Dear OCADFA members.

Today, International Worker’s Day, or  May Day is recognized around the world as a day to celebrate workers and a day to commemorate historic labour actions taken by workers to secure labour rights. This is a day to honour the gains workers and unions have won: from the 8 hr work day, employment standards legislation, parental leave, equal pay to occupational health and safety legislation. A world without unions or worker action, would be a world driven by an employer’s agenda. Every labour right we enjoy today was fought for, not gifted to us.  

Nothing exposes the cruel inequities of the labour market today more than the reality of working under a pandemic.   The term ‘essential’ has been assigned to certain workers, many suddenly seen with new respect: grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, farmworkers, cleaners, TTC bus drivers and health care workers.  But the term is deceptively deployed, and the celebrations will ring hollow unless they are matched with adequate compensation and protections worker deserve when they expose their bodies to high risk sites of exposure.  Some of these worker are the most vulnerable in our society.  Many have chosen today to fight.  Employees of Amazon, Walmart and Instacart walked off the job to demand sick leave, danger pay, compensation for unpaid time off work and safety on the job.  Others, like the 47 migrant farmworkers in an Ontario farm who have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus  know that job action would jeopardize their very status in the country.

For those of us in the academic sector, we need all the organizational strength and unity we can build to advocate for our rights as we work under the pressures of ‘pandemic pedagogy’ –   emergency curriculum and delivery modes, warranted by public-health policy & intensified by fiscal consequences,  that threaten to settle into normative practices.  

A truism repeatedly heard in meetings today: ‘things that were considered impossible before, are now possible’.  On this day, let us celebrate worker-led movements for worker rights, but let us also recognize, the window of opportunity has been shattered open.  In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein used the term ‘disaster capitalism’ to describe the way private industries profit from crisis.  Klein outlines the pattern: wait for a crisis, declare a moment of ‘extraordinary politics’, suspend some or all democratic norms, and then ram through a corporate wishlist (privatization, deregulation and tax cuts) as quickly as possible.  The result is the changed landscape of a new normal.  

The power play in the midst of a pandemic is real. Klein calls it ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.   Every sector will recognize it, whether you work in health care, agriculture or education.  What we need, now more than ever, is to advance a vision of education that benefits the greater good, not the elite few. This is a time for those of us who work in education to demand more, not less. This is not the time to give up our hard won gains – whether it be the Academic Freedom to criticize those in power or the critical role faculty play in the governance of our university through bodies like the Senate.  This is a time for us to fight for job security, benefits and protections for those in our sector who are vulnerable.  And this is a time for our voices to reach outside the classroom to push back on the gutting of public funding for education from both the Provincial and Federal levels of government.  Education contributes to the broader social safety net, like public health. Every society in the world that enjoys a more equitable distribution of wealth, rights and social benefits has seen it fit to provide college and university education without tuition costs.  These ideas may have been dismissed as impossible before, but now more than ever, we need to seize the moment to shift the assumptions on how we fund post-secondary schools and the broader purpose of making high quality, tuition free education available to all, regardless of personal wealth and circumstance.  Education is a critical path towards a vision of a more just and resilient society. Equally important is the fight to make working conditions within our sector reflect those values.

This pandemic has made clear who the essential workers are: all of us together, interdependent and in relationship with each other.  Our collective labour must build collective social wealth

Happy International Workers Day. 

Min Sook Lee,

OCADFA President