Op-ed: Labour unions will be key to forging the post-pandemic recovery

If we want to “build back better” Canadians need to look at the lessons of the past when the labour movement lobbied for public health, unemployment benefits and education for all


“We are all in this together.” That was the slogan repeated by Doug Ford last March as the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down.

But a year later, as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) enters its third and most deadly COVID wave, it’s clear that not everyone is included in that slogan.

News that hundreds of workers in GTA Amazon warehouses have contracted the virus while the wealth of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos continues to soar, is just one example of the growing extremes of inequality exposed by the pandemic.

The tragic deaths of thousands of elderly residents in Ontario in private long-term care is another example of the logical outcome of a business model predicated on precarious work and poverty wages.

Across the globe, the ruthless attempts of gig economy giants to deny unionization and keep their workers in indentured servitude takes us back to a time in history when most Canadians had few rights.

One hundred and fifty years ago public services as we know them did not exist.

On April 12, 1871, a small group of Toronto trade unionists came together to give life to an idea – a collective voice for working people.

From the very beginning, unions have been working for social justice under the principle that “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”

Our story began on the land of Indigenous communities and was forged by those who have come from around the world as immigrants or refugees to build Canada’s largest urban centre. But each new wave that arrived discovered that, in order to have a fair share of the prosperity that they helped to create, they needed a united voice to fight for dignity and a living wage.

That still rings true today in the midst of a global pandemic. Half of the city’s COVID-19 cases have been among people on low-income; 79 per cent are people of colour; and more than 60 per cent of workplace outbreaks have been in settings, such as food processing and warehouses, where workforces are overwhelmingly non-white. The province’s latest lockdown isn’t protecting them.

If we want to “build back better” for all of us, not just the wealthiest, Canadians need to look at the lessons of the past when the labour movement lobbied for public health measures, unemployment benefits and education for all.

Unions worked with community allies to fight for health and safety, greater equality in the workplace, and against bigotry and racism in society. They fought to expand workplace benefits, such as health plans and pensions, to become universal social programs.

Their actions weren’t always popular, but everyone enjoys the benefits of paid maternity leave that postal workers won on the picket line, and the equality rights won through bitter struggles on the streets and in the courts.

The struggle continues, as workers fall to COVID-19 and are vulnerable again. As more people get vaccinated and the third wave subsides, the focus for unions must be on a just recovery for a better world.

Together, we can find the collective voice to build the power of the people to win social, economic, climate and racial justice for generations to come.

John Cartwright is president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council.

@nowtoronto

Comments (1)

  • Frank Sterle Jr. April 11, 2021 08:45 PM

    The language that big business understands best is one of increased consumerism, economic stimulation and profit-margin growth. The usual tradeoff, of course, is their destruction and max-exploitation of laborers, resources, and natural environment. Meanwhile, repeated is the ambiguous and stupid-sounding catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

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