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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