Failing to organize the growing—and increasingly non-white—contingent labour market, could have disastrous consequences for the union movement as a whole
A Canadian flag salutes passersby from atop 224 Wallace Street, alternately slackening and snapping to attention in the cheerless fall wind. It marks the domain of Dominion Hosiery Mills. The factory takes up the entire second level of the freighter-sized, four-storey brick building, which is berthed in a west-end Toronto neighbourhood of boxy homes and postage-stamp lawns. Its latticed windows are propped open with spools of thread to invite in the cold.
On the factory floor, South Asian women sit six or eight to a work bench, eyes fixed on the material that they feed into the sewing machine's maw. They work quickly but carefully, reviewing the finished product with a rapid glance shorn of any extraneous emotion. Over in the supervisor's corner, posters of naked women peek out from behind a makeshift plywood partition, while on another wall, a small poster promises that all workers—whether men or women, full-time or temp—that they will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. Apart from the pneumatic rattle of the machines and the odd chastisement from a supervisor in Tamil, the room is silent.
Dominion Hosiery employs about 200 men and women, mostly Sri Lankans new to Canada. The women make the product; the men package and ship it. The factory operates twenty-four hours a day in three eight-hour shifts, churning out approximately $23 million worth of socks every year for its Israeli owners.
Last spring, a Dominion Hosiery employee phoned Deena Ladd at Toronto Organizing for Fair Employment (TOFFE), a grassroots advocacy group for part-time, temporary and casual workers not served by unions. In Toronto alone, that's over one million people. The caller, a Somali immigrant, had worked afternoon and evening shifts at the factory for the last four years until an accident outside of work forced her to stay home for two months.
Upon her return to work, the supervisor told her that someone else had taken her position. He offered her the morning shift instead—the same time as her English-language classes. After a few days' consideration, she agreed to take it, only to have the supervisor inform her that it was no longer available. Instead of giving her a pink slip, though, he argued that she'd quit.
After listening to the woman's story, Ladd fired off a letter on
her behalf to factory management. They admitted they had laid her off,
allowing her to at least claim Employment Insurance, but that was
it. Without a union to hold them to account, the company only had to
follow the bare-bones Employment Standards Act, which makes no
provisions for sick leave, job security or grievance
There's no going about the issue, says Ladd, a
former organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textiles Employees (UNITE).
If you have a union, you have the
strongest protection there is.
And more and more workers need protecting, according to Grace-Edward
Galabuzi, author of the 2001 study, Canada's Creeping Economic
Apartheid. Where companies once had to go South, he says,
what they saw as a stalemate with unions…there are now an increasing
number of people who are as vulnerable in terms of supply of labour in
Canada's large urban centres. Marginal English-language
skills, employers' refusal to recognize foreign credentials and
old-fashioned discrimination all conspire against them.
So this is
the kind of work they must take—temporary, part-time, or with
the employment contracts not standardized, Galabuzi says.
TOFFE does what it can for them, operating a helpline that answers
their questions in their own language and demonstrating against
companies suspected of engaging in unfair or illegal labour
practices. The city's immigrant service providers say the
two-year-old organization has filled a huge void. Still, as Galabuzi
concluded at the end of his study,
For Canada's racialized
group members to make significant progress in the labour market, they
need the power of collective bargaining.
Clearly, they want that power, too. In Toronto, Local 75 of the Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE)—which has a membership overwhelmingly composed of first-generation immigrants—achieves certification in nearly ninety-five per cent of its drives. Its astonishing success rate corroborates the findings of an Ontario-wide survey conducted three years ago by Charlotte Yates of McMaster University. Asked if they would join a union tomorrow if they had the chance, fifty-one per cent of visible minorities said yes, compared to only twenty-eight per cent of all non-unionized employees.
Newcomers to Canada understand implicitly what unionization means for
them, says HERE organizer Andria Babbington, herself an immigrant from
It's hard for us to communicate, coming from
different backgrounds, and the employer takes advantage of
that. It's very important that we be united.
Yet for many workers of colour, the proposition is not likely to come anytime soon. Galabuzi cites 1996 data showing that racialized group members, who had grown through immigration to 11.4 per cent of Canada's population, still made up only seven percent of unions' rank and file. The discrepancy has only widened in recent years as unions continue to woo workers in traditionally unionized sectors and newcomers continue to gravitate toward sectors where few unions, aside from HERE, UNITE and a handful of others, have ever ventured.
According to Yates's research, of workplaces in Ontario that unions tried to organize between 1996 and 1998, sixty-three per cent had no part-time workers and eighty-six per cent had no casual or temporary workers. The province's insistence that unions organize part-time and full-time workers separately, compounded by aging regulations premised on site-based organizing, don't encourage unions to sign up contingent workers.
To the pragmatists within labour, Galabuzi points out, it makes more
sense to stake out familiar territory—the
market, where potential members speak English, make good salaries and
have secure employment contracts.
They're easier to organize;
then once you organize them, it's easier to mobilize them to
articulate their interests. They also can pay more. The rate of dues
is likely to be higher. Plus, they're in sectors that have greater
stability, so that you're dealing with many of the same people
over time, which helps in establishing a leadership core.
But this business-like approach has had unintended consequences. While the unions compete for the few remaining prizes in the primary labour market, vast swaths of the new economy are being claimed for the secondary labour market, earmarked by low pay, no prospect of advancement and non-standard employment contracts. Left unchallenged by labour, more and more chimeras like Dominion Hosiery—a Canadian factory owned by an Israeli company employing South Asian workers at low wages—have begun to rear their heads.
Now, when unions do attempt to organize non-standard workers, they
often run up against a monster they inadvertently helped to create. As
Some employers hire [immigrants] precisely
because they assume they are less likely to fight you and to respond
negatively, and with collective action, when the conditions they work
in are not favourable. So the folks that operate based on that logic
are likely to fight much more, because there's much more at stake
than just compensation or working conditions.
The six-year struggle to organize Purdy's Chocolates in Vancouver is just one example. In the factory's production room, evidence of lingering tension remains. A tiny twelve-inch by eighteen-inch bulletin board has been papered over with announcements from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP). In the last collective agreement, factory management reluctantly agreed to make the bulletin board available. The agreement didn't specify a size, however, so management seized upon the oversight to make a statement of their own.
That shows just how small is their mind, says Teresa Yuen, the
Norma Rae of Purdy's. In recounting her saga, Yuen scrupulously
parcels out credit to others and pauses to thank God at critical
junctures. An immigrant from Macau, she started working part-time at
the factory in the 1992, alongside other women from China, the
Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America. Though whites comprised a
minority, management would consistently promote them to full-time
ahead of non-white workers. In terms of hours, the difference between
full-time and part-time was nominal—Yuen and other part-timers
typically worked forty-hour weeks—but full-time status entitled
employees to benefits, profit-sharing and paid vacations.
In 1996, Yuen finally complained to her MLA, Jenny Kwan, who put her in touch with the CEP. With its help, she mounted a covert certification drive, which won by a vote of fifty-five per cent. As the full-timers waged a doomed decertification campaign, Purdy's glumly sat down with the union in 1998 to hammer out the workers' first-ever collective agreement. Classified as full-time at last, Yuen and the other part-timers won benefits and paid vacations.
Then the time came to renew the collective agreement. Talks quickly soured. Toward the end of April 2001, Yuen and her coworkers abandoned their posts to take up pickets outside of the factory.
Rather than negotiate, Purdy's reopened the issue of certification, alleging that four of the membership cards had been improperly signed. The provincial labour board agreed, and cancelled the site's certification.
As the humiliated strikers returned to work, CEP frantically organized another certification drive. Purdy's tried blocking it with more litigation, using the same legal team that fought a Canadian Auto Workers' bid to unionize a McDonald's in nearby Squamish. When the labour board ordered that the drive be allowed to proceed, and when the employees voted once again for the union, Purdy's had little choice but to return to the bargaining table.
The struggle cost the CEP millions. For some rank-and-file members, the price of solidarity seemed too high. One old-timer used to drop by the strike headquarters every now and then to complain about how much it was costing the union.
Although Purdy's Chocolates won certification in January 2002,
Yuen and her fellow union activists at didn't really celebrate
until last May, when a sticking point in their collective
bargaining—the issue of a
closed shop—was settled
once and for all. A provincial arbitrator decided that union
membership would be a condition of employment at the factory.
Now, everybody is equal, enthused Yuen as she sipped champagne
with some of her onetime foes during a party at their service
Sangeeta Subramanian typifies the ambivalence that many newcomers feel
toward unions: great in principle; rusty and unworkable—or
unavailable—in practice. As the executive director of the South
Asian Women's Centre, she has heard all about conditions at
Dominion Hosiery, as well as dozens of other gloomy workplaces little
known outside immigrant communities.
We just keeping hearing horror
stories, she says: people forced to work with injuries, in abusive
environments, or for temp agencies that claim a third of their
wages. She would love to see the socks factory and all the shops in
what Galabuzi calls
the South within the North
just for the fact, she says,
employers would start feeling they have to be accountable to
But so far, Subramanian stresses,
I haven't seen any outreach
at all from unions. TOFFE is the only agency I know that's done
some outreach to women who work in these kind of situations. I
haven't seen unions connect in any way at all with immigrant
communities, to be honest. This raw sense of disconnection many
communities feel is at once a cause and an effect of the dearth of
organizing done within them.
Galabuzi believes the issue runs deeper than pragmatism or even
negligence. Most unions, he contends, have a clear-cut idea of which
workers fall under their purview.
It isn't so much the fact
that people are suffering injustice and so, on that basis, they have
material conditions that would drive them to collective action. It is
more of what they consider to be the historical patterns: these kinds
of workers have not historically been unionized and they have a much
greater level of forbearance.
So their exploitation becomes a self-fulfilling
There's no two ways about it, says
It is racism that is responsible for these kinds of
evaluations, both on the employer and on the union side.
That doesn't come as news to Subramanian and many other newcomers, who still see unions as guardians of the status quo, not agents of change. In her own South Asian community, they remember with special bitterness the case of a Toronto paramedic crew that refused to take a Sri Lankan couple's critically ill toddler to hospital, dismissing the parents' concern as paranoia. When the boy later died and the paramedics were fired, the Canadian Union of Public Employees pushed for their reinstatement. To be fair, the union had a responsibility to defend its workers, but its actions did not play well in the injured community.
The union is not seen as something that's looking to level the
playing field, Subramanian says.
I've heard people actually
say, ‘My father was a steelworker and I'm a steelworker. And
that's the way we want it to be.’ And I just want that to
pass on. I don't want diversity.' They don't want any
Such talk pains Winnie Ng, who became a union activist precisely to
improve conditions for immigrant workers. She now works as Ontario
regional director for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). She
there is tension, which, she says,
to the need for more constructive dialogue and more creative
What most newcomers don't realize, Ng points out, is that for all
its faults, labour has been one of their strongest advocates. It
spearheaded employment equity, opposed the controversial
tax, and has been trying to revamp the tenet of seniority to allow
workers of colour easier access to unionized sectors. And whatever
criticisms can be levelled at it, insists Ng,
it's also the
most democratic people's movement that we've got. So we can
stand on the outside and keep criticizing, or we can bring as many
people in to change it. If it takes an overhaul, so be it.
The CLC's National Task Force on Anti-Racism used equally radical
language in a 1997 report, Challenging Racism: Going Beyond
Recommendations. Recognizing the need for a more diverse labour
movement, it proposed the creation of an action plan
union membership by organizing people of colour who work in
non-unionized workplaces, demonstrations
who engage in discriminatory practices and the immediate hiring of
workers of colour to do organizing work.
The result, six years later? None of those recommendations have been
implemented, admits a rueful David Onyalo, the CLC's national
I think unions have really struggled in the
last ten or fifteen years over how to work with immigrant
communities, says Deena Ladd, who often gives unions workshops on
You can't just change your education. You can't
just change your organizing approach. It has to be an incredibly
integrated process, where you actually take on the structure and the
power base of your union. A lot of unions aren't prepared to do
that, because they still see the majority of their membership being
their traditional core, who pretty much maintain their power base. So
you see some initiatives taking place on the periphery, but it's
very rare to find a union that has it integrated in its whole
Moreover, a true overhaul would force the labour movement to do something that no institution likes to do: strip away the myths that keep it from carrying out the kind of profound self-examination almost everyone agrees it needs.
If you go back one hundred years, Galabuzi says,
had in places like Vancouver is a resistance by white workers to
immigration. They were in the streets saying that Chinamen were coming
and taking their jobs because they were prepared to accept a lower
wage. If you go back even further, in Nova Scotia, you had the
government passing rules requiring employers to pay blacks
seventy-five per cent less than whites. Again, that led to tensions,
with white workers going against black workers, who clearly were much
more disadvantaged than they were.
Those same white workers, Galabuzi observes, became some of the pioneers of Canadian labour. The last thing they wanted to do was to organize immigrant workers, whom they saw as being the problem in the first place.
Labour now faces a strikingly similar situation. Non-standard work, as
benefits the employer much as the labour-market
differentials in the 19th and early 20th centuries did. Repeating
past mistakes by not seeking equality for non-unionized workers could
have serious consequences for the already embattled movement.
Recall the 1980s and 1990s, when multinationals flocked South in
search of cheap labour.
That put pressure on workers at different
levels to accept less in terms of compensation and working
conditions, says Galabuzi.
It took time for it to work its way
to the bargaining table, but eventually, it did. Employers were
able to threaten workers with plant closures, which put them in a much
stronger position when it came time to renew contracts.
Nowadays, Galabuzi argues,
you have similar processes happening
within our borders. Employers use the reality of extreme exploitation
at the bottom to discipline the other levels of the labour market.
He points to Sweden and Denmark, whose unionized workers enjoy some of
the highest wages and most comprehensive benefits in the
industrialized world. Their unions have gone out of their way to
organize immigrant workers, thwarting employers that might use them as
To protect yourself, Galabuzi says, dusting off an old labour
you actually need to organize from the bottom up.
Ladd makes a similar case whenever addressing labour leaders:
more people you have that are less protected, and the more people who
are vulnerable, [the weaker] your core labour force, because the
employer is going to want all workers to be like that. It makes
sense, yet she still finds herself despairing at diatribes by union
members against part-timers or temp workers trying to
On so many levels, she says,
it's a discussion about the
rise of contingent work and the changing nature of work and how unions
are affected by that, and how they need to work with non-unionized
Arguably, the issue's urgency and scope warrant real and concerted cooperation among unions. In the meantime, some have begun to act on their own. UNITE was one of the first, developing an associate membership for home-based garment workers in the early 1990s. More recently, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada fought to overturn provincial legislation barring migrant workers in southern Ontario's giant industrial farms from joining unions. And thanks to HERE, even temp agency workers—long on the outside looking in—now have a precedent for unionization. The union's dynamic Local 75 organized a group of them alongside regular employees at a Sheraton hotel in Mississauga, Ontario.
Andria Babbington served as one of the organizers.
uniforms, name tags, everything, she says, her Caribbean lilt
heavy with sympathy.
Once we got the other workers in the union, we
had to make sure that these agency workers were unionized as well,
because these people were willing to fight with the rest of the
workers and they were doing the same work.
Her own workplace, the Toronto Sheraton Centre, has been unionized for
nearly thirty years. As its shop steward, she finds herself constantly
having to defend the union to her co-workers.
When people get
upset, they sometimes say, ‘Oh, what's the point of having
the union?’ People who walk into a place today that's
already unionized, they sometimes take things for granted.
When they really stop to think about it, though, and compare
themselves to other newcomers working in Toronto, most of the
hotel's employees do see the difference that having a union
makes. Most important, to Babbington, is the sense of unity and
purpose it brings in continuing to press for change.
me, I spend more time worrying about other people than myself. Because
if I do it just for myself, I don't really make change at the end
of the day.
As Babbington and the other visionaries striving to improve conditions for immigrant workers have come to realize, the beauty and confounding truth of it is, looking out for the interests of others ultimately advances your own interests, too. Organizing the millions of non-standard workers across Canada will not only give them the protection that only a union can provide, but it will also help to safeguard the hard-won gains enjoyed by other Canadian workers, and enable them to win even greater victories in the future.