What's Left 2016-04-03 Volume 52

This edition celebrates a year's worth of content with two features: Lost in technology: The struggles of the modern political campaign; and The 'precariate': A new demographic for organizing change.

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Lost in technology: The struggles of the modern political campaign

When Barack Obama became President in 2008, many pointed to his campaign’s adoption and investment in social media and digital tools as a key reason for the victory and as a watershed moment for political campaigns. No longer could these tools be ignored if a politician had any hope of being elected.

Suddenly, previous campaigns and “old” organizing models were archaic. They were missing numerous opportunities to capitalize on new technologies that could keep track of an increasingly connected public – a public using the internet as a “fun” and “easy” way to engage in politics.

This narrative is problematic. It’s important to realize that good political campaigns have always been sophisticated in their communications and analysis. Identifying potential voters, their voting intentions, and the issues informing those intentions have a long history. Whether through phoning or on the doorstep, political parties have always worked hard to collect this information and use it to inform their campaign strategies.

One of the reasons Obama’s 2008 victory was so important, was because his campaign was so effective at integrating digital tools into established and effective communication, data collection, and data analysis strategies. It gave the Obama team a marked advantage and showed just how effective online outreach and digital analytics could be in helping to win the hearts, minds, and dollars of potential supporters.

Since that victory, political parties around the world have been attempting to copy the Obama campaign playbook and invest more effort in digital tools. They have doubled-down on social media and email engagement, tried to optimize online fundraising, and attempted to build sophisticated voter, donor, and volunteer tracking systems – all with the goal of winning.

So why have so many political campaigns and social justice movements had such a hard time taking advantage of new technologies? Why do expensive communications firms never seem to deliver? Reflecting on a decade spent working in technology and politics, What’s Left contributor Ben Lewis provides some insights in an original piece of Citizens’ Press.

The bottom line: no one knows the goals of a campaign better than the organizers involved, and the best path forward is to build the internal capacity needed to take advantage of constantly changing technologies. Though focused on political campaigns, these strategies are also useful for small not-for-profits and large unions.

Read the entirety of “Lost in technology” on the Citizens’ Press website

The “precariate”: A new demographic for organizing change

Work has changed in Canada. Over half of new jobs created fall into the category of precarious work. Precarious private service and intellectual labour employment has increased as industrial labour in Canada has decreased. With the industrial sector having been heavily unionized, this shift has meant more workers being employed in environments without union protection.

The impacts of this shift have been substantial and have had far-reaching effects, including the rise of inequality and exploitative working conditions. Precarious work echoes workplace discrimination and is often experienced by the most disenfranchised in society – women, racialized workers, new immigrants, and youth – groups who are subtly avoided by those providing more stable employment. And, unfortunately, the problem is getting worse, not better.

The issue for precarious workers is that most of the opportunities being provided to them are dead-end jobs. These workers are often left without adequate parental leave, health benefits, or any semblance of workplace democracy. Contracts or irregular-hour jobs offer little hope of future stability, leave individuals underemployed and, with little warning, unemployed. These factors make unionization difficult. Making matters worse, existing laws and regulations do not offer many protections for these workers, as they were developed without this type of employment in mind.

The response to the rise in the visibility of this inequality has meant that the general population is starting to pay attention to this shift and the struggles of precarious workers. However, like any political struggle, the solutions to these struggles differ depending on ones politics and position within the economy.

Current government lawmakers, who only understand what precarious employment is through reading its definition, seem confused by the scale of the issue and discuss unworkable “solutions”. These include the just paying precarious workers to stop complaining through something like the Ontario Liberal’s unworkable “Basic Income Guarantee”. This perspective views the rise of precarious work as natural and unstoppable, unaware that recent legislative and regulatory changes have been entirely responsible for the rise in precarious work.

On the other side, unions have worked to organize and provide democratic structures for these workers so that they have opportunities for the same protections and representation available to those with more stable employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that, under the legal constraints of current labour law, most precarious workers are explicitly excluded from unionization. This on top of the fact that, historically, unions have had a hard time organizing such workers. Some unions are continuing to experiment with expanding concepts of workplace democracy to the precarious. Unifor’s Community Chapters program, which includes the Canadian Freelance Union, is having success.

Given the problems with current labour laws denying precarious workers the rights afforded to those in more stable employment, organizations like the Workers Action Centre (WAC) have been mobilizing public support for those rights to be expanded and improved. The call for a $15 minimum wage, enforced regular hours, and statutory paid sick leave are the demands to raise the floor. WAC has also worked with unions to demand legal changes to various pieces of legislation that regulates the legal protections for workers and make it easier for those in the private service sectors to organize. This fight has recently gained momentum with a recent endorsement by the Ontario New Democratic Party.

The Urban Worker Project is the latest initiative to join the fight to improve conditions for precarious workers. The project targets areas where the most recent rise in precarious employment have been most pronounced: young and new workers in freelance and contract positions within urban regions. This builds on previous work by co-founder Andrew Cash who, as a Member of Parliament, introduced a private members bill that sought to strike a federal task-force to resolve inequities in taxation and access to social support mechanisms (including employment insurance) for precarious workers. Unfortunately, the bill was opposed and defeated by the Conservatives. The Urban Worker Project seeks to draw further attention to the shortfalls of the current job market. It adds its voice to those who have put forward demands to improve minimum standards and protections for a growing number of workers.

In the end, it is clear precarious workers are in need of organizing support to drive legislation that helps protect the rights and the empowering structures that all workers deserve. This is the direction in which we are heading.

Urban Worker Project

Canadian Freelance Union

Workers’ Action Centre

Fight for $15 and fairness

National Urban Workers Strategy Act

Petition in Favour of Greater Rights and Protections for Freelancers and Precarious Workers | Unifor

Precarious work tops agenda as reports highlights history and long-term risks | What’s Left