Essential but not empowered: reflections on the working class in Canada under COVID-19


This paper focuses on the political economy of work and labour under COVID-19 in the Canadian context. It reviews the impact of the COVID crisis on employment and workers, highlighting gendered and racialized inequalities in waged and unwaged work, analyzes state responses to the crisis, and explores how organized labour has navigated COVID capitalism. It argues that, while unions have engaged in necessary defensive struggles, the labour movement has not prioritized and won class-wide demands.

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1 Booth, Adam, and Rolfe, “In Fight against Coronavirus.”

2 Fieber, “Calgary Police.”

3 Foster and Barneston, “One-Day Wildcat.”

4 Arthurson, “Right to Strike”; Foster and Barneston, “One-Day Wildcat.”

5 Rockarts, “Wildcat!”

6 Snowdon, “Wildcat Strike.”

7 Foster and Barneston, “One-Day Wildcat.”

8 Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, “Alberta Doesn’t Like.”

9 Smart, “We Need to Mobilize Now.”

10 Cook, “Alberta Finance Minister.”

11 Harvey, “Value in Motion.”

12 Moody, “‘Just-in-Time’ Capitalism.”

13 Harvey, “Value in Motion.”

14 Gopinath, “IMF.”

15 ILO, “COVID-19.”

16 Stanford, “10 Ways,” 7–8. While official unemployment in April 2020 was 2.4 million, Stanford calculated a realistic unemployment rate for April of 6.6 million, or 33.5 percent, which included the categories of “employed but worked no hours,” “not in the labour force, but recently worked and want to work,” and “worked, but lost most hours (full-time equivalents).”

17 Huws, “Reaping the Whirlwind.”

18 Deng, Morissette, and Messacar, “Inequality.”

19 Stanford, “10 Ways.”

20 Scott and Macdonald, “Looking at COVID-19.”

21 Scott and Macdonald, “Looking at COVID-19.”

22 Scott, Women, Work and COVID-19.

23 Desjardins and Freestone, “COVID Further Clouded.”

24 Scott, Women, Work and COVID-19.

25 Fraser, “Feminism.”

26 Migrant Rights Network, “Behind Closed Doors.”

27 Yang and Kennedy, “Wealthy Parents.”

28 See Nolen, “Mother Load.”

29 See Kennedy, “Ontario’s Child Care Sector”; Scott, “Responses to the Crisis.”

30 Scott, Women, Work and COVID-19, 6.

31 Statistics Canada, “Labour Market Snapshot.”

32 Block and Dhunna, “COVID-19.”

33 Block and Dhunna, “COVID-19.”

34 Dhunna, “Ontario’s Frontline Workers.”

35 Stevano, Ali, and Jamieson, “Essential for What?,” 179. This is not to say the meaning of essential work was not already politicized, but just that it has become newly or differently politicized in the pandemic. As Tucker notes, “historically, the concept of essentiality in Canada has been a political one.” Tucker, “Regulating Strikes,” 114.

36 The Government of Canada (2020) defined essential workers as workers who are “considered critical to preserving life, health and basic societal functioning. This includes, but is not limited to, first responders, health care workers, critical infrastructure workers, hydro and natural gas, and workers who are essential to supply society by critical goods such as food and medicines.” Beyond sectors under federal jurisdiction, legislative authority to determine what is or is not considered essential lies with provincial and territorial governments.

37 Institute for Work and Health, “Incidence of COVID-19.” See also Mojtehedzadeh and Bailey, “Essential Worker.”

38 Brar quoted in Mojtehedzadeh, “Essential Workplace.”

39 “Moments of Despair,” 7. See also Glasbeek and Tucker, “Anti-Union Virus.”

40 See Mojtehedzadeh and Bailey, “Essential Worker.”

41 Miller, “Why Canada Needs.” While hospitals and long-term care homes are workplaces, provincial public-health authorities do not include these settings in workplace outbreak numbers.

42 Kelley, Wirsig, and Smart, “Bitter Harvest.”

43 Dryden and Rieger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse.”

44 The Globe and Mail, “They’re Going to Work.”

45 Rao et al., “Disproportionate Pandemic,” 63.

46 Tucker, “Shocking.”

47 Neustaeter, “Majority of Canadians.”

48 Mojtehedzadeh, “Thousands of Workers.”

49 PressProgress, “Ontario’s Government.”

50 Alberta Federation of Labour, “Workplace Infections.”

51 Foster and Barneston, “Cargill,” paragraph 11.

52 See Mojtehedzadeh, “Health Authorities.”

53 Sim, “How to Fix,” paragraph 1.

54 Brethour, “Why Billions in Federal.”

55 See Bryant, Aquanno, and Raphael, “Unequal Impact”; Macdonald, Picking Up the Tab.

56 Racialized exclusions under this emergency income-security system remained. For example, neither the estimated 1.8 million migrant and undocumented workers residing in Canada nor sex workers qualified for the CERB. Scott, Women, Work and COVID-19, 7.

57 CERB was available for individuals who were residing in Canada, were at least 15 years old, had stopped working or had been working reduced hours due to COVID-19, did not expect to earn over $1,000 in employment or self-employment income for at least 14 days in a row during a four-week period, had employment income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application, and who had not quit their job voluntarily. Morissette et al., “Workers Receiving.”

58 Macdonald, Picking Up the Tab.

59 Scott, “Responses to the Crisis,” paragraph 7.

60 Morissette et al., “Workers Receiving.”

61 See Morissette et al., “Workers Receiving.” The federal government also introduced the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, essentially a CERB for students, but at a lower rate and with a shorter period of eligibility, that is, $1,250 for a 4-week period for a maximum of 16 weeks.

62 In recognition that the pandemic prevented many workers from accumulating the number of insurable hours normally required to qualify for EI, the federal government provided EI claimants with a one-time insurable-hours credit (300 for regular benefits and 400 for special benefits, including sickness and maternity/paternity), retroactive to March 2020. These changes are set to expire in September 2022. Government of Canada, 2021.

63 See Thompson, “Canada Recovery Benefit.”

64 Hasenfratz, Lindsay, and Weston, “Flattened the Curve.”

65 As quoted in Scoffield, “Slashing COVID-19.”

66 To paraphrase Jamie Peck on workfare: Peck, Workfare States, 6.

67 Singh et al., “Joint Letter.”

68 For example, Spain requires companies that make use of the government’s job retention program to reimburse the full amount of the subsidy if they pay any dividends. The Netherlands introduced a ban on dividend payments, share buybacks, and bonuses for executives in firms benefitting from wage subsidies. See Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Job Retention.”

69 Pierce, Saltzman, and McNair, “CRA.”

70 On the CEWS and dividends, see Corak, “Canada Wage Subsidy.” On the CEWS and replacement workers, see PressProgress, “Winnipeg Restaurant.”

71 Gindin, “Political Openings.”

72 McBride, Evans, and Plehwe, “Building Back Better,” paragraph 8.

73 See Ross and Thomas, “Organizing in Precarious Times”; Smith, “Political Economy.”

74 See McAlevey, No Shortcuts; Gindin, “Political Openings.”

75 Gindin, “Premature Declarations,” paragraph 35.

76 Ross and Thomas, “Organizing in Precarious Times,” 344.

77 Ross and Thomas argue that this strategic and tactical conservatism “is a product of both the conjunctural effects of neoliberal politics and a deeper structural constraint rooted in the nature of the legal framework of postwar unionism.” Ross and Thomas, “Organizing in Precarious Times,” 346–47.

78 For an overview, see Savage and Black, “Coronavirus Crisis.”

79 Savage and Black, “Coronavirus Crisis.”

80 Glasbeek and Tucker, “Anti-Union Virus.”

81 Wayland, “Work Stoppage.”

82 Nesbitt, “Work Refusal.”

83 Bronski, “Walkouts.”

84 Blackwell, “Canadian Nurses.”

85 Cabana, “Under the Shadow.”

86 Foster and Barneston, “Cargill.”

87 Dryden and Rieger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse.”

88 The first case of COVID-19 at Cargill High River was confirmed on April 6, 2020, but not reported to the public or the union. Dryden and Rieger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse.”

89 Foster and Barneston, “Cargill,” paragraph 7.

90 Dryden and Rieger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse.”

91 Seglins, Rieger, and Singh, “RCMP Launch Criminal Probe.”

92 Dryden and Rieger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse.”

93 Wells, Letter.

94 Smith, “Third Worker Dies.”

95 Rusnell and Russell, “Union Group Says.”

96 Admittedly, unions face massive fines for illegal, or “wildcat,” strikes. However, in this instance is it not clear that a mass organized work refusal would have been illegal, given the occupational health and safety risks. My thanks to one of the reviewers for pointing this out.

97 UFCW organized several Indigo Books locations across Canada, beginning with a Toronto-area store in which workers were tasked with extra cleaning duties but not provided with proper PPE. See Saba, “Never Been Busier.”

98 Data from Statistics Canada, “Union Status by Industry.”

99 Saba, “Never Been Busier.”

100 Saba, “Never Been Busier.”

101 See Tufts, “COVID-19 and ‘Actually Existing Unions.’”

102 Bandler, “Inside the Union.”

103 Tufts, “COVID-19.”

104 Saba, “Never Been Busier.”

105 See Ontario Labour Relations Board, Annual Report 2020-21, 25; Government of Alberta, Annual Report Labour and Immigration 2020–21, 70; British Columbia Labour Relations Board, Annual Report 2020, 28.

106 Data from Statistics Canada, “Union Status by Industry.”

107 Slaughter, “Grocery Store Execs.”

108 See Slaughter, “Grocery Store Execs.”

109 Darrah and Nesbitt, “Grocery’s Long War.”

110 CBC, “N.L. Dominion Workers.”

111 Darrah and Nesbitt, “Grocery’s Long War.”

112 Stevano, Ali, and Jamieson, “Essential for What?,” 14

113 Ross and Savage, “Canadian Labour.” Sectionalism is the tendency of unions to limit their aims and objectives narrowly for the benefit of their dues-paying members.

114 See Hemingway, “Why the Hold-Up.”

115 Government of British Columbia, “Paid Sick Leave.”

116 See BC Federation of Labour, “BCFED Launches.”

117 LeBrun, “Labour Unions Disappointed.” Under the legislation, workers who are covered by the province’s Employment Standards Act and who have worked more than 90 consecutive days will be entitled to five days of personal illness or injury leave per year. The BCFED opposes the 90-day waiting period for eligibility.

118 See, for example, among others, The Leap, “Bailout for People and the Planet”; The Council of Canadians, Just Recovery for All; Unifor, Road Map.

119 Roy, “Pandemic is a Portal.”

120 Gindin and Stanford, “Canadian Labour,” 423.

121 Labour Committee of the Socialist Project, “This May Day.”

122 Thompson, “Workers in Atlantic Canada.”

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