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A new resource for low-wage workers in Sudbury

by Scott Neigh

This photo shows members of the board of the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre with members of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty at an event earlier this fall. (Image provided by SWEAC)
This photo shows members of the board of the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre with members of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty at an event earlier this fall. (Image provided by SWEAC)

If you are having problems with your employer in a part-time, low-wage, or otherwise lousy job, there's a new organization in town offering support. The Sudbury Workers' Education and Advocacy Centre (SWEAC) has been slowly growing, building relationships with workers, and finding funding over the last year and a half, and they just announced a new phone number to make it easier for workers to be in touch: 705-470-3323.

Shelley Condratto is the chair of the committee that has been creating the centre. Because "many workplace situations are complex," she says that "the idea is not that we will give advice over the phone." Rather, the number is meant as a point of first contact with workers, and then "the idea is for them to come in and meet with us" as part of figuring out possible ways to respond to the problem.

Though many of those who are making the centre a reality are involved with the labour movement, it is not itself a union and the goal is not to organize low-wage workers. Rather, the vision is to use an education-focused approach to help low-wage workers know their rights and to build skills for responding when those rights are violated. Though the organizers are also building their own knowledge about systems, rules, and possibilities, the intent is to create a space in which workers themselves will become central in sharing knowledge, skills, and experiences to support each other. It is "the most vulnerable people in our workforce" that SWEAC is hoping to reach, according to Condratto, for many of whom "unionization maybe isn't an option."

Precarious Work

Across the continent, this category of workers has been steadily growing. "The nature of employment has changed," according to Bruce Elman, Chair of the Board of Governers of the Law Commisssion of Ontario, in presenting their recent study of the issue. "Much work can be characterized as 'precarious' -- that is work with low wages, less job security, few benefits, and only minimal control over working conditions."

A 2013 study by a team of university-based researchers in southern Ontario concluded that "precarious employment is increasing" and found that only about 60% of workers in the Toronto area "have stable, secure jobs" (4).

A 2011 survey by the Toronto Workers' Action Centre of "people in low-wage and precarious work" in that city found that 22% of those surveyed reported being paid less than the minimum wage, 33% reported employers that refused to pay wages that were owed, and 39% reported never receiving overtime pay for overtime work (1).

Condratto says, "We don't fully know what the scope is in Sudbury," as there has been little published research specific to the city. However, SWEAC did some research of its own in the past year, and they have no reason to suspect that conditions are any better here than anywhere else in the province. She says, "We've talked to workers in our community, and there's a need."

The most common complaints they have heard from workers in Sudbury have involved employers not paying wages that they owe to employees, in violation of the law. This includes not providing vacation pay, refusing to pay wages for training hours, or straight-up wage theft. Many local workers have also talked to SWEAC about significant health and safety violations in their workplaces, as well as experiences of being fired arbitrarily, with inadequate notice, or without the severance pay to which they should have been entitled.

Along with these basic issues of fairness, and the great difficulty that low-wage workers face in affording housing, food, and other basic necessities, Condratto also sees precarious work as an issue of community health: "If you are in a healthy work situation and you have a good and living wage, then you are healthier. And you're more able to participate more in your community, to give back to your community more."

Different Models

There are many experiments across the continent that involve workers responding to the changing realities of work in the 21st century. The workers' centre model is a common one, with examples in bigger cities like Toronto and Montreal, and also in smaller communities like Windsor and Peterborough. Workers' centres in different cities confront the same general issues and needs, but the approach and emphasis varies from one to the next depending on resources and local circumstances.

For instance, Mostafa Henaway of the Immigrant Workers' Centre in Montreal says that along with providing individual supports and worker education, and basic services needed by immigrant workers like language training, they also prioritize "campaign-based work" and "organizing," and they try to "collectivize casework." Examples where they have forged collective political campaigns from multiple individual grievances include instances of wage theft, factory closures, and efforts to change employment regulations. They are quite clear, Henaway says, that they are "trying to build a more radical labour movement and doing that within immigrant communities." However, maintaining funding for staff is "extremely challenging."

At an event in Sudbury earlier in the fall, Deena Ladd, an organizer with the Toronto Workers' Action Centre, also talked about combining individual supports, rights-focused education, and rowdy political campaigns. One slide she showed proclaimed, "We pressure bad bosses!", and she talked about doing demonstrations at restaurants that had stolen wages of employees and engaging in shaming campaigns against other employers who had acted unjustly. Her organization is also one of the provincial leads in the campaign to get Ontario's minimum wage raised to $14 an hour.

For the moment, the centre in Sudbury is staying focused on education and mutual aid as ways to improve the lives of workers, in large part because of questions of capacity and funding. A request for funds to the City of Greater Sudbury was declined earlier this year -- the centre in Toronto is in part municipally funded -- but they have received money in the past from the United Way and are hopeful that a grant application to the Trillium Foundation will be successful.

Condratto said, "We are grateful that we have strong partnerships with the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty and the [Sudbury and District] Labour Council. They do a lot of that direct action support, and we support them in that initiative. At this time, our resources are quite limited, so our main focus right now is the education piece. We do support the Raise the Rates campaign and the raise the minimum wage campaign, but at this point our main focus is education. ... In the future we may take on some of those more outward activist roles, but based on our resources it's not our focus right now."

Groups in other cities are experimenting with other models. In Hamilton, Ontario, a group of trade unionists came together in 2010 to find a way to respond to the limitations of conventional unions when it comes to the issues of low-wage and precarious workers. Accoridng to organizer Alex Diceanu, they considered the workers' action centre model, but "we decided that was way beyond our capacity." Instead, based on an example from Seattle, Washington, they started Steel City Solidarity, an example of what they call a "solidarity network" -- "a network of people who have made a commitment to each other to get each other's back when we encounter problems at work, as tenants, and even as consumers." Unlike workers' centres, none of the participants are paid staff. They generally avoid bureaucratic channels to address the needs of workers but instead use direct action -- demonstrations, public shaming campaigns, workplace disruptions, and so on. Their focus so far has mostly been cases of employers stealing wages from workers, and they have successfully won the unpaid wages in almost every instance, though the total number of campaigns they have been able to wage thus far remains relatively modest. Over the longer term, Diceanu said, they hope to use smaller victories in these cases to build "a permanent, stable community of resistance that can take on the small battles that come our way, say a workplace that's stealing your wages, and build up towards ... bigger issues."

In Halifax, the experiment takes a bit of a different form. Rather than being general to all low-wage and precarious workers, it is a campaign specifically by and for people who work in coffee shops, and unlike the workers' centre and solidarity network models, the end goal is official union certification. Baristas Rise Up began as an organizing drive in a single shop, but has become a city-wide campaign. It is, according to worker-organizer Charlie Huntley, "a rank-and-file, worker-lead movement" and not a traditional, staff-lead union drive, in part because of a sense that a worker-to-worker approach would be more successful and in part because of "ideals of self-emancipation ... and self-determination. ... It's just more empowering to have the workers take this on." They have successfully organized a few workplaces so far and are making progress on others, and the workers in the initial shop just ratified their first collective agreement. Hutley says, "Basically, what we're working towards are better working conditions, justice and fairness in the workplace, and building solidarity among workers."

Moving Forward in Sudbury

Condratto sees 2014 as a big building year for SWEAC. They want to hold training and educational sessions both with low-wage workers themselves and with frontline staff in agencies that are likely to have low-wage workers as clients, to help spread knowledge and skills related to workers' rights. They intend to continue to build on the success of their public forum earlier this fall by exploring the possibility of regular meetings of workers who wish to be involved in the centre. Given that most of their work so far has happened in the downtown core, a top priority is expanding their outreach and educational activities to the outlying communities in the Sudbury area. Similarly, much of what they have done so far has been with workers who are anglophone and non-indigenous, and they want to work on building relationships with francophone and First Nations workers.

But most of all, Condratto said, "We're still sort of in a building stage. We want to hear from workers. We want to know exactly what workers want and need out of a centre ... and what they feel they don't have through other organizations."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Windsor Workers' Action Centre receives municipal funding. In fact, its funding to date has come from Unifor Local 444, the Trillium Foundation, and a Green Shield grant.

To contact the Sudbury Workers' Education and Advocacy Centre, you can call them at 705-470-3323, email them at sudburyworkerscentre@gmail.com, or check out their Facebook page.

Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists, a blogger, and the producer/host of Talking Radical Radio.


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scott.neigh (Scott Neigh)
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I am a writer, parent, and activist living in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of my writing, see my personal blog (at http://scottneigh.blogspot.com) and the site devoted to the work I've done focused on the voices of participants in Canadian social movements (at http://talkingradical.ca) which so far has resulted in two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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About the Sudbury Working Group

The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

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