Izida Zorde: I want to begin by asking you about the Workers’ Action Centre and the organizing that you do.
Deena Ladd: The Workers’ Action Centre is an organization that supports workers who don’t have a union. They could be in temp, contract, part-time or casual types of jobs experiencing violations of their rights or facing discrimination at work. We work with these workers to deal with issues they have in the workplace. But we also do a lot of organizing to improve working conditions systemically across Ontario.
We’re trying to involve workers in the broader labour movement even if they are not connected to any other organization. How can we encourage people not to be victims of wage theft or violations of their rights, but also, through dealing with problems at work, to begin to talk about broader political issues? Why is it that so many workers are facing violations of their rights at work? Why didn’t you get your overtime pay? Why do you feel you will lose your job if you say something about health and safety at work? Through this kind of political discussion we are encouraging people to get involved in the organization, to become members, and then get involved in campaigns, organizing and educating to build a broader labour movement.
IZ: Why is providing the opportunity for people to get politically involved and make changes that have a tangible impact on their lives particularly necessary in light of the rise in precarious work?
DL: Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a huge increase in precarious work. We’ve seen jobs move from being full-time and permanent with benefits and pensions to being casual, contract, on call, relief, short-term, with no benefits, no pensions and declining wages. In Ontario, about 1.5 million people make less than $15 an hour. That’s a huge low-wage economy. In addition, people lack access to dental care and prescription drugs. Employers are not providing these benefits anymore. We’re seeing workers accessing work through subcontractors, franchisees, brokers and temp agencies. They don’t have a relationship with their employer. Workers are nervous about organizing. People’s expectations about what they should get in a job are being completely crushed. You talk to anyone who’s looking for a job and if they get a six-month contract they think they’ve hit the jackpot. And if they’ve got benefits? Wow, they’re set. Having a decent job, with decent wages and benefits, with an employer who is responsible for your working conditions, is now rare. It’s becoming a myth. That’s a concern to us and should be a concern to everyone.
IZ: How do we fight against lowest common denominator thinking when so many people are facing these types of working conditions?
DL: People are asking “Why do you have a pension? I don’t have a pension. Why do you have benefits? I don’t have benefits – that’s not fair.” Should we be grateful for having any type of job? I think what our organizing has done is change the questions to ask instead, “Why can’t we have benefits? Why can’t we have pensions? Why can’t we have decent jobs? Who is making these decisions and is this inevitable?”
I don’t think it’s only globalization, technology and the restructuring in the labour market that are the determinants here. I think it’s the steps governments have taken to deregulate the labour market and the fact that businesses want workers to accept that precarious work and low wages are inevitable. We see this when our politicians say “Just get used to it. It’s the wave of the future. You’re going to have five or six careers in your lifetime. You should be constantly training. You should be completely flexible. If your employer wants you, you should be right there. And you shouldn’t say anything because you should be grateful you have a job.” What we’ve been trying to do in our organizing is to say “Absolutely not.” We should have expectations of decent work. We should be able to say “If you’re going to pay me, I should be paid over the poverty line. You shouldn’t be paying me to subsist in poverty. And why shouldn’t I have full-time work? Why shouldn’t I have equal pay for equal work? Just because you’ve hired me through a temp agency, why am I being paid 40 percent less?” Pushing people to critically question what’s going on and move beyond that to action is what the Workers’ Action Centre, labour and community groups have been doing.
IZ: Why is it essential that we work to make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met before we ask them to participate in whatever social movement we’re part of?
DL: When we’re doing community organizing and when we’re asking for support for the issues we’re working on, it’s important we understand what power we have and what power the people we’re asking to work with us have. In Ontario, we have a 30 percent unionization rate. The other 70 percent of workers rely on basic employment standards. They have no paid sick days, they have no just cause protection and they cannot speak out if they have a violation of their rights at work without losing their jobs. If these are the people we’re asking to get involved in our campaigns, we need to understand the privilege and the power that we have. If you have benefits, if you have good wages, if you have a collective agreement, if you have a union, if you have a pension, you are part of a very privileged group of workers. When you’re fighting for your own improvements, better collective agreements, better language, it’s going to be hard to get support for those issues because many around you in your community have nothing.
It’s critical that we build alliances between union and non-union workers so we can raise the floor for everyone. If the floor is too low, all our working conditions, our wages, our benefits are going to suffer. This is what we’ve been seeing over the last 20 or 30 years. Fighting concessions is a huge challenge at our collective bargaining tables. If you have a union, you have made very few gains because you’re surrounded by so many people who have nothing and there’s a lot of resentment there. Why should they fight for your 15 paid sick days, for instance, when they have zero? If we don’t understand those connections, if we don’t understand that we have to ensure that everyone has at least the basic floor, that our struggles are connected, we can’t fight for more.
Part of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign and part of the work that we’ve been doing at the Workers’ Action Centre has been trying to make those connections, to understand that if we are to build better wages and working conditions, better public education, better health care, stronger community services, stronger public service jobs and better working conditions in the private sector, we need to bring everybody up. We can’t leave anyone behind and that means understanding who is left behind and why they’re being left behind. Racialized and immigrant women are making 54 cents on the dollar made by men compared to white women who are making 72 cents on the dollar. Poor working conditions and poor wages differentially impact workers. We need to make connections with workers who are coming in through the migrant worker program, who are undocumented, who have their status threatened if they speak up about poor working conditions or discrimination.
IZ: Could you tell us about the organizing you did as a parent to support teachers in the last round of bargaining.
DL: Sure. I’m a parent of two girls and I am really interested in the education they’re getting in our public school system. In my daughters’ school, we formed a social justice committee of parents six years ago. We wanted to work with teachers, other parents and our kids to have conversations around issues of social justice. We noticed there was always a Thanksgiving food drive and there were a lot of charitable events organized at the school for international fundraising drives, which was great. But when I talked to my kids and asked them if critical conversations were being had about these charity events, it was clear the children were not talking about why they were trying to collect food for the food hampers for Thanksgiving. Why was it that families in our communities didn’t have enough to eat and relied on food banks when there is so much wealth in Canada? Why do children in Africa need wells for water? What has happened internationally that countries in the south have been depleted of wealth and resources? We felt that those questions were important to ask. We formed a social justice committee as a vehicle to explore and support critical thinking and discussions.
Working conditions, quality education, ensuring that teachers have what they need to do their jobs and that schools have what they need are all part of a social justice agenda. When the contract negotiations were happening between the teachers and the government and Bill 115 was introduced we saw it as part of that agenda. It was very much an issue we were concerned about. Members of our social justice committee asked what we could do to support teachers? What could we do to show the government that we believe in good quality public education, we are concerned about class sizes, we believe teachers should have the professional development, the wages and working conditions they need to do their jobs. It was very natural for us to organize an action at Queen’s Park and reach out to other schools in our neighbourhood and to have some really hard conversations with other parents to get them out to the rally, do leafleting to other parents and talk about the issues. That work has been important because it’s built relationships with teachers in our school.
I think it’s vital that teachers work with parents to create spaces where you can build ongoing relationships, where you’re organizing events that are not necessarily related to traditional forms of solidarity work. Maybe it’s a workshop on diversity. Maybe it’s supporting