President's Commentary: Unions rise to challenge of pandemic

"We will continue to advocate for our members, but also ensure that the recovery benefits everyone. Our future can be inclusive and fair, with the importance of public services more recognized than ever, where we take better care of our children and our seniors and everyone in between, and where we can reduce income and social inequality. We can build a healthier and safer country for everyone. In fact, it's not only that we can — we must." — Larry Brown, NUPGE President

by Larry Brown, NUPGE President

Ottawa (11 March 2021) — Today marks the one-year anniversary of the official start of the corona virus pandemic. 

Back then, I'm not sure any of us had a clue about how this last year would go. From the thousands of tragic deaths across the country, to lockdowns and quarantines that isolated us, shut our schools and our small- businesses, even our parks, to job losses not seen since the mid-70s, we've felt such devastation. But, we have also seen a wonderful society-wide response to the crisis. 

Darkness and light

It took too long for workers deemed essential to receive proper personal protective equipment — even in health care settings. Families had to be separated to protect the most vulnerable from the virus. Many had — and still have — no choice but to work while sick because they don't have access to sick leave. 

While people try to stay afloat and healthy — mentally and physically — we've watched corporations reap more profits than ever on the backs of those who are struggling to find work, school their children at home, and take care of the elderly and vulnerable.

We've heard conservative governments threaten to lay off health care workers and cut services at a time when they are needed the most! And many are already talking about their austerity agenda for when this pandemic is over. It's nothing short of unbelievable. 

And, despite all the stress and sadness throughout this tragedy, some things shone through: communities came together to show support for essential workers with their porch lights on, banging pots and pans.

Intense pressure was mounted by unions, workers and advocates to ensure front-line health care and long-term care workers could work in safety, and with token pay increases for their devotion to duty. The crucial role of so many workers in keeping the store shelves full and the lights on and the garbage collectedand...we all recognized more clearly that without all these workers our society would simply cease to function. 

People kept shopping at their local stores when possible to make sure the families around them could survive, too. 

Governments were constantly being lobbied to do more by providing financial and other support to help people cope through this extraordinary time in our history. And many responded. The response was not perfect but it did make a difference in people's lives.

Unions matter to all of us

From the get-go, unions have led the way demanding improved health and safety guidelines for all workers, demanding compensation for essential work and demanding increased supports (and extensions and improvements) that helped people afford their rent, child care and other expenses.

But unions have been advocating not just for their members, although we do that, with no apology. Unionzed health and public sector and private sector workers kept us going — kept our country functioning. 

We've been working hard to ensure that the vulnerable in our communities aren't left behind through the pandemic and as we recover. The pandemic clearly showed the cracks in our systems that further marginalize women, Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, people with disabilities, seniors and the poor. It was important for us all to amplify the voices of those people left out of the decision-making.

Making our future inclusive and just

We have glimpsed what can be possible when governments start to put people at the head of the line. But we have a long way to go in this recovery. We will continue to advocate for our members, but also ensure that the recovery benefits everyone. Our future can be inclusive and fair, pay good wages, reduce income and social inequality. We can build a healthier and safer country for everyone.

We don't want things to go back to normal. Normal wasn't working for far too many people. Instead, we need to seize this moment to build a healthier, safer and fairer country for everyone. 


NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE