Building Worker Power: The Case for Organized Labour
“We are not robots. We are human beings.”
That’s what Rashad Long, a picker at an Amazon warehouse, told a press conference in New York City when Amazon workers announced their plan to unionize last December. Long painted a grim picture of life at Amazon: an inhumane environment where workers toiled long hours, forced to work extended unpaid shifts and pressured with disciplinary actions for not meeting unrealistic productivity targets. To say they fear for their health and safety at work is an understatement.
What Long described was a modern-day sweatshop, literally: “The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my shirts even when it’s freezing cold outside. We have asked [for] air conditioning, but the company told us that the robots inside cannot work in the cold weather.”
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world. Evidently, this distinction has come at the expense of the workers who made his wealth: every nine seconds Bezos makes more than the annual median salary of his employees. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t want a union. Perhaps that’s why UFCW 175 had to file a labour complaint against Amazon Canada for interfering with an organizing drive in Ontario. The company had fired union supporters and closed one of their courier locations to fight the union. And it’s not the first time Amazon has gone to such lengths to prevent unionization.
“Corporations and captains of industry opine that we don’t need unions anymore—that all the necessary protections for workers have been won and are enshrined in law. That’s just not true,” says Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Johnson. “With the assault on unions for the past three decades, the decline in union density, and the weakening of labour law, nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Amazon workers aren’t buying it either. Because of their agitation and resistance, Bezos announced in 2018 that he was raising the start rate for Amazon workers to $15 an hour, the accepted living wage rate in the United States. “The reality is that fairness is not the norm. The role of unions has always been to support workers and help build better standards,” Johnson continues. “Robber barons like Bezos are no friend of workers; all decisions they make are motivated by personal profit. Ultimately, we know the only path out of poverty today is becoming a union member. And that’s why we organize.”
Since their birth in 18th century Europe, unions have been pushing government and business to treat workers better. But what happens when the legislation designed to support workers fails to protect them? “What’s the process of justice that happens then?” asks Stephen Portman, advocacy lead at Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS). His question is rhetorical: Portman and the legal team at TAPS are what happens. Together Against Poverty Society is a non-profit organization in Victoria, BC that provides free, in person legal advocacy for non-unionized workers who find themselves in disputes over their basic rights. TAPS helps clients with income assistance, disability benefits, employment standards, and tenancy issues. “We really are the pencil pushers of the social justice movement,” he says, with no hint of irony.
Portman knows too well the importance of organized labour. He witnesses it every day as the lead of the Employment Standards Legal Advocacy Project (ESLAP), defending the rights of non-unionized vulnerable workers whose only legal protection is the Employment Standards Act. He also knows the support his team provides can only go so far. “Often the issues we see with workers arise from the inherent power imbalance in the workplace,” Portman explains. “Whenever we get a win, it’s really just a win to treat a worker badly. So we fight to make an employer to pay his workers minimum wage. We fight and we win but the reality is that these workers are still making minimum wage and they are still living in poverty.”
The Employment Standards Act offers legal protections for workers in non-unionized workplaces, but those protections are far inferior to what unionized workers achieve through collective bargaining. And if an employer in a non-unionized workplace breaks the law, it’s up to the worker—or TAPS—to hold them to account, whereas unionized workers have a union backing them up. That’s why TAPS uses every client encounter as a teaching moment. “When I talk to workers, they often don’t even know what a union is. And those who do might have a negative impression of them,” comments Portman. “But when we back these workers up and win, they feel powerful again. That’s when we can have a conversation about what better looks like—and that’s with a union.”
UFCW 1518 supports the important work TAPS does for non-unionized workers, as part of the union’s fairness mandate and organizing strategy. Portman recounts the story of a UFCW 1518 community health worker who helped bring the union to her workplace. “They decided to organize because their boss, who was a male boss, was treating them like dirt every day. It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about occupational health and safety. It was about respect and dignity,” Portman explains. “That’s something the Employment Standards Act doesn’t buy you. Only the power of a collective body against an employer can do that. It’s a beautiful cliché, but there’s strength in numbers. And that’s why unions matter.”
Non-unionized workers are vulnerable workers. Yet, some of them are more so than others. Last year, sexual assault centres and worker rights organizations in Victoria began noticing a trend among workers seeking support after being victims of sexual harassment incidents at work. The majority were women working in the service industry: the staff serving food at restaurants and pouring drinks at bars and clubs in the city. As these organizations tried their best to support these workers, they arrived at a second realization: there was a gap in resources available to address this common experience. That’s how May I? Service Industry Sexualized Violence Prevention was born.
May I? is a young but ambitious organization looking to open up the conversation about sexualized violence in the workplace and challenge its normalization. “A big part of the problem comes from the power dynamics engrained in the industry and the sense of entitlement in terms of customer service,” explains Kenya Rogers, project coordinator for May I? Having worked in the service industry, Rogers speaks from experience. The demography of the industry adds another layer to the problem: it’s largely gendered. “Eighty percent of servers in BC are women,” she says. “We see men with higher power in the industry but more women occupying serving roles. And there are also other intersections; trans and queer folks are more prone to violence too.”
Unions have been a strong force for acknowledging and addressing sexual violence in the workplace. UFCW Canada has a Women and Gender Equity Committee, which advocates for gender equity and runs educational campaigns against sexual harassment at work. But the service industry is largely non-unionized. Those who are brave enough to come forward and report face an intimidating bureaucratic process, in which they are often re-traumatized and experience minimal chance of seeing justice served.
Feminist and advocacy organizations believe prevention through education is the best tool that service industry workers have for the time being. This is why May I? is developing specialized curriculum that addresses issues specific to the industry. “Our intention is to bring a conversation about sexualized violence, bystander intervention and employee rights, so that we can foster a culture of consent and ensure all employees are protected and feel safer,” says Rogers.
About 40 percent of Canadian women report being victims of sexualized violence.  About 20 percent report experiencing harassment at work. That’s why working women need unions. “As a survivor of sexualized violence, I think it is so valuable when folks like UFCW 1518 see the work we do as important,” adds Rogers. “That in itself creates a culture where this work matters and that contributes to broader changes in society. It is exciting to see unions taking leadership on this.”
A hopeless but last resort for workers experiencing abuse on the job is to quit. Unfortunately, for about 310,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, leaving their employer is not a viable option. 
Established in 1973, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows Canadian employers to hire foreign workers to fill temporary labour shortages. Migrant workers arriving in Canada under this program are tied to one job, one employer and one location. That’s problematic, says Susanna Allevato Quail of the Migrant Workers Centre. “There’s an extreme power imbalance between migrant workers and management. Not only are they employees, but employers actually have the ability to decide whether they can stay in Canada or not. If they are sexually harassed, if they don’t get paid overtime and they speak up and get fired, not only are they unemployed but they have to return home. So when these workers are abused they have to think: do I stick it out or do I leave the country?”
The Migrant Workers Centre is a non-profit organization that facilitates access to justice for migrant workers through the provision of legal information, advice and representation. Since 1976, they have been fighting the inadequate labour laws governing migrant workers and their poor enforcement. In addition to the abuse temporary foreign workers experience at work, Allevato Quail says the system also perpetuates their exploitation. “Almost without exception, all TFWs we see have paid a fee to get a job, and in BC and in Canada that is illegal.” Fees are exorbitant too, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. Changing an employer to escape abuse at work is not an option for most; applying for a new work permit takes about six months, during which time migrant workers are not eligible for income assistance.
The labour movement cares about the challenges facing non-unionized migrant workers. The Canadian Labour Congress has long been advocating for comprehensive measures to be taken to better protect migrant workers’ rights, including the establishment of a federal Migrant Workers’ Commission. In BC, some progress was made last year after the NDP government passed the Temporary Foreign Workers Protection Act. This legislation will create a registry of TFW employers and recruitment agencies so that they can be actively monitored and it will impose tougher penalties to those breaking the law. When the playing field is so steeply slanted however, unions remain the only answer.
Organizing the largely non-unionized migrant worker community has historically been a challenge: most are women, many speak no English, and the work is seasonal. Fear of retribution is one of the biggest barriers, says Kassandra Cordero, former UFCW 1518 member and current Director of Equity and Human Rights at the BC Federation of Labour. “Oftentimes these workers live on the premises owned by the employer, where there aren’t clear legalities about visitors. So a union organizer can show up to the gate of a farm and be denied access,” she explains. “Another challenge is the precarity of the work. If a group of workers gets organized then they can be blacklisted from the organization that sent them and be discriminated by employers.”
Despite these difficulties, however, UFCW 1518 took on the challenge of organizing farmworkers who were being brought to BC from Mexico under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. In 2008, the union won the first certification of migrant SAWP workers, and went on to organize workers at two additional farms over the next two years. Outside of BC, UFCW 1118 in Alberta and UFCW 832 in Manitoba have won the right for temporary foreign workers to be sponsored for residency under the provincial nominee program. “If these workers were given residency, they would be able to contribute in meaningful ways to the community and employers wouldn’t have anything to hold against them to exploit them and drive down wages,” asserts Cordero. “A unionized collective agreement that makes a pathway to residency is so important to providing justice.”
Amazon workers who are less valued than robots, labour laws that don’t protect workers, women sexually harassed at work, and exploited migrant workers are proof that where employers are left unchecked, unfairness thrives. “Unions have fought hard for a voice at work and for fairness in the workplace,” Secretary-Treasurer Johnson says. “But we can’t stop. Unions and our collective agreements are under constant attack from right wing governments and powerful corporate forces. We’ve got to keep fighting to protect those gains, and to bring the rights and protections of the union to all workers.”
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