Sisters and Brothers, Friends, Colleagues
As I write this, I am naturally confronted by challenging thoughts. As a union activist, I am tempted to tell you about all the many challenges our members face both in our local and across the province during this pandemic. I hear from many members on a regular basis. Sometimes you only need an ear or a shoulder to cry on; at other times, you need some assistance, or real help.
As a father, I wish I could present you with a solution that would make all of us, including my family, totally safe. I wish I could have the magic words that would raise your spirits and solve all our problems.
Instead, all I can do is tell you the truth.
And the truth is that this pandemic has been grueling and exhausting for all of you, and for all of us in the union leadership. It has been exhausting for management. It has been exhausting for the medical professionals and everyone in health and political leadership. And having encountered everything we’ve seen thus far, I find I am no closer to having those magic words than I had been up to now. Fear and stress is still something I hear about from you every day. And most of the time, these days, all I can do is listen. No one, and especially me, can protect us completely from the realities of mortal beings.
Having said that, in times of great anxiety, it does us all good to look at some facts, and use data to put things into perspective.
The year 1860 was not very long ago. That was the year Louis Pasteur proved his germ theory: the French scientist had been proclaimed an eccentric weirdo for embracing a theory advanced by several others that organisms that are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye were the cause of human illnesses. Prior to 1860, then, we didn’t know the cause of our illnesses. Pandemics came and went and in the process killed millions, like the medieval plagues, which in one iteration killed 40% of all people in Europe.
In 1913, the first surgery with the use of generalized anesthesia was performed. Prior to then, surgical procedures were commonly performed with the patient wide awake and sometimes without anything to alleviate the pain, conscious and feeling every see of the saw.
And the list of things for which one ended up under the knife was long – since we didn’t know about the existence of antibiotics until Fleming in 1929, for the entirety of human history, including for most of our modern history, human beings were born and died at incredible rates in childhood, from common illnesses we think of today as not much more than nuisances, like scrape or cut infections, strep throat, or bronchitis.
Something commonly cured today with a single dosage of antibiotics, like strep throat, killed enormous numbers of people every year, especially children. For those lucky enough to make it into their teenage years, the prospect of survival increased significantly, and they would often go on to live lives almost as long as those we live today, showing that the primary difference in lifespans historically can be attributed to deaths in childhood, something most of us find inconceivable today.
So, someone living in 1910, right here in Richmond, who worked on a farm, as did most people who lived in 1910, who caught an infection on their foot from a laceration while walking barefoot, was at high likelihood of needing to have a leg amputation to prevent the infection from spreading elsewhere to the body. And to make matters worse, they would have probably had the leg amputatated while conscious and with minimal pain control.
While the pandemic is stressful, challenging and frightening, we have to remember, that knock on wood, I am not aware of any of our members catching the virus or being exposed, who have not recovered, or who have had lingering health complications, and all the exposures thus far have been handled relatively well with some minor hickups and disputes over pay; all in all, however, with respect to the health of those impacted, and their families, no one has died, and no one is seriously ill. That gives us a great deal to be grateful about – but it also hopefully confirms the effectiveness of the science-based systems the health authorities have put in place.
Sometimes, we cannot give or get full reassurances to our members in cases of exposures that the health staff have conducted contact tracing and quarantines correctly; this has been a source of frustration for some members. They want to be able to know who was exposed, by whom, when, and so on, to do their own risk assessment to double-check the work of the health authority staff, but this is simply not possible. There are privacy regulations in place and neither the union nor the employer make any of these decisions. Most members have acted courageously and have trusted the personnel making these decisions – and with good results. A few members, however, have chosen to direct their frustration at the union, given the obvious negative consequences of doing so against the employer, and that has unfortunately been a source of emotional stress and challenge for all of us on the Executive Board, but particularly Stacey Robinson, Nancy Williams and myself. Our members are protected in the workplace by the employer’s anti-harassment policy, and in their union activities by CUPE’s anti-harassment regulations, but I am remiss to tell you that in what is becoming too regular of an unfortunate occurrence, the approach and choice of language some members choose while interacting with the Union officers is disheartening to say the least, and outright abusive in some cases.
The reality is that neither the employer nor the union have any authority over health matters in a pandemic. The emergency powers enacted by the provincial government and its delegated authority entities mandate for the health officers of the regions to decide on matters of health, and with good reason. There are also various privacy regulations that prohibit the disclosure of medical information except as required to accomplish the purpose at hand. If any of us caught the virus, we certainly would not be pleased if we heard that people who we didn’t even interact with had been given our names all simply to scrutinize the decisions of the health personnel.
What this moment requires is some trust. The people doing contact tracing and making these decisions have showed us by their work that they know what they’re doing and we should do whatever we can to follow their directions and cooperate with their work.
So, as Mederna and Pfizer announce their vaccine effectiveness, and as we gear up to begin mass vaccinations which will probably be under way toward the end of the school year in the Spring of 2021, let’s reflect on where we have been up to this point.
When the epidemic started, and many people stayed at home, those of us involved in running the union never had the luxury of complete quarantine, and had to attend various meetings and answer questions day and night and assist with facilitating K-12 education in a new normal.
Stacey and Colleen came to the union office to make masks at the time we couldn’t purchase any. CUPE activated all our efforts to assure that our members continued getting paid, and not only succeeded in providing regular pay for all our members throughout the shut down, but even succeeded at having regular pay apply rather than sick pay for those members who did not answer the call-out to provision childcare services for the essential workers. That did not happen in other sectors, and many people were laid off and seriously impacted by the pandemic.
We were part of efforts to lobby both the provincial and the federal government and secured additional funding that has been used to hire additional custodians, provide for increased cleaning and purchase protective equipment. We have assisted countless members with grievances and problems they encountered. We scrambled to continue our work, never putting our own safety at the forefront, holding meetings, holding a virtual election, purchasing our own supply of face shields for members, and pushing against the employer whenever and as much as we could.
Our efforts have resulted in the provision of vital services to the students, distribution of food to the undernourished kids, and the maintenance and enforcement of our collective agreement – with pending wage increases in each year of the collective agreement.
At the end of the day, we have built, over the years, an infrastructure of safety nets that today provides our members with health and safety regulations, a WCB system, sick days, duty to accommodate, right to a voice in the workplace, political engagement and lobby efforts that have built our bargaining power such that we have gotten raises with no job action or wages lost, an EI system, maternity and parental leaves, extended health and dental benefits, and even a joint trusteeship long-term disability plan for those members who become very sick or disabled and don’t qualify for any of the other safety net schemes.
We have protected our jobs even in a pandemic, assured no layoffs, kept people employed, resolved countless individual issues, assisted members in accommodations, pushed governments for more funding, elected worker friendly representatives, implemented equality and respect for all our members and made sure our members are paid so they can put bread on the table. To the best of our knowledge, nobody has been seriously hurt by COVID in our local and all the exposures thus far have been handled relatively well, with some minor issues about sick pay during quarantine which we have grieved and are trying to remedy.
As we find hope in the efforts of the scientists, we work to enable the education of the next generation of scientists. We are all a part of building a better future.
Let’s stay vigilant and continue our efforts and support one another as we look toward a better day.
I am always available for your questions and inquiries, in solidarity,
Ian Hillman, CUPE 716 President