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Podcast: Fighting for the rights of low-wage workers in Halifax

This article was originally published on Rabble.ca. Re-posted with Scott Neigh’s kind permission.

Sakura Saunders is on the board of the Halifax Workers Action Centre and Lisa Cameron is on its organizing committee. They speak with me about the struggles faced by low-wage and precarious workers in the city, and about the work of the Halifax Workers Action Centre and the city’s Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.

While unions in Canada continue to play an important role in defending the rights of workers, there are lots of working people in this country who are not union members. Some of those could no doubt be brought into traditional unions, given the right kind of organizing drive, but current rules make that a difficult and unlikely option for many. In particular, workers in low-wage, part-time, and precarious jobs are less likely to be able to access union protections, and of course the lack of unionization in a given sector makes it more likely that the work will be low-wage, part-time, and precarious. Moreover, the proportion of jobs that fit in those less-than-desireable categories has grown compared to a generation ago, a trend which seems likely to continue. And it tends to be workers who face all of the other forms of social marginalization you could name – racialized workers, Indigenous workers, women, trans people, migrants, queer people, disabled people, and so on – who are most likely to work those kinds of jobs.

One important kind of organization that supports the struggles of low-wage and precarious workers in many places across North America is called a worker centre. The details vary, but worker centres generally involve some mix of legal support, education, advocacy, and organizing for low-wage and precarious workers who do not belong to unions. Though there are worker centres in many cities, there are also many, many places where they do not exist, or where they exist but have far less capacity than they need. It is an organizational model that, unlike a formal union, does not have a built-in source of resources, so they often count on the effort of dedicated activists and organizers to build them and to keep them afloat.

In 2017, a group of worker-organizers, trade unionists, and community activists came together in Halifax to form the Halifax Workers Action Centre. It began as a joint project between the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, which is a body that brings together many of the union locals in the city, and the anti-capitalist group Solidarity Halifax. In developing the centre, they took inspiration from the highly successfull Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, but adapted it to the Halifax context.

The Halifax Workers Action Centre’s website describes the group as being “committed to improving the lives and working conditions of low-waged and marginalized workers.” Unlike the Toronto centre, in Halifax they are operating on an all-volunteer basis. The labour council provides a small amount of money that covers certain basic expenses, but the organization decided that it needed to develop ways to operate without paid staff.

Despite this, they manage to provide individualized legal support to marginalized workers who are facing problems in their workplace. They do education sessions with workers themselves and with service providers around the legal rights and options available to low-wage and precarious workers. And they advocate for better working conditions and a higher minimum wage, with a focus on workers themselves taking leadership in the activism and organizing.

That organizing work takes a number of forms. Some happens under the banner of the centre itself. But they have also taken a cue from the important role that the Toronto Workers Action Centre has played in the vibrant Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario to raise the minimum wage and improve employment standards. There was an earlier minimum wage coalition in Nova Scotia but that had gone dormant in recent years, so the Halifax Workers Action Centre decided to create a new campaign under the Fight for $15 and Fairness banner. It operates at least for the moment as a membership group rather than a coalition. They do regular tabling, leafleting, and petitioning, as well as holding periodic rallies, and they are currently strategizing about how to expand their reach beyond Halifax.

Image: Used with permission of the Halifax Workers Action Centre.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

See also: Poor working conditions? Your rights violated at work? A new organization in Halifax offers support if you have nowhere to go

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Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.