In one of the birthplaces of the Canadian labour movement, We Are Oshawa is reconnecting with its namesake's deep social unionist roots.
We Are Oshawa was conceived by a tapestry of activists from diverse backgrounds, including but not limited to labour. We are a grassroots, membership-based organization that seeks to make progressive issues a priority in Oshawa. We work to support community struggles that align with labour struggles; We Are Oshawa brought the Save Canada Post campaign to neighborhoods that would be affected by the cessation of door-to-door mail delivery. Campaign activists made a deputation to Oshawa City Council to request their support for door-to-door mail delivery and protect good paying jobs in our community, which unanimously passed.
Clearly, traditional organizing methods like door-to-door canvassing remain critical strategies to build social movements. We believe that it's critical for activists to organize around issues that affect the working class and the poor, like the campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, the Save Canada Post campaign and a new proposal to improve local child care.
For too many years, the labour movement has been seen as abandoning the greater community at the sake of protecting their own. We are now seeing a shift, with AFL-CIO and Unifor's community chapters and campaigns like the Ontario Federation of Labour's Common Front.
We Are Oshawa is a similar coalition with active participation from folks across the progressive spectrum, including anarchists, social democrats, and those involved in the local labour movement.
Part of the strength of We Are Oshawa is reflected in its elected executive committee: there's Jim Freeman, a well-known and respected trade unionist retiree from Unifor 222 and the President of Durham Region Labour Council. Jim is known for his easy-going attitude, Jimmy Buffet-style printed shirts, and for being one of the hardest working people inside or outside the labour movement and a mentor to many. Megan McVey is a long-term Oshawa progressive who wants to make a difference in her town. Megan is currently unemployed and her partner, John, works for a small local printing company. Student and community organizer at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Jesse Cullen also happens to be the frontman in the Oshawa punk band 6th Floor Balcony. And then there's Tiffany Balducci, a not-so-quiet librarian who moved to Oshawa six years ago from Flint, Michigan and now the President of CUPE 960 and executive member of CUPE Ontario.
The greater membership comprises students, activists, union members from several different affiliates, and people who want to make a difference in our community. We blend labour and community in every component of our organizing, with the goal of building progressive capacity in a city that sometimes feels forgotten by the rest of Canada.
Oshawa was once referred to as the city that "moto-vates" Canada. As the automotive industry has declined, so too have the presence of solid middle-class wages that once propelled the local economy.
CAW (now Unifor) retirees often chat about how in the 1970s, if you didn't like your job you could just walk across the street and find a different one that paid just as well. That is no longer the case.
Oshawa is also the home to three post-secondary institutions: Trent University, Durham College, and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Thanks to its unique mix of programs, UOIT students have the unfortunate privilege of paying the highest tuition fees in Canada. The mix of high fees and the accompanying high student debt contributes to the growing inequality between Oshawa's haves and have-nots.
About 157,000 people live in Oshawa, and the income gap is defined by geographical location with the more affluent residing in the north end of the city. The median income for men in 2011 was $47,945 while women made $26,700 - only a little more than half! Major employers in Oshawa are retail, call centres, General Motors/feeder plants, the nuclear industry and public sector jobs like CRA, Ministry of Finance and health care.
We Are Oshawa's genesis began over a year ago with the Raise the Minimum Wage campaign. We handed out candy canes at the Oshawa Santa Claus Parade that were labeled: "Santa's Helpers Need a Raise! Raise the minimum wage to $14.00 an Hour" and performed street theatre in front of the former MPP's office.
We Are Oshawa also made a big splash during the recent provincial election, working in a variety of ways to push all parties to address poverty, education and retirement security. We Are Oshawa partnered with students to host the People's Debate and, when the 19-year PC incumbent Jerry Ouellette was a no-show, We Are Oshawa was there to hold him accountable. Through persistent advocacy, we were also able to secure the endorsement for a $14 minimum wage from newly minted Oshawa NDP MPP, Jennifer French, with whom we continue to have a strong relationship.
Critical to our success has been reframing common narratives by fighting for our community and building political capacity in our own backyard. We Are Oshawa will continue to work on the Raise the Rates and Save Canada Post, but are also looking to initiate a local campaign to support the efforts of a group called Rethink Child Care, a coalition of unions, community activists and child care advocates. Their goal is to make affordable child care an issue in the 2015 federal election. We are also planning to attend several events throughout Oshawa over the summer, host a social event and organize a progressive book club.
For too long, labour has been seen as only protecting their own and having a "members only" mentality. Unions need to reach out to their greater community now more than ever. In Oshawa, we've decided to break free from that stereotype and build a coalition that aligns the battles of the working class with the greater community, which are values that the CAW worked hard to instill and build in Oshawa back in 1937. We are very excited about growing our base and invite everyone to visit our website, Twitter and Facebook page.
We also invite all progressive activists to build new networks of solidarity in their own communities. To create the change that we imagine is possible, organizing ourselves from the grassroots is our most important work.
Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.
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