Labour Organizing for Tomorrow

Developing Forms of Labour Organization that Respond to the Crisis of Work

  • Traditional labour unions, said organizer with Frites Alors, Martin, are structurally unfit to organize the growing segment of the working class known as the “precariat”—those who work in part-time, temporary, low-wage jobs. Graphic Lee Mclure

This generation is a generation of crisis.

It’s grown into a world defined by a series of overlapping crises. From the permanent economic crash set off in 2008, to the crisis of borders and migration, to the climate crisis, and beyond. This generation is, in many ways, defined by its relation to a dying order and a changing world.

The effects of these crises can be measured on many scales, from the global down to the individual, and everywhere in between. At the individual level, these intersecting crises manifest themselves through a force that everyone must interact with: work.

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The corner of Rachel and Rivard St. seems, at first glance, to be a typical corner in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood.

A long, heavily-used bike path lines the north side of Rachel. Rows of old trees cover the north-south streets, hiding the old duplexes and triplexes that house the young professionals of the gentrified neighborhood. Within walking distance, trendy coffee shops, bars, and restaurants colonize the main arteries of the borough.

On the ground floor beneath two stories of apartments on that corner, workers in a small diner called Frites Alors serve fast food. Like a rapidly growing segment of the working class, they work in the low-wage service sector.

“The working conditions were very low,” said Martin, who worked at Frites Alors last year and whose last name has been omitted out of concerns for future employment. “I was on minimum wage, with few to no advantages on the side.” These types of conditions, he said, are typical in the restaurant industry.

Then those workers at Frites Alors decided to do something that isn’t typical in the restaurant industry—at least not yet. They decided to unionize.

They announced through a press release in August 2016 that they had formed a union. They listed a series of demands to their boss, including wage increases, a minimum amount of guaranteed hours per week, five sick days per year, and other basic changes.

The union they formed was called the Syndicat des travailleurs et travailleuses de Frite Alors. It was created as a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World—a long standing, radical, rank-and-file labour union.

Formed in 1905 in Chicago, the IWW—also known as the Wobblies—have always rejected the dominant form of labour unionism. Rather than seeking legal recognition through labour laws, thereby forcing the company to recognize the union, the Wobblies assert their existence to the boss directly.

“This means that we’re not relying on the law,” Martin said. “Because when a unionist relies on the law for advancements, we’re following the rules of a game that one player can change at any time.”

“So we’re the ones taking our union, and our struggle, into our own hands.”

The IWW uses a “paralegal” strategy based on direct action. This means that workers negotiate with bosses, and plan out and enact pressure tactics themselves, rather than working through professional union negotiators.

Workplace direct action, Martin said, follows an “escalation of tactics” model, allowing for hesitant members to take part in ways they feel comfortable. These tactics, he says, can range from “everyone loudly eating chips in a meeting with the boss, to refusing to wear the uniform […] to workplace slowdowns and wildcat strikes.” A wildcat strike is when workers spontaneously walk off the job without giving prior warning to the boss.

When one of the organizers was fired during the unionization process in August last year, the workers, along with other IWW members from across the city, occupied the restaurant and shut it down with banners and noisemakers. By the end of the afternoon, the worker had been re-hired.

Around four months after publicly announcing the creation of their union, the workers had concluded an agreement with their boss which saw “significant gains” in pay and working conditions. However, they were required to keep the exact details of the agreement secret.

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The IWW isn’t the only group attempting to organize workers who have been traditionally ignored by mainstream unions. In every field where workers are facing increasing precarity, organizations and coalitions are cropping up to combat it.

One of those coalitions is the Comités unitaire sur le travail étudiant, which is comprised of grassroots organizers who work to improve the material condition of students, workers, and unpaid interns.

Pierre Luc Junet is a fine arts student at Concordia who organizes with CUTE at the university. For him, organizing against unpaid internships is important because it allows students who traditionally don’t take part in the broader student movement, such as those in technical fields such as education, social work, or psychology, to take part.

The idea behind CUTE, Junet says, is to move the student movement beyond just fighting to preserve historical gains—or, preventing things like tuition increases or budget cuts—and to work towards making new gains.

“We don’t know how to make new wins,” Junet says. “We saw that, for internships, there’s an opportunity to change that.”

Psychology students in Quebec created a precedent for the effectiveness of action by organized interns, Junet says.

Psychology students in Quebec must take a two-year PhD program before they can officially become psychologists. During those two years, the students work as interns, putting in 810 to 1,600 hours per year, depending on their university. This work removes an estimated 12,000 patients from waiting lists annually.

Like most school internships, they weren’t paid. Psychology interns in Quebec are organized in a union called the Fédération interuniversitaire des doctorant.e.s en psychologie. The FIDEP acted as a coordinating body for members across the province, and in 2016, the interns staged a general strike.

After over four months off the job, the FIDEP managed to negotiate a deal with the provincial government. From then on, interns would be paid $12,500 per semester in bursaries in exchange for their work.

Junet is critical of the deal, pointing out similarities between the deal and “workfare,” because the interns are not being paid directly for their labour and are “not fully recognized as workers.” Regardless though, he still sees it as victory, even if not a total one.

Developing those types of networks on a broader scale, across disciplines, is one of the CUTE’s main goals moving forward.

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we need to redefine unionism, organization, and how we perceive and conceive work. – Pierre Luc Junet, organizer with Comités unitaire sur le travail étudiant Concordia

Since 2010, Kader Belaouni has been immersed in some of the most hardened, exploitative labour practices in Quebec. He’s seen all kinds of illegal practices—stolen wages, bosses renting company-owned apartments to workers at inflated prices, sexual harassment, and companies closing temporarily to avoid paying employees.

Belaouni works with migrants, some of the most vulnerable workers in the province. He’s an organizer at a small organization in Montreal called the Immigrant Workers Centre.

The IWC was founded in 2000 by Filipino-Canadian union organizers. They noticed, at the time, that workplaces that employed large amounts of migrants often struggled to unionize, facing intimidation tactics by bosses. They opened the Centre as a space where workers could discuss their situation, and, after unionization, know their own rights rather than leave them in the hands of union-hired experts.

Today, the IWC provides a wide array of services with the goal of empowering migrant workers and protecting them from exploitative practices by bosses. Free language classes are given on the weekends, and the Centre hosts a legal clinic for workers. They also send representatives to host “know your rights” workshops for newly arrived refugees.

The IWC is divided into two main sections, called La Table and La Tête. La Table is primarily concerned with workers in placement agencies—companies that find jobs for workers and make their profit by taking a cut off their wages. La Tête works with farm workers, especially those in the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

Asked to describe typical problems faced by migrant workers in Quebec, Belaouni spoke of a case that La Tête handled recently. The boss of a group of Guatemalan workers had been docking their wages, claiming that the company was using the money to apply for work permits. It wasn’t—the company was just stealing the wages. IWC organizers helped the Guatemalans navigate the labour codes to actually get their work permits.

With placement agencies, Belaouni said, a wide range of problems and exploitative practices exist.

Over 50 per cent of employers in Montreal use placement agencies to hire workers, and jobs in placement agencies are growing three times faster than overall job growth. These agencies act as middlemen between a worker and their boss. Migrant workers are disproportionately represented in placement agencies.

The problem with these agencies, Belaouni said, is that it is unclear where responsibility lies. If a workplace accident were to occur, for example, both the placement agency and the company they’re hiring for can shift blame to the other side.

Other cases are even more extreme. Belaouni said that he has seen, multiple times, cases of placement agencies withholding pay from up to 100 workers at a time, closing shop, and opening up with a new company name “down the street.” He said that this practice is relatively common, and agencies are not sufficiently punished for predatory behaviour.

The IWC is pushing for reforms to the laws that govern placement agencies. He hopes that the government will designate which side—the agency or the company—bears responsibility in the case of workplace accidents or other incidents which could cause workers to take legal action against a company. The Centre also collaborates with the IWW, which is working to organize agency workers into a union.

It is also participating and mobilizing as part of the coalition for a $15 minimum wage. Belaouni said that an increased minimum wage would benefit all workers—but migrant workers in particular, because they disproportionately work minimum wage jobs.

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Work is becoming increasingly precarious, due to a wide array of structural factors.

Automation has eliminated a significant amount of the formerly well-paying factory jobs, and neoliberal globalization has displaced many more to areas where companies can pay workers next to nothing.

Systematic attacks on the labour movement have seen union membership sink to its lowest level in generations. As worker productivity increases, wages stagnate, and prices for basic goods increase.

Martin called this the “new reality of work,” and believes that rank-and-file organizing by workers themselves can provide a clear way toward a just future for workers and poor people.

Traditional labour unions, he said, are structurally unfit to organize the growing segment of the working class known as the “precariat”—those who work in part-time, temporary, low-wage jobs.

The structure imposed by labour laws on legally recognized unions is a “unionism of experts,” Martin said. It requires unions to send professional negotiators and lawyers to negotiate contracts. The high cost of this model means that unions must prioritize large shop floors with long term employment. Jobs with high employee turnover, few workers, and low wages simply don’t fit within unions’ cost-benefit analysis.

“We’re developing a new form of struggle, a new form of unionism, that fits with these conditions of work that are no longer rare,” Martin said.

Junet echoed those sentiments in regards to internships. He pointed out how internships are increasingly the “new reality on campus” all over the world. He said that he hopes the CUTE committees can help organize this segment of student-workers who have traditionally been an afterthought in the broader student movement.

He sees the question of unpaid internships as a stepping stone to a longer-term goal of having student work itself recognized as work. Because school work is work, he said, and because university degrees are increasingly seen as a requirement for entry to the job market, students deserve a wage.

“We need to redefine unionism, organization, and how we perceive and conceive work,” he said.

For Kader Belouini, the future of the labour movement includes expanding the definition of what constitutes workplace issues. He said that, to achieve justice for workers, cities and regions will need to adopt sanctuary status, allowing migrant workers to access basic benefits like unemployment insurance. Fighting to gain legal status, he said, will be a growing issue for migrant workers, and by extension workers in general.

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The word “crisis” conjures images of disasters, of collapse, of uncontrolled change. The word, though, stems from the Greek “krisis,” which simply means the act of making a decision.

These organizers, and the groups they represent, all recognize that the crisis of work represents a turning point, and are taking the decision to steer it in a direction of solidarity, as a defense against precarity and exploitation.

The future, if they have their way, belongs to the rank-and-file.

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