Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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Blowing the Students’ Keg: California, Quebec, and Chile

Student Strike in Montreal March 2012

New Orleans   This fall will undoubtedly see a huge number of students mobilized by the November election, but I’m starting to believe that the student army that is going to be activated this fall is going to be marching to a different tune for a change:  their own self-interest.  The evidence may be isolated, but once one begins looking, it is not hard to see signs of stirring that could interject student issues around education, opportunity, jobs, costs, and debt into the middle of political debate.

This is not merely a question of the tactical maneuvering between American political parties and Congress around student loans and debt, because the outcome being debated largely postpones the problem rather than looking at the core issues.  In student strikes in Northridge, California, Quebec, and Chile triggered by rising costs we are starting to see the core issues confronted, and students are not stepping down or wearing out.

A piece written by Martin Luckas in The Guardian on the “Maple Spring” in the streets of Montreal expresses the issues at stake eloquently as a fundamental challenge to the increasingly entrenched policies of neo-liberalism:

The fault-lines of the struggle over education – dividing those who preach it must be a commodity purchased by “consumers” for self-advancement, and those who would protect it as a right funded by the state for the collective good – has thus sparked a fundamental debate about the entire society’s future.

Luckas’ point is well taken.  The students in California engaging in a hunger strike now are partially incensed that administration is getting raises, including a 25% hike to $400,000 per year for the new Northbridge president, even while classes are being cut, fees increased, and teachers ghettoized as adjuncts without benefits.   How is this fight different than reading about the complaints of shareholders to a $15 million package for the head of Citibank, when everything about the bank is on life support?  One of the major themes of neo-liberalism is essentially “corporatizing” all debate about all public policy.

Student self-interest where debt is competing with ambition and opportunity and jobs are still in scant supply could be the match that lights a much better fire!

Students for Quality Education in California Strike against Fee Hikes

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Cost of Higher Education Stirring Students to Streets in Montreal

Student Protests in Montreal

New Orleans   I had not been paying enough attention to a random piece about students rallying in Montreal until my coattails were pulled the other day by a friend and colleague, Eric Shragg, who is a professor, author, and activist in that city.   In a brief email he mentioned that the increase in US-terms was not catastrophic, but that students with lots of community support were reacting in record numbers – more than 200,000 hit the streets in late March – because they saw the tuition rise as the sharp stick of neoliberal retrenchment poking them – and their futures – in the eye.  The increase in fact was over $1000 and represented a 75% hike in what had amounted as extremely reasonably priced higher education.

A video link from Eric on YouTube was an impressive organizing “flyer” for increasing the pressure even more this coming Sunday, April 22.  It’s worth checking this out:

In Canada students are widely organized and represented by their own associations, and, if anything, this is almost truer in Montreal and Quebec in general.  Three different student organizations have taken the lead in organizing the protest where 170,000 students are currently boycotting classes.  Shrewdly they have adopted the color red for their activity, symbolizing debt (“going in the red,” obviously – brilliant!) and the color enlivens all of their activity.  According to yesterday’s news the government and the students are still miles apart but entering discussions of sorts with the large demonstration looming ahead this weekend.  Quebec Premier Jean Charest  has also refused to meet with CLASSE, the largest of the striking student groups, by trying to claim that they have encouraged vandalism and violence, essentially the standard response in trying to reframe the government’s position to tactics rather than substance to distract the public from the tuition increase.

This is not “occupy.”  This is action, and it is worth following and taking seriously.

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Targeting Employment Agency Scam

Job-Scams_crop380w Montreal It was exciting to meet with the organizers and volunteers of the Immigrant Workers Center in Montreal and hear about their developing campaigns to finally bring aggressive statutory and regulatory reform to temporary employment agency scams and the companies that use them.

The IWC has identified a number of gaps in the Quebec provincial labor code which effectively have created a sophisticated dodge for workers, particularly immigrant workers often desperate for work and trying to navigate new and confusing systems.  Wage theft and escaping liabilities for injuries and negligence are the two most common complaints, and when the workers or their advocates, like IWC, go after the agency we heard that they are constantly confronted with a shell game in which the agency denies they are the employer and points to the company, and when the company is confronted, they point back to the agency, while both combine to do everything they can to delay the process, sit on their hands, and hope it all goes away.  The IWC legislative proposition, which is garnering strong support throughout the province from labor and other groups, would place the liability clearly on the backs of the agency.

One problem we brainstormed about at some length was whether the agencies would then become little more than folding chairs, disappearing immediately upon the assessment of the liability for the workers, going out of business as they too frequently do anyway, and resurfacing with the same scam another day in another way.  In the United States where in some states we have won legislation to regulate employment agencies (ACORN won this in Arkansas in 1972-73 for example), we have also spent a lot of time trying to establish co-employer status, essentially proving that both the contractor and the company, business and the agency are both responsible for labor practices.  The most effective, though dauntingly difficult route has been through the National Labor Relations Board.  The victory won by SEIU first in Pittsburgh in the 1980’s proving that a building property owner and its cleaning contractor were co-employers of the janitors created the underpinning of much of the strategy and success of the Justice for Janitors organizing campaign which targeted property owners in major cities for organization.

Local 100 had a similar experience in trying to establish co-employer status between sanitation contractors and the temporary, casual employers that provided the laborers on the back, business end of the garbage trucks.  Though we did not win in the initial labor board hearing, the de factor reality of the situation propelled us in bargaining for decades of path breaking contracts.   In these situations we were directly unionizing temporary, casual workers under the long settled standard qualifying such workers under jurisdiction if they averaged 16 hours per week over a three month period.   We found ourselves encouraging our friends at the IWC to move directly with the workers in this way to fuel support for their legislative effort simultaneously.

Common sense has to eventually win out here, and IWC is right to push for clarity in Quebec.  Everyone knows that the owner/contractor is calling the shots and the agency, subcontractors, and certainly workers are just dancing to the tune, but the loopholes in too many of these “business-friendly” laws are allowing both to walk away when the music stops, leaving the worker holding the bag without the wages or relief they need.

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Laissez les Bon Temps de Rouler in Montreal

P1010001Montreal The highlight reel of two days in Montreal would have a couple of set pieces.

The opening undoubtedly would feature two of our many Francophone leaders from Ottawa ACORN doing the briefing at the Immigrant Workers Center for twenty folks in French to enthusiastic response.  Ginelise was from Haiti originally and Pacifique hailed from Burundi.  One of my favorites was during the Q&A part when a question came at Ginelise partly in English and partly in French, and she asked the questioner to choose the language for the response.  Priceless!

Another favorite was the meeting that Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada director, and I had with the national director of the Postal Workers in the huge labor skyscraper that headquarters the FTQ, the central labor federation.  They argued that did not feel really feel comfortable in English, their translators were out, and we were damaged in French, but we had a great meeting filled with French, English, and perhaps woefully Spanish, which I threw in from time to time, begging at the knees of the Romance language traditions, as we made the effort to communicate and succeeded wonderfully.  They ended up offering to pull together a meeting of Quebec-based unions to learn about ACORN, which was a magical result.

Finally, walking many of the neighborhoods to get a feel for the turf, our last stop was in Parc Ex, as it is known, which Judy and I both loved.  Judy gave me a constant lecture about the challenges of door knocking in low rise apartments, but the looks of the community did not inspire confidence that too many security systems would be pristine.  Adaptations would need to be made.

A pallor was cast of the visit though as I opened my email and realized that Eric Shragge, our invaluable guide, sent me a link to an article in the Montreal Gazette quoting many who were outraged that welfare benefits were being cut by more than $100 a month!  Suddenly my last taste of Montreal was not the good times, but the déjà vu feeling that “America” was here, too.

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Montreal’s Decentralized Powerlessness

downtown-montrealMontreal Spring is still an unconfirmed rumor here it turned out, as afternoon winds signaled a front lowering the temperature from a sunny day to what ended up as 15 degrees and a wind chill beneath contempt. Fortunately for Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s Head Organizer, and Jill O’Reilly, the head organizer for Ottawa ACORN, we had spent hours during the morning getting a tutorial from two of the preeminent experts – and authors – about the Montreal community organizing experience: Eric Shragg and Jean Panet-Raymond.

In 1986 a watershed in local governance occurred with the creation of “boroughs” as subdivided parts of the municipal government and the regional government on the island of Montreal. The borough’s councilors elected by districts who come from what were usually three “recognized” neighborhoods of various sizes composing the boroughs. Within these groups are various sets of committees, some of which include local community-based organization staff, that deal with various programs like family and children, youth, and so forth. Bottom line being that these municipal functions have been pushed down to the boroughs for handling. If citizens and their community organizations want to make something happen in these areas they have to push the boroughs, councils, and committees. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that this level of bureaucracy is stupefying producing more discouragement and meeting fatigue. Engagement by a few turned out to have been bartered away against the hope of power for the many.

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