We have never celebrated a Labour Day like this one before – everything has changed for front-line workers like us.
Like nothing I’ve ever seen, COVID-19 has focused the world’s attention on the vital importance of the work we do. If we stand strong together in this moment, we can make substantial gains that will last for generations to come. Stronger services and shorter wait times for all. Wages and working conditions that are fair and reasonable. Safety measures and benefits that are more robust.
But how do we stand strong together when standing physically together is now dangerous?
If we’re going to seize this moment, we have to fundamentally rethink how our union works – at least until there’s a vaccine.
Face-to-face conversations, across-the-table bargaining, and crowded local meetings have always been an important part of our solidarity and our strength. But now they put at risk the very things we value most – the health and safety of our families, our communities, and the people we help.
Nobody will be more disappointed than me if we can’t have in-person meetings in the foreseeable future. But we have a responsibility to ask the difficult question: is it worth the risk of spreading the virus to OPSEU members and then on to the people they care for?
Still, it’s crucial that we keep up our strength by keeping connected with one another. So, it’s time for us to get creative – online meetings and the constructive use of social media.
Because make no mistake, if we don’t figure out how to stand strong together at a distance, the opportunities we face could as easily turn into the beginning of a long, slow decline in our hard-won labour rights.
Already, the government has enshrined into law the power to suspend important provisions in many of our collective agreements. Now, we can’t fault the government for wanting the ability to react quickly to new outbreaks. But if workers are divided and allow government to wield this new power irresponsibly, our collective bargaining rights will suffer. We can’t let that happen.
Nor can we allow women on the front lines to bear the economic brunt of the pandemic. Women have suffered the most job losses because of COVID-19. And since women continue to be responsible for the majority of child and senior care in most families, even more of them may be forced to leave their jobs if we’re hit with a second wave.
It’s crucial that we stand together both at home and at the bargaining table. We need to help take care of our families, and we need to demand from our employers more humane and reasonable leave provisions.
Workers with disabilities are also vulnerable during this pandemic. We must stand together to demand fair accommodations for any who need them as we adjust our workplaces and practices to ensure safety and social distancing.
We must also actively work to ensure justice and fairness for racialized workers. The past six months haven’t been all about COVID-19 – the Black Lives Matters protests also forced us to confront the cruel and damaging systemic racism that persists in our workplaces.
It’s a lot to digest. The road ahead is uncertain and the challenges we face are momentous.
But as I said, there is much for us to celebrate and feel optimistic about this Labour Day weekend.
Standing strong together at a distance, we’ll emerge from this pandemic stronger than we’ve ever been.
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida
OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer