Fighting for $15 and the Future of Canadian Labour

11155030_968446859866559_7186798485702425367_oBy Justin Kong

On April 15, workers and community members throughout Canada will join together and take to the streets to demand better work for all. We ride upon the waves of recent victories in California and New York where workers won a $15 minimum wage in their states. The most immediate lesson is a simple one, when workers organize together, they win.

While the specific tactics and demands may look different and vary across each region what we are united in is our goal for fair work and economic justice.

We all know that life as we know it for the majority of us is becoming more precarious and more insecure. But we know that this does not have to be the case and that is why we are fighting together.

In Canada, the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement has spread from coast to coast. In Ontario alone, actions are planned to take place in over 15 cities. As the Ontario government continues its review of employment and labour laws, this is a critical moment for all of us to pressure the government for changes that raise the floor which will benefit all workers.

Our demands are clear, reasonable and absolutely necessary: a $15 minimum wage, decent hours for decent incomes, paid sick days at work, respect at work, and rules that protect everyone. And we shall fight until they are all met.

Fighting for the Future

As we fight for $15 and Fairness on this day, it is also important for us to take some time to reflect on the labour movement that we are building. To take stock of the history of organized labour in this country, where we are at now and where we need to go.

We should not delude ourselves, traditional forms of organized labour in U.S and Canada are losing power and relevance. There is a long list of reasons on why this is the case. Globalization puts downward pressure on workers, nationally policies of austerity threaten what is left of the welfare state and on the floor shop practices such as subcontracting threaten stable jobs and the possibility of union organizing.

The so called ‘golden days’ of labour have come and gone. We should defend fiercely the important gains that were won while also recognizing the many problems of the past. There can be no return, no path but forward.

What then does the Canadian labour movement look like the 21st century? This is an important conversation that we need to have collectively. And it will require a combination of reflection and on the ground engagement. Towards that end I want identify some of what I have learned on this matter.

We are all workers

If the labour movement is to be a force for genuine economic justice, it needs to embrace a broader vision of who workers are and to take action to support those workers. This means fighting for better employment for all workers, including those without a union.

By targeting the Employment Standards Act which governs work throughout Ontario, the Fight for 15 and Fairness movement represents an absolutely pivotal start in this process of change by broadening the boundaries of who is protected and included in the labour movement.

For too long, dominant segments of organized labour have believed that if we just take care of our own shop, our own workers, that if we bargain ‘well’ with employers, everything else will just sort itself out. Time and again this has been shown to be an ineffective long-term strategy when pursued in isolation.

12973361_1181170011927575_3796641838629103713_o-1A ship with gaping holes in its hull can weather no storm. A labour movement that does not bring those at the peripheries of the labour market and society into its fold will fuel its own demise.

This will require more than just offering statements of solidarity. It means dedicating tangible, on the ground resources and support to workers who are outside of organized labour. It means supporting the demands of temporary foreign workers as they push the government for residency upon arrival, it means pushing back against the criminalization of migrants who are engaged in sex work, and ultimately it means supporting and defending all workers regardless of their status.

Racialized immigrants who are already residents continue to labour in sub-par conditions across Canada. This is in part because of how organized labour has historically excluded these groups and the contemporary under-engagement of these groups. Unions need to dedicate more resources to the unionization of immigrant workplaces in a way that isn’t just transactional but driven by the vision of a multi-racial labour movement.

In sectors and enclaves where unionization is not immediately possible unions need to demonstrate their commitment by devoting resources to supporting the work of community organizations that fight for workers in these sectors.

As Canada becomes increasingly racially diverse, an organized labour that remains under-engaged with racialized immigrants, as unfortunately it currently is, has no future. Engaging racialized immigrants is not about diversity for diversity’s sake, it must be about building and sharing power collectively.

Envisioning a new world

To address the major challenges facing workers the labour movement must once again come to see itself as working together with other movements. This means supporting them financially, and engaging in genuine dialogue and relationship building. By working together and supporting indigenous, anti-racist, environmental and other movements we can engage in a collective reassessment and reimagining of what life in a new and more just world can look like. And then build towards it.

The resurrection of working class socialist politics as seen with Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, and Bernie Sanders in the United States are welcome currents and telling signs that our times are changing.

Yet we must not forget that real change can only come when we mobilize, politicize and organize in our communities, our places of work and our daily lives. This is why we must continue to build the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement, which is fighting for better working conditions for all workers and a better future for all.

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