Cause for celebration this May Day: Marginalized workers find new ways to get organized

| May 1, 2013
Photo: http://www.workersactioncentre.org/

The recent mass walkouts by fast food and retail workers in New York City and Chicago made international headlines and ignited a lively discussion about the alternative organizing forms being adopted by America's growing ranks of non-unionized, poverty-wage workers.

The rising share of jobs that are temporary, part-time and poorly paid is a trend shared by nearly every industrialized nation. Here in Canada, half of the new jobs created since 2008 have been temporary jobs. (And about a third, we've learned recently, were filled by indentured migrant labourers through the temporary foreign worker program.)

While the one-day fast food and retail work stoppages seen in American cities haven't yet hit Canada, non-union, low-wage workers in this country have been mounting their own forms of resistance against what they say is increased exploitation by employers.

Beneath the radar of national media and absent from the trade unions' tallies of formally organized workers, grassroots organizing among marginalized workers is a growing trend, and good cause for celebration this May Day.

Let's take a look at just two examples: Toronto's Workers' Action Centre, and Hamilton's Steel City Solidarity. 

Educating and organizing for fair employment in Toronto

 The Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre (WAC) has been connecting workers to information on their legal rights, providing direct action support to individual workers when those rights are violated, and advocating for legal and policy reform since 2005. 

Though part of its work fills a void left by the now-defunct city-run Toronto Workers Information and Action Centre, the organization is staunchly grassroots. Its board of directors and organizing committee is formed entirely of members -- workers who, in most cases, first came to the centre for help with workplace troubles of their own.

"We are recent immigrants, workers of colour, women, youth and workers in precarious jobs," explains the WAC website. "We believe that people who are directly affected by poor working conditions should be providing leadership in our struggle for fairness and dignity at work."

In addition to spreading awareness of legal rights to their fellow workers through regular workshops and "Know Your Rights" booklets (in 10 different languages) distributed throughout the city, the centre's staff and volunteers field hundreds of calls each year from workers facing problems at work. Workers can also go to the centre for support clinics where they'll receive not just information, but advice on strategies they can use to win their battles.

"It helps us at work if we know our rights," the WAC website notes. "It helps us even more if we know how to protect ourselves when the law doesn't."

To that end, WAC provides support that takes many forms, including direct action campaigns that put public pressure on employers with embarrassing public rallies or picketing.

The organization has also been very active in publishing reports and getting media coverage of low-wage workers' issues, and campaigning for better provincial regulation and enforcement of workers' rights. An increase to the minimum wage, the extension of key employment rights to temp agency workers, and better protections for live-in caregivers are all examples of reforms that WAC has campaigned for and won. 

WAC also takes credit for pressuring the government to dramatically improve the complaints and enforcement process at the Ministry of Labour.

"It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," says Deena Ladd, WAC coordinator. "But before, when we started doing this work, someone would file a claim, and if they got a call back in a year or a year and a half, they were lucky. Whereas now, people get a call back within two weeks."

While continuing its education and one-to-one support work, the organization is currently focusing its provincial campaign work on stopping wage theft and securing another increase in the minimum wage.

"A lot of people become members of our centre because they don't want other people to go through what they've gone through," says Ladd. "They want to see fundamental changes to legislation and the power of workers."

Workers centres in other Ontario cities could be a powerful avenue towards those changes. There is already one in Windsor, and WAC has met with groups in Sudbury, St. Catherines, Hamilton and Peterborough who want to set up similar centres.

Workers have each other's back in Hamilton

 Even more grassroots than the worker's action centre model is the solidarity network strategy exemplified by Steel City Solidarity in Hamilton, Ontario. With no staff and no office, this group focuses exclusively on direct action campaigns against individual employers, and sometimes landlords, who are violating workers or tenants' rights.

Here's how Steel City Solidarity describes itself: "We are an all-volunteer group of working class people in Hamilton who have made a commitment to support one another when faced with problems caused by our bosses, landlords and others." 

Steel City Solidarity has made headlines by winning back workers' stolen wages after targeting workplaces -- usually bars or restaurants -- with picketing actions timed to coincide with peak business hours.

Since it was founded in 2010, the group has taken on six cases of wage theft, says group member Alex Diceanu in a fascinating interview on Talking Radical Radio. In all but one case, the employer paid back the wages owed.

Describing one campaign, Diceanu illustrates how Steel City Solidarity applied escalating measures of both economic and social pressure on the employer, in this case a restaurant. In addition to picketing the restaurant, the group posted "wage thief wanted" posters throughout the neighbourhood.

Steel City Solidarity takes its inspiration directly from the Seattle Solidarity Network, which actively promotes its model of working class organizing. (It's even posted a guide for people in other cities who want to start a similar network.)

Last year, activists in London, Ontario launched their own version, called Forest City Solidarity.

The solidarity network approach is simple, direct and requires very little in terms of resources -- access to a meeting space, a photocopier, and an email account or phone number pretty much covers it.

Given this, and the steady increase in precarious work arrangements that are leaving workers more vulnerable to abuse, perhaps we'll see more of these networks popping up in cities across Canada.

 

Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter. 

Photo: http://www.workersactioncentre.org/

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