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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

The extension of the CERB is no victory for workers

There has never been a better time to make the case for an EI system that works for workers. So why aren't we doing it?

In an era of half-measures where the smallest crumbs swept off the banquet table of the ruling class to working people are somehow seen as a great victory, perhaps it should come as no surprise that many see the extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as such.

The CERB has also been under attack, as have all social programs ever and always, by the Conservatives and the business community who have portrayed it as a disincentive to work and claimed that many recipients are engaging in fraud despite offering scant evidence of this. This too has lent the CERB an entirely unwarranted aura of being somehow radical.

When Trudeau announced the extension of the CREB for 8 weeks on Tuesday, June 16. the NDP -- which has attempted to frame its role during the Canadian capitalist coronavirus crisis as one that has achieved major concessions from the governing Liberals -- and its MPs and partisans were quick to frame it as a triumph of their glorious parliamentary "activism".

The trouble is that the CERB is a terrible, inadequate, backward program that had to be introduced precisely because of decades of successful assaults on the existing Employment Insurance (EI) program.

The attacks on EI benefits and eligibility have been going on since the late 1970s. There was a time, though short-lived, that EI covered between 66 and 70% of lost income depending on whether you had dependents or not. In 1976 the maximum was first reduced and the following year the maximum benefit period was as well.

Then in 1979 eligibility was reduced and the maximum income coverage was dropped to 60%. Over the 1980s and 1990s it kept getting worse and worse until we are where we are today with an EI maximum of 55% of your average insurable weekly earnings capped out at $573 per week (taxable). You can only get it for 14 up to a maximum of 45 weeks. Eligibility requirements are tight.

This anti-worker history is why the CERB was "needed" at all. When a crisis hit millions of people suddenly thrown out of work or losing their income would be completely ineligible for EI or for adequate EI. EI would also take a while to kick in, applying for it is complicated (intentionally) and would not necessarily last very long given that some workers may be out of work for many months.

At $2,000 a month it is actually lower than the maximum EI benefit, it is also taxable, its eligibility conditions are murky to many and it is hardly luxurious to live on this income in virtually any major city in the country. The fact that business groups are claiming it is is a testament to how wedded to poverty wages they are.

There is nothing "radical" about it. As Doug Yearwood pointed out in an article in Passage, the CERB acts as a defense against actually pro-worker options:

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program has undoubtedly helped millions cope with COVID-19. Nonetheless, the Liberals’ temporary relief benefit, bolstered by NDP support, has neutered the opportunity for more radical, long-lasting solutions to be promoted during this crisis.
The NDP have missed an important moment to reiterate a call they made in 2019 for a broader restructuring of the employment insurance (EI) program that has been hollowed out through decades of austerity. Focusing on reforming EI would offer a long-lasting safety net for those left unemployed by capitalist crises. Fighting to increase EI payments to something like 90 per cent of previous earnings, instead of 55 per cent with a cap, would make it possible for single people and families to survive more comfortably than the below-subsistence CERB payments. Moreover, according to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), one-third of people unemployed in Canada will receive nothing from EI or CERB.

In fact, the only way you can get the 75% wage payout that you once could almost get as a worker in Canada via EI is if your employer applies for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). This amounts to corporate welfare at its worst where workers can only get a reasonable level of wage insurance if it goes through their bosses and if their employers ask for it.

This is not the last of the corporate welfare that seems to be in the works given that the much ballyhooed ten days of sick leave that the NDP has also claimed credit for, even though it has yet to happen, will likely be paid by the government as opposed to employers.

Disappointingly even groups like the Fight for $15 & Fairness are sending out press releases hailing the extension of the CERB. This is tragic as there has never been a better opportunity to make the case for an EI system that actually works for workers. An EI system with massively expanded coverage, eligibility and duration.

While obviously workers should not be cut off from the bare minimum that is the CERB, its extension is nothing to celebrate. It exists entirely as a result of decades of undermining the rights and gains of working people and it serves only to consolidate them. When this crisis has passed, the CERB will be gone, but the utterly vicious, anti-worker EI system will remain.

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