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The working class has had enough

From Maggie’s vantage point behind the cash register at a chain grocery store in a small British Columbia city, the first several months of the pandemic were frantic oblivion; most customers rushing the picked-over shelves didn’t seem to notice the employees, unless it was to fling verbal abuse over still-new concepts like social distancing or masks. “It was like the 23rd of December every day for four to five months,” Maggie says. “We felt like we were just fodder at first.”

When tension arose with customers, there was no time to call a manager, so the employees learned to back each other up. Maggie has worked at her store for 30 years, and she’s a shop steward for her union, which she credits with giving her a voice and a confidence she never used to have—but despite that, she is not authorized by her employer to do interviews, so Maclean’s is not identifying her to protect her job.

At the beginning of the pandemic, on a wave of “We (heart) our essential workers” uplift, grocery chains like Maggie’s across Canada gave their employees a $2 hourly pay bump. It was much-heralded, but short-lived. “Some people were finally making a little bit more money and were able to shop where they actually worked,” she says. “It’s embarrassing to be called a hero when you’re selling groceries. You don’t feel like you’re a hero—you’re scared s–tless and you’re just trying to get through your day like everybody else.”

As time went on, there was a pervasive sense that orders came from head office-types completely insulated from the reality on the ground. The plexiglass enclosures around the cashiers were a perfect example: at first they didn’t cover the employees’ backs, then they didn’t extend down far enough. It felt to Maggie like the makeshift aquariums were designed to make customers feel safer, while she and her co-workers remained spooked by the number of people in the store. “We really learned to put up our hand and say, ‘Excuse me, I need you to take two steps back,’ ” she says. Armed with that new assertiveness, Maggie saw her co-workers—albeit with “a lot of prodding and motivating and letting them know that they have support”—speak up to managers when something needed to be fixed, too.

All of this was occurring against a backdrop of trod-upon people having had enough in a much broader way. The gathering roar of Black Lives Matter protests and Indigenous reckonings coinciding with the pandemic heightened the awareness—particularly in Maggie’s younger co-workers—of a vast, pervasive unfairness in society and sparked a fierce unwillingness to accept more toxic inertia.

Those in their 30s and 40s struggling to raise families on retail salaries, meanwhile, realized that none of the record grocery store profits during the pandemic would be possible without the people running registers and hauling boxes. “Let’s put it this way: I don’t care what kind of letter comes out from the presidents of companies telling their employees and their workers how thankful and how grateful they are for the good, hard work that they did,” Maggie says. “I think the working class has had enough.”

Inequality has been rising for decades, but during the stress test of the pandemic, the imbalance became grotesque. While grocery workers were battling to get within scraping distance of a living wage, Loblaws saw its 2021 first-quarter profits grow by 30 per cent over the previous year, to $313 million. Empire Co Ltd., which owns Sobeys, Safeway, Foodland, FreshCo and IGA, saw its net earnings swell 47 per cent in the first quarter, to $191.9 million. Amazon’s first-quarter profits were more than triple its 2020 margins, at $8.1 billion, even as COVID-19 chewed through its warehouse workers and its delivery drivers urinated in bottles so they wouldn’t miss their targets.

Last fall, the Brookings Institution produced a report contrasting the corporate and shareholder windfalls of the biggest U.S. companies with the crumbs they begrudgingly offered their frontline workers. The report noted that the two behemoths—Amazon and Walmart—took in an average of $10.7 billion in extra profit and their stock prices surged 65 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively, but their workers received an average of just $0.95 per hour and $0.63 per hour in extra pandemic pay.

RELATED: The grocery worker on the pandemic’s front lines

By the time Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched himself into space aboard his own distinctly phallic commercial rocket in midsummer, the reaction was mockery and fury, rather than the guileless congratulations he seemed to expect. Once Bezos came back to Earth—he was the second billionaire in a matter of days to take a suborbital ego trip, following Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson—he, somewhat amazingly, said the quiet part out loud, thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this.”

And if the working class has indeed had enough of all of that, they are far from alone. In July, Abacus Data found that 89 per cent of Canadians want to see a wealth tax of 1 per cent levied on the wealthiest Canadians to aid the country’s economic recovery, with 50 per cent strongly supporting the idea. That kind of near-­unanimous intensity is highly unusual in reactions to policy ideas, says Abacus CEO David Coletto.

Now, these reckonings and a constellation of shifting factors offer the possibility that something is about to give. Labour organizations that have been battling in obscurity for decades suddenly found their pet issues were mainstream news through the pandemic. Groups such as the Workers’ Action Centre and Gig Workers United are organizing to represent precarious and gig workers who lack other protections.

It is notoriously tricky to define social class, but the “working class” generally encompasses those who work for hourly wages, often at low pay, or in jobs that don’t require advanced education, such as in factories, warehouses and grocery stores, and other retail or domestic work. Retail and wholesale employees had median weekly earnings of $630 in 2019 (the last pre-pandemic “normal” year), while those employed in accommodation and food services brought in $438, compared to $900 in median weekly earnings for all employees—but workers in these sectors are also less likely to work year-round, impacting their annual income.

At the moment, these groups are the objects of electoral desire for the NDP and Conservatives, meaning they stand a chance of finally having their issues addressed in this election; sensing the public mood, parties have been falling over each other to force the rich to pay their fair share.

But capitalism being what it is, blunt supply and demand may be the surest catalyst for change. A looming labour shortage as the baby boomers retire en masse could transform the working-class job picture into a seller’s market if employers want to find enough people to stock their shelves. It is possible the market really will decide in the end.

(Photograph by Ian Patterson; hair and makeup by GianLuca Orienti/Judy Inc; Wardrobe by Serena Vaz/Judy Inc; Prop styling by William Scott Christy/Judy Inc)

***

To economist Armine Yalnizyan, Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers at the Atkinson Foundation, there was something biblical about the pandemic, from the earliest moments when you could see that there was going to be one group of people that desperately wanted to help and another that didn’t want any inconvenience. “It was hard not to think of the story of Job crying out to the Lord: ‘Why are you testing me so?’ and God’s answer being, ‘I just want to see what you’re going to do,’ ” Yalnizyan says, paraphrasing the story of a prosperous and happy man brought to his knees after Satan argues to God that Job is only devout because he has it so good. “It seems like a biblical moment: What are you going to do? Yeah, it’s your choice­—what are you going to choose?”

And if God wanted to see what Job was made of when everything crumbled to dust, to Yalnizyan, the pandemic’s teachable moment is a brutally simple one: “That we have choice in how we value people and we have choice in how we distinguish between our emotions and our dollars and cents.” She believes we felt real gratitude for the essential workers who made sure our lives weren’t even more upended, but that sentiment didn’t translate to their paycheques, and we have to account for that.

Over the course of the pandemic, a pile of evidence added up to the same conclusion: being wealthy, white and working from home provided excellent protection from the virus. The Toronto Foundation found, for example, that people earning less than $30,000 a year were more than five times more likely to get COVID-19 than those making more than $150,000. Infection rates were similar across neighbourhoods at the end of March 2020, but just two months later, the opportunistic virus had found its hunting grounds, and the most racialized parts of the city had 10 times more cases than the whitest areas, while the poorest and richest neighbourhoods had similar discrepancies.

The only thing about the findings that was surprising was the starkness of it all, says Julia Howell, chief program officer for the Toronto Foundation. “We were hoping from the beginning that the increased awareness of these social realities would ultimately spur the change that people have been wanting to see for 30 years or more,” Howell says. “How can you turn away from the facts when they’re so blatant?”

‘It’s embarrassing to be called a hero when you’re selling groceries. You don’t feel like you’re a hero—you’re scared s–tless and you’re just trying to get through your day like everybody else.’

EKOS Research polled Canadians in June on whether they had been financially affected by the pandemic. Nearly eight in 10 (78 per cent) of upper-class people said they had been unscathed, along with 63 per cent of those who identified as middle class; just 46 per cent of the working class and 34 per cent of the poor said the same. Among those who self-identified as poor, 38 per cent said they or their spouse had lost a job or had their hours cut back, as did 35 per cent of the working class; among the middle class and upper class, those slices were 17 and 8 per cent, respectively.

During the third wave, Dan Monich worked for a large meat processing company in a job that was very working-class in a day-to-day way, but because his position as a production supervisor required a university degree, he had privilege many of his co-workers didn’t (he has since left that job). His own life straddled two worlds: in one were his co-workers, who worked for Uber Eats or as building superintendents in their second jobs, and where one of the horror stories that made the rounds was about a machine technician in his early 50s who caught COVID and died a week later; in the other were Monich’s university-educated friends, who didn’t know anyone who had COVID and scooped up vaccine appointments from their desks the second they were available. “It’s like an invisible dividing line where you just never really see the full story,” Monich said. “And you make excuses as to why that line exists.”

In April, during the province-wide stay-at-home order, Monich snapped a photo of his commute—a bus shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, the interior stuffed like a campus bar at last call with essential workers—and posted it to social media, writing, “In my 10 years of taking transit in this city, I have never seen more collective exhaustion and fear than I [see] now.” The reaction was instant and furious: news interviews, social media outrage, the TTC promising to review its routes. But within 48 hours, the news cycle had moved on; the TTC’s proudly brandished solution to the criticism—an app that would tell riders how crowded an approaching bus is—was useless to people who work shifts and can’t simply wait around for the next bus, Monich points out.

READ: Here are the accidental frontline workers keeping food on your table

The debate over paid sick leave and the need for faster vaccination and better protections for essential workers hit screaming volume with the public around the same time as Monich’s photo. One of the catalysts was the horrifying and heartbreaking news of the death of 13-year-old Emily Viegas, one of Canada’s youngest victims of the pandemic. The Globe and Mail reported that Emily’s factory-worker father, Carlos, had tried to care for her at home because he worried if he took her to Brampton Civic, which was buckling under the third wave, she would be moved to another hospital far from her family.

In the same week, journalist Fatima Syed wrote an extensive feature in The Local examining how the Peel region northwest of Toronto had been shortchanged in every way that might have protected its workers from the virus that was stalking families like Emily’s. Syed laid out how the entire country would have ground to a halt without Peel: It is home to the vast majority of companies in the GTA, huge swaths of Amazon sorting and shipping, trucking routes and manufacturing for all sorts. “It’s the logistics capital of Canada—a community of workers who have put themselves at risk so the rest of the country can comfortably stay at home,” Syed wrote.

Listening to one press conference after another where officials barked at people to stay at home without so much as an asterisk acknowledging those who couldn’t was maddening, but also instructive about the privileged perch from which elected officials gazed out at the communities they were making decisions for, Syed says. She conceives of it in nearly cinematic terms. When the pandemic forced everyone and everything to pause in place, all of a sudden you could see the pieces that were still moving: the trucks, the goods, the factories, the sorting facilities­—and the people in them. “We don’t often think about how the wheels turn and who’s turning them. But when time freezes and you can see that the only things moving are those workers, you have to pay attention,” Syed says. “The question is, why wasn’t anyone paying attention?”

(Photograph by Ian Patterson; hair and makeup by GianLuca Orienti/Judy Inc; Wardrobe by Serena Vaz/Judy Inc; Prop styling by William Scott Christy/Judy Inc)

(Photograph by Ian Patterson; hair and makeup by GianLuca Orienti/Judy Inc; Wardrobe by Serena Vaz/Judy Inc; Prop styling by William Scott Christy/Judy Inc)

***

To some extent, the answer to a broader version of that question—why don’t the working class and their interests get much attention?—is one of crass political math.

It’s well-established in political science research that people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to vote than their wealthier and more educated peers, but a 2015 paper by Michael W. Kraus, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Yale University, took a novel approach to sorting out why. Most research focused on resources, Kraus writes: the idea that lower-class people lack the time, money and “civic skills” to get involved, “despite having so much to gain from political participation.”

But Kraus’s study found that people who perceived themselves to be of lower social class were less likely to participate in politics in part because they believed they had little “political efficacy”; that is, they don’t bother to vote, sign petitions or call constituency offices to yell at someone because they figure no one will listen. The dark irony is that as long as these demographic voting patterns hold true, they’re probably right.

In a Canadian context, though, the working class stands a chance of figuring more prominently in this federal campaign, instead of once again being ignored in favour of the noble, striving “middle class.”

Conservative strategists decided their path to success was practically manufacturing a new pool of voters out of working-class Canadians. The pandemic has accelerated the crowning of globalization’s winners and losers, one senior Tory strategist says, meaning that the left-behinds are just waiting for someone to speak up for them. The Tory platform is full of pledges to push back against big corporations, stand up for the little guy and even make it easier for workers to unionize, all tucked beneath a cover featuring leader Erin O’Toole looking like a plumber spiffed up for a reality TV dating show.

But one of the big difficulties with making the working class your expansion franchise is baked right in: “They don’t turn out in big numbers and they pay even less attention to politics than an average person would,” the source says.

The pandemic has accelerated the crowning of globalization’s winners and losers, and the left-behinds are just waiting for someone to speak up for them, says a Tory strategist

Speaking to those voters is a more obvious and long-standing project for the NDP, of course. The party’s message for more than a year has been that while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked a good game, it was Jagmeet Singh and his New Democrats who pushed the minority Liberals to offer more generous emergency benefits to help people get through the pandemic.

Anne McGrath, national director of the NDP, says the party spends a lot of time thinking about how to overcome the fact that the very people who would be most receptive to their messages are those who often have to be entreated to go to the polls, while the ones who benefit from the status quo never miss a vote. “I think there are favourable conditions for people to examine what’s happened over the last year and a half in particular, think about the way that they vote, and vote in their interests,” she says—but to get there, the NDP must convince them that the whole exercise is “not a waste of time.”

At the end of April, after weeks of mounting pressure from citizens and public health experts, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced it was implementing three days of paid sick leave. A few weeks later, British Columbia’s NDP government did the same.

By that point, a number of things had happened that had blown Laird Cronk’s mind. As president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, he helped to spearhead a 14-month campaign aimed at convincing the provincial government to do exactly that, and through most of the pandemic, it was totally ignored. But then suddenly Ontario was on fire with COVID variants, people were screaming at Doug Ford, and everyone was not only listening to what Cronk and his union had been saying all along but shouting it themselves.

He watched press conferences in which legislative reporters shelled provincial officials with the exact questions he wanted them to answer. Liberal and Green MLAs used his own words to harangue the government about why it wasn’t doing more to protect workers. “I get texts from people saying, ‘They’re quoting you again in the legislature, they’re using it against the NDP government,’ ” Cronk says, hooting with laughter. “I’m like, ‘What a weird world we’re in.’ ”

This bizarre array of policy friends and enemies “simply says that common sense prevails,” Cronk says. “COVID gave us the pulpit on which to say, ‘This never made sense.’ ”

The question now, in Yalnizyan’s estimation, is whether we are willing to put our money where our mouths are. She points to the 1980s as a pivotal moment when the rise of free trade made us better off as consumers but not as workers, and when the old Zellers slogan—“The lowest price is the law”—somehow became a society-wide mantra that sticks to this day. “I think we often pit ourself as consumers against ourselves as workers,” she says. “The flip side of every cheap price is a cheap wage.”

Yalnizyan points to increasing union activity and a handful of savvy organizations such as the Migrant Workers Alliance and the Workers’ Action Centre, which have managed to grab a lot of attention with shoestring budgets and grassroots organization, as indications that a return to the status quo is not inevitable. Even Amazon has faced a massive unionization push in an Alabama warehouse, and a National Labor Relations Board official ruled that the company’s anti-union tactics in the unsuccessful unionization vote were unfair, recommending a re-do. “Something is happening, and it’s starting from the ground up,” Yalnizyan says.

But her other evidence for change is more hard-nosed, and as a result perhaps more hopeful. Over the next two to three decades, the entire global North is going to see its baby boomers move out of the workforce and into the retiree category, she points out, and that will mean labour shortages unless business lobbyists convince governments to import masses of workers from outside the country. “I can’t see how we continue down the path we have been going down in the last 40 years,” she says. “It is possible, because there is a lot of competition in the sector, but I think wages and working conditions are going to have to improve.” There are already signs of this appearing, with higher than expected job vacancy rates in certain sectors, even as economies are still tip-toeing out of the pandemic.

This bizarre array of policy friends and enemies ‘simply says that common sense prevails,’ Cronk says. ‘COVID gave us the pulpit on which to say, “This never made sense.” ’

The United States, with its more rapid economic reopening, may be a harbinger of the way all those lauded essential workers will look at a post-pandemic job market. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas conducts a monthly survey, and one question asks unemployed people whether they would be willing to return to their previous job with the same pay and hours. In July 2020, 68 per cent said yes, but by April 2021, just 52 per cent were willing. The average hourly wage for restaurant and grocery store workers in the U.S. topped $15 for the first time ever in July, as employers competed to find enough staff in a reopening economy. “Job sites and recruiting firms say many job seekers won’t even consider jobs that pay less than $15 anymore,” the Washington Post reported. “For years, low-paid workers fought to make at least that much. Now it has effectively become the new baseline.”

Daniel Alpert, a senior fellow in macroeconomics and finance at Cornell Law School, wrote in the New York Times about the potential link between more generous federal unemployment benefits and Americans being slow to rejoin the workforce, arguing that, in spite of it being a contention that makes progressives “queasy,” it was only common sense that a worker wouldn’t run back to “a lousy, low-paying job” when they could make more collecting unemployment. “The U.S. economy before the pandemic was incredibly dependent on an abundance of low-wage, low-hours jobs,” he wrote. “It was a combo that yielded low prices for comfortably middle-class and wealthier customers and low labour costs for bosses, but spectacularly low incomes for tens of millions of others.”

During the pandemic, measures such as the bonus pay for grocery workers like Maggie proved to the public that these companies could afford to pay more if they wanted to, says Kim Novak, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union 1518 in New Westminster, B.C, but it also highlighted how low those wages are in the first place. And the very things labour leaders and workers are most afraid of losing if the pandemic ever truly moves into the rear-view mirror—the general public’s attention and anger on their behalf—are crucial to battles like these because they speak the language business understands: voting with your wallet. “You can’t call workers critical and essential when you need them in a crisis, and then discount that value once you’re through that,” says Novak. “The work hasn’t changed.”

***

In contemplating what we remember and how much we forget when we walk away from something, Cronk thinks of one of the houses he lived in growing up, which had a pantry his mom kept permanently stocked with canned goods. As kids do, Cronk assumed every family did this, but he eventually realized that wasn’t the case. His grandmother had lived through the war and trained her daughter to always have a well-stocked pantry and little bits socked away here and there, just in case life ever came down to rationing or food stamps again.

We’re all drifting back to a more normal life, Cronk says; we’ll be washing our hands more than usual for some time, but hugging and life without masks—all of that will come back to us at some point. But he figures that everyone who lived through the pandemic will have a little anxiety pantry somewhere in the back of their brains for a very long time. And that is the space where people like him hope to make lasting change for the workers who stocked our grocery shelves, bathed our loved ones in long-term care homes and delivered the online packages each time we shopped our pandemic feelings. “It’s not good enough to just remember,” Cronk says. “Even though it was really awesome, and I loved it and I participated in the banging pots and pans, it wasn’t good enough.”

If what we’ve been telling ourselves is true and COVID-19 was some grand civic wake-up call, its effect on our society was like that of a person having one tongue-loosening drink too many: it did not create problems that hadn’t previously existed, but only revealed what was always there, tucked politely under the rug.

Now that the cover has been yanked away, that old biblical question to Job is staring us in the face: what are you going to do?


This article appears in print in the October 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘The working class has had enough’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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