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Convergence of issues could be a boon for progressive causes

Workers in the wider food sector have long been touchstones for progressive battles over wages and working conditions, from the treatment of migrant farm labour to the precariousness of the restaurant/hospitality industry and the downward pressure on grocery-store employees.

Today, they’re also the faces of frontline workers being confronted with the COVID-19 crisis.

Temporary foreign workers are struggling with both the virus and the provisions put in place to halt its spread, and continue to do the work many here won’t – Ontario’s agri-food sector, for instance, relies on some 20,000 such foreign workers.

Restaurants, part of the embattled hospitality and tourism sectors, were hit early and often as we responded to the novel coronavirus. Even with the reopening of the economy, restaurants are operating at a fraction of their pre-virus levels, if they’re open at all.

For most of the lockdown, grocery stores were just about the only retailers that kept their doors open. Given the essential nature of the business and the inherent risk to those working there, employees received not only the public’s goodwill, but wage increases from their notoriously frugal employers. Those bonuses have since been rolled back, a move that invited criticism, particularly from unions and activist groups.

Jerry Dias, National president of the private-sector union Unifor, called for lasting changes to reverse declines in working conditions in the retail sector when he spoke last week to the House Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology.

“It’s not that complicated. Workers are supporting these grocery chains through a pandemic that still isn’t over,” says Dias.

“As president of Loblaw, Sarah Davis took home $6.7 million and her company is making record profits. To see her sit there and talk about how much she respects the workers, but then cut their pay, it’s disgusting. Retail workers deserve better, and Canadians expect better.”

It’s not a new message, but one that has a better change of resonating with the public, and perhaps even fomenting change given the current climate. COVID-19 makes us all aware that collective effort is needed both to keep us safe today and develop treatments and vaccines tomorrow. The economic lockdown also served to highlight the necessity for government programs, even generating a serious discussion about a universal basic income, for instance.

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement is shining a light on society’s underlying racial and economic inequities. Large numbers of us are sympathetic to the calls for change, perhaps for the first time.

As noted, none of the issues now at center-stage is new. And all of them are the result of a concerted effort to get us to the state we’re in today. Racism exists, but it’s taken an effort to make it systemic, from provoking tensions and dog-whistle politics to actual laws and policies that fuel the divide.

The racial tensions are part of a wider strategy to keep the underclass – i.e. most of us – divided along a variety of lines, from ethnicity to income and social standing.

That wider strategy includes premeditated efforts to drive down wages as a way to enrich a few, an effort that includes decades of anti-unionization laws and corruption of the political system through lobbying and vote-buying.

It’s no secret unionization rates have plummeted, particularly in the U.S. It’s much less evident how dark money, manipulation and outright criminality by a handful of wealthy oligarchs have backed the assault on those in the working and middle classes. (It’s no surprise Koch Industries, the root of a multi-tentacled attack on workers, the environment, democracy and every other facet of general well-being, is on every list of anti-public groups.)

Unions and labour laws have been a decades-long target of resurgent right-wing groups, building on the much older direct violence directed at workers by corporations and governments dating back to the start of union drives. The efforts have paid off, with unionization numbers dropping and weakened labour laws. That’s particularly true in the U.S., but Canada too has been afflicted by the efforts, falling behind the more progressive European countries, themselves under assault by some of the same global forces.

Of course, some of the decline in union membership can be attributed to a shift in the economy: the factory, mining and other blue collar jobs that used to be bastions of unionized work have been automated, downsized and off-shored to a large extent.

Today’s union growth is in the public sector. From 1999 to 2014, public sector unionization rates grew from 70.4 per cent to 71.3 per cent. Private sector rates fell from 18.1 per cent to 15.2 per cent over the same years, Statistics Canada reports. Overall unionization rates fell to about 28 per cent from 38 per cent, with declines most pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s as the neoliberal gutting of the postwar boom policies became the predominant ethos of politicians bought off by the growing power of the oligarchs.

The systematic dismantling of worker protections and wider progressive programs has long been monitored by Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor and professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

“As corporations have gained power, they’ve been able to gut anti-monopoly laws, allowing them to grow even more dominant. At the same time, fewer workers have joined unions because corporations have undermined the nation’s labor laws, and many state legislatures – under intense corporate lobbying – have enacted laws making it harder to form unions,” he writes in a piece last week, noting that power is the reason “big corporations continue to win while workers get shafted.

“Because of these deliberate power shifts, even before the pandemic, a steadily larger portion of corporate revenues have been siphoned off to profits, and a shrinking portion allocated to wages.”

That decades-long trend needs to be reversed, and we may have hit upon just the climate to see that happen.

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