Organizing precarious workers: Workers' centres open their doors

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Photo: flickr/Mika Hiironniemi

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The day before a Raise the Rates rally in downtown Toronto, a group of workers have gathered to practice their chants at the Workers' Action Centre. They're going to represent workers who are calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $14 an hour in Ontario.

"That is what our members are at the heart of," said Centre organizer Sonia Singh over the chants "They are part of the campaigns and all of the work that we do, which you can hear right now."

Sessions like these are business as usual at the Centre, where they constantly host workshops and leadership seminars in their tiny space in an office tower near University of Toronto.

Workers' centres like Toronto's Workers' Action Centre have become one of the organizations that are on the frontlines of organizing precarious workers. They function as an advocacy and support group and resource centre all rolled up in one.

Singh has been with the Centre for almost ten years, working first on the phone lines, where workers can call about workplace issues. She is now responsible for coordinating some of the Centre's collective action efforts.

On her office wall is a chart of provincial legislation relating to precarious work, with notes indicating which stage each bill is at. The Workers' Action Centre has become instrumental in starting campaigns that have wide ranging positive effects for low wage and precarious workers. For example, pressure from them, other social justice organizations and unions stopped the Liberal Ontario government, led by Dalton McGuinty, from pulling funding from Employment Standards enforcement.

"We see this as kind of a movement-building model," said Singh. "We are trying to work on issues that will improve the lives of low-wage workers but then build connections with other social justice organizations. It is about building a political fight."

This model is a newer phenomenon in Canada. The Workers' Action Centre was established in 2005, based on the workers' centres that have proliferated across the United States. 

"There are hundreds and hundreds of workers' centres in the United States," said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor at York University who studies labour. "What they tend to do is organize workers that have a shared ethnic or cultural backgrounds who are in a particular part of the labour market -- very precarious." 

The workers' centres have flourished in the U.S., possibly because of the lower union density rate, but also, Singh speculates, because of the weaker social security net in the United States. While Canada's social safety net is still stronger than the one in the States, Singh thinks Canadian workers' action centres can stop the country from backsliding.

For precarious workers who are unable to join a union because of the transient nature of their work or because some, like migrant workers, aren't legally entitled to organize, the centres offer an alternative source of support when it comes to workplace issues. At the Workers' Action Centre, for example, workers can call into a hotline where a staff member will listen to their concerns and provide support.

"Our goal is that we want to make sure people are getting the tools that they need to be able to take on a problem at work," said Singh. "Whether it's just understanding how can they fight back if they have unpaid wages or what rights they have on the job." 

Singh says that a majority of the people that come to them are low-wage workers, from a variety of industries, including temp agencies, personal support work, retail and fast food. Others will call after they have already left their workplace and they no longer fear being fired for speaking out about working conditions. 

It's through the hotline and meeting with other workers that they come up with their ideas for collective action, like the the campaign to increase the minimum wage to $14 an hour.

"It started out as a little seed -- 'can we start a campaign? Can call we call for $14?'" said Singh. Since then, the campaign has only grown larger, with unions and other organizations joining the call for a minimum wage that meets the cost of living in Ontario. The Workers' Action Centre frequently rallies around this issue, with another protest coming up this Saturday

Ross argues that because workers' centres are not bound to the legal rules that limit union organizing and striking, they can actually engage workers on a different level; for example, the collective action that has become the Workers' Action Centre's bread and butter.

"There tends to be a bit more freedom in the workers centres organizing because they use direct action to put pressure on employers more frequently than unions do," said Ross.

However, workers' centres also come with their own limitations. The Workers' Action Centre is the only workers' centre in Toronto, which means by necessity the scope of their work must be broad enough to impact all workers. 

"You are really spread across a whole city and across many different sectors," said Singh. "So you wonder about the impact you can have when you are really focused in on something."

She said that the Workers' Action Centre is always exploring ways it can better represent the needs of workers. "A strength of a model like this is that you can try different things," she said.

Singh also believes that a union is still one of the best ways to improve working conditions, especially with the voice that it can give workers within their own workplaces.

But for now, the Workers' Action Centre provides a space for precarious workers to not only find the support they need, but to make the connections and links that would normally be found in a union. The workers come from different workplaces and backgrounds, but they come together with the common goal of wanting a better life for themselves and their families.

"We're in a moment where there is a race to the bottom and a low wage agenda that involves pitting workers against each other," said Singh. "We can challenge that and see how this is part of a bigger attack on working people. Instead of being divided, we can look at how we have connections."

Check out part one of H.G. Watson's four-part special feature on precarious work.

Photo: flickr/Mika Hiironniemi


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