The attacks on workers continues unrelentingly.
Over the 12 years the United Steelworkers have received funding from the Ontario government to set up and maintain Job Action Centres. The JACs were staffed by laid off workers and their role was to assist fellow workers who were experiencing workplace closures or permanent layoffs. The peer advocates/helpers were there to provide on going support for people going through one of the most upsetting and dislocating experiences of their lives.
They provided resume support, retraining, job options, referrals to Life Line, another Steelworkers service fully funded through members and fundraising efforts. Lifeline gives financial and counseling support to those with family problems, addictions, depression and all the accompanying issues that come with job loss. The JAC’s understand jobs in the manufacturing and other sectors that members work in. They have been through the traumatizing effects of a closure themselves and provide a cup of coffee and a friendly environment where workers have the opportunity to regroup and get back on their feet. They help to bring back the self esteem and confidence that so many workers lose going through this process.
Many of those going through this job loss are immigrants from racialized communities, a large percentage are women. Often they have worked in the same place for 25 or more years. English is commonly their second language and they feel set adrift after they loose their job. The union wants to continue to connect with them and provide the necessary supports they need to find decent employment. When the JAC in Toronto began it started an organization, Workers Without Jobs, which was made up of the newly unemployed who decided to advocate for their needs for better access to Unemployment Insurance and other necessary services. It was a vibrant organization at the time that held demonstrations and worked with other unemployed to bring the situation they were facing to the notice of governments and the broader community. This type of self-activity is critical.
A few months ago the provincial government announced that they would no longer be funding union-based JACs and that laid off workers could simply go to government centres and seek employment through their cookie cutter approach. The governments admit that the JACs are less costly and see more workers than government services but that doesn’t seem to make a difference. They don’t want workers to serve their own members.
After a good sized demonstration at the Ministry offices, one contract was renewed. The other two centres are scheduled to shut down at the end of December leaving workers on their own to fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world. Jobs are hard to come by and laid off workers need to be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The fight to stop the closures is continuing and the laid off workers who are struggling to maintain the JACs need all the support they can get. Any victory in a workers struggle can give them the sense that they can succeed as well.
That’s why the successful strike by the Mississauga library workers recently is such an inspiration to so many. Four hundred plus strikers took on the city and won! They beat back concessions and gained a $15 rate for the lowest paid, linking their fight with the broader $15 and Fairness Campaign which has been winning victories all over North America and bringing attention to the difficulties of part time precarious work.
On October 1 workers from all over Ontario showed the Liberal government that we all deserve decent work. There is an ongoing fight to both improve the employment standards act for the unorganized, and existing labour law: to bring back anti-scab protection when workers are striking, to provide successor rights when a new company wins a contract so that the workers don’t sink to the bottom loosing all that they have gained, to make it easier to organize so that workers aren’t subjected to employer intimidation etc. This is linked with the Fight for $15 which affects both organized and unorganized workers in low paid sectors.
The only way that governments of any stripe will listen to the concerns of workers is if we fight back and keep the pressure on. Victories as we saw in Mississauga are due to rank and file organizing at the base—through which workers learn that by working together, leaving no one behind, they have the collective strength to win. There have been so many instances historically of when this has happened, the Common Front in Quebec in the 70’s, the postal worker wild cats in the same era, the victory at Rio Tinto in Alma, Quebec more recently, the Chicago teachers, and many more.
There are tremendous challenges today but also opportunities. Workers have been setting up committees in their workplaces in the building for October 1 demonstration, which the trade unions called as a mass mobilization for Decent Work. We have to keep these committees going, maintain the activism, and continue to build for the fights in the here and now, and for those yet to come.