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Reorienting labour unions in the time of COVID-19 crisis

Reorienting labour unions in the time of COVID-19 crisis

Steven Tufts

The shut-down of non-essential work in response to COVID-19 has decimated labour markets. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 20.5 million more workers lost their jobs in April, as official unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7%. It is the largest single-month increase in unemployment since the data series started in 1948. In Canada, the news was not any better as Statistics Canada reported that another 2 million jobs were lost in April following 1 million jobs lost in March as the unemployment rate increased to 13%. This percentage is a wild underestimation of the full impact of reduced hours and underemployment.

Over 7.3 million workers in Canada have now received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and another 1.7 million are still employed through Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), now extended beyond is original June expiry date. Healthcare and other workers deemed ‘essential’ are employed but risk their personal safety with every shift. Unions have fought for better protective measures for frontline workers and have successfully advocated for hourly wage premiums or ‘pandemic pay’ in some sectors. Aside from their role in exercising a collective voice for workers’ health and safety, unions have proven instrumental in educating members and the public about COVID-19.

There have been many powerful calls on how unions should respond to the pandemic. “These calls, and those from others on the left, are implicitly looking at COVID-19 as an opportunity to restructure, re-imagine, and re-engage unions with the explicitly political level of union activities. This is crucial, but we also need a bridging analysis that looks at unions as they ‘actually exist’ in the present moment”, says Steven Tufts, a labour geographer with research interests relating to the geographies of work, workers and organized labour.

Photo credit: Chris Roberts, Socialist Project

“Unions are necessary to addressing the impact of the pandemic, but they are sadly insufficient. We need to think through what is currently possible as unions face the mass unemployment of members and how their response can lead to stronger unionism in the future”, Tufts advocates.

One reality that Tufts pointed out is that unions representing “non-essential” workers in the private sector are facing not only financial crisis, but also existential crisis. Another reality is that rank-and-file members are not mobilized to organize;  moreover, labour organizations are not simply oriented toward the unemployed. How then can we realistically expect union leaders and staff who are facing employment insecurity themselves shift their focus to the unemployed as quickly as the pandemic demands?

Though spontaneous mobilization of the rank-and-file is possible in a crisis (and at times a preferable tactic), union activists are still trying to figure out what mobilization means in a time of quarantine and social distancing, and experimenting with ‘online-walkouts’, ‘virtual protests’, and ‘car cavalcades.’ Some unions have established call centres with staff and activists reaching out to unemployed workers, but these are only a few examples of organizing transitioning to effective online mobilization,” Tufts observes.

So, what can ‘actually existing’ unions do to survive in an economy with depression level unemployment so they can serve unemployed workers now and fight future austerity?

For Tufts, part of the answer lies in a tactical shift to exploit temporary openings with employers and the state while re-focusing on the unemployed and local communities. In this regard, unions accordingly need to see themselves as community organizations – vital economic, social, and political actors playing a crucial role in mediating the employment impacts of the pandemic. Unions also need to find creative ways to use union staff to provide the services displaced workers will rely upon in the coming months.

Essentially, union representatives know the workers who will require labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures.

Photo credit: Garry Potter, Socialist Project

Tufts noted that in the 2003 SARS crisis, resource centres were created for hospitality workers. With the COVID-19 pandemic, he cites, for example, the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (a cross-union alliance) that has successfully advocated for a pathway to a virtual resource centre where workers can receive assistance throughout the crisis.

“Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols. Having workers’ centers that provide services to and maintain links to such workers may, if not prevent, at least limit this loss” Tufts explains.

Yet, Tufts admits that a workers’ resource centre approach is full of contradictions and compromises.

“We need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls,” he concludes.

Tufts is a spokesperson for the Toronto Airport Workers' Council, an organization representing Pearson International Airport's 50,000 workers. His current projects involve the use of strategic research by labour unions and labour union renewal in Canada, the integration of immigrants in urban labour markets, labour market adjustment in the hospitality sector, the impact of climate change on workers and workplaces, and the intersection between labour and right-wing populism.

Abridged from the author’s article in The Bullet (May 2020) on COVID-19 and ‘actually existing’ labour unions.