In an international webinar hosted by the North American Solidarity Project, front-line workers from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico shared experiences from the last year and discussed using what they've learned to improve working conditions for all workers.
Unifor Local 1106 member and personal support worker Emily Coulter emphasized that no employer was prepared for the pandemic and credited her union with doing what was necessary to push employers into action.
"We would have never gotten this far if it wasn't for Unifor," said Coulter. "Employers wouldn't listen and it took the powerful voice of our union to make change."
She echoed the feelings expressed by fellow panelist Deborah Burger, an American nurse and co-president of the National Nurses United, that "everything changed and nothing changed" during the pandemic. Coulter said that, while her life was turned upside down with the constant search for PPE and new levels of anxiety, the same old management obstacles and funding shortages exacerbated the dangers at work.
Krista Lee Hanson, a Local 111 member and transit operator in Vancouver, also had many stories to share about inflexible employers contributing to anxiety and workplace hazards. She recalled how transit operators were disciplined in the early days of the pandemic for wearing a mask.
"Public image was more important than playing it safe at the start of the pandemic," she said. "It was only because our union fought for these members that they weren't successfully disciplined or terminated for doing what is now considered the bare minimum."
Hanson also expressed frustration with the gap between what governments have been saying about COVID heroes versus what they have been doing for COVID heroes.
"There's a lot of talk about celebrating and thanking society's COVID heroes, but transit operators certainly don't feel appreciated being excluded from the government's first wave of front-line worker vaccinations."
As a health care worker, Coulter said she struggled with the term "COVID hero" because when she was witnessing so many patients dying for reasons beyond her control, she didn't feel like a hero.
"My coworkers were my heroes. They helped me get through the tough times."