By Rechev Browne
Beep Beep – My alarm wakes me up from a deep sleep. I roll out of bed, shower and get ready for work. Work can always be challenging, but since the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting panic has swept the public, it has been exhausting.
As a grocery worker, I never thought of myself as an “essential service.” But COVID-19 and the run on toilet paper, baby formula, soap, and food of all kinds have shown how important the work we do is. It has also shown how overworked and underpaid we are. Without our labour society just doesn’t work.
As soon as I get to work I hear from coworkers, “will we be able to get paid time off to stay home and take care of our kids with schools being closed, and what is the union saying about this?” A common problem, getting downright chronic right now.
I immediately get to work, which includes cleaning up the store with empty boxes and loading trucks with stock to be worked. Lately, we can’t keep the shelves full, especially with toilet paper and beans .
Over and over, I am asked by customers “when are we getting more toilet paper,” even though they are aware of the current situation, and “why we don’t have any meat and when is our next delivery coming?” and I just have to tell them I don’t know. I don’t want to give them the wrong information and be reported for doing so: the fear of being disciplined even in times like this is real.
I have seen people acting in terrible ways, like buying 10 packs of toilet paper for one family and buying canned beans by the cases, not leaving any for others. But I have also seen how people have gone out of their way to show solidarity with their fellow shopper and grocery workers–by sharing toilet paper at the check out, being more patient in the check out line ups, not getting mad at the cashier, and telling the cashiers that they doing great and that they are the real heroes.
The work day goes something like this for nine hours. As I go to clock out, my manager asks if I am available to work more hours. Anytime. As the shelves are empty, they will need to be replenished and that will require working a lot more hours. My hands are tired, my head is spinning and my back is aching a little. I haven’t gotten down time for a while, not much time to spend with family or friends, or doing the political organizing that usually drives me. But these are extraordinary times and I am an essential service after all.
Before I go, a coworker says “hey Rechev what is the union doing about this?” I feel like I have to defend the union. I let them know that our collective agreement does not cover paid sick days and it’s not the union’s fault. Is my employer going to close the stores and allow their workers to be home and get paid? We don’t work for the union, we work for a big grocery store company so it’s really up to what steps they are willing to take to ensure the safety of their workers. I also remind them that the provincial and federal government has the power to impose laws that provide us with paid time off.
As a union activist, I know that it’s frustrating when you feel alone and no one has workers’ backs in emergencies like this. Where workers are looking for answers because they are concerned about bills, rent, childcare etc. But I have learned that if we stick together, look out for each other and show solidarity by putting pressure on elected officials to implement paid sick days we will be fine and stronger together.
So I clock out and head home, taking the bus with other people who couldn’t practice “social distancing” because they had to work. The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on the injustice in our society. Inadequate testing and healthcare for those that most need it, racist profiling and closed borders, indifference to frontline workers of all types, and politicians whose only ideas about helping workers or renters is giving money to bosses and landlords.
This pandemic should radicalize us. The inequality is so naked, and the priorities of the system so obvious, but an alternative is possible. The answers to the dangerous questions posed by COVID-19 are socialist solutions: we need paid emergency leave, we need a humane system to support people who can’t work, we need healthcare that prioritizes the most vulnerable and we need solidarity to combat the isolation of a system that has us working to live, but dying to work.
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