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.