Organizing during a pandemic

During a typical organizing campaign, you might find Alex Bailey walking through a university campus to meet with workers or to sit down for a chat over coffee with potential members about the benefits of joining a union. That was before March 2020, when Covid-19 suddenly put an end to public gatherings.

PSAC organizers, like Alex in the Atlantic region, had to quickly adapt once the pandemic hit. Their work didn’t simply disappear. In fact, organizers got more calls from workers who were facing worse conditions during the pandemic and wanted the help of a union.  

“I’m busier than ever,” said Bailey.

It’s been a trend across the country; the unionization rate in Canada has jumped during the pandemic as workers look to unions for better protections in the face of layoffs and workplace safety concerns.  During the first half of 2020, the unionization rate grew to almost 32 per cent — its highest in 15 years.

Organizing front-line workers

Roxane Futia and her colleagues at The Stop Community Food Centre — a food security non-profit organization in Toronto that provides services and advocacy to low-income communities — turned to PSAC last summer to help improve their workplace. Many of the workers at The Stop provide front line services to community members.

The workers experienced unequal treatment at work — different rules applied to different people — and a general lack of transparency from management, along with restructuring and layoffs.

“Our work is very emotionally challenging. We care about our community, and we will go above and beyond all the time, but when working conditions aren’t good, it makes things difficult,” said Futia. “The way we were working was not sustainable.”

They also wanted to address issues of systemic racism in their workplace. The Stop’s workers chose PSAC because of the union’s longstanding commitment to fighting against discrimination in all its forms. 

“We decided to come together to form a union because we firmly believe that promoting equity in the workplace will help us to better serve the communities we work with,” explained Christina Rousseau, who also helped organize their workplace.

“Unionizing felt like such a great victory to me. To be able to work with my colleagues from other parts of the organization, that I wouldn’t normally speak to, has been really cool.”

– Christina Rousseau, PSAC Local 903

Most organizing campaigns depend on a lot of face-to-face conversations, but organizers and workers at The Stop adapted by moving their work online and ultimately succeeded, becoming some of PSAC’s newest members. 

‘It’s about relationships’

“Organizing is about relationships,” said Adrian Dumitru, PSAC’s national organizing officer. But creating those connections isn’t easy when you can’t meet people in the same ways.

Throughout the pandemic, much of the work has been done by videoconference, by phone, email, or text, and it takes longer. “It’s definitely more of a marathon than a sprint,” Bailey explained.

“At its core, organizing doesn’t change,” said Tanya Ferguson, PSAC’s regional organizer in Ontario. “We still want to talk to every worker, have live conversations.” 

And organizers still have to get union cards signed, which is tricky when you can’t meet face-to-face. Fortunately, PSAC was a pioneer in adopting electronic organizing cards in 2013, and they’ve proven invaluable for organizing during the pandemic.

Organizing makes us stronger

Despite the challenges of organizing during the pandemic, many new members have joined PSAC in the past year. PSAC has successfully organized new members in both small and large workplaces across the country. It took real courage and dedication for these members to make their workplace better by joining a union during the pandemic.

“In the labour movement, what we want for ourselves, we want for everyone,” said Bailey. “Organizing is about helping workers to build the strength they need to win the things they want in their workplace.”

Contributor: Allison Pilon


May 21, 2021