Fight for $15 Protest in Montréal, May 1, 2018. Photo by Mostafa Henaway.
Across cities in North America and here in Montréal, Québec, a new type of labour movement has begun to emerge. That movement is the ‘fight for $15’ and it has won victories across states such as California, New York, Seattle, all the way to Ontario in Canada, owing to grassroots organizing. The movement began on November 2012 when fast food workers, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), took part in a one-day historic strike in New York City for a $15 per hour wage. From there, it quickly grew to 300 cities across the U.S. leading to a series of successive municipal ballots to raise the minimum wage to $15, such as that of the Seattle suburb of Sea-Tech, and forcing Wal-Mart and even corporate-owned McDonald outlets to increase wages.
What is distinctive about this labour movement is that it adapts to a new economic reality – one marked by the growth of low-wage, precarious work across a range of sectors – by expanding beyond traditional unions to encompass unorganized workers and grassroots social movements. The campaign was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which happened a year earlier in the same city, and by the gross wealth gap that Occupy foregrounded with the slogan of 1% and 99%. The fight for $15 is similarly rooted in a struggle against rampant inequality, with the goal of better redistributing wealth through an increase in wages for all workers, including racialized migrant workers that carry out much of the precarious work. And it is a movement that seeks to do this through more inclusive modes of community organizing, such as workers’ centres.
This article provides insight into this new mode of organizing by looking at the case of the ‘fight for $15’ campaign in Montréal, Québec, with a particular focus on the role of Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in spearheading the campaign. I begin by providing an overview of the context in which the IWC and the subsequent ‘fight for $15’ has emerged. Then, I discuss the evolution of the campaign in Montréal and both the challenges and opportunities of building a new kind of labour movement. The discussion draws on my first-hand experiences as a community organizer at the IWC and an activist in the ‘fight for $15’ campaign.
NEW MODES OF ORGANIZING FOR NEW KINDS OF WORK
Traditional trade unions in the global north have been weakened with the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the global south and with the rise of service-sector jobs increasingly organized around low-wage, temporary work, i.e. precarious work. In Canada, temporary work is now the fastest growing kind of work. And corporations can profit from such work and the reductions in labour costs because they can access a cheap and exploitable workforce, disposable at any time with no job security. Many such workers are new immigrants, who constitute nearly 4 million (21.2%) of workers in Canada. 300,000 (1.7%) are temporary foreign workers who come through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), with the majority occupying low-skilled, low-wage work. These include migrants enrolled in the Live-In Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program – programs in which migrants are tied to the employer listed on their work permit and are at risk of deportation if they leave, or are fired by, that employer. Thus, with the growth of such temporary forms of migration, the ability to organize for better working conditions and wages is all the more daunting. Moreover, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimates, there can be anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 people living in Canada without status. These individuals are not counted as part of the labour market but must work because they cannot access any state services and thus have no other means of surviving.
As precarious work is increasingly the norm, one only needs to watch how a city moves to witness the deep inequality that this work signals. For a large part of the city of Montréal, workers in gather at 6 a.m., moving from one metro station to the next, waiting to be picked up by temporary placement agency vans to work in food processing plants or greenhouses. Cleaners are returning at that hour from their night shifts in the financial district. Warehouse workers are headed out to the distribution centers of large, international retail companies. It is a type of rush hour many of us never witness. It moves in its own eco-system, outside the bustle to which we are accustomed. But it characterizes the everyday for these workers, most of whom are racialized, immigrant, female and all of whom are low-waged, illustrating how corporations are replicating the strategies of outsourcing in the global south through a form of ‘insourcing’ in the global north.
To address such conditions, there is a need to build a collective force that can undermine the structural issues that create a precarious workforce. This involves linking issues of temporary work and migration with that of mobilizing for a fair wage. It requires developing a new locus of organizing by broadening the fight from the workplace to community centers, where workers from across sectors who share a common experience of ‘precarity’ can assemble and seek justice in their workplace, communities and cities. Non-traditional labour organizations, such as workers’ centers, are increasingly occupying that position, and consequently, playing a leading role in the campaign to increase the minimum wage in Canada. And the Immigrant Workers Center (IWC) is a one such example.
The IMMIGRANT WORKERS CENTRE AND QUEBEC’S ‘FIGHT FOR $15’ CAMPAIGN
Immigrant Workers Centre was founded in 2000 by community activists and trade union organizers in the Filipino community. It was built as a space rooted in the community outside of the workplace to deal with the issues faced by immigrant workers. From 2000 to the present, the IWC has organized with workers in the Temporary Foreign Workers programs and workers who are employed through temporary agencies, many for large distribution centres and warehouses along the edge of Montréal. Some of the IWC activities include informing workers of their labour rights, defending workers’ rights for status and defending against unjust dismissal or exploitative working conditions as well as organizing to alter policy and labour regulations so as to change the conditions of work. Beyond this, the IWC has focused on building leadership among these workers, who often have been voiceless in the debates in society about work and the inequalities they face. The IWC has done so by collaborating with different groups of immigrant/migrant workers.
The origins of the $15 wage campaign can be traced back to 2012, when the IWC brought together live-in caregiver workers from the Philippines, undocumented Mexican workers primarily associated with the group Mexicans United for Regularization, temporary placement agency workers (operating primarily in the warehousing sector) and other workers from the Temporary Foreign Worker programs to form a coalition to call upon the government to end precarious work. The coalition also demanded permanent status for temporary migrant workers, health and safety for domestic workers, and the regulation of temporary placement agencies. And one of their key demands was an increase in the minimum wage. All of the demands came from the workers themselves who thought these issues were crucial to peers and constituents of their organizations. These workers subsequently began to build a movement for $15, which would be inaugurated at the International Day of Decent Work in 2015. From there, a grassroots coalition was formed between the workers and different trade union activists, housing rights groups and other social justice activists, who were gathered under one umbrella to demand $15 an hour minimum wage. The building of this broader coalition then led to actions of solidarity for part-time nonacademic stuff in the university sector who were on strike in 2016 and for workers in the old port of Montreal who were striking for the $15 wage. In October 2016, it manifested into a mass demonstration of 2,000 people in Montréal in support of the $15 an hour minimum wage.
The most dynamic day-to-day organizing though has been to turn the campaign into a municipal issue. To do this, it was necessary to build the base of the movement. This was done by establishing neighborhood committees that would expand and grow the campaign and place pressure on the city council of Montréal. The focus of the neighbourhood committees was to develop neighbourhood-based initiatives that would show how the minimum wage and poverty have been impacting people’s day-to-day lives in their neighbourhoods. And two of the first committees were established in Cote-des-Neiges and Parc Extension, immigrant neighbourhoods that have a high concentration of residents who are considered working poor (27% and 34%, respectively), with many residents working for temporary agencies. These neighbourhoods are also well-known as having a large number of landlords who take advantage of immigrants’ precarious situation in order to increase rents and who refuse to deal with bad housing conditions.
The neighbourhood committees were successful in forcing the issue onto the agenda of the city council in the summer of 2017 and to pressure Projet Montréal, the party that now forms the city council after being elected in November 2017, to adopt a $15 an hour demand prior to their electoral victory. This was possible because the neighbourhood initiatives had built up local coalitions by organizing picnics, rallies and delegations to borough council meetings. The local work proved effective in reaching a new layer of people who were previously outside the campaign, such as housing, immigrant rights, and anti-poverty organizations. One example was the local neighborhood committee in Parc-Extension which as mentioned above is one of the neighborhoods with the highest rate of working poverty in Montréal and is also a predominantly immigrant, working-class neighborhood. The fight for $15 committee worked with the local Sikh community, the tenants organization, and the campaign to stop the hikes in electricity campaign to build a broad-based grassroots campaign in the neighborhood. They had organized community meals, fundraisers, outreach at metro stations, picnics to mobilize, and build awareness. And as a testament to the power of such work, in May 2017, when trade unions in Montréal chose to hold their annual May Day march in the neighbourhood of Cote-des-Neiges, they made calls for an end to precarious work, status for undocumented workers and most importantly, the $15 an hour minimum wage.
ENVISIONING AND ENACTING A NEW MOVEMENT
The campaign is still ongoing in Québec and it is occurring in the context of a neoliberal provincial government and an employers’ association that are bent on austerity, with an agenda to create a flexible labour market and limit the role of trade unions in society as well as a refusal to follow the lead of other provinces such as Ontario and Alberta in implementing a $15 an hour minimum wage (see for example: https://www.15andfairness.org/). Yet, despite such challenges, a new type of labour movement has emerged to combat deepening inequality. As critical geographer David Harvey highlights,
How can we organize to change this inequality? To me, we should displace this notion that the factory worker will be the vanguard of the proletariat, and begin envisioning those who engage with the production and reproduction of urban life as the new vanguard. This would include domestic workers, taxi drivers, delivery workers, and many more from the poor and working-classes. I think we can build political movements that operate in totally different ways than the past.
In Montréal, Québec, such a movement now exists. The movement is rooted in charting a new path to labour organizing, one that broadens the base of support and can build a collective power to challenge the kind of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment that has come to the forefront with the election of Trump and intensified neoliberal policies that have led to the cuts that are impacting all of us. It is a movement that forges solidarity across a range of actors, such as unorganized workers, undocumented workers, immigrants and existing trade unions and social movements. The building of a such political movement is the real victory of the campaign for the $15 an hour minimum wage.
 In 2016, 62 of the wealthiest individuals had as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet, according to Oxfam (2016), and in Quebec the wealth gap is immense, as 20% of the population has 70% of the wealth.
Mostafa Henaway is a Ph.D. Candidate at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. He is also a long-time organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montréal.