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The Other Outbreak: Workplace Struggles During the Pandemic

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsLabour

A worker at the Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California. Photo from Flickr.

Only months ago, a polite and mostly sterile discussion was underway in official circles over the future of work. It narrowly addressed anticipated job losses from automation and artificial intelligence, the consequences of an ageing society, and skills upgrading needs for the future.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, this rarified discussion has been swept aside by high-stakes power struggles over the organization of work. Emerging internationally and not just in Canada, these conflicts revolve around familiar points of contention, like health and safety protections for workers. But they also have the potential to raise far-reaching questions about the role of the state in workplace struggles, and the need to democratize decision-making about production itself.

Battling for influence

The pandemic has sparked a challenge to the social and economic value assigned to low-paid and typically female caring, cleaning and service work. In juxtaposing available manufacturing capacity and severe shortages of urgently needed medical equipment, the health emergency has also posed the question of what should be produced, and for what purpose.

As well, the COVID-19 outbreak has ignited urgent clashes in the workplace. Workers in both the public and private sectors have demanded personal protective equipment (PPE), retrofitted workstations, paid leave, and a precautionary reorganization of work. As workers have been sent to their posts without adequate protections and equipment, wildcat strikes have erupted over health and safety, including some led by the most vulnerable and precariously-employed.

In Canada, with active or tacit government support, employers have insisted on maintaining or restarting production, even where health and safety risks are very high, and proper safeguards are not in place. Employers and governments have pleaded shortages of protective equipment, even as governments decline to compel employers to manufacture masks and test kits. Employee refusals of unsafe work in various parts of the country have increased, but the vast majority have been denied by the state.

Struggles over health and safety are not only about protective equipment and proper procedures to protect workers’ health. They also deal with the intensity of work. As the fight over production line speeds at Alberta’s meatpacking plants reveals, physical distancing requirements and proper health and safety precautions may very well require reducing output and slowing the pace of production. Demands for proper staffing levels in acute and long-term care are key to ensuring high levels of care, but also combatting work intensification.

As workplaces increasingly reopen and work resumes, higher workloads from downsizing will continue to be flashpoints for workplace conflicts. And as workers are pressured to resume work without adequate health and safety protections, the way in which jobless benefits shape workplace struggles, including fights to force employers to implement proper health and safety protections, also matter.

Restoring the lash of unemployment and the power of the sack

All else being equal, the threat of unemployment disciplines workers and reinforces capitalist dominance in the workplace. Meagre and restrictive unemployment benefits also raise the cost of job loss for workers, strengthening management’s hand. Over the years, Employment Insurance (EI) benefits have been systematically restricted and reduced to achieve just this.

As job losses exploded and incomes collapsed in March, EI’s restrictiveness and inadequate benefits became a political liability for the federal government. Ottawa was forced to create an unemployment benefit from scratch–the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)–that relaxed many of EI’s bureaucratic eligibility rules and job search expectations. Compared to EI, the CERB disqualifies fewer jobless Canadians, provides a higher benefit than many unemployed workers could qualify for under EI, and does not require recipients to search for or return to work.

On the basis of improved unemployment benefits, workers’ advocates have pushed for further efforts to lift the wages of low earners, with mixed success. Activists did win a government commitment to boost the wages of essential workers, but this leaves out many low-paid workers (including migrant agricultural workers), and is intended to be temporary.

Recovering from their initial disarray, employers, provincial governments and right-wing think tanks have responded with efforts to restrict the CERB and resubordinate workers to the discipline of the low-wage job market. Employers are concerned that in cushioning the blow of job loss, the CERB has also helped workers resist a return to unsafe workplaces. In this light, employers and the Conservative Party recently argued for the requirement that students applying for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) attest that they are seeking work. These changes have since been adopted by the Trudeau government.

The coming struggle over unemployment benefits will be important. From the outset, the CERB was meant to be temporary. In July, laid-off workers who went on claim in mid-March will begin exhausting their CERB benefits. If the effort to extend the CERB program is unsuccessful, at that point unemployed workers will be expected to apply for EI benefits.

In order to avoid a repeat of March, when the EI system was overwhelmed by a flood of new claims, the federal government is faced with finding a way to streamline and simplify EI rules, while reducing emphasis on the scrutiny and verification of claims. This will be necessary if it is to automate handling of what may be hundreds of thousands of claims migrating from the CERB back to EI. Two leading sources preventing the full automation of claims are the many complex reasons why workers leave jobs, and the way income such as severance and vacation pay affects EI benefits. Relaxing restrictive rules that disqualify workers and reduce EI benefits will accelerate claims processing, but will also be important to reducing EI’s ability to push people back into unsafe workplaces.

The struggles to come

In the months ahead, employers and the political right will increasingly demand rollbacks, a fiscal reckoning for the emergency measures put in place, and a return to austerity. Preceding this struggle, however, is the current battle over workplace health and safety, workloads, staffing levels and the pace and intensity of work.

Amidst these conflicts, activists have new and abundant opportunities to link up workplace and political struggles. For unions hit hard in the unemployment crisis, the pandemic creates openings for organizing, educating and engaging with workers over fundamental issues concerning control of work and production. As the right is fond of saying, one should never let a crisis go to waste.

Chris Roberts works at the Canadian Labour Congress. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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