This has been quite the year, and as it comes to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on the incredible changes we’ve seen in the span of less than 12 months. Changes that have affected how we live, interact, and – especially – how we work.
Back in January, my first Labour Views column of 2020 spoke about the upcoming UNW and PSAC North conventions. These are triennial events where hundreds of members meet to elect leadership and pass resolutions on budgets, activities, and union governance.
While conventions are primarily venues for union business, they are also social events where members meet face to face, building relationships and solidarity. Hotels were booked, logistics were planned, and Locals had elected delegates.
And then: Covid-19.
In a few short months, the entire NWT workforce was turned on its head. Unionized and non-unionized workers alike faced unprecedented challenges and had to adapt quickly and creatively to keep our local economy and our collective sanity afloat.
We saw much of the public service and office sectors migrate to home offices where, in many cases, they had to balance full time work with full time childcare and home schooling. Workers were redeployed, or assigned new duties. A whole new government department was created.
We saw essential workers go through rapid workplace transitions to ensure the safe delivery of services. Overhauls that would normally take months or even years happened in days and weeks. The regular updates to safety recommendations on distancing, capacity and personal protective equipment required workplace policies to be agile and flexible.
By early summer, we were marveling at how fast governments can move when motivated by external pressures. We learned that large bureaucracies that can be slow and resistant to change, can adapt, restructure, and implement new policies and programs quickly and (reasonably) efficiently.
The pandemic also exposed many pre-existing issues our society wrestles with; especially the gaps that result from underfunding public services, or the struggles of precarious workers and the working poor. The pandemic did not cause these problems – it merely intensified and accelerated their effects on our society and our economy.
Now that we seem to be settling into life in a pandemic and returning to some semblance of “normal” in the NWT, we must continue to maintain pressure on employers to put what we’ve learned to good use. Pandemic policies and work arrangements that have shown positive impacts on our lives should form the basis for new and better policies moving forward.
Programs such as basic income, pharmacare, and universal childcare have moved up the list of priorities and are finally being discussed by governments in a meaningful way. Though the pandemic may have forced their hands, governments have already proven to us that when there’s a will, there’s a way.
It hasn’t been easy, and many of our residents and businesses continue to struggle. Many workplaces are still closed or barely getting by. Unions have been working harder than ever to protect workers from policies that affect their hard-earned rights and benefits. Workers such as those at the Ekati mine have been riding a roller coaster of uncertainty as the effects of the pandemic have disrupted one of our largest local industries.
Northerners are resilient, and while we have been fortunate in the leadership and pragmatism of our Chief Public Health Officer, we are also fortunate to have workers who have pulled together to be creative and flexible and help out where they can.
As a union, we are dedicated to ensuring that all workers are safe, healthy, and in the best possible positions to face any scenario that may arise. Throughout this pandemic, we have seen and appreciated workers in all sectors. We will continue to work on safeguarding and advancing policies and agreements that protect jobs, families, and fair wages.
To all NWT workers: your dedication to ensuring our territory runs smoothly and our residents are kept safe has not gone unnoticed. As we wrap up 2020 and look forward to positive developments in the year ahead, we wish you all a healthy and restful holiday season. You’ve earned it.