Young workers, activism, and building a better world

I often have the chance to speak to groups of young workers, most of the time Unifor members under 35, to do skill-building and engagement workshops. For those occasions, I have used different versions of this presentation, which I have adapted here in written form.

Page content

The title of this presentation is “Young workers, activism, and building a better world”, but I should say that there are subtitles. The first one is “Don’t let your age stop you from doing good things”. Despite what a lot of people say about young people being inexperienced, uninformed and incompetent, you have a lot to offer. There is nothing wrong with looking at old problems with fresh young eyes, and that’s part of why we have to develop our activism.

The second subtext is “No more excuses”. I believe that everyone here is resourceful, intelligent and passionate about making change. If you’re telling me that you can’t do something because a) you have no money, b) you don’t have permission or c) people don’t participate, you’re looking at the problem the wrong way. We need to flip it around: start with whatever you’ve got. If you have no money, permission or participation, then we’re here to find ways around it and still manage do get something moving.

The changing nature of work and the so-called sharing economy

Precarious work is the new normal. More and more, people cannot find full-time, decently-paid work to make ends meet. People have to rely on patchworks of contracts, two or three casual jobs, and the harsh reality of low-paid work. That’s the world we live in and there’s no denying it. Now, this is in large part because there are not a lot of good jobs out there, and that in turn is in large part due to the forces that run the world. It’s not by accident that wages are pushed down and the quality of our working lives is eroding. There are deliberate attempts at making sure our employers, often giant international businesses, keep their bottom line as healthy as possible. That’s their goal even if it means cutting corners with the very people who work for them and allow those profit margins to exist in the first place.

Part of our challenge today is the fact that we are facing very fragmented workplaces. Although many workplaces in Canada have hundreds of employees, most workplaces today have, on average, 20 workers. What’s worse, freelancers and contractors usually have a workplaces of one single person. This isolation makes it hard for working people to talk, understand the world we work in and even build any sort of resistance to those forces who exploit our work.

People in this room have an advantage millions of workers do not: you have collective agreements which dictate your working conditions and many processes at work. What do you think happens when employers are left to their own devices to apply Employment Standards and other laws that protect workers?

They don’t enforce them. Last year, in Ontario, the Ministry of Labour conducted an audit to evaluate how its labour laws were being upheld in a variety of workplaces. It was found that over two thirds of employers were in breach of some kind of labour law. That is a high number! It shows that when left on their own, employers will take short-cuts, and workers will be left vulnerable. That’s not good enough.

You’ve probably heard that we are on the cusp of a new era: one where all our job woes will be over, where technology and innovation will save us all from economic inequality, where your smart phone will be your avenue to creating your own job. Welcome to the new sharing economy! I am sure you have heard the commentators argue that with Uber and other app-based services, the end of unemployment is near. We won’t get into an in-depth conversation about Uber here, because there is a lot to consider. But, in order to determine whether working contracts through any app-delivery service actually help working people, we can start with a few basic questions:

  • Do these jobs reduce inequality? Do they redistribute large sums of money from the ruling class to working people? Do they raise people out of poverty? Do they level out the gap between the rich and the poor? - Do these jobs ensure that workers can make ends meet? Do they allow for full time, decently-paid work? Do they mean that workers can drop their second, part-time low-wage job because they have enough to live by? - Do these jobs increase long-term stability for workers? Do the jobs help people plan their lives beyond next weekend? Do they allow for some leeway in caring for the people around them?

If the answer is no, then we’re probably facing a red-herring of a job offer. It’s more likely that these jobs are better for some company making millions than it is for the worker fulfilling a short-lived contract.

A window of opportunity

But, you’ll ask, what can we do about it? Well, we can take comfort in our good union jobs, our collective agreements, we can take our time off on weekends and when we can, hoping that the wind will change for the next generation of workers, right?


Your collective agreement gives you stability, and that gives you a position of privilege that you can use to fight for other workers. In fact, there is no better time to fight for everyone, to make sure that we find ways to collectively raise people up, and demand decent lives for people here in Canada. There’s even a political window of opportunity that allows us to do that right now.

In Ontario, the government is reviewing its labour laws under the Changing Workplaces Review. There’s a widespread acknowledgement that labour laws need to be updated to protect workers and make sure people can make ends meet. But, the voice of business is loud and strong in Ontario. If we don’t want this process to be strongly influenced by them, we need to make some noise. You can join the $15 and fairness campaign, the OFL’s Make it Fair campaign, and you can use those tools to talk to people around you about what must be done in the interest of workers, not companies, to make improvements for workers.

There are many studies that show that young people today are open to the idea of unions, understand the power of collective action, and look at the world in a different way than their parents did. Despite what you may hear in the media, people join unions every week in Canada – that’s including young people.

The NDP government in Alberta has just brought in a $15 minimum wage, the first province in Canada to do so. That was only possible because working people were organized, pushed a government to power that would represent their interests, and were prepared to deal with any attacks.

Building power for working people is not an outdated idea. In fact, power is what is most needed for workers right now, and the good news is that, as young labour activists, we’re in the best position to do something and build our collective power.

Beyond the traditional workplace

Because there is a fairly strict legal process to organize your workplace and join a union in Canada, it’s important to think about how we can build the union outside of traditional workplaces.

At Unifor we are building a model called community chapters, which allows workers to join the union even if they can’t have a collective agreement. It means that we have to be creative about the kind of power we can build. Even without a collective agreement, a group of workers can try to move their community forward, and the union can find ways to support them.

For example, the Canadian Freelance Union is a network of freelance workers in the media sector across Canada. They represent photographers, graphic designers, writers and many more. They are all independent contractors who cannot organize, but who can, through the union, build a network of support and help each other out.

Another example is our newest chapter, the East Danforth Community Chapter. The membership are all women from the South-Asian community and Scarborough. All of their members work contract, temporary agency and precarious work. They can’t organize because the kinds of precarious jobs they work are non-union, or too temporary to unionize. By working through the union, the members of this chapter want to be part of the bigger fight for improved employment standards and the $15 minimum wage in Ontario.

As young workers, you are connected to tons of people, young and old, who don’t have the support of a union right now. There is a lot of things we can do to make sure we’re reaching out to the people around us, and find ways to talk to non-union workers about the benefit of a union. Millions of workers don’t have a union. We have a lot of work to do.

So, what can we do?

You remember when I said the subtitle to this presentation was “no more excuses”, which is why we can now talk about some ideas that you can bring home with you. This is a short list – there are many more – but, let’s start somewhere.

Organizing starts wherever you are. Whether you want to take on projects at home, in your workplace, in your community, in your city, in your local club – wherever you want, there is something to be done to bring about change or raise awareness. You can do political organizing, working on issues that relate to your local Members of Parliament or Members of Provincial Parliaments. You can do community organizing, where you try to build bridges between different groups working on different issues, but who can come together to reach similar goals. You can also look at union organizing, where you’re supporting non-union workers in your community to join the union.

Creativity goes a long way, but you don’t have to get too complicated. The list of actions or events you can organize to get people out and mobilized is long and exciting: tabling and canvassing, information sessions, public meetings, banner making, flash mob, music event, demonstrations, petition or postcard campaigns, etc. That being said, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a pizza lunch or a pub night. Often times, people getting together in an informal setting is a good place to start conversations that can move on to bigger ideas and projects. Start small, and build your group of activists one by one.

Issue-based campaigns are great tools. Building a local issue-based campaign, with the goal of bringing awareness to a particular issue, can be a great way to get mobilized and find people to work with on different projects. It can also be a daunting task that requires time, money, skills, all of which many young workers may not have readily available. This is when you can turn to organizations, unions, or community groups who have already done the heavy-lifting work of building a campaign. With the campaign already developed, you can often find various campaign tools and use them at home. By doing this, you accomplish two things: you build awareness around an important campaign to try and move it forward, and at the same time you’re building your activist base and providing good experience to the activists you’re working with.

There’s always a need for skill-building workshops. Providing skill-building workshops to young workers is an opportunity to equip people with skills they didn’t have early one. If you’re building a campaign, you want people to know how to canvass, talk to people one-on-one, and have other basic campaign skills. That’s a good reason to hold a training session. If you have some web, photo, or design skills that you could pass on to others, organize a training and help others build their skills. Then, get out there and practice!

Don’t stop at the first challenge. Building an activist group takes time, energy and hard work. If you stop at the first hurdle, you’ll never get to see your work reach its potential. Keep at it!

What do you care most about? Start there. Whatever you’re passionate about, there’s a need for change and much work to be done. Start by trying to see if any of these topics is your interest, and keep looking for others: women’s rights, anti-racism, pay equity, child care, climate change, anti-war, fair wages, LGBTQ rights, justice for Indigenous people, retirement security, etc.

Take-home messages

Workers still need a voice, both young and old. Building workplace democracy in our own workplaces and in more non-union workplaces across the country can guide our work as young labour activists.

The more the economy gets precarious, the more people will fight back and demand fair wages and protections.

Be a part of that fight!