By Deena Ladd
On May 1 the Fight for $15 and Fairness relaunched as the Justice for Workers campaign. Spring Magazine spoke with Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers Action Centre (WAC), about organizing for decent work through the pandemic, the campaign relaunch and some of its core demands, and prospects for change.
The $15 and Fairness campaign has been relaunched as the Justice for Workers. Why the relaunch, and what process led to it?
When we launched the $15 and Fairness campaign, it was six years ago. So obviously, things have changed a lot since then. It was important to reconnect with workers around what were the key issues in the fight for decent work. Were they the same from 2014 or what new issues were emerging? When you have those conversations with people who are working in a range of precarious and non-union jobs, it provides insight as to what is happening in the workplace and what issues are critical to fight for. Through our hotline at WAC, we hear from workers on a daily basis about the violations of rights that people are dealing with and how to support them in fighting back, but we wanted to dive deeper and make sure that our next campaign was grounded in key priorities.
So we started the process, actually, before the pandemic. We had a participatory survey that we were using with our senior leaders, our community leaders and our organizers, to have conversations with workers and bring them together to have this discussion. And then the pandemic hit, and obviously our campaign building fell by the wayside as we moved into urgent work that was needed to support workers. We realized we needed to get on track last fall to build the base for the campaign as we needed at least six to seven months of development work with members to ensure a grounded approach.
The other thing that happened was, I think everyone’s collective consciousness shifted right after that initial eight or nine months of the pandemic. It crystallized a lot of issues facing workers—especially essential workers—in terms of what the public thought of them, what were the kinds of conditions that were leading to higher rates of infection. For example, during the pandemic, it has become crystal clear to everyone how the need for adequate paid sick days is not some sort of a luxury standard, but that it’s actually an essential part of every workplace and is needed to maintain healthy working conditions for everyone.
We felt we needed to start afresh with the campaign development, because people’s notions of what was possible shifted massively within a very short time frame, which has never really happened before for me as an organizer in labor. I think there’s that intensity of this experience that collectively everybody has had to go through—of being locked down, having to go to work in these kinds of conditions, and having a public conversation that affects us all.
We filled out many surveys, we started to have many conversations with workers. And those surveys were filled out with our members who are majority non unionized, racialized, and predominantly in precarious employment—juggling two or three jobs, working in a range of sectors that would be considered essential. After we collected the responses and saw the priority areas that people had highlighted, we then brought that back to membership meetings in January, February, March, April. We went through a process with people to think through what would make a difference in people’s lives, what would galvanize people to take to the streets, talk to the public and fight for. We went through these conversations in seven different languages, on a monthly basis. Building ownership and commitment at the base of our campaign is really critical because if our members are not willing to fight then what is the point?
Launching the campaign at this point gives us a sense of direction. There’s a real moment here to take that learning, to take that consciousness, and move it forward. That’s the exciting part of this next stage of the campaign. It’s the exciting part for our members, having already been through a significant provincial campaign, seeing their own understanding and awareness develop, of how to run campaigns and how to push it forward.
The original demand for $15/hr emerged from a similar process of engagement around what workers felt confident to fight for. How has that evolved into the demand for $20/hr?
It evolved through those individual surveys, and trying to see the difference between what do you think the minimum wage should be, and what do you think the campaign should push for and what do you think you’d be willing to fight for? If you ask people what they think the minimum wage should be, everyone basically says it should be $20. But then you ask the next question, what do you think the campaign should push for and what are you willing to fight for? Members have decided on pushing for an immediate increase to $16, which would restore the lost wages of workers who were denied the $15 two years ago, and then a progression to $20.
There was obviously nervousness, rightly so, based on the backlash that happened last time. When the minimum wage went up to $14, many of our members were on the front end of having employers say to them, “we’re going to get rid of your benefits or paid breaks or now you have to pay for your uniform as we now can’t afford any of that.” And then dealing with the backlash of people who were making $14, and then all of a sudden, everybody was raised up to $14—so resentfulness from folks who had been toiling away at that wage, they had finally made it to $14, and then everybody was there.
Our members now have gone through a campaign, fought for demands and faced a massive corporate backlash back in 2017-2018. Through that experience, our members and allies involved in the campaign know that this time we have to be even more prepared to have those hard conversations around the myths surrounding minimum wage in terms of job loss, price increases, housing expenses, less hours at work—all of the tactics that employers have used to make people feel fearful of getting their wages. Plus, with the pandemic, and many businesses closing down, workers feel nervous.
But given the fact that people know that this is a long-term campaign—it’s not a six month or one year campaign to the elections—people have a long-term sense that this is something that is about building a movement to support higher wages and improve working conditions. That these conditions are critical for a post-pandemic recovery and vital to have in place before the next crisis. So that’s been really interesting to see in our membership and the nuanced debates and discussions through this new campaign development phase.
Doug Ford cut two paid sick days before the pandemic, but has been forced to reverse course and deliver three during the pandemic. But these few days are inadequate, temporary and government subsidized. How do you assess these partial paid sick day reforms and how they relate to the campaign demand of 10 permanent and employer-paid sick days?
The campaign for paid sick days has built the workers’ confidence and the broader public , and raised their expectations and understanding of what it means to have adequate labor conditions. You would be hard pressed to ask anyone on the streets and get a bad answer around this. Even though the paid sick days that workers have right now are temporary, and are paid by the government, the fact that we had two paid sick days and now we have three—even though they’re temporary—it builds people’s confidence that you can fight back. These campaigns and these wins builds our collective confidence in the face of a government that said outright from the beginning that they would never implement paid sick days in Ontario.
People are really excited about the fact that we have so much public support that unfolding across the country are provincial and federal paid sick day programs. We have to recognize these small victories because if you say we lost as we did not get 10 permanent paid sick days, it doesn’t take into account that we have built over 80% support for sick days, that we have new leaders and allies in our movement and we have ultimately helped to build people’s confidence in fighting back. Developing and building public understanding and education around the need, and all the work that goes into supporting allies so that you are building a broader movement, all takes a lot of time.
During the period of a pandemic, when a lot of organizations have been immobilized because of the crisis, or haven’t been able to do the type of organizing and the work that they could do, because of all the restrictions, our campaign and our work has actually expanded. We have more people getting involved, more wanting to get active and our job is to keep opening up the space to push and keep organizing.
Government responses to the pandemic have reinforced xenophobic border controls, but demands for migrant justice have also expanded during the past year. Why is it important for the entire workers movement to center migrant justice?
I don’t think that you can fundamentally take on capitalism and take on improving labor standards if you don’t look at the role of immigration policies, and how they have been used to systematically deprive workers of rights in the workplace, and any sense of dignity and agency to fight back or to have a decent wage and conditions. And so, to me, the two are inextricably connected.
Many of us understand that if union collective agreements allow workers to be treated differentially in the same workplace and have groups without the same benefits of a collective agreement, it’s only a matter of time before everyone is pushed down to the wages and working conditions of the bottom tier. We see this happen all the time in workplaces where unions are forced to make concessions around part time workers or temporary workers or contract workers being paid less or not having benefits or not having paid sick days, while the rest of the senior workers get them. This creates a downward pressure on everyone’s wages and working conditions to go down to the lowest denominator. By analogy, if workers come into Canada without the proper rights and protections and citizenship and the ability to organize without fear of deportation, then it’s just a matter of time before everyone’s wages and working conditions start to face that downward pressure. So one of the core demands in Justice for Workers is Status for All, which is in solidarity with the Migrant Rights Network campaign launched last year fighting for Status upon arrival.
In some ways, this is fundamentally what the $15 and Fairness and the Justice for Workers campaign has been trying to reverse–to bridge that solidarity and understanding of I’m not going to be able to keep my decent wages and conditions if there is a second tier of workers being brought in as temp agency workers, and a third tier as subcontracted workers, and a fourth tier of international students, and a fifth tier of migrant workers who have no access to any citizenship.
Our ability to fight against injustice is weakened by workers being left out of our movements. I fundamentally believe that we need to have a broad labor movement that understands that its survival, its ability to be the best it can be, is when it centers workers who are the most exploited. We need to center our organizing and our workers movement on Black workers, workers who have no citizenship, and women of color. If you raise the floor for those workers, it actually raises the floor up for everybody.
We saw that during 2018 when equal pay for equal work was starting to get instituted, along with paid sick days and the $14 minimum wage. It started right at the bottom and picked everybody up. It emboldened union workers to fight for more, and it emboldened workers who were making
$15 to fight for more. It is so fundamentally part of our movement and how we need to envision our struggles, that I just don’t think you can build a successful labor movement without centering the fight for justice for migrant workers and Black workers, and especially Black women.
Given how terrible temp agencies have been, some have called for them to be shut down. What are the campaign demands to achieve justice for temp workers?
I don’t think we’ve actually ever had a demand that says shut down temp agencies. I think people sometimes go there, and I get that, because temp agencies undermine the ability to have access to basic labor conditions. But unless you fundamentally deal with the employer, who is the client company that is using this loophole in the labor laws, they just find another loophole.
All these strategies—using temp agencies, using subcontracting, misclassifying workers as independent contractors, using App-based companies to classify workers as gig workers—all of those strategies are used to avoid the responsibility of employers to be employers and to be responsible for people’s wages and working conditions. Fundamentally, what we need to do is to put that responsibility—for injuries, for deaths, for employment standards, for wages—back on the corporation at the top of the production chain. We see this really clearly on a large scale for example in long term care and in other care facilities where you have workers who are doing the same work, but are called relief staff or casual or part time. They’re doing exactly the same work, but they are hired by subcontractors and hired at half the wage.
So all of these exemptions and loopholes that are allowed to flourish within our labor laws have to be shut down. We have to make it just as expensive for employers to use these methods as to hire people directly themselves. Mechanisms like equal pay for equal work is a critical strategy to stop that. Pay transparency is another. Joint liability for injuries, wages and working conditions is another mechanism. Making sure that workers are not misclassified is another. Ensuring workers are hired directly after being at a company for three months is another tactic. These are all ways in which we’re challenging the systematic outsourcing of responsibility for workers.
The disproportionate impact on the pandemic on Black and racialized workers has demonstrated that systemic racism is a workplace issue. How does the decent work movement challenge racism?
One of our core demands that we’re fighting for is just cause protection. Right now, under our labour laws, you can be fired for no reason and the employer doesn’t have to give a reason. Who does that fundamentally impact? If you’re looking at workers who are fired for no reason, who are most impacted by low-wages and by precarious work, it’s racialized workers. So the fight for just cause protection is about supporting Black workers, workers who face systemic discrimination.
If you look at where low-wage temp agency work exists, again you see a high concentration of racialized workers, and they are in minimum wage jobs without access to benefits or sick days—that is a function of temp agencies. If you look at misclassification—if you look at cleaning, trucking, driving, courier work—who is in those jobs? It is predominantly workers of colour, immigrant, migrants and newcomers, facing low wages and poor working conditions. So if you can challenge misclassification, if you can challenge the immigration laws so that people can have status, you are challenging systemic racism.
So systemic racism and the decent work fight are intrinsically linked together because of who is disproportionately impacted by low wages, by the lack of access to unionization, by having to fight to be classified as a worker, constantly pushed outside labour market protections. If you understand who is in precarious employment and facing low wages, you will see our decent work agenda is tackling those issues one by one to give workers more power in the workplace, especially where precarious work is more dominant.
The year ahead will hopefully see the pandemic recede, alongside the lead up to a provincial election in Ontario. What are the prospects for organizing and change in the year ahead?
I’m feeling very excited about the prospect of being out in the street again. One of the pillars of the $15 and Fairness campaign was to be on street corners, outside grocery stores and subway stations, and doing door knocking in apartment buildings, talking to people. I can’t wait for our members and our leaders to be out in the community having those conversations with people in a way that doesn’t involve a mask.
Motivating and encouraging workers to get involved in the labour movement is one of the things the Workers Action Centre does on a daily basis. People call us with their individual workplace problems, and through working with people to individually challenge their employer or to understand why they’ve ended up in that situation, you inevitably end up having a conversation of, “this was not fair, how to change this and do you want to get involved?”
Those are the sort of conversations that we need to be having out on the streets and in the communities in more of a personal way—not over zoom. And to be having these conversations, “how do you think we should be fighting for justice? What is missing from this decent work agenda? What do you want to do and what do you think would make a difference? Having real conversations about here is our agenda, and we feel through our own collective experience that this would make a difference. Do you want to join in? And let’s fight for this!” I think this is a really good conversation to be having out of a horrendous experience like a pandemic, and it provides a way to move forward with our communities who have been through so much.
The election is a marker in terms of a moment, but it is just a marker. What we fundamentally need, regardless of who gets elected, is to have a movement to push whoever’s in government before and whoever’s in government afterwards on this agenda. Because whoever it is, they are always under a tremendous amount of pressure from the corporate community and the capitalist class to keep things as they are, and that’s not going to change with an election regardless who’s in power.
That movement—the ability to mobilize, the ability to generate interest, excitement, commitment, passion for decent work and dignity for all—is a real fantastic opportunity to fight for justice for everyone. I believe, because we’ve been having conversations for the past year, that our members are excited about the campaign, they want to be out on the street, they believe this is something that is fundamentally needed in their own lives and in the lives of their communities. With that passion, belief and commitment, anything is possible. I really look forward to doing that grassroots, person-to-person organizing on the streets. That to me is what I hope the next couple of years look like.
Join the June 12 online teach-in for Justice for Workers
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