overnight, millions of jobs disappeared or were furloughed. Despite the slow reopening, millions of people are still searching for work. With small businesses shuttering and many large corporations declaring bankruptcy, some jobs are gone for good.

Canada’s unions worked closely with the federal government from the beginning, advocating for immediate supports. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit kept people afloat amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of those early weeks and months.

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy also helped maintain ties between employers and workers, but take-up was slow. Some employers started to complain that workers were rejecting work and staying on the CERB.

Rather than being a fault of government aid, that some workers preferred to stay home and try to survive on $2,000 a month is a condemnation of the precarity and low wages that far too many workers in this country are experiencing.

In fact, even before COVID-19 hit, almost 50 percent of Canadians said they were on the brink of insolvency. This includes many of the workers who were deemed essential and who were called on to work extra hours at great risk, rewarded with a couple of dollars extra an hour for risking themselves and their families to keep our communities going (extra dollars that many employers have since clawed back, despite the ever-present virus and despite significant profits in certain sectors).

Given that a majority of these workers also have no access to sick leave or benefits, they are left even more vulnerable during a health crisis such as the one we face.

This government has a considerable task ahead. In its upcoming speech from the Throne, it will lay out a path that purportedly aims to benefit all Canadians. Canada’s unions intend to make sure that it lives up to that promise.

Unless we invest in programs and services that address the gaps in our society, we will fail to learn the lessons of this pandemic.

Canada’s unions are putting forth a made-in-Canada plan that is rooted in our way of doing things. We know what American-style cuts and austerity can do to a nation; we needn’t look very far to see how things can go horribly awry when we are in it for ourselves.

This is why we are calling on all levels of government to invest. It’s time to replace lost jobs with better ones by kickstarting the economy with shovel-ready projects and by investing in green infrastructure. It’s time to support care work, including those who educate our youth and those who care for others. And it’s time that all workers have access to paid sick leave and are paid a living wage. Workers also deserve permanent reforms to employment insurance, disability benefits, education and training, as well as retirement security.

We are also calling for a strengthened public health system that includes bolstered funding in the areas of mental health, home care, and long-term care, as well as a long-awaited single-payer, national pharmacare plan.

It is our responsibility to make sure our social services are ready to catch people as they fall. Canada’s economic, health and social goals are inseparable. It’s time to disaster-proof our nation.

We are on the cusp of meaningful social progress. Let’s seize the moment.

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

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