Left Out

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Failing to organize the growing — and increasingly non-white — contingent labour market, could have disastrous consequences for the union movement as a whole

A Canadian flag salutes passersby from atop 224 Wallace Street, alternately slackening and snapping to attention in the cheerless fall wind. It marks the domain of Dominion Hosiery Mills. The factory takes up the entire second level of the freighter-sized, four-storey brick building, which is berthed in a west-end Toronto neighbourhood of boxy homes and postage-stamp lawns. Its latticed windows are propped open with spools of thread to invite in the cold.

On the factory floor, South Asian women sit six or eight to a work bench, eyes fixed on the material that they feed into the sewing machine’s maw. They work quickly but carefully, reviewing the finished product with a rapid glance shorn of any extraneous emotion. Over in the supervisor’s corner, posters of naked women peek out from behind a makeshift plywood partition, while on another wall, a small poster promises that all workers — whether men or women, full-time or temp — will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. Apart from the pneumatic rattle of the machines and the odd chastisement from a supervisor in Tamil, the room is silent.

Dominion Hosiery employs about 200 men and women, mostly Sri Lankans new to Canada. The women make the product; the men package and ship it. The factory operates twenty-four hours a day in three eight-hour shifts, churning out approximately $23 million worth of socks every year for its Israeli owners.

Last spring, a Dominion Hosiery employee phoned Deena Ladd at Toronto Organizing for Fair Employment (TOFFE), a grassroots advocacy group for part-time, temporary and casual workers not served by unions. In Toronto alone, that’s over one million people. The caller, a Somali immigrant, had worked afternoon and evening shifts at the factory for the last four years until an accident outside of work forced her to stay home for two months.

Upon her return to work, the supervisor told her that someone else had taken her position. He offered her the morning shift instead — the same time as her English-language classes. After a few days’ consideration, she agreed to take it, only to have the supervisor inform her that it was no longer available. Instead of giving her a pink slip, though, he argued that she’d quit.

After listening to the woman’s story, Ladd fired off a letter on her behalf to factory management. They admitted they had laid her off, allowing her to at least claim Employment Insurance, but that was it. Without a union to hold them to account, the company only had to follow the bare-bones Employment Standards Act, which makes no provisions for sick leave, job security or grievance procedures. “There’s no going about the issue,” says Ladd, a former organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textiles Employees (UNITE). “If you have a union, you have the strongest protection there is.”

And more and more workers need protecting, according to Grace-Edward Galabuzi, author of the 2001 study, Canada’s Creeping Economic Apartheid. Where companies once had to go South, he says, “to escape what they saw as a stalemate with unionsâe¦there are now an increasing number of people who are as vulnerable in terms of supply of labour in Canada’s large urban centres.” Marginal English-language skills, employers’ refusal to recognize foreign credentials and old-fashioned discrimination all conspire against them. “So this is the kind of work they must take — temporary, part-time, or with the employment contracts not standardized,” Galabuzi says.

TOFFE does what it can for them, operating a helpline that answers their questions in their own language and demonstrating against companies suspected of engaging in unfair or illegal labour practices. The city’s immigrant service providers say the two-year-old organization has filled a huge void. Still, as Galabuzi concluded at the end of his study, “For Canada’s racialized group members to make significant progress in the labour market, they need the power of collective bargaining.âe

Clearly, they want that power, too. In Toronto, Local 75 of the Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) — which has a membership overwhelmingly composed of first-generation immigrants — achieves certification in nearly ninety-five per cent of its drives. Its astonishing success rate corroborates the findings of an Ontario-wide survey conducted three years ago by Charlotte Yates of McMaster University. Asked if they would join a union tomorrow if they had the chance, fifty-one per cent of visible minorities said yes, compared to only twenty-eight per cent of all non-unionized employees.

Newcomers to Canada understand implicitly what unionization means for them, says HERE organizer Andria Babbington, herself an immigrant from Barbados: “It’s hard for us to communicate, coming from different backgrounds, and the employer takes advantage of that. It’s very important that we be united.âe

Yet for many workers of colour, the proposition is not likely to come anytime soon. Galabuzi cites 1996 data showing that racialized group members, who had grown through immigration to 11.4 per cent of Canada’s population, still made up only seven percent of unions’ rank and file. The discrepancy has only widened in recent years as unions continue to woo workers in traditionally unionized sectors and newcomers continue to gravitate toward sectors where few unions, aside from HERE, UNITE and a handful of others, have ever ventured.

According to Yates’s research, of workplaces in Ontario that unions tried to organize between 1996 and 1998, sixty-three per cent had no part-time workers and eighty-six per cent had no casual or temporary workers. The province’s insistence that unions organize part-time and full-time workers separately, compounded by aging regulations premised on site-based organizing, don’t encourage unions to sign up contingent workers.

To the pragmatists within labour, Galabuzi points out, it makes more sense to stake out familiar territory — the “primary” labour market, where potential members speak English, make good salaries and have secure employment contracts. “They’re easier to organize; then once you organize them, it’s easier to mobilize them to articulate their interests. They also can pay more. The rate of dues is likely to be higher. Plus, they’re in sectors that have greater stability, so that you’re dealing with many of the same people over time, which helps in establishing a leadership core.âe

But this business-like approach has had unintended consequences. While the unions compete for the few remaining prizes in the primary labour market, vast swaths of the new economy are being claimed for the secondary labour market, earmarked by low pay, no prospect of advancement and non-standard employment contracts. Left unchallenged by labour, more and more chimeras like Dominion Hosiery — a Canadian factory owned by an Israeli company employing South Asian workers at low wages — have begun to rear their heads.

Now, when unions do attempt to organize non-standard workers, they often run up against a monster they inadvertently helped to create. As Galabuzi observes, “Some employers hire [immigrants] precisely because they assume they are less likely to fight you and to respond negatively, and with collective action, when the conditions they work in are not favourable. So the folks that operate based on that logic are likely to fight much more, because there’s much more at stake than just compensation or working conditions.âe

The six-year struggle to organize Purdy’s Chocolates in Vancouver is just one example. In the factory’s production room, evidence of lingering tension remains. A tiny twelve-inch by eighteen-inch bulletin board has been papered over with announcements from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP). In the last collective agreement, factory management reluctantly agreed to make the bulletin board available. The agreement didn’t specify a size, however, so management seized upon the oversight to make a statement of their own.

“That shows just how small is their mind,” says Teresa Yuen, the Norma Rae of Purdy’s.In recounting her saga, Yuen scrupulously parcels out credit to others and pauses to thank God at critical junctures. An immigrant from Macau, she started working part-time at the factory in the 1992, alongside other women from China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America. Though whites comprised a minority, management would consistently promote them to full-time ahead of non-white workers. In terms of hours, the difference between full-time and part-time was nominal — Yuen and other part-timers typically worked forty-hour weeks — but full-time status entitled employees to benefits, profit-sharing and paid vacations.

In 1996, Yuen finally complained to her MLA, Jenny Kwan, who put her in touch with the CEP. With its help, she mounted a covert certification drive, which won by a vote of fifty-five per cent. As the full-timers waged a doomed decertification campaign, Purdy’s glumly sat down with the union in 1998 to hammer out the workers’ first-ever collective agreement. Classified as full-time at last, Yuen and the other part-timers won benefits and paid vacations.

Then the time came to renew the collective agreement. Talks quickly soured. Toward the end of April 2001, Yuen and her coworkers abandoned their posts to take up pickets outside of the factory.

Rather than negotiate, Purdy’s reopened the issue of certification, alleging that four of the membership cards had been improperly signed. The provincial labour board agreed, and cancelled the site’s certification.

As the humiliated strikers returned to work, CEP frantically organized another certification drive. Purdy’s tried blocking it with more litigation, using the same legal team that fought a Canadian Auto Workers’ bid to unionize a McDonald’s in nearby Squamish. When the labour board ordered that the drive be allowed to proceed, and when the employees voted once again for the union, Purdy’s had little choice but to return to the bargaining table.

The struggle cost the CEP millions. For some rank-and-file members, the price of solidarity seemed too high. One old-timer used to drop by the strike headquarters every now and then to complain about how much it was costing the union.

Although Purdy’s Chocolates won certification in January 2002, Yuen and her fellow union activists at didn’t really celebrate until last May, when a sticking point in their collective bargaining — the issue of a “closed shop” — was settled once and for all. A provincial arbitrator decided that union membership would be a condition of employment at the factory.

“Now, everybody is equal,” enthused Yuen as she sipped champagne with some of her onetime foes during a party at their service rep’s house.

Sangeeta Subramanian typifies the ambivalence that many newcomers feel toward unions: great in principle; rusty and unworkable — or unavailable — in practice. As the executive director of the South Asian Women’s Centre, she has heard all about conditions at Dominion Hosiery, as well as dozens of other gloomy workplaces little known outside immigrant communities. “We just keeping hearing horror stories,” she says: people forced to work with injuries, in abusive environments, or for temp agencies that claim a third of their wages. She would love to see the socks factory and all the shops in what Galabuzi calls “the South within the North” unionized — “just for the fact,” she says, “that the employers would start feeling they have to be accountable to somebody.âe

But so far, Subramanian stresses, “I haven’t seen any outreach at all from unions. TOFFE is the only agency I know that’s done some outreach to women who work in these kind of situations. I haven’t seen unions connect in any way at all with immigrant communities, to be honest.” This raw sense of disconnection many communities feel is at once a cause and an effect of the dearth of organizing done within them.

Galabuzi believes the issue runs deeper than pragmatism or even negligence. Most unions, he contends, have a clear-cut idea of which workers fall under their purview. “It isn’t so much the fact that people are suffering injustice and so, on that basis, they have material conditions that would drive them to collective action. It is more of what they consider to be the historical patterns: these kinds of workers have not historically been unionized and they have a much greater level of forbearance.âe

So their exploitation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There’s no two ways about it,” says Galabuzi. “It is racism that is responsible for these kinds of evaluations, both on the employer and on the union side.âe

That doesn’t come as news to Subramanian and many other newcomers, who still see unions as guardians of the status quo, not agents of change. In her own South Asian community, they remember with special bitterness the case of a Toronto paramedic crew that refused to take a Sri Lankan couple’s critically ill toddler to hospital, dismissing the parents’ concern as paranoia. When the boy later died and the paramedics were fired, the Canadian Union of Public Employees pushed for their reinstatement. To be fair, the union had a responsibility to defend its workers, but its actions did not play well in the injured community.

âeoeThe union is not seen as something that’s looking to level the playing field,” Subramanian says. “I’ve heard people actually say, ‘My father was a steelworker and I’m a steelworker. And that’s the way we want it to be. And I just want that to pass on. I don’t want diversity.’ They don’t want any non-union people.”

Such talk pains Winnie Ng, who became a union activist precisely to improve conditions for immigrant workers. She now works as Ontario regional director for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). She acknowledges that “there is tension,” which, she says, “points to the need for more constructive dialogue and more creative problem-solving.”

What most newcomers don’t realize, Ng points out, is that for all its faults, labour has been one of their strongest advocates. It spearheaded employment equity, opposed the controversial “head tax,” and has been trying to revamp the tenet of seniority to allow workers of colour easier access to unionized sectors. And whatever criticisms can be levelled at it, insists Ng, “it’s also the most democratic people’s movement that we’ve got. So we can stand on the outside and keep criticizing, or we can bring as many people in to change it. If it takes an overhaul, so be it.âe

The CLC’s National Task Force on Anti-Racism used equally radical language in a 1997 report, Challenging Racism: Going Beyond Recommendations. Recognizing the need for a more diverse labour movement, it proposed the creation of an action plan “to strengthen union membership by organizing people of colour who work in non-unionized workplaces,” demonstrations “targeting employers who engage in discriminatory practices” and the immediate hiring of more “workers of colour to do organizing work.âe

The result, six years later? None of those recommendations have been implemented, admits a rueful David Onyalo, the CLC’s national human-rights director.âeoeI think unions have really struggled in the last ten or fifteen years over how to work with immigrant communities,” says Deena Ladd, who often gives unions workshops on diversity. “You can’t just change your education. You can’t just change your organizing approach. It has to be an incredibly integrated process, where you actually take on the structure and the power base of your union. A lot of unions aren’t prepared to do that, because they still see the majority of their membership being their traditional core, who pretty much maintain their power base. So you see some initiatives taking place on the periphery, but it’s very rare to find a union that has it integrated in its whole approach.âe

Moreover, a true overhaul would force the labour movement to do something that no institution likes to do: strip away the myths that keep it from carrying out the kind of profound self-examination almost everyone agrees it needs.

âeoeIf you go back one hundred years,” Galabuzi says, “what you had in places like Vancouver is a resistance by white workers to immigration. They were in the streets saying that Chinamen were coming and taking their jobs because they were prepared to accept a lower wage. If you go back even further, in Nova Scotia, you had the government passing rules requiring employers to pay blacks seventy-five per cent less than whites. Again, that led to tensions, with white workers going against black workers, who clearly were much more disadvantaged than they were.”

Those same white workers, Galabuzi observes, became some of the pioneers of Canadian labour. The last thing they wanted to do was to organize immigrant workers, whom they saw as being the problem in the first place.

Labour now faces a strikingly similar situation. Non-standard work, as Galabuzi notes, “benefits the employer much as the labour-market differentials in the 19th and early 20th centuries did.” Repeating past mistakes by not seeking equality for non-unionized workers could have serious consequences for the already embattled movement.

Recall the 1980s and 1990s, when multinationals flocked South in search of cheap labour. “That put pressure on workers at different levels to accept less in terms of compensation and working conditions,” says Galabuzi. “It took time for it to work its way to the bargaining table, but eventually, it did.” Employers were able to threaten workers with plant closures, which put them in a much stronger position when it came time to renew contracts.

Nowadays, Galabuzi argues, “you have similar processes happening within our borders. Employers use the reality of extreme exploitation at the bottom to discipline the other levels of the labour market.” He points to Sweden and Denmark, whose unionized workers enjoy some of the highest wages and most comprehensive benefits in the industrialized world. Their unions have gone out of their way to organize immigrant workers, thwarting employers that might use them as leverage.

âeoeTo protect yourself,” Galabuzi says, dusting off an old labour maxim, “you actually need to organize from the bottom up.”

Ladd makes a similar case whenever addressing labour leaders: “The more people you have that are less protected, and the more people who are vulnerable, [the weaker] your core labour force, because the employer is going to want all workers to be like that.” It makes sense, yet she still finds herself despairing at diatribes by union members against part-timers or temp workers trying to “steal” their jobs.

âeoeOn so many levels,” she says, “it’s a discussion about the rise of contingent work and the changing nature of work and how unions are affected by that, and how they need to work with non-unionized workers.”

Arguably, the issue’s urgency and scope warrant real and concerted cooperation among unions. In the meantime, some have begun to act on their own. UNITE was one of the first, developing an associate membership for home-based garment workers in the early 1990s. More recently, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada fought to overturn provincial legislation barring migrant workers in southern Ontario’s giant industrial farms from joining unions. And thanks to HERE, even temp agency workers — long on the outside looking in — now have a precedent for unionization. The union’s dynamic Local 75 organized a group of them alongside regular employees at a Sheraton hotel in Mississauga, Ontario.

Andria Babbington served as one of the organizers. “They had uniforms, name tags, everything,” she says, her Caribbean lilt heavy with sympathy. “Once we got the other workers in the union, we had to make sure that these agency workers were unionized as well, because these people were willing to fight with the rest of the workers and they were doing the same work.âe

Her own workplace, the Toronto Sheraton Centre, has been unionized for nearly thirty years. As its shop steward, she finds herself constantly having to defend the union to her co-workers. “When people get upset, they sometimes say, ‘Oh, what’s the point of having the union?’ People who walk into a place today that’s already unionized, they sometimes take things for granted.âe

When they really stop to think about it, though, and compare themselves to other newcomers working in Toronto, most of the hotel’s employees do see the difference that having a union makes. Most important, to Babbington, is the sense of unity and purpose it brings in continuing to press for change. “Because for me, I spend more time worrying about other people than myself. Because if I do it just for myself, I don’t really make change at the end of the day.”

 

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.