Thanks is nice. Wages, benefits, and rights are better.

Robin Steudel – April 21, 2020

Advertising agencies around the world have been in high gear helping companies shift their ads to strike the right tone in this “challenging time” (insert whatever euphemism you like). Car commercials are saying that they understand economic realities and offering payment holidays. Travel ads are telling us that the beautiful destinations of the world will still be there when all this is over. Scrabble put out an ad telling us now is the time for their product to shine.

A Walmart flyer hit my mailbox last week. There was a section that showed a Walmart employee, and text that told me that Walmart Canada would be increasing their employees’ wages by $2/hour in recognition of the hard work and sacrifice that their employees are making. This comes on the heels of the United Food and Commercial Workers winning a $2/hour wage increase for their employees working on the front lines in grocery stores. After the unionized grocery stores increased wages, the non-unionized grocery stores followed, among them apparently, Walmart. This is a big win for UFCW, their members, and non-union workers in the industry.

We shouldn’t pretend Walmart did this out of the kindness of their corporate heart – it’s likely that they needed to remain wage competitive with unionized stores, and that employee retention is particularly difficult right now with people being concerned about exposing themselves to COVID19.

What struck me about this flyer is that they wanted us to know they were doing this. Walmart has read from the public – accurately I think – that their workers are recognized and appreciated in a way that they perhaps weren’t in the past. They’re telling us that it’s okay to shop there because they, too, thank and appreciate their employees. The cynic in me wonders if these messages of thanks – be they ads, anonymous memes, or media commentary – are just serving to make people feel better about how reliant we are on low-paid workers putting themselves and their families at risk every day.

Don’t get me wrong – sentiments of appreciation are nice. But saying thank you to these workers is really the very, VERY least we could do.

The reality is that people working in low wage jobs are being forced to continue working in these jobs – you’re not eligible for employment insurance benefits if you quit your job or if you’re a gig worker. Even with the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit now – it’s time-limited. Who’s to say that your job will be there for you in 6 months? What will the state of the economy be? When you work paycheque to paycheque, keeping the job you have will often be the safest choice.

When you work paycheque to paycheque, keeping the job you have will often be the safest choice.

Economic uncertainty is keeping people working in high exposure jobs while many workers who are more economically secure get to stay home safe and order delivery from Uber Eats. “Thank you to our heroes” doesn’t really seem like enough when you hear it like that. Workers deserve a hell of a lot more than thanks.

We all owe it to these workers to support higher wages, including minimum wage increases. We owe it to them to support better working conditions, fairer labour laws, access to benefits and respect. We owe it to them always – not just now.

At Metric, we decided to take that message and worked together with designer Scott Knowles and Vancouver-based illustrator Heather Haughn to create a series of posters that communicate this.

We wanted to show workers proudly doing their jobs in the face of the pandemic, but also make the point that we owe it to these workers to have their backs.

We started with a list of workers we thought should be recognized – grocery clerks, food delivery drivers, custodians, long haul truckers, farmworkers, factory workers – the list kept getting longer as we thought of all the people we relied upon on. We decided to start with 3 posters – and then give people the opportunity to suggest other workers to highlight.

A lot of people have used war analogies and language to describe the COVID fight, a coming together of people behind a common enemy. Visually, we drew inspiration from government poster styles from war efforts in the middle part of the 20th century. Our goal was a bit of a retro work of art that combined honouring a worker with a call to action, like many of the posters from that era did.

In addition to asking people to suggest other kinds of workers to highlight, we also plan to print a limited number of these posters to give away in exchange for a donation to local food banks. Stay tuned for more information on that.

This project is something we wanted to put out into the world to honour these workers, and remind our leaders that workers deserve more than our thanks – they also deserve our support. As the world comes out of the pandemic, these fights will continue to exist. Our hope is that one of the silver linings of this terrible pandemic is that people and governments will see front-line, low wage workers in a new light and that there will be an opportunity to create lasting change for these workers.

Robin Steudel is Creative Director at Metric.