Pandemic recovery must be worker-centred, Nova Scotia labour leaders say

While the pandemic puts a damper on Labour Day celebrations for the second year in a row, labour leaders in Nova Scotia are calling for a just, equitable, and worker-centred recovery.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the consistent problems that we have within health care and also within the low-wage economy,” said Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. “As we look forward to the future, we need to ensure governments are coming up with solutions to try and tackle these problems.”

The NSFL, which represents 70,000 members of affiliated unions, is concerned elected officials and employers are beginning to forget the front-line workers who have kept grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery trucks, and other essential services operating during COVID-19.

“We need to make some progressive changes to labour laws in this country,” Cavanagh said.

He commended the federal government for bringing in a $15 minimum wage for workers in federally regulated sectors and called on newly elected Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston to match it. “We need to see provincial governments come on stream and do the same, even though it’s probably still not enough,” he said.

Debbie Richardson, president of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, has experienced the pandemic’s economic effects firsthand.

“There are certain industries that have been pretty much decimated, one of which is mine,” the live events worker and IATSE Local 680 member said. “It’s been difficult, but I think there are promising things on the horizon.”

With the pandemic exposing the “cracks and flaws” in our economic system, Richardson said she’s seen growing interest in labour unions.

“One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that a lot of people who had previously not thought about being unionized are now considering it and actually are becoming unionized during the pandemic,” she said.

The Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council has been busy the past year trying to elect progressive political candidates at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, Richardson said.

The council endorsed 13 candidates during last fall’s municipal election. Seven of them were successful.

“We encouraged our delegates to support those candidates and go out and volunteer for them,” she said.

In last month’s provincial election, the labour council threw its weight behind NDP candidates in Halifax Regional Municipality, helping five of them win seats.

“Now we’re focusing on getting (federal) NDP candidates elected in the HRM area,” Richardson said.

Both Richardson and Cavanagh said they are taking a wait-and-see approach with Nova Scotia’s new Progressive Conservative government.

But Cavanagh, who was a vocal critic of the party’s “better paycheque guarantee” during the election, has a clear message for the new premier.

Workers are “fed up” with part-time, precarious work, often without benefits and at a $12.95 minimum wage, he said. “There has to be a recognition from the Houston government and employer organizations that the low-wage economy is no longer sufficient for many workers.”

In addition to improved wages, Cavanagh said workers need paid sick leave and a key role in the post-pandemic recovery.

“We want a more equitable economy with workers at the centre of it,” he said. “Without workers, people can’t operate their businesses.”