Union Renewal From the Margins: Perspectives on Organizing Precarious Workers

Adrie Naylor

Over the past few years, international migration has been a popular topic in the mainstream media in both Canada and the United States; however, this attention has often centred on asylum seekers, “queue-jumpers,” trafficking, racial profiling legislation and, less often, the tragic and preventable deaths of undocumented workers. Left out of this discussion has been the critical perspective of migrant workers themselves, as well as an examination of the efforts that have been made by migrant workers, social movement organizations, and trade unions to organize and build alliances. In March 2011, Adrie Naylor sat down with five organizers to discuss the issue of precarious work and transnational labour migration in Canada and the US, the challenges of organizing around labour issues in marginalized communities, and to strategize about alliance-building on the left.

Beixi Liu is an intern at the Workers’ Action Centre in T oronto. H e became involved in the Centre after being employed through a temp agency where his rights were violated.

Marco Luciano is a coordinator at Migrante, a migrant advocacy group based in the Philippines. H e also works as a staff person at Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1281.

Linelle S. Mogado is a policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Labour in occupational health and safety. She practiced labour and employment law in California on behalf of unions and workers, where she also volunteered with Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, serving monolingual Spanish speakers.

Esery Mondesir is a former organizer with S ervice Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, where he worked primarily with home care workers.

Sonia Singh is an organizer at the Workers’ Action Centre. She is also involved in Justice for M igrant Workers and M igrant Workers Alliance for Change.

What is precarious work? How has the growth of precarious work in recent years been connected to neoliberal restructuring? What is the relationship between precarious work and migration?

Sonia: Precarious work is marked by flexibility. It’s the polar opposite of a nine-to-five job with benefits and the expectation that it could last for many years. A range of employer practices facilitate the creation of precarious workers with diminishing standard protections: contracting out, using sub-contracting chains, using temp agencies, misclassifying people as independent contractors, and using temporary foreign worker programs. There is real state complicity as our laws are eroded or not enforced. That’s the context of our fight to start building back those protections, including for workers who never had protections in the first place because they’ve just been temporary workers, temp agency workers, and temporary foreign workers not seen as deserving those rights.

Beixi: Lots of this work is unskilled, although a recent trend is for some higher end technical workers to become precarious, like professional information technology workers – they get pushed to be self-employed or independent contractors.

Esery: There’s something in the definition itself. Words can make workers feel like they are getting a good deal. For example, they may say that workers like flexibility; they like to know that they don’t have to go to work. They like to know that if they need a vacation they can take the vacation whenever. Sometimes workers themselves start to assimilate these notions. In the case of home care workers, they call them “elect-to-work.” Basically, the agency can call me and I can say no. But because I can say no there are a whole bunch of benefits that I don’t have. I think that’s important because it helps the employer or the state to justify whatever they are doing or whatever they are not doing for these workers.

Linelle: Based on my experience as a lawyer with seasonal agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley, the term feels like an old situation for those particular workers. I knew Filipinos whose families went from farm to farm working as harvesters in California in the 1950s through to the 1980s. Then the men might go up and down the coast, up to Alaska working in canneries and fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. The situation of farm workers in some ways hasn’t really changed since the 1960s. Though, where they come from is different now. The composition of those workers changes based on global economics. Before there were Filipino domestic workers there were Jamaican domestic workers. You can look at every industry and see how it’s matched up with the global political economy. But it’s not just about neoliberalism. That’s a new word but the working conditions on the ground – long hours, a lack of reliable work, terrible pay rates, a lack of benefits, occupational health and safety hazards including the vulnerability of women workers to sexual assault in the fields – demonstrate that agricultural work is in a kind of time warp. When I think of the historical context, I wonder how much of this was actually changed when unions came along. I visited some farm workers’ homes and I swear some of those conditions must have been the same as 50 years ago. Sometimes I wonder how much progress has actually been made.

Marco: I don’t think much has changed. A good example is the braceros – Mexican farm workers imported to the US during the Second World War. They’re still waiting for their cheques. When I was in Mexico last November for the International Assembly of Migrants, one of the campaigns was get the braceros the money owed to them.

Sonia: These employer practices have existed for a long time for many segments of the labour market, especially for gendered and racialized groups. It’s good to point out that there was not some heyday from which things have disintegrated. But neoliberalism is accelerating these kinds of conditions. Going back 20 or 30 years, there were provisions that have now been downloaded onto individual families.

Marco: The more flexible you are, the more precarious you are, and the more disposable you are. Migrant caregivers, agricultural workers, and temporary foreign workers are concrete examples of an international form of contracting out. If the current state cannot provide cheap, accessible childcare, where does the middle class go? They go elsewhere; they find care for their children so they can work.

Are there tensions between traditional union organizing methods and the circumstances of migrant workers?

Marco: The challenge for caregivers is the fact that they’re at home. Although they are now considered by the Labour Standards Act to be workers, “home” is not defined in the Act as a workplace. It’s a private space, so an organizer can’t visit the home and see the worker’s conditions. Developing very imaginative ways of talking to them is important to our work.

Esery: In the US for a very long time, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) had its own problem with migrant, immigrant, and illegal workers who were “coming here and taking our jobs.” They didn’t change that position until maybe 2000 or 2001.

Linelle: There’s a tension between two approaches to unionism. The business union model is geared toward providing services, similar to an insurance company. Social movement unionism is geared not only at economic benefits but also social change.

Marco: Within the union structure there are class struggles. That’s important to understand because, for example, if we’re preparing for bargaining and we can’t even get a strike vote, that’s a problem. There’s a big disconnect between the leadership and the rank-and- file members. Union activists should be getting members to take back the union. I’m an avid unionist, an old-school unionist. I believe that the union is organized in locker rooms, in washrooms. It’s not organized at bargaining tables.

You describe efforts to push the membership forward to take charge of the union. However, certain types of business unions are designed to demobilize.

Marco: Migrante’s been trying over the past two years to unionize caregivers. Under the current labour code they can’t be unionized because of the “one employer, one employee” relationship. They can’t put together a bargaining unit to have a collective agreement. But there are other models – artists have associations that are unionized and so on. We created the Independent Workers’ Association and started to affiliate with the United Steel Workers (USW). When we were in negotiation with the USW, the first thing that I heard from their district President was, “How many members can you sign up?” He brought out his phone and tried to calculate the benefits that they could provide. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The caregivers really wanted to unionize. What do I tell them? After a year of getting caught up in their internal union issues and not knowing what was happening, we decided to do things on our own. We were told that we could not use the name “Independent Workers’ Association” anymore as this had been registered and belonged to USW. We pulled out and we changed the name. It’s called iWorkers now. Rank and file USW members and the USW Toronto Area Council continue to support our work.

Sonia: The perspective of the Workers’ Action Centre has been to build a model of what we want to see while finding alliances. It is crucial that unions look to those models and learn from them. There are some really interesting things happening, like the Courier Worker Centre that’s being supported by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Sometimes it seems from the outside that the union is putting resources in, but Marco’s examples really speak to the fact that the experience and knowledge of the community and the organizing strategies that come from community partners have to be respected. We have to keep building our strengths and, when the moment’s right, seek those partnerships. But they have to be based on equal relationships. I feel really excited about the Migrant Workers’ Coalition for Change. Although it’s a fledgling group, community members are saying, “this is our knowledge, our experience – these are our members coming to the table. Unions are welcome to come and support but we are claiming this space.” Hopefully connections and alliances can be strengthened through these kinds of spaces.

Linelle: Sonia, I think you’re dead on. Unions and lawyers have a role in supporting centres like the Workers’ Action Centre. But they can never be the leaders. They can never call the shots if you’re going to build something that truly serves the people who are developing as leaders and developing strategies and directions on their own.

Esery: Unionism in society has done so much. We’re here because of what unions achieved. But we have to stay critical. Unions are not supposed to be businesses. Unions are supposed to be organizations of workers. We should have some level of democracy. We need to find a way to work together and define what we are doing. Ultimately it should be about assisting workers to take control of their lives.

Sonia: We were reading an interesting book at the Workers’ Action Centre by Janice Fine that surveys workers’ centres in the US and looks at different models and organizing strategies. She discusses the strengths of the worker centre model: the ability to do political education, leadership education, build a strong membership, move public opinion, and provoke policy change. But ultimately only a small number of people tend to be active members in workers’ centres – from what Fine surveyed it was between 300 and 1,000 members. Her assessment is that this is one model and we can learn a lot from it, but if we look at our longer term visions, we need the economic power that comes from having a union with thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people involved, and that has economic power through the right to strike. I think we see things changing. We are winning victories, and some come in the form of legislative change. The worker centre model does have the power to affect thousands of people, but at the end of the day we need to be building true power across the working class in Canada and we need a variety of strategies to get there.

What work does the Workers’ Action Centre do?

Sonia: We work with a cross-section of people, mainly low-waged workers, workers of colour, and immigrant workers. A lot of US workers’ centres and community unionism models have focused on one particular sector of work, but we chose to organize cross- sectorally and multi-racially. Since Toronto is so huge, we face the challenge of connecting across regions. Right now we have organizing committees rooted in particular parts of the city that try to find ways for the membership to come together across those regions. Our membership fluctuates between about 250 and 300 members.

There are two parts of our work. One is the service provision: running a phone hotline and giving direct support to people experiencing worker’s rights abuses. That always ties back to the organizing. Our campaigns come out of the issues that people bring forward and our membership comes from the people who have contacted us. Our model is member-driven, with members who have experienced low wages, discrimination, or violations of their rights and want to become involved in fighting back. We have focussed on wages and the low minimum wage, a failure of our basic rights to be enforced on the job, and the fact that workers pay the price when they’re not on the job.

Beixi: I got involved three years ago, during the Ontario Workers Need A Fair Deal campaign. At the Centre, we’re trying to hold the bottom line for every working person. Labour law is the standard floor, so that’s somewhere we can start, since we don’t have union status and cannot negotiate. The floor is so low that even if you hold it, you still end up in poverty. Sometimes I feel very frustrated with that fact. I was a temp worker before – I didn’t get stat holidays, which is the floor in a sense, because the law has loopholes that the employer can take advantage of. We fought to get that fixed, and that’s a big victory. Now we don’t have “elect-to-work” – it’s illegal not to pay us for stat holidays. As well, clear language now states that you can’t be charged for sign- up or for an assignment – you can get vacation pay, and you might be eligible for severance pay. Before when you worked for a temp agency, you were almost like a slave because if you wanted to be directly hired by the employer, they had to buy you out of the temp agency. That’s what happened to me! The company hired me, paid the temp agency, and then when they turned around to negotiate a salary, they pushed my salary down. They said they paid the temp agency, so that’s all we can give you. I couldn’t say anything – they gave me something better than what I got from the temp agency, but compared to other workers, I got less. Now, up to six months the temp agency can still charge, but after six months they cannot. The Workers’ Action Centre won that.

The Workers’ Action Centre is a site of both service provision and worker organizing. To what degree has it succeeded at both?

Sonia: We see these things as being interconnected. I think almost 80 percent of our members came to us because of a personal experience. In the US there are a lot more places that people can go, more legal clinics and support, but in Toronto there’s a never- ending need to provide support because the violations are constant and so many people face a total lack of protection. We never have enough staff or volunteers to meet that demand. It is very easy when you’re doing case support to move away from your organizing goals. We have to constantly force ourselves to think about it – why are we here? We’re not here to do the government’s job for them. We’re here to organize and mobilize for justice for workers and that is what we have to keep coming back to.

Beixi: I was a union member for three years. I feel an ideological connection with the Workers’ Action Centre, but the only thing that reminded me I was in a union was the paycheck deduction. The union has to think about how to really reach their members. At my workplace there was only one union meeting in three years.

Esery: Unions face the challenge of having an active, militant membership while taking care of the day-to-day aspects of the operation. You get to that point where unions become more and more of a fee-for-service type operation: I have a rep, I can call the rep and yell at him or her because I’m paying my dues. As unions we sometimes entertain that customer service idea and forget about the nature of the fight. It’s a continuous fight. It cannot just be about us getting two percent every three years. It should be about how to improve the lives of working people in society. How many unions, when they have their membership meeting, talk about what’s going on in the shop, in the union, but also what’s going on in the city? I don’t think it’s happening.

Linelle: As I went from being more organizing-oriented towards becoming a lawyer, I had to give up certain conversations. The conversation – why is the minimum wage this way – is not a conversation you have with a client. The work is concrete, but also very individualized. At the same time, people can mobilize because they get the 500 dollars that they’re owed. That’s a very tangible process that the person, the client, the member of the Workers’ Action Centre actually goes through. It’s a transformation of being wronged, complaining about it, and seeking help.

Marco: Migrante focuses on two aspects that are integral to each other. First, we address member and community rights, welfare and day-to-day issues here in Canada. For example, we provide assistance in cases of termination and unjust dismissal, and help with immigration issues (deportation, status, etc.) We work on policy change campaigns. At the same time, we address the root causes of our migration. This means that we are very critical with the Philippine government not only in terms of their failure to protect Filipino migrants and continue to sell them, but also the neoliberal agenda implemented through privatization, liberalization, and deregulation that forces us to leave the Philippines. Our campaigns include support for the Philippine labour movement, a call to increase wages to 125 pesos across the board, an anti-mining campaign (particularly against Canadian mining companies), and a campaign against human rights violations.

What is the relationship between organizing on the basis of labour issues and organizing on the basis of status or access to services?

Marco: I think that link has always needed to exist. Just calling for status makes it sound like migrant workers from countries of the south are rushing to pack their bags to come to Canada. We’re not. It’s because the socio-economic problems that these countries experience (problems often caused by Canada or the US) are pushing people to migrate. I think that it’s important to understand why the migrants leaving before the tackling the status issue.

Sonia: For groups like No One is Illegal, who work with migrant workers, that link is obvious. They bring in a workers’ rights perspective through immigration organizing. I think the Workers’ Action Centre tries to make clear that we don’t just need labour rights reform but also immigration reform. We try to create spaces for coalitions and alliances for those groups to come together, but they could be even more integrated.

Esery: It’s important that there are alliances and coalitions out there. Work is at the centre of our lives. It makes sense that organized labour will be a big part of whatever change we are talking about. Organizations need to stay vigilant because labour has a history of focusing on labour relations and they forget that that a person, when she or he leaves work, has to have a home. I think organizations like No One Is Illegal add to that work aspect. So I think we need to build those coalitions. But again, it has to be an equal relationship.

Given that so much precarious work is done by racialized migrant workers, how do race, ethnic identity, language, and culture relate to labour organizing?

Linelle: My experience has been really specific in terms of working with two organizations: La Raza Centro Legal and Centro Legal de la Raza in the San Francisco Bay area. They both have worker- organizing groups and I think they both have affiliations with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), which was geared toward organizing day labourers across the US. When I went to California my initial goal was to help develop a Filipino workers’ centre. I had previously volunteered with the Filipino Workers’ Center in Los Angeles. As a lawyer, when I sought out volunteer opportunities, the Latino community was way more organized in terms of outreach to the community. Partially it stemmed from a shared identity as part of La Raza. “La Raza” is a Spanish term that literally means “the race,” intended to encompass a sense of identity that I think is really unique to Latino culture.

My first experience with it was with a group of students and young workers who had recently become interested in the labour movement and were at a 1997 training called the Union Summer. This was a project of the AFL-CIO intended to inject young blood into their team of organizers. In universities around the US there’s an organization called National Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. It’s essentially a Mexican-American, or Chicano organization. “Chicano” is a term used to describe Mexicans who are born and raised or acculturated to the US. It’s meant to capture the identity of being American but also Mexican. I’ve also heard it embraced and altered a little bit by Fernando Gapasín, then a professor at UCLA, describing his own heritage as “Chicapino” –Chicano and Filipino. So, La Raza was a real starting point for a lot of young Latinos whose identity began to crystallize around race and culture at the university and college level. Alongside it, the identities of working class Filipinos and other students and workers of colour were also developing in those settings. But it’s not an academic concept. It’s a very organic feeling. In recent history, there have been Minutemen along the US-Mexico border, there’s support for vigilantism and people are actually roving around in the desert in trucks with guns. Those are real threats. To be afraid of the police picking you up because they’re checking your ID and trying to see if you’re “illegal,” to be picked up by Immigration and detained and possibly never see your family, those are real threats. So there has certainly been a big fight back around those issues, and I think that much of it is rooted in the concept of La Raza. If you ask anybody you will get a different answer about what La Raza is, but I think that it’s a very powerful concept. It’s not necessarily solely race-based, but it is very much class-oriented. It’s not something that I have seen replicated elsewhere.

Have we lost the common identity of being united as the “working class”?

Sonia: I don’t know how much within the labour movement it’s put in those terms: working class struggle against the capitalist class. I don’t think that workers’ centres are framing it in that light either, but it’s something that we’re thinking about at the Workers’ Action Centre – how do we ensure that that analysis of capitalism is part of our political education and leadership development? I think the language has changed.

Esery: I think unions stay away from that vocabulary because it has too much to do with Marxism, especially after the witch- hunt in the US in the 1950s against union leaders accused of being communists. What you see more and more is the corporatization of unions: “we can get along with the boss, it’s not necessarily a conflictual relationship, they give us this, we give them that.” It’s as if, to be effective, we have to be in the room where the decisions are being made. And for us to get in the room, we cannot have that so-called extremist kind of analysis. There are a lot of compromises made just to be in the room. Now the question is: how effective am I when I’m actually in?

Linelle: When we say getting in the room, we’re talking about bargaining. Collective bargaining came out of struggles that were bloody and hard fought in the streets, like Haymarket in Chicago. Those are flashpoints in labour history that we fantasize about and wonder why they don’t happen more often. One of the reasons is because we traded the right to strike for the right to negotiate a collective agreement, both in the US and in Canada, with the labour legislation in the 1930s. A trade-off was made in order to build labour peace, or industrial peace, so that production could continue. This was a way, not completely to neutralize labour power, but to create the conditions to dress them up in suits and get them to the table and off the streets.

Should we be pushing governments to have better legislation, or organizing people in their workplaces to take on their employers? What needs to be done to make substantive change?

Sonia: We’re1in the process of launching a campaign called “Stop Wage Theft,” borrowing from the ways that campaigns in the US around precarious work have been framed. The emphasis is on unpaid wages and lack of enforcement of basic rights. We also look more broadly at the ways that laws fail to protect workers and allow employers to pocket profits by misclassifying workers as independent contractors, job scams, lack of protection for temporary workers, and low wages. Pushing the government for improvements around all of those things is an important way to raise the floor, but also to build a base. The two come together. Our goals in a campaign like this are concrete victories but also mobilizing our membership and building a broader movement. We are building our confidence that we can win. We also try to target employers to show that we can win, even if it is one-by-one sometimes. I am really interested in those sector-wide campaigns that see improvements across an industry, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which is a different model that we haven’t explored yet.

Linelle: When I think of what labour justice would look like, I don’t have an easy answer. I think about construction workers in Southern California, Texas, or Arizona who made their way over the border from Mexico or further south. They didn’t cross the border on their own. There’s an entire system of labour contractors and smugglers that can often be traced from large developers to construction contractors to coyotes with deep roots in remote villages. You may have somebody who owes $4000 to a coyote for taking them across the border. The penalty for not paying back that money is the safety of your friends and family back in your village. This is not the employer and the government working together for a cheap labour force. It is tied up in the failure of labour policy and immigration policy. Thinking of what labour justice would look like – it’s kind of overwhelming. You need to have a multi-pronged strategy. There are so many people falling through the cracks. Maybe I’m painting a worse picture than what we have in Canada, in part because I actually don’t know what those systems are. Is it better that we have a formal system, like the live-in caregiver program and its predecessors? Maybe, because it’s above board – there are forms to fill out and addresses to be traced to. Yes, we need to work on stopping wage theft. But at the same time, we need delegations to employers who have done mass firings of Latino workers. We need people mobilizing against the actual barriers to safety.

For those of us who are not members of unions, but are involved in radical left organizing, how do we begin to bring our movements together?

Linelle: I would love to see constant letters to the editor about how minimum wage should be raised or a response to some bill. It’s a way to have a voice in the media. We can complain about the media, we can create our own media, but a bus driver may not read any left publications. I think there is a real tendency to be isolated and to reject mainstream media. Maybe we’ve removed ourselves in order to develop our political views, but we need to engage with the media to influence a wider audience. I also wonder how Twitter and newer communication methods can be used sustainably to build our movements.

Marco: Non-unionized working people are our allies. They face the same exploitation as the migrants we’re organizing. Building strong solidarity with non-unionized workers breaks the divide and rule tactics of the bosses. In all of our campaigns, our general call is not necessarily status for all. It is “defend and protect our wage, rightsandlivelihood.”Whilemostofourmembersaremigrantsand immigrants, they did not necessarily rush to pack their bags to be in this racist country. Rather, they were displaced and forced out of theirs. Status is important for us, but over-focusing on it facilitates the division of the working class, the majority of whom has status.

We build alliances and take part in coalitions on an issue-to-issue basis. In the last two years we were part of creating the May 1st Movement, an alliance of different non-unionized organizations, ethnic groups, and labour unions.

Esery: On the left you have groups acting in isolation from each other and thinking that their issue is more central – like the labour side of things is more central than what you’re doing, or if you’re doing anti-oppression work you think it’s more important than whatever I’m doing. But everything is interconnected and solidarity has to be built. How do we build it? I don’t have a magic wand, I really don’t know, but I think the first step is to understand that whatever I’m doing is not more important than what you’re doing and vice versa.

Beixi: The global south and the global north are connected. If we cannot protect the people in the global south, they will send the workers here. Can we treat them exactly the same way, or change the law to make them the same? All the workers should be treated the same, have the same occupational health and safety protections, and get the same Employment Standards Act protection. We should start from the closest thing – do the most we can within the territory we can reach. Our labour force is not evenly protected, so employers, even just within Canada, will use less protected workers to attack those who enjoy better protection. We need to push legislation that lessens the imbalance so it’s harder for those businesses to attack the working class from its most vulnerable front.

Sonia: We need to build alliances across sectors and have grassroots community groups at the table in an equal manner. We need to think through how to support work that is happening at a grassroots level with workers of colour and migrant workers, to think about what it means to be an ally in those struggles and how to support them while taking direction from what is coming up from that organizing. We need to challenge ourselves to look for international connections and make sure we have that analysis of capitalism as a global system and all of the ways that that is pushing dispossession and migration and inequality. To deal with burnout, we continue trying to prioritize internal capacity building as a way of evenly distributing work, contacts, and analysis. We hold monthly weekend workshops where we collectively build analysis and provide skills training/sharing opportunities. Additionally, members are actively encouraged to plug into various committees, campaigns, and/or subcommittees as a way of directly engaging in the work and developing skills and analysis in an interactive and supportive environment that is smaller and not as daunting. In smaller groups, where there is more opportunity to plug in and receive one-on-one support, people feel more empowered to take on tasks and gain confidence in their analysis and skills, enabling them to participate more fully in the organization.

Notes

1 More about the Stop Wage Theft campaign can be found at: www. workersactioncentre.org/campaigns_stopwagetheft.