Tag Archives: montreal

Warehouse and Distribution Work, Tough Times at the Choke Points

New Orleans        In the modern economy, warehouse, distribution, and logistical work has become critical for both big box stores, e-commerce, and transportation systems moving goods between all of these nodes and customers.  Some 1.2 million workers are directly employed in this sector now according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fifteen years ago, when we were running an organizing campaign around Walmart with its workers, we tried to both encourage unionization among warehouse workers and prevent construction of new warehouses to pressure the company.  They had more than twenty different types of warehouses depending on the goods and locations.  Now Amazon in its dominance of e-commerce has millions of square feet of warehouse space.  UPS, FedEx, and don’t forget the US Postal Service have massive computer driven and robot staffed distribution operations to link those systems with transportation by air and land.  Walmart and Amazon trucks are also everywhere.

Organizers have long theorized that these warehouse and distribution centers are choke-points in the economy that might offer leverage to workers organizing.  Reading case studies on these efforts in Choke Points:  Logistic Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain, edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Emmanuel Ness, it was hard to feel encouraged despite the valiant efforts of workers in a number of countries, victories have been hard to win and even harder to sustain.  All of this despite the well-reported abysmal condition of the workforce in these locations both here and abroad.

Talking to Mostafa Henaway, the lead organizer of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal on Wade’s World, about the recent report their organization had done on the condition of workers in this industry there, reinforced the difficult situation of these workers.  This is a significant employer in Quebec.  Dollarama, the Walmart-wannabe there, has six warehouses with 20,000 workers.  One of the common issues throughout North America is the number of temporary workers in these facilities frequently surpasses the complement of regular employees.  The IWC estimates there are 63,000 temporary workers in Montreal area in warehouses with a disproportionate number of refugee workers in the equivalent of the HI-B program in the US, except that the employer has more control including holding the visa, making advocacy and organizing even more difficult for such precarious workers.  Sectoral bargaining is allowed in many occupations that can assure minimum wages and the payment of health and social security benefits, and IWC sees this as the best policy solution. The IWC report has gotten wide publicity and is featured in the coming issue of the journal Social Policy, so they are hoping that momentum will build for reform.

In the US, the Imperial Valley of California outside of Los Angeles has been ground zero for the last fifteen years for warehouse and distribution development and worker organizing.  The Warehouse Workers Center has become the key advocacy organization, emerging from the organizing efforts developed by the Change to Win Federation and SEIU, and has faced the same challenges.  Nonetheless, there’s too much kindling to prevent workers getting fired up and making something happen as this sector continues to grow in our economy.

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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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