After calls from unions, labour groups and British Columbia’s government, Canadians may finally get sick leave. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that he will support a plan to guarantee 10 paid sick days for all workers, after the federal New Democratic Party demanded it in exchange for continued support of the suspension of the House of Commons.

However, victory can’t be declared yet. The actual details of the plan seem to still be up in the air, not to mention that provinces will need to sign on for it to actually happen. This illustrates the need for continued pressure and greater worker control over workplaces after the pandemic, though the Liberals are likely to stand in the way of any such push. 

The programs announced to support workers and businesses during the pandemic have been structured to maintain the status quo. Economist Michal Rozworski recently told Ricochet the programs are about “making sure that things can continue as much as possible,” while researcher Guillaume Hébert said that we missed a unique opportunity to think bigger “because we have governments at every level who are stuck in the neoliberal, capitalist ideology.” 

Although the Liberals have been criticized for failing to exclude companies using tax havens from receiving public funds, they could have done that and so much more. At minimum, they could have required companies receiving federal funds to pay a living wage, as we discussed last week, and structured the programs to give more power to workers. 

For example, Italys’ 1985 Marcora Law gave workers an advance on their unemployment benefits and additional state support to form a new cooperative or buy their workplaces when they were going out of business. It helped to create more than 250 worker cooperatives and saved at least 9,500 jobs. Moreover, at least 87 per cent of cooperatives set up after 2007 were still in operation after three years, compared to just more than 48 per cent of all Italian businesses. This law has also promoted networks of small cooperatives instead of the centralization of everything in a single company. In a 2019 report for the Next System Project, policy associate Peter Gowan noted the Marcora Law was particularly beneficial at times of crisis and rising unemployment — like that we find ourselves in today. 

Another possible path is the Meidner Plan, presented in Sweden in the 1970s. After the government determined that a sizeable share of the economy was controlled by 15 families, a plan was devised that would have created “wage-earner funds” administered by union-dominated boards that would have gained a greater share of the company as it produced profits. Moreover, since the funds would have been controlled by “workers within entire branches of industry” instead of a single firm, “they would not provide an unequal benefit to workers in the most profitable companies and not contribute to increased differences in wages between workers.” As might be expected, employers fought and defeated the initiative. 

Recently, United States Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party nomination presented a workplace democracy plan that would have forced large firms to transfer up to 20 per cent of ownership to democratic employee ownership funds over the course of a decade. This was paired with provisions to increase worker board representation to 45 per cent in certain corporations, require consideration of stakeholders and create centres to promote worker ownership across the country. It would have been a good start. 

In the middle of this pandemic, a lot of businesses are likely to go under. Many more would have if the government hadn’t stepped in. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has been estimated to cost $35.5 billion, while the wage subsidy could be $76 billion — and those are just two of the many programs the government has rolled out. In addition, the Bank of Canada kicked off a quantitative easing program, which will include billions in corporate bond purchases. 

This is not to say the government shouldn’t be going into deficit to support people during the pandemic — it absolutely should, with financing from the central bank. Instead it’s to note that the government is using that money to maintain a status quo that has increased inequality over the past several decades, pushed more people into poverty and empowered business at labour’s expense.

There’s no better evidence of that than another announcement that came on Monday: Trudeau chose the CEOs of Canada’s six largest banks for advice on the post-pandemic economy. You know, the ones that make massive profits by charging us high fees and giving us incredibly low interest rates on our savings, but not on loans or credit cards. 

What if, instead, he had tapped the heads of the major unions? Or even put together citizens’ assemblies to have Canadians democratically deliberate about the path forward for the country? If nothing else, many Canadians have plenty of time on their hands right now. 

But no. Despite the hope that this pandemic might finally wake us up to the threat of climate change and get the government to adopt a serious agenda like a Green New Deal emphasizing public ownership and worker control, we’re yet again trying to prop up the capitalist system and have the titans of business continue to structure the recovery in their interests. 
We need to get better at imagining futures that put workers first instead of billionaires, and discuss flaws in current plans. That’s what we’ll discuss next week.

Perspectives from around the world

Maximillian Alvarez, writer and host of Working People, writes in Protean that obscuring and forgetting about difficult labour is necessary to maintain the system. 

Bruce Livesey and Paul Webster, writing for National Observer, explain why the stock market doesn’t reflect the real economy, and why the pandemic is making the rich richer. 

Jon Milton, writing in Ricochet, talks to progressive economists about how the government should restructure the economy after the pandemic. 

Ethan Cox, Ricochet editor and co-founder, analyzes the sale of the Toronto Star to private-equity investors who’ve donated to the People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier and the Conservative Party. 

Joe Ragazzo, the publisher of Talking Points Memo, explains why workers should join a union. 

Thomas Manch, political reporter at Stuff, explains how the New Zealand government’s new CERB-like unemployment benefit has created a two-tier benefit system 

Eoghan Gilmartin, a Madrid-based writer and translator, explains in Jacobin how Spain could use a wealth tax to fund its post-pandemic recovery.

This week on my podcast, Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to author and publisher Dan Hind about his proposal to reorient technological development to promote human flourishing and a cooperative economy.

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