-All Are Welcome-
Dear ACLA members and allies,
As 2016 comes to an end, we celebrate the victories that our movements have achieved and we rage against the increased injustice, xenophobia and racism that is impacting our communities the world over. Workers have fought and won significant victories across the continent. From recent labour victories to the fight for fairness for vulnerable and precarious workers, the demand for dignity at work has taken the continent by storm. As a result of our triumphs, a backlash is occurring. Whether it’s the recent Brexit vote in Britain, to the increasing anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments or the recent election of sexist, racist and homophobic Donald Trump, once again we need to come together, organize and mobilize to demand a world free of hatred and fear.
As we move towards 2017, we must seize the lessons of the past to guide us towards victory in the future. As the elders of our movements move on, it is important to honour their sacrifices to our movement. ACLA would like to take the opportunity to recognize one of our founders, and one of the most important activists in Canada, sister Winnie Ng, who has provided invaluable contributions to our movement for over 40 years. Winnie recently retired from her position as Unifor Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice & Democracy at Ryerson University. As both a community and labour activist, Winnie has been a trailblazer who has inspired countless activists who now are continuing the important work that she began.
It’s been another busy year for ACLA. Thank you to the ACLA membership and allies for your ongoing support. Below is a recap of our 2016 activities. See you all in 2017!
Peace, love and solidarity,
Asian Canadian Labour Alliance
CITZENS’ PRESS http://cpress.org/leftnews/news-item-1482340055.52
By Mike Yam
Year after year, there is inevitably some incident in the media where an individual or group of people are publicly called out for wearing racist costumes during Halloween or other party seasons. For example, we’ve seen plenty of celebrities chastised for wearing offensive, racist, and distasteful costumes. As if on cue, shortly after Halloween this year, Canada’s major media outlets reported on a party held by Queen’s University students after comedian Celeste Kim posted pictures on her Twitter account that were originally posted in a private Queen’s students Facebook group and denounced the attendees.
The party, which consisted of a drinking tournament and carried the theme of “countries around the world,” had predominately white party-goers dressing up as various ethnic and cultural groups. This was not a celebration of international cultural diversity – it was an organized party that encouraged attendees to characterize people from around the world by dressing in stereotypical costumes. Somehow, no one seemed to think that a group of white bros representing Mexicans by wearing orange prison jumpsuits and sombrero hats was a problem. Perhaps the group of white bros assigned to dress up as Arabs thought they were being progressive by putting on fake moustaches and sunglasses to dress up as sheiks instead of donning an overdone “terrorist look”.
We’ve been seeing the same story play out time after time. A bunch of white students are photographed wearing racist costumes and without apparently being familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation, they subsequently plead innocence and defend themselves by saying that they “didn’t mean to do any harm” and were “just having fun.” Some of them point to the odd person of colour who participated in the action, which leads them to conclude that the racist costumes were legitimized and everything was OK.
The other response is to double-down and insist that their critics are overzealous social justice warriors and/or that people of colour are just being over-sensitive. In an almost hilarious (if not incredibly upsetting) piece of commentary, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s son – who is currently a Commerce student at Queen’s – argued that the incident wasn’t racist and that the media “pushes its agenda at expense of the facts” in response to the many news articles covering the story.
These types of incident are all too common, especially when it comes to university campuses. The ones that have gained significant media coverage over the years included a white Queen’s student dressing up in blackface as ‘Miss Ethopia’, the University of Toronto students who won a Halloween costume prize after dressing up in blackface as the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings, and history truly repeating itself five years later after a group of Brock University students won $500 as the bobsled team in a Brock Halloween pub night contest. It’s almost surprising that no one had donned blackface in this most recent incident.
We all know that these incidents happen every year during Halloween and that most of them don’t make the news. Many are shocked when these campus stories do come out, because the behaviour is so offensive and there’s some elevated expectation that this shouldn’t happen because universities are supposed to be places for critical discourse and enlightened understanding of the world. But perhaps it makes obvious sense that this happens frequently in the university community. In these particular university cases, the events have been organized and people rewarded for their racism. Like all micro-aggressions, these don’t happen in a vacuum.
After all, the composition of Ontario university campuses is comprised of disproportionately of young, white people who come from middle and upper class families. While there are obviously some campuses that are more diverse than others, the composition of our campuses reflects the fact that post-secondary education has become less and less affordable during the last several of decades.
Unfortunately, this seems especially the case when I think of the Queen’s University campus. Having attended Queen’s, I have trouble imagining it as a hub of progressive activism that has been organically cultivated from the diversity of its student body. Instead, I think of an old white school with children of elite white parents, with a mix of people of colour (who are also relatively privileged), along with a small and mighty group of progressives that continue with the relentless work that is under-appreciated by the rest of the student body.
I am thinking of a university where police had to shut down riots, not because of contentious political issues, but because too many students were getting too drunk and destroying too much property during the school’s homecoming celebrations. We’re talking about an institution that passively develops a culture of racism by upholding ‘important’ values including patriotic allegiance to the university, its athletic teams, and a history of elitism routed in white culture.
While university campuses have more recently been sites for amazing progressive work and activism, they have long been havens for the country’s privileged youth. As microcosms of broader Canadian society, we shouldn’t be surprised that explicit incidents of group racism occur. In the case of Halloween, it is just one of those special days that empower people to freely unleash their racist tendencies.
There are initiatives that are attempting to make a difference. Groups like STARS at the University of Ohio give us a glimmer of hope and invigorate our passion for anti-racism work. In Ontario, the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) have been carrying on this type of work for years and, with the proper funding, will continue to be hubs of progressive activism.
The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario had struck a Task Force on Campus Racism back in 2009. It heard from students and faculty across the province, concluding that systemic racism plagued Ontario university campuses. Systematic meaning in the classroom, at events, in student spaces, through student representation, faculty hiring and promotion, institutional policies, and through financial barriers that disproportionately impact people of colour negatively.
So, as we read yet another terrible costume story from a university campus, perhaps we need to be realistic: we still have a long way to go.
By Chris Ramsaroop
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) which brings migrant labourers from the Caribbean and Mexico to Canada every year. Today there are about 34,000 migrant labourers in the program in Canada. They are employed in every province except Newfoundland. Migrant workers are hired for periods ranging from eight weeks to eight months a year, and are assigned to a particular employer and must return home at the end of their contract.
In 2015, the Agri-Food Economic System (formerly the George Morris Centre), an employer- based agricultural think- tank described the benefits of the SAWP program as a ‘lynchpin for Ontario horticulture, supporting an economic impact of $5.4 billion.’ Simply put, there would be no agricultural industry without the men and women from the global south.
There are many wrong assumptions in the popular media about migrant workers. It has been said that migrants are stealing Canadian jobs and leading to an overall deterioration of the Canadian labour market. However, this is not true.
First of all, migrant workers are not coming in droves. All migrant workers (temporary foreign workers both non agricultural and agricultural) account for a mere five percent of the total Canadian labour force. This is a very small component of the labour market and we should be concerned about myths about the total amount of migrants in Canada.
Second the weakening labour market is occurring because of the deterioration of standards for all workers. Weaker employment standards, the absence of enforcement and a declining rate of unionization are the reasons for the increasing precarious labour market.
It’s not the fault of migrant workers who face a double whammy of being employed in terrible jobs and hired under restrictive immigration laws that deny them the ability to change employers and to exert any control of their workplaces. Agriculture continues to be one of the most dangerous forms of work that simultaneously exclude all farm workers the right to overtime, holiday pay, right to minimum hours of work and whole host of other benefits.
While we mark with pride the significant contributions made by Caribbean farm workers, at the same time conditions need to change. International headlines have raised concerns over the plight of migrant workers who have become sick, injured or who have died while working in Canada.
Earlier this year, international attention was focused on the accidental death in the workplace of Sheldon Mckenzie a migrant farm worker from Jamaica. Similar concerns have been raised in the past. In 2002, Ned Peart, also from Jamaica, was crushed to death by a tobacco kiln near Simcoe, Ontario. To date, in spite of requests from family members of the deceased there has never been a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of these men and in fact there has never been an inquest into the death of any migrant worker in Canadian history.
Concerns have also been raised about how injured and sick migrant workers are medically repatriated or sent home prematurely rather than receive treatment here in Canada.
In 2015, the Canadian Medical Journal documented nearly 800 migrant workers who were returned to the Caribbean and Mexico for injuries and illnesses sustained while working in Canada. Leon Ferguson, a Jamaican worker, became nearly paralyzed while working in Canada. Rather than ensure that he was healed properly, his employer and the government liaison officer attempted to have him sent home before he received medical support.
On paper, migrant workers are supposed to be treated the same as Canadians. However, the reality is quite different. Whether its access to entitlements such as Employment Insurance, Old Age Security or Healthcare, migrant workers are denied access because of their temporary status. Migrant” temporariness” is another misconception of the SAWP program. In my many outreach trips, I have met many migrants who spend up to eight months a year for decades at a time.
Immigration restrictions, a permanent state of temporary labour status and employer control displays itself in many different ways. In 2013, the OPP undertook a DNA Sweep near Tillsonburg, Ontario. The sweep was undertaken in response to a sexual assault that occurred in the community. A vague description of the suspect was provided and in turn the OPP coerced every migrant worker whether they fitted the description or not to participate in the sweep. The DNA sweep is one of the largest racial profiling cases in Ontario’s history. When it was all done, nearly 100 men ranging from ages in their early twenties to the late sixties were subjected to the sweep. In our interviews with several of the workers, the control of the employers, and fear of losing employment compelled the workers to participate in the DNA sweep.
Comparing the SAWP program to the institution of indentureship or Canada’s own version of apartheid is not an exaggeration. In spite of the tremendous contributions undertaken by migrant workers, the legal structure of the program renders them vulnerable and unable to exert their rights because of the constant fear of being sent home and banned from the program. Whether the architects of the SAWP program intended for migrant workers to be discriminated against, their intentions are irrelvant as the impact means that migrant workers are treated differently as a result of being racialized workers from the Caribbean and Mexico.
Justicia for Migrant Workers is calling for an end to the employer’s control of this program and for changes at both the federal and provincial levels. At the federal level, migrant farm workers should be granted permanent immigration status, something that was granted to European farm workers generations ago. At the provincial level, agricultural workers must be included in all workplace protections and should be accorded the right to overtime, holiday pay and any other rights that the rest of us enjoy.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Canada, let the 50th anniversary of the farm worker program be a reminder to us all, that for 50 years our sisters, brothers, cousins, fathers, mothers and friends have toiled in our fields under conditions reminiscent of a bygone era. I believe this must change, I hope you do as well and that you will join us in changing the course of history so all members of our community are treated as equals.
INDO CARIBBEAN WORLD http://www.indocaribbeanworld.com/archives/2016/february_17_2016/greater_toronto.htm
By Chris Ramsaroop
On Friday February 12th, dozens of migrant workers and community activists converged on the office of John McCallum, Minister of Citizenship, Refugees and Immigration to call for changes to Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP). The action planned by Justicia for Migrant Workers was organized to coincide with the Family Day long weekend.
The workers and their allies demand that the federal Liberals ‘stop breaking the hearts of migrant workers’ and to allow them and their families to apply for permanent residency in Canada.
Migrant Workers delivered a giant Broken Heart with images of their families to the office of the Minister to highlight the impact of being separated from their families.
Migrant worker Rickey Joseph implored the government to undertake reforms to Canada’s immigration laws so that migrant farm workers are treated with compassion and dignity.
“What’s the point of making good money, what’s the point of life if you cannot spend those moments with your kids, with your family?” Joseph asked rhetorically. He added “If only our hands could stay in Canada then they (the Government and employers) would be happy.”
The CSAWP is a managed migration scheme that brings approximately 30,000 farm workers annually from the Caribbean and Mexico to work in agricultural fields across Canada.
Migrant farm workers are tied to an employer and have neither social nor labour mobility while in Canada and no ability to apply for permanent residency. Being tied to an employer means that Canada’s migrant worker programs are akin to indentured labour where employers control every aspect of the lives of migrants while working and living here.
This year (2016) marks the 50th anniversary of the farm worker programme. To highlight this, Justicia for Migrant Workers has launched Harvesting Freedom campaign to call on permanent residency for all migrant farm workers. The campaign will culminate with a march from Windsor to Ottawa that will arrive in Ottawa on October 3rd.
Friday’s action at Minister McCallum’s office is one of a series of actions planned as part of the campaign leading up to the March to Ottawa.
For info, visit: www.harvestingfreedom.org
OUR TIMES – Canada’s Independent Labour Magazine http://ourtimes.ca/Features/article_449.php
By Winnie Ng
The following article is based on the talk Winne Ng gave at CUPE Ontario’s (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Racial Justice Conference in Toronto on January 25, 2016.
If I had my way, when unions do anti-racism work we would always begin with a clear acknowledgment of the historical and ongoing colonization of the Indigenous peoples here in their own land. We can’t combat racism in isolation.
The struggle for racial justice, economic justice and environmental justice are part and parcel of the larger decolonizing and anti-capitalist project. Anti-racism work begins when we are prepared to recognize the issue of Indigenous sovereignty, and to take responsibility to right the wrongs.
Over the past decade, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the Idle No More movement; Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike; the ongoing blockades against mining and pipelines; and the push for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, have all thrust to the forefront the ongoing colonization of and systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples on their own land.
For the labour movement to do deep anti-racism and equity work, racial justice has to move beyond apologies.
If I had my way, we’d organize mandatory education programs as a first step to un-learn all the misinformation that has been fed to us throughout the education system.
As Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen (2015), “this is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, that they were heathens and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well.”
We can only truly re-learn the real history of Canada when we take the time to unpack and acknowledge our role as treaty people, as was poignantly pointed out by Pamela Palmater in NOW Magazine. (“Why Idle No More Matters to Us All”)
For those who feel that solidarity work with Indigenous peoples should not be a priority because Indigenous union membership is so tiny, particularly in large urban centres, I beg to differ. There is a need for moral and ethical leadership that goes beyond the number. Furthermore, Indigenous youth are the fastest-growing population in Canada.
If we continue to do anti-racism work without addressing the colonization of Indigenous peoples, we will merely be tinkering. We need to build a new relationship with Indigenous peoples in order to subvert and dismantle some of the entrenched colonial relationships. It is the right thing to do.
Within the climate justice movement, there is an urgency among trade unions to engage members in real conversations that acknowledge the fact that a large number of jobs, particularly in resource and energy sectors, have been built on the destruction of Indigenous communities.
The necessity of a just transition strategy that helps reverse or slow down the pace of climate change cannot be understated. (“Just transition” refers to caring for workers in resource-based industries and finding them new work while moving towards a low-carbon economy.) What will a transition plan of action and solidarity with Indigenous peoples look like, and how can we move ahead now, before it is too late?
We, as organized labour, should be in the forefront of actively engaging in the decolonizing project of Indigenous peoples.
If I had my way, every union convention would look like this room, representing every diverse strand of the membership.
If I had my way, we would have a progressive, interracial, working-class labour movement, in which workers of colour and Indigenous workers weren’t pigeonholed in prescribed spaces and treated as “one-trick equity ponies.”
We are sick and tired of being typecast and only being allowed to “come out and play” when the issue at hand relates to race and human rights.
We are sick and tired of being referred to as the “first” of anything — of being seen as an equity trophy. We are sick and tired of racial justice and equity being siloed.
We cannot just do this work for the optics, when we know:
that the suicide rate among Indigenous youth is five to seven times higher than non-Indigenous youth
* that 20 per cent of Indigenous communities have no access to clean drinking water and two-thirds of Indigenous communities have been under drinking-water alerts at least once in the last decade
* that, in Toronto, 25 per cent of Indigenous youth are unemployed, and 30 per cent of Black youth are unemployed (2014 Civic Action report on youth unemployment)
* that it will take three generations for a racialized woman to catch up to her non-racialized counterpart (Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market, by Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzzi). When women of colour are systematically denied job opportunities, how can we talk about a gender wage gap without pushing for employment equity?
We can’t simply go along, so that an organization can “celebrate” their equity agenda. The struggle for racial and economic justice is not just a check on someone’s to-do list. We are not here to prop up someone’s legacy or personal agenda.
The struggle for economic and racial justice is an ongoing commitment, and the core values of a trade union at its best. Tackling the beasts of racism and colonialism is at the heart of class struggle.
If I had my way, we would find ways to talk about race, and have courageous conversations about power and privilege. There would be a solidarity circle dialogue at the local level of every union as part of building an interracial working-class movement.
Progressive white folks have often failed to acknowledge that class is lived through race and gender, as argued by Robin D. Kelley.
lt is not uncommon in labour education settings that, when race and gender are being discussed, someone will raise the issue of class as a corrective, or as a way to reinsert their own voice as the centre of attention. Equity issues are dismissed as distractions from the larger and more pertinent purpose of reducing poverty through attacks on capitalism.
The implication here is that class war is universal, but race, gender, abilities, faith and sexuality are only particular and identity politics.
Personally speaking, I find it exhausting to have to remind them that race, gender and class are inextricably linked and that talking about racism, to quote Stuart Hall, “does not negate the issue of class, but rather, sharpens it, and makes greater meaning of the effects of capitalism.”
Anti-racism work begins when white progressive brothers and sisters don’t cringe at the terms “white supremacy” or “white privilege.”
When we name it as it is, we are not directing our critique at someone personally but at the systemic and structural barriers that reinforce the dominant narrative. The truth is that there has always been an affirmative action program for white able-bodied men.
If I had my way, white and racialized brothers and sisters would have honest conversations about race without any sense of anger, remorse, guilt or defensiveness, and would take personal responsibility in combatting racism and oppression.
Working across differences requires all of us to have a level of humility, to look at ourselves and re-learn how we can use our earned or unearned privilege to break down some of the barriers, in order to be a strong ally.
We are angry about the injustice of racism, we are angry about banging our heads against the brick wall, as Sara Ahmed poignantly points out in her book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. “The wall stays in its place and we are the ones who get sore. When we talk about our soreness and about the wall, we become the problem. Our loyalty is questioned.”
I’m not here to hide my anger “to spare their guilt” (as Audre Lorde wrote in 1984). The challenge is how to transform such anger into constructive energy.
If I had my way, union leaders would be prepared to be challenged, and, as part of their “unlearning and relearning,” they would recognize that these constructive comments come from a place of constructive anger; anger about the injustices of racism and how things are moving.
If I had my way, equity training would be mandatory for all union leadership, twice a year.
Unions would use the equity guide prepared by Jojo Geronimo for the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, A Leader’s Guide to Strengthen Unions: Moving Beyond Diversity, Towards Inclusion and Equity, to help them analyze, assess, audit, and then act on implementing more changes to improve on equity.
There would be a report card on the progress and lessons learned from every cycle of equity actions.
If I had my way, we would prioritize 50 per cent of the union budget on organizing — both the unorganized and the organized — and all leadership, staff and rank-and-file activists would have to be involved in organizing campaigns.
We would organize workplaces and sectors in which large number of workers of colour are concentrated. They may be in smaller workplaces.
In this era of precarious work, what are some creative ways to reach out to them? How can we adapt the Justice for Janitors sectoral organizing model? We need to put more resources into initiatives such as Unifor’s community chapters; the United Steelworkers’ taxi driver association, and UFCW Canada’s work with the migrant workers’ movement, just as examples.
These efforts act as bridges between workers in precarious employment and the labour movement.
At the same time, the critical organizing work done across Ontario with precariously employed workers by the Workers Action Centre, the Live-In Caregivers Coalition, and Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) should be more substantially supported by labour, as well, in solidarity with these self-organizing initiatives.
To me, this is where deep organizing and community building comes in.
If I had my way, there would be programs for members of colour as special union ambassadors within our respective communities. We have under-utilized our resources and have not seized our power and potential as bridge-builders.
We can partner with the CBTU (Coalition of Black Trade Unionists), with ACLA (Asian-Canadian Labour Alliance), and with LATUC (Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition) in order to develop a young organizers summer institute, as a way to reach out to, and recruit, young workers in the community.
Once workers are organized — once the intensity and attention is dissipated after an organizing drive — how do we make sure that we don’t leave them out in the cold again. How do we make sure they don’t end up feeling the union is just another management body, “taking my dues and doing nothing.”
This is where intensive organizing of the organized, a term so famously put forth by CUPE back in 1990s, is needed; where education is needed; the raising of consciousness and of solidarity.
If I had my way, we would prioritize 25 per cent of the union budget on education. We would do this so we could put in more resources at the local level, where most rank-and-file members come closest to experiencing the transformative moment of being part of the union family, of belonging (Elaine Bernard, Our Times Magazine, 2006).
The shop stewards are actually the membership’s first contact with the union. How do the shop stewards interact with, and build a relationship with, diverse membership? Are they actively listening to and being serious in handling complaints about discrimination and differential treatments? This is key in winning the hearts and minds of these new members.
If I had my way, union presidents would be actively present at all new-member orientation sessions.
Way back when, we used to have citizenship classes, English classes in union halls, literacy programs in workplaces.
We have a history of innovative union education we can learn and draw from. The traditional framework of delivering a union-specific education program — in terms of who gets in, who teaches it and where it is held — can be more innovative, making union education more accessible to workers who are non-unionized and precariously employed.
Such classes could be moved out from the union hall to community centres. Another possibility would be to transform union halls into community hubs for workers and their families. The format and content could be multi-faceted: from labour-rights information sessions to study circle/book clubs that would enable community members to come together and engage in “the act of talking back” (bell hooks, 1989).
In my mind, this is a much more liberating concept of building a mass workers’ movement, where workers, regardless of their status, workplace, or union affiliation, can come together, and where worker power is built from the bottom up.
If I had my way, there would be a choir. There would be sports leagues and family events held at the local level where we, as labour, would be truly part of the larger community, and where a sense of community building and solidarity through these different activities would be nurtured and strengthened.
We cannot afford to deny the ongoing colonization project on the Indigenous communities in Canada. Nor can we be silent about the injustices experienced by migrant workers and others due to the systemic racism in the Canadian immigration and refugee programs.
Equally, we need to acknowledge the brutality of anti-Black racism and heed the call for justice by the emerging Black Lives Matter movement.
The intersectionality of race, gender, class, disability, sexual orientation and Islamophobia requires all of us to critically reflect and work across differences.
Recognizing the mutuality and taking responsibility for building a different world, a different labour movement, requires us to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and break the mask of benevolence.
In the remaking of our labour movement, it is imperative that we engage in courageous conversations and take collective action to address the inequity and injustices of power, privilege and greed. Only when we move toward transforming and fundamentally changing ourselves and our movement can we reach solidarity for all.
Some of you probably feel that what I’ve been talking about is all pie in the sky and that these re-imaginings are not practical or possible.
I’d like to remind you what Dr. Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
So as my closing, I’d like to change the title of this talk to “When we have our way.” When we have our way, this is how our labour movement will combat racism.
It always seems impossible until it’s done! Dream big and be bold, brothers and sisters. Solidarity!
As 2015 comes to an end, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance would like to take this moment to reflect on the work that was undertaken over the last twelve months. 2015 can be summed by the following words: sadness, anger, outrage, hope and resilience.
Earlier this year, ACLA was saddened by the passing of our beloved treasurer, Gloria David. Gloria was active with ACLA since its founding. Sister David was dedicated to her work both in ACLA and within her union. Gloria will be missed by all.
Globally, labour activists reacted with anger to the ongoing wars and occupations that lead to the largest mass migration since the Second World War. As labour activists it is critically important that we continue to call on our government to end our involvement in the killings of innocent civilians across the Middle East. Additionally, we should urge our unions to not participate in the war economy.
Canadians responded with open hearts to the Syrian refugee crisis; a testament of our desire to show solidarity with oppressed peoples. However, we need to expand our support for other displaced communities across the globe. We cannot reinforce that some refugee communities are more deserving than others.
2015 saw the mass deportation of tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers from Canada. Receiving scant media attention, these migrants have falsely been painted as the enemy of Canadian workers.
Non-Aboriginal communities were once again reminded of the historical injustices that have been committed against our Aboriginal sisters and brothers. Whether it was the recent announcement of the public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women or the commission into residential schools, Canada has engaged in an ongoing process of genocide against First Nation communities. Our work towards justice must include efforts to end the apartheid like conditions that Aboriginal communities are subjected to. In 2015, it is inexcusable that many Aboriginal communities are denied access to clean water, electricity and decent housing.
Across the continent, mass mobilization against racism and police violence against the Black community continues. ACLA stands in solidarity against the systemic assault on racialized and Aboriginal communities.
In Ontario, community and labour activists continue to call on the province to increase the minimum wage to $15 dollars. Ontario joins in solidarity with campaigns across the continent where low wage workers are fighting back to demand decency at work. We hope that the current review panel on Employment Standards hears these voices loud and clear that no worker should be forced to live in poverty.
Finally, labour activists played an instrumental role in ousting the Harper regime from 10 years of anti-feminist, anti-worker and anti-immigrant policies. The on-the-ground work of ordinary people who were sick and tired of divisive and hateful policies mobilized to demand change. This same hope for a better future must be balanced with a continued resilience to continue to fight back against austerity measures and trade policies such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which would negatively impact the lives of future generations.
Against this backdrop, ACLA has spent the year working on and additionally supporting various campaigns and causes. Some highlights include:
Thank you to all our ACLA members and allies for your ongoing work and support. A special thank you to ACLA member, Pura Velasco, who retired last month for her dedication and tenacity fighting for migrant justice, particularly for the rights of live-in caregivers. We are looking forward to 2016. See you all in the New Year!
In memory of Gloria David
Love, peace and solidarity,
Asian Canadian Labour Alliance
I recently read an article by Justin Kong entitled “The New Chinese Working Class and the Canadian Left” that reinvigorated a passion of mine — organizing immigrant workers.
As a child-immigrant myself, I grew up in Toronto and witnessed the incredible extensiveness of Toronto’s ethnic enclaves and the many immigrant communities that live and thrive here.
While my experiences and reflections as a Chinese-Canadian might be similar to those of other immigrant communities (and might translate into strategies for other groups), here I’ll focus on how we should be organizing for a political left in Chinese communities, because as Kong puts it, “the conditions for an immigrant left is ripe in the Chinese community.”
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
Kong believes that the defeat of the NDP in the 2015 federal election reveals an urgent need for those in the Canadian left to adjust their strategy, which should include supporting the development and building of “progressive, grassroots immigrant power.”
He notes that there is an opportunity to be seized right now within the Chinese diaspora, particularly with immigrants from China who have undergone the Communist Revolution, and have core understandings of class, capitalism and exploitation.
This understanding, coupled with the precariousness of work that Chinese workers find themselves dealing with in Canada, make the conditions ripe for organizing a political left. Kong states that “supporting and building the emerging immigrant left is to reverse the decades of decline of the Canadian left.” He poses that the hard part is now figuring out how we accomplish this goal.
Naturally, you can understand my excitement when I read Kong’s article, as I have just spent the last four years working as an organizer with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, trying to do exactly that — organize Chinese union workers.
Yes, you read that correctly — I wasn’t organizing Chinese workers into unions; rather I was organizing “the already organized.”
Much like Kong observes, I also noticed that for the most part, the Chinese community was — and is — very much unengaged with the Canadian left. Looking around, I could see that there were in fact many Chinese-Canadians who were union members, but that affiliation, for them, was invisible: they did not self-identify as union members.
My goal therefore was to develop trade-union consciousness among Chinese union members and foster a sense of trade-union pride. Without resources to go out into the community to do mass mobilizing, this was the easiest and least resource-intensive route (but I shall explain my vision of labour-community organizing later).
By working with our union affiliates to identify existing Chinese union members, we developed community ambassadors who could then reach out into the Chinese community and work to give unions a good reputation.
BUILDING TRADE-UNION CONSCIOUSNESS
At the labour council, we developed the Chinese Workers’ Network (which has now also spurred the creation of a Filipino Workers’ Network, Tamil Workers’ Network and Somali Workers’ Network) by first asking local unions to identify Chinese union members from within their ranks.
We invited these members to Chinese-language events where we did education work about the importance of unions, demystified union structures and explained how members could get involved.
We also celebrated the many gains that the labour movement has achieved for Canada (debunking the myth that Canada is a naturally benevolent country with good social programs that no one really had to struggle for). Of course, these events were usually paired with good food as an incentive for folks to attend.
Faced with the hostility of Chinese media towards labour unions, we also partnered with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario to do media training for Chinese union members — so that if and when a union member speaks to Chinese media, they are properly trained to speak from a worker’s perspective, and can help combat the vitriolic reporting of labour disputes by the Chinese press.
We started out with one or two handfuls of self-identified Chinese union members in 2011. Last I checked, we had over 500 Chinese union members.
We developed a translation committee who would translate articles about workers’ struggles into Chinese, and who would then put these up on our website, chineselabour.ca, along with other valuable resources including information on workers’ rights, the Employment Standards Act, and how to organize a union.
Even with the limited resources we had to dedicate towards this initiative, we’ve had tremendous success. Perhaps the best example of this success was when one group of Chinese workers from an Etobicoke warehouse contacted us to help them organize a union. After we connected them with a union that was appropriate for their industry, 100 per cent of the workers voted for a union.
But in listening to this group of workers’ stories about their employer’s outrageous abuse and violation of even the most basic human rights, I knew that our organizing efforts — to organize Chinese workers into unions and to develop a political left to counter the right-wing segments within — were not enough.
ENGAGING NEW IMMIGRANT WORKERS
What we began at the labour council was only one prong of what needs to be a two-pronged approach. We can begin with internally mobilizing our own union members, but we need to continue this mobilizing externally — into the community — which is the second prong.
This is not about going into non-unionized workplaces and getting workers to join a union; it’s about going into spaces outside of workplaces: community spaces and sites of recreation and leisure where people are already organized into faith groups and community associations, for example.
Labour needs to move beyond a workplace-to-workplace approach in organizing workers into unions. We need to develop a community model, go where workers are already congregating, and begin with unobtrusive workshops in the workers’ first language.
Within these safe spaces, initially providing workshops around “neutral” subjects allows us to sow the seeds of working-class consciousness throughout our education. A community-organizing approach such as this recognizes that all members of society are contributing members/workers, and that when one worker joins a union — whichever union that may be — the entire labour movement benefits.
Let me elaborate on how I envision this community model working. While I was working as an adult-literacy instructor at the Labour Education Centre, some of my female students found part-time work as Community Health Ambassadors in nearby Flemingdon Park.
These students were specifically recruited because their first language was not English. While they were trained in English to deliver health-related topics, they were expected to organize members in their own communities (using their own social networks) and deliver these workshops to them in their mother tongues.
Despite these women being paid only minimum wage to recruit, organize and deliver these workshops, the simple fact that they could use their own social networks to find 20 people to attend, and be compensated to talk about something that interested them, made it a wondrous experience for them.
As I was witnessing just how effective this model was, I began wondering: why couldn’t unions adopt a similar community approach with new immigrant workers? What if organized labour pooled their resources together and developed community ambassadors who could use their own social ties and affiliations to set up workshops in languages other than English or French?
These workshops would benefit not only the worker learning about her rights under the Employment Standards Act, but could also offer an array of tips to unions about where organizing efforts should be focused. And, even if she were unemployed at the time of the workshop, the participating worker might organize some future workplace.
Many unions might see this non-workplace community-organizing model as a tremendous waste of resources because there is no immediate tangible gain — no immediate dues-paying member.
But I would argue that you’re sowing the seeds and ripening the fields for the next generation of workers. And, crucially for the movement, you are responding to a much-changed work landscape by tackling precarity head-on and navigating unions into a position of strength in the face of it.
In the 21st century, if the Canadian labour movement is to survive and actually grow, organizing efforts should focus on a community model rather than a workplace approach. All national unions — both public and private — should provide resources to a central labour body to administer this community model of organizing at the local level. And labour councils should be actively involved in this work at the local level.
Central labour bodies need to take a hard look to see which non-English speaking communities make up the largest demographic in each region, and recognize not all communities of colour are new (or even recent) immigrants; many have been in Canada for a long time.
COMBATING THE POLITICS OF ENVY
It benefits all affiliates when one worker signs a union card and decides to join a union. And it benefits all working people — whether we work in the private sector or the public sector. Both private and public sector unions have a stake in increasing our union density beyond the 33 per cent mark.
For too long, corporate elites and right-wing politicians have used the politics of envy to devise strategies to split the working class. Working-class people are inundated almost daily about how public-sector workers have it too good: high salaries, “gold-plated” pensions, benefits, vacation days and sick leave.
Public-sector workers are frequently on the defensive about why they’re taking job action for a better contract even as broad public support ebbs away.
I know that many in the Chinese community were particularly incensed when teachers carried out their recent job actions. For many in the community, especially for those who are unemployed, any job is a good job. They would be only too happy to switch places with a public-sector worker.
It benefits public-sector workers whenever a private-sector worker decides to join a union. Because now, that private-sector worker has the means to fight for better job protection and all the other benefits that come from having a union.
It also prevents the political right from using the politics of envy to divide workers. It will only help, if public-sector unions recognize this inherent self-interest in helping private-sector workers to unionize.
In the community organizing model that I am proposing, all unions should be dedicating resources to develop a political left within immigrant communities — and towards the goal of organizing workers into unions.
ORGANIZING CHINESE IMMIGRANT WORKERS
There is a good opportunity right now to organize a left among Chinese immigrant workers, but we need leadership and more resources from all parts of organized labour to do this.
I have been told over the last few years that labour simply doesn’t have the resources to expend in the community to win in this public-relations war — that we have the more important work of engaging our own members.
I don’t disagree that there is more work to do in engaging and mobilizing our own members. But this is only one side of the coin. The flip side — if we are to expand as a movement and build a broader base — is to go out and organize. Our members are as much members of our unions as they are members of their own communities.
It saddens me when I see the numbers of immigrant workers, who are underpaid and undervalued, working precariously within the Chinese ethnic enclave. (This is true not just for the Chinese, but also for other ethnic groups).
Workers in the Chinese diaspora often feel that they have no choice but to accept their working conditions; otherwise they face unemployment or are forced into self-employment. They feel that they lack the language skills to find work in the Canadian mainstream, and to seek help to remedy their situation.
SUSTAINING A WELCOMING SPACE
It is precisely because workers find themselves in these situations of precariousness that we in the labour movement have an opportunity to engage them. In fact, to not do so is to our detriment. Our prolonged absence in any form of sustained engagement with the Chinese immigrant working class has already begun to bolster the ranks of the political right.
This vacuum is now slowly being filled with the Tories, who, with Jason Kenney at the helm, have done a wonderful job of convincing Chinese-Canadians that the Tories are watching out for their best interests.
Kong puts it best: “If we look throughout Canada’s history, we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white men has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.”
I, too, believe that the conditions of developing a political left within the Chinese diaspora are within reach, but this requires continuous efforts to outreach, and engage workers, into our movement.
A labour movement that is inclusive needs to create — and sustain — a welcoming space for all workers regardless of language, race, religion or accent. My conversation here is only a means to continue the discussion of how we might engage Chinese immigrant workers — but hopefully more broadly, all immigrant workers.
Jennifer Huang immigrated to Canada with her parents from Hong Kong at a very young age. Growing up in Scarborough, she had to take ESL classes for many years. As a member of the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, she worked as an Organizer at the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, where she led different municipal campaigns and spearheaded the Chinese Workers’ Network(CWN). The success of the CWN has now spurred the creation of the Filipino Workers’ Network, Tamil Workers’ Network and Somali Workers’ Network. Jennifer is currently at Unifor.