COVID-19 and Actually Existing Unions

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2093 ... May 17, 2020

COVID-19 and ‘Actually Existing’ Unions

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 lucid calls for how unions should respond to the pandemic. Larry Savage and Simon Black have made a powerful call for unions to advocate for broader reforms to healthcare and employment benefits for all workers. Sam Gindin has, in turn, thoughtfully argued that unions must ‘think differently’ during this crisis. He contends that for organized labour to engage the public and the state in ways that institutionally build worker power though worker-community councils to facilitate economic conversion to green production, or in the immediate case, to the production of personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

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