Canadian Workers Are Saying No to Precarity

Workers at the Canadian Labor Congress came together to share stories and organizing strategies.

Maximillian Alvarez

Federal government workers stage a protest outside Service Canada building in Scarborough district of Toronto, Canada on April 19, 2023. Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

From May 8-12, the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress took place in Montréal. Reporting for Working People and The Real News Network, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez attended the convention and spoke with a number of rank-and-file workers, organizers, and union officers about the state of the labor movement in Canada.

In Part 1 of our two-part dispatch from the CLC, we talk to: Emily Leedham, the Prairie Reporter for PressProgress and editor of Shift Work, PressProgress‘ weekly national labour newsletter; Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees; Mary Newman, a journalist and producer for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and member of the Canadian Media Guild; James Russwurm, a quality assurance tester for Keywords Studios, where workers formed the first union in the video gaming industry and affiliated with UFCW Local 401; Liz Ha, 1st Vice President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 154, chair of the OPSEU provincial human rights committee, and vice-chair of the OPSEU Coalition of Racialized Workers.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Leedham: My name is Emily Leedham. I’m a senior reporter with PressProgress. We’re a progressive news website based in Canada, and I cover the Prairies, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the middle of the country, but I also cover labor, and I have a weekly newsletter called Shift Work, which provides a roundup of all the strikes and lockouts across the country. It’s the only place you can find a list like this, as well as a roundup of the labor news from across Canada. So it’s looking at mainstream, local sources and independent news sources to see what’s happening across the country. So it really gives you a snapshot of what’s happening in the Canadian labor movement, once a week.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, Emily, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at The Real News Network. We are obviously here in Montreal, at the Action Network Tent, in the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. And The Real News is here to talk to as many folks as we can, to learn as much as we can about what working people across Canada are going through, fighting for, what the state of the organized labor movement is in Canada. And you are the one that I normally go to to sort of get that pulse read. So first, I just wanted to say, big fan of your work, and everyone watching and listening to this should go check it out.

We’ve actually been fortunate enough to have you on The Real News. We’ve republished a couple of your great pieces for PressProgress. And you were on my colleague Mark Steiner’s show. It’s great to finally meet in person.

Emily Leedham: Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: I wanted to just sort of start there. As someone who is doing this important labor reporting, week in, week out, I was wondering if you could just sort of set the scene for people watching and listening, what crucial stories have you been focusing on over, say, the past year? Because there’ve been some pretty explosive stories in Canadian labor, but what have you been focusing on?

Emily Leedham: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, the interesting thing is, coming out of the pandemic, it was obviously a really, really hard time for labor, a hard time for workers, a lot of stress about, what is labor doing? What are workers going to do? And what we’re seeing right now is, it’s been a couple of years and a lot of this organizing has been happening behind the scenes. You haven’t always been seeing it, but workers have been frustrated. They’ve been agitating. And we’re starting to see that coming to the surface. We saw that with the education workers just last year. They went on an illegal one day strike. They defied legislation that would impose a collective agreement on them and ban their right to strike. And they defied that legislation, and they got it repealed in Ontario. The conservative premier backed down, and that was a really big moment.

Right now, we also saw the national strike of 155 public sector workers, across the country. This is the first big strike like this in 30 years, since 1991. It was the last time there was a strike of this magnitude of public-

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s like 155,000 workers across the country, right?

Emily Leedham: Yeah. So there were 250 picket lines across Canada. So they did strategic picketing. So they weren’t all out at once, but they were kind of doing rotating strikes, strategic strikes. But it was 155,000 workers that were in those bargaining units that were represented in the strike.

And it was like bookkeepers, ships crews, people in lighthouses. I talked to some lighthouse workers. It was so interesting. Just a wide spectrum of workers, but a lot of them were women, women of color, a lot of them making $40,000 to $60,000 a year, and they were on strike over wanting higher wages and remote work policies. And this is not typically thought of as a militant union. So it was a surprise to a lot of people that this strike actually happened. Because I was watching the strike votes happen, a lot of times, unions will take a strike vote as a bargaining chip in itself, right? Like we have this in our pocket. But then to actually do the next step and go on strike, that was a really big moment.

So for the past two weeks, we covered the strike fairly regularly. And it was very fascinating because a lot of the workers were on strike for the first time. And a lot of them were learning what their union is and what their union does. And it’s very transformational moment. And so they were able to win some wage increases, some improvements to remote work. There’s a bit of debate. Could they have got more? Should they have got more? Their ratification votes are about to happen. But what I’ve heard from a lot of activists is that, this is a transformational moment that will impact the union for years to come, because now you have people engaged in their union, debating stuff within their union, wondering, how can we get more? And that’s something to build on is what they have right now. So that’s really been a really interesting moment.

Another thing about that strike is that, it’s very political because the employers’ like the federal government, and so you had the three major parties, the liberals, conservatives and the NDP. They all want to portray themselves as the friends to workers. They don’t want to be coming across as anti-worker, anti-labor. It’s very interesting watching them how they navigated it. And it was quite an unusual precedent for this kind of moment. So you could really see that workers’ issues are at the forefront of a lot of political leaders, a lot of reporters as well. And so, yeah, it’s a very interesting time to be watching labor right now.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I would say so. Because you mentioned the Ontario educators strike, that was pretty badass. I mean, defying Doug Ford’s Draconian attempts to strip… Basically kind of do what Joe Biden did with the railroad workers, force them back to work, force a deal down their throats. And even for us in the States, watching this massive federal public servers’ workers strike.

Emily Leedham: Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: It was like, well, I guess that’s why the US government doesn’t let us do that. So this is why Ronald Reagan was able to fire all the air traffic controllers in the 80s, right? It was because federal workers in the United States don’t have that legal right. And it’s just incredible to look northward and see the strength that that many workers taking collective action has. And the interesting, like you said, dynamics that it creates within the different parties and across the labor scene when the employer, the boss, is the government.

Emily Leedham: Yeah. And normally, there would be talk about back to work legislation because they are federal workers, and they provide a lot of really essential services. But the fact that nobody overtly called for back to work legislation, and it became very clear early on that the government wouldn’t move in that direction because it would look so negatively on them to be so oppositional to workers. Whereas before, the conversation might have been different, because other workers have been legislated back to work, postal workers just a few years ago, before the pandemic happened. So things have really shifted a lot. And I think the fact that we didn’t see the government or any politicians, even the conservative ones who normally do not like unions, they had to watch what they said as well. So I think that really shows that there is a moment to be taken advantage of for workers and unions right now, that politicians want to be seen as appeasing them.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about that real quick. Because again, as someone who does such great essential reporting, week in, week out, you’re talking to, like you said, lighthouse workers, clerks, and so many folks across the labor spectrum. I was wondering, what you’re hearing from these different groups of workers that… What’s your impression of the key issues that workers are struggling with and fighting against in Canada? I mean, we’re all in the midst of a cost of living crisis. I mean, this is why we’re seeing strikes by workers all over the place in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the States. So I know that that’s a key issue. But I was wondering, yeah, if you could say a bit about what you’re hearing from folks as the really galvanizing issues for workers, and how the labor movement, such that it is, is responding to those.

Emily Leedham: Yeah, definitely. Well, like you just said, cost of living. People are recognizing that, oh, my union is a place where I can actually engage and we can bargain. We can do cost of living adjustments, put those into collective agreements. There’s talk about incorporating that more into negotiations. And I cover strikes and lockouts across Canada. Wages, wages, wages. That’s like the number one issue that people are striking over right now. And I think we’re going to see even more strikes. I was talking to some labor leaders at a conference as well, and they’re like, Yeah, this is the tip of the iceberg. Our members are upset.” And they’re ready.

Another main issue is migrant workers in Canada as well. As there’s… Employers are talking about like, oh, there’s a labor crisis, labor shortage. They don’t want to pay for good jobs, so they’re saying-

Maximillian Alvarez: We get that in the States too.

Emily Leedham: Nobody wants to work.” It’s like, well, yeah, maybe increase your wages, your working conditions, people will want to work. But they are wanting to exploit migrant workers as well. And there’s a lot of that that’s been happening.

But right now, there’s talk about a regularization program for migrant workers. The federal government has been promising it, and they’ve been talking about putting it together, which would basically grant status, permanent resident status, to migrant workers across Canada hopefully. So there is a movement right now of migrant workers that is organizing to really push this forward and make sure that when they come up with this regularization program, it is expansive and covers all workers across Canada.

And that is a really crucial moment because if migrant workers are able to have employment rights the same as any other workers, that means they can join a union. That means they can organize. That means they don’t have to be scared that they’ll be deported for even going to a know-your-right session or anything like that. And so that will really strengthen the labor movement overall if we have all these workers that are able to be here and fight and organize.

So that’s something that’s on the horizon, and hopefully, will get pushed through this year. So that’s something really important to keep an eye on, definitely.

Maximillian Alvarez: And just a quick kind of follow up on that, have you seen the organized labor movement, the established unions? Have they been part of that push? Have they been receptive to it, driving it?

Emily Leedham: Yeah. There’s been some definitely who have been supportive of the movement. But there is a bit of a disconnect, for sure, because some unions can be very insular and they’re just like, We want to secure improvements for our members,” and they don’t really step back and they take a big picture, like look at it, even working with other unions or non-unionized workers, much less migrant workers. So it definitely is a mixed bag. There is a lot of support for the migrant worker movement, but it is really led by independent organizers, outside of the union movement. So any support that institutionalized labor can throw behind that, I think, will really benefit everyone in general. You lift the most exploited workers up and it lifts everyone up.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I think it’s also really important for folks watching and listening to this to not just assume that the dynamics that are true in the States automatically translate to what’s going on in Canada. I mean, we could say the same for any country, but I know there’s a tendency to sort of assume that basically Canada is going through the same stuff that we are. So there’s a one-to-one comparison.

The reason I ask that is, or say that is, because I wanted to ask quickly if the public has been behind these labor mobilizations, because I think that’s been an important factor in the States. Unions have not been popular for most of my lifetime. And now, suddenly, they are more favorable in the public’s estimation than they’ve been in decades. Are you seeing something similar here in Canada?

Emily Leedham: Yeah. I think the tide is definitely shifting, for sure. There’s been the big Starbucks Union drive in the States, which has been so amazing. We’ve seen a bit of that spillover here. We’ve had some locations, Starbucks locations unionized, which is so great. I mean, even just a few years ago. I was in the Fight For 15 Movement, and the talk about unionizing franchises, it was like, oh, it’s so hard. It’s just like, look, it’s happening. It’s not impossible.

So that has been happening here in the PSAC public sector strike. It was really interesting because there’s kind of a dichotomy between public and private sector unions. And the conservatives and the right wing movement, business lobby movement, they kind of tried to divide workers along those lines and say, these are government workers. They’re making so much money. They’re just bloated, big government. And they use that as an excuse to erode the labor rights and to drive down wages. So that was really interesting to see during the federal strike.

There was a poll done, and there was support for the workers. Quite a lot of people understood what they were fighting for. And there was, I think, like 60% support across the board for the workers. So it was higher than would be expected for federal public sector workers, especially since you really did have the business lobby going hard to try to demonize these workers and be like, they’re just asking for too much, basically. So I think the tide is shifting, for sure.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. And on that note, I wanted to ask, before I let you go, about the role that the media is playing in that, and kind of what the state of the labor beats is in Canada. I mean, the US, it’s not great. I mean, we used to have way more local newspapers. It was a staple of most newspapers to have a designated labor reporter back in the day. And with the gradual and not so gradual kind of collapse of the media industry in the digital age, a lot of those beats were axed. A lot of those papers had been shuttered. And it was looking really dismal until quite recently.

So we’ve had a bit of a resurgence of the labor beat, mainly driven by freelancers and independent outlets. I mean, great folks like Kim Kelly, Sarah Jaffe, Michelle Chen, Luis Feliz Leon, Labor Notes, In These Times, us at The Real News, we’re doing the best we can. But we’ve got a long way to go. And so I wanted to ask, what does the media, the labor media landscape look like here in Canada? And what role do you see your work and PressProgress playing in the movement that we’re talking about here?

Emily Leedham: Yeah. Definitely. It’s been kind of the same here, where there wasn’t a lot of labor reporting for a while, but because of the pandemic, every story became a labor story. And so a lot of the mainstream reporters were just forced to cover labor and forced to learn about labor and talk to workers, talk to unions. So you definitely saw the resurgence there.

There’s a reporter at The Globe and Mail, one of the big newspapers. She was a business reporter, and she basically turned her position into a labor reporter because she’s like, this is a crucial moment. We’re not talking to the right people. We need to be talking to the workers. So I think that was so great. There’s another labor reporter in BC, a brand new position at the Tai Ni. So it is kind of having a resurgence and then progressive media as well, independent media.

But of course, the state of the news industry in general has been very stressful, and that impacts, of course, the kind of work that you can do, so the scope and the quality of the kind of reporting that you can do. So yeah, you have this kind of rise of labor reporting, but then also just the conditions of the news industry kind of keep getting worse.

So for us at PressProgress, one thing that I’ve been trying to do with Shift Work is really highlight labor journalism. This is what I do. We do labor internships. We’ve had interns that we bring on in the summer and we teach them how to do labor reporting. So it’s so exciting. And what I’ve been saying is, you have to be an advocate for the beat as well. You have to learn about the labor movement, do these stories, but you have to learn how to fight for these stories and fight for the beat itself, because that’s going to be how it’s built, is by journalists pushing it forward. So I’m really excited about that, and that’s what I’m trying to do at PressProgress with the Shift Work Newsletter, and covering the strikes and lockouts that we do. I’d like to build up labor reporting more at PressProgress.

Striking federal workers, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket outside the Joseph Shephard Building at 4900 Yonge Street in Toronto. April 24, 2023. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, we stand in solidarity with y’all. We would love to keep collaborating and supporting that important work. And in that vein, I just wanted to close by asking, give us some plugs. Where can people find you and follow your work?

Emily Leedham: So pressprogress​.ca/​s​h​i​f​twork. That’s where you can go sign up for the newsletter. PressProgress​.ca. That’s where you find all of our reporting. We report on right-wing political movements, business lobbyists, political movements, but then we have all of our labor reporting there as well.

And then you can find me on Twitter, just look me up, @emilyleedham, on Instagram as well. And yeah, that’s where you can find me.

Guy Smith: Hi, I’m Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and it’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, Guy, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me. It’s a real honor to get to meet you in person. And we are, of course, here at the 30th Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. It’s my first time coming here, so I’m trying to soak in as much as I can, talk to as many folks as I can, learn about the state of the movement here in Canada, what workers are going through, what organizing efforts are happening, and ultimately what we, in the States and beyond, can do to stand in solidarity with our siblings up here to the north.

I’m really excited to get a chance to talk to you because The Real News where I work came from Canada. We have a lot of folks who are connected to Alberta. And so I’m always hearing a lot about the kind of changing political wins in Alberta, stories that we want to look at. And so I’m really, really curious to learn more about how you and your union are organizing amidst that. But before we get there, for the great podcast listeners, I was wondering if we could start by learning a bit more about you and your path to union leadership.

Guy Smith: So I’m 61 years old now, and I’ve been involved in my union for the last 35 years. I was a Government of Alberta employee, on the front lines of child and youth care, working in a center to help disadvantaged and youth at risk, and as a result, I was a AUPE member. And started noticing that I had concerns at the work site about health and safety, staffing levels and that sort of thing. And I wanted to find out from my union how I could get involved to help.

So I started on the shop floor as an activist and an agitator. Became a union steward, elected to work site positions. And actually led our members out on a strike, which our employer deemed illegal, which I guess technically was in 1990, around workload issues and pay equity issues. And so that was a very fundamental experience for me, realizing that, yeah, I’m right and march out the door and then having other folks believe in themselves to do the same. And then realizing I had the responsibility to help them stay out there. And so that was formative for me.

And shortly after that, I got elected as the vice president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in 1993. And at that time, we were taking on a very anti-union regressive government that basically privatized a whole swath of government services. And we lost a lot of those battles. And I think it’s really important to learn from the losses as well. But we also won some fundamental ones as well. And really, I look at it from the perspective of worker’s power, that you don’t leave things to don’t leave things to a collective agreement. You leave things to the collective action, direct action on the work site in the streets where it needs to be. I come from a fairly radical background there.

I’m from England originally, and in the 80s, I was living in England, doing things like the minor strike and the various things that were going on then. And I got fairly involved with the Trotskyist movement called Labor Militant. So it really sort of formed my radical tendencies, which interestingly, while I’ve held in increasingly more responsible leadership roles, you actually have to learn how to moderate that for the situation and your audience. Because it’s not about you and how well you can spout some theory of revolution, it’s about how well you can connect with workers.

And AUPE is extremely diverse. Now we have about 95,000 members. And within those 95,000 members, they’re all range of folks. And I think it’s important that they feel that they’re being heard, just as much as you think you’re able to preach to them, which turns them off. Anyway, I digress.

Maximillian Alvarez: I was going to say, coming out of Thatcherism in the UK, that’ll radicalize anybody.

Guy Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. And it was really good lessons to learn there from comrades there. And also hooking up with comrades from the US as well during that time with… What was called militant in the UK, it was called Labor Militant in the 80s in the US. So I got to know some really good US comrades.

Having said that, being involved in AUPE, I stepped back a little bit, from being a vice president, to help raise two wonderful young girls who are now wonderful young women. But I became president of AUPE in 2009, so that’s 13 and a half years I’ve been president. And again, it was on a platform of reinvigorating, reinspiring workers to stand up and fight back. And we have been through an awful lot in those 13 years. Again, it’s not necessarily about the government of the day because we’ve had conservative government that was in power for 40 years, very quickly changed to the NDP government in 2015, and recognizing fairly quickly that the world didn’t change, that it’s not up to governments to change the world. It’s up to workers and the power of workers.

So out of all the struggles we’ve been through, a lot of wildcat strikes. We’re known as the union that likes to wildcat, and again, some more successful than others, and you learn each time. But the whole goal is to ensure that our members know that they’re the ones with the voice and the power, and choose that collectively, there’d be an unstoppable force. And we’re still on that perspective.

And yeah, when the NDP got defeated in 2019, and a very reinvigorated right wing government took power and very suddenly started changing legislation, labor legislation and making it very anti-worker, we started demonstrating against that. So we were out in the streets every week, rallying, picketing. And we felt something was… You could taste it in the air, really building up a great head of steam.

I remember being at our 2019 convention and having a resolution on the floor to, not only support, but encourage direct action wherever it exists, to put that power directly in the hands of our members. And that resolution being passed unanimously by a thousand delegates was an extremely powerful feeling.

And then COVID hit. And we took the necessary steps like every organization across the world had to do, where that became our focus. Most of our members are healthcare workers and others work in social services and then law enforcement. So they were there on the front lines with this scary thing that nobody knew anything about at the time. So our main focus was to make sure they had the protection and the support they needed to safely do their work. But we lost connection with a lot of our members. Yeah, we were on Zoom or Teams, it was all done in video, but we lost that personal connection and it really hurt us. And again, that’s not unique to AUPE. I think that existed everywhere.

So coming out of that, we are rebuilding, methodically. We are putting into place some pretty stringent strategic plans that each of our locals are coming up with. And it’s really about taking those small steps forward. And ultimately, it’s to build capacity to take on some very tough negotiations next year. And that’s our main focus at the moment, so.

Maximillian Alvarez: So I want to circle back to something real quick, because having come from the UK and out of that furnace of the 80s and the kind of Thatcher and Reagan revolution, I guess not everyone will have that same experience. But I can’t help but think back to my own trajectory, which we’ve talked about on this show many times. But I grew up very conservative. And my dad, Jesus Alvarez, when he became a citizen of the United States, the first person he voted for was Ronald Reagan. And my mom as well was very much a Reagan democrat. So I guess we’ve met coming from very different points, but we’re here now, which is very exciting.

But it always makes me reflect on how little labor consciousness I had growing up, how little I understood what unions were, why they were essential. And what flowed downstream from that was how little worth I felt I had as a working person, how little right I felt I had, in the United States, to demand better at my job, let alone to band together with my coworkers and fight to improve our conditions. So I say all that to ask, from your perspective, having come to Canada, and now spending decades working in the movement, I guess, what’s your read on the general sort of labor consciousness that people have, at least in the areas that you organize with? Is there more of a sense of the value of unions in Alberta?

Guy Smith: Well, first of all, Alberta is an extremely tough jurisdiction to organize in. I mean, it has historical roots sort of in the settler movement, the pioneer movement. It’s a very much an agrarian kind of society where it was until oil was found. And then it became very much Texas of the north. So it’s always had values, which probably, and I hate to generalize, but probably with some would say more conservative.

Having said that, entwined in that is a real sense of community, that when we need to, we have to stick together. And I see that in Alberta communities, regardless of political stripe or ideology, that that’s a very strong feeling in Alberta. So I’d say that workers that I represent, we’re not raised with a class consciousness, at all. Some learn it like I did, through getting involved in radical politics. I do want to mention, going back, that my radicalism was sparked by my mom, who was very much a pioneer of the feminist movement in Alberta in the 70s. And it intrigued me how passionately she addressed very complex issues and I really learned at her knee on that.

So obviously, there are individuals, workers and groups of workers and communities that learn through their life experiences. We’re not taught any sort of labor history in school or anything like that. Union density is pretty low in Alberta. Historically, if you go back 80 to a hundred years, there’s been some really good radical struggles in Alberta, but nobody would know about that from what they learn at school. So class consciousness is limited, but there’s a real sense of community. And I think that when we are organizing, it’s building, it’s tapping into that, if you like.

We’re also much like the rest of Canada. We’re a land of folks from other parts of the world who do bring more radical ideas and bring different perspectives. The face of Alberta is changing for the better, becoming much more diverse and open to different ideas. And of course, when that starts fermenting on the shop floor as well, that’s great. We’ve got a lot of workers from the Philippines, from Central and South America, and they come with some really great passion for workers’ rights.

So I think you take your opportunities where you can to tap into that, but also recognizing that, as I said earlier, you shouldn’t be preaching, you shouldn’t be trying to change someone’s ideology, the way they were brought up. And so working with our members who maybe not only don’t have that consciousness but aren’t interested in having it, you have to get them engaged in other ways as well. So it really is a balancing act, Max, quite honestly, to get folks passionate about the things that they need to be for their work, their families, their community in a way that resonates with them.

So I would suggest that unions are the labor movement in Alberta. I’ve always played an essential role and I think that they are starting to find their feet again. I think our voice is starting to be more collective and resonating more. And I think that’s because the right wing has become so extreme because of the kind of things that they want to do to change society, right? It’s scary whether it’s LGBTQ2-spirited rights, labor rights, the whole thing around not supporting vaccines or the science behind the way we were trying to get over COVID. It’s radicalized on the right. And we do have an election in three weeks today where the ruling party is being led by someone who has bought into that stuff. And whether she actually believes it or not, it doesn’t matter. She had to tap into that element of society to get herself elected as leader of the United Conservative Party and is now beholden to them. And they’re organized, they’re organizing way better than the left is at the moment. It’s kind of concerning.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I would say so. And that’s kind of what I meant earlier when I said that the folks that I work with who are from Alberta or know people in Alberta, that’s kind of the tenor of our conversations, and it’s something that is very familiar to us in the States, especially on the kind of local municipal level, the right and the far right are more organized than a lot of folks on the left, or even there’s a greater sense of urgency than there is even among the labor movement, which is very, very concerning. And in fact, I recently did a great interview for this show, for a bonus episode with Ominous Sheik about that and how organized the far right is becoming in Canada and what labor and the left’s response should be. And it’s really, I want to focus on that question for a second because it’s not just that, right?

We’re talking amidst a cost of living crisis that is pummeling poor and working people in Canada, in the US, across Europe, across the world, really. At the same time we’re seeing so many corporations raking in record profits. Take your pick. We could be talking about the railroads in the United States. We could be talking about Amazon, we could be talking about the oil and gas industry, so on and so forth. But there is still that kind of crucial sense that, for the vast majority of us, things are getting worse, but for a small few they’re making out like bandits. And so that’s, historically, the scene in which radicalism on the right or on the left grows. And so this is a really pivotal moment where we have to pick the path to the future that we want. And so I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about your membership and about the union, the folks that you work with, and how amidst COVID, cost of living crisis and these shifting political winds, how you are able to still do the crucial organizing work that y’all do.

Guy Smith: Yeah, so as I said, AUPE has about 95,000 members. The large majority of those are in healthcare. So we represent licensed practical nursing and healthcare aides and all the general support services workers who really, to me, are the backbone of the healthcare system. It frustrates me, just as a side note, when you hear politicians talking about doctors and nurses, doctors and nurses. Well without our members, our folks on the front lines, so the doctors and nurses, and love them, they work extremely hard too, couldn’t do their jobs. So we represent a lot of healthcare workers in the public system. But where our area of growth has been is in the private long-term care sector. 20, 25 years ago, the government started contracting out privatizing continuing care, long-term care. And it’s a huge moneymaker for the companies that run them. And obviously, the oppression of those workers is horrendous.

So we’ve been organizing a lot of those sites and that’s been our area of growth because we’ve actually grown a lot since I became president 13 years ago. We’ve grown by about 30% in terms of numbers. So that’s healthcare. And then we represent the direct government frontline workers as social services, corrections, sheriffs, lot of administrative support workers, a lot of workers that work with handicapped folks. So all those sort of government programs, we represent those workers. And then we represent support workers in a number of universities and colleges and a few school boards and other sorts of government agencies, boards and agencies and that sort of thing. So it’s very much public sector focused. However, I would argue that our members who live and work in private long-term care, that’s very much a profit-driven private industry. So those are our members. And again, as I said, very, very diverse culturally and experientially. And it’s wonderful. I just love looking out at our convention floor and we have a thousand delegates at convention and it’s just amazing how much collective experience there is there. So sorry, what was the other part of your question?

Maximillian Alvarez: How, amidst all these challenges, COVID, reactionary, political wing taking power, cost of living crisis, how you were still able to grow the way that you are and mobilize folks who are as heterogeneous of a mix as you have amidst all of that.

Guy Smith: Yeah, I think that we have not been able to continue to grow. I think we’ve been hit hard with the restrictions of COVID, but also very aggressive employers that were I coming to the bargaining tables last time around with massive rollbacks and us forcing them off those rollbacks and concessions and squeaking out minimal wage increases, and then the inflationary pressures hit. So our members, rightfully so, are not very happy at the moment, and it’s about capturing that anger. I’ve told them they need to be angry, and if they’re angry at their union, that’s legitimate, but let’s turn that anger into something more productive when we need to. And so I think we’ve been knocked back a bit, and as I said before, we’re incrementally moving forward. And I think that’s the key. I often see unions sort of put out these big campaigns, we’re going to do this and have a vision of where they want to get to without seeing the steps.

We’re really taking those baby steps. And we don’t do things like massive ad campaigns. That doesn’t turn on any worker. And they say, Well, we need the public on our side.” Well, let’s get ourselves on our side first. Make sure that the workers, your fellow workers on the shop floor are on your side before we worry about what the public thinks about us. So we’re really doing it methodically and slowly and actually holding the ground and obviously fighting back wherever we need to, if there’s threats of privatization. And we have lost members even recently to contracting out privatization, but it’s really getting them to find their voice again, Max, because I think they lost it for a while. And I see it building again. We’re having more rallies, information pickets, and getting our members out there actually enjoying standing up and fighting back.

So it’s a very slow, methodical process, but it’s going to be a lot more sustainable and it’s going to be a lot more sort of foundational, I think, than what we’ve done in the past because it was easier even a few years ago to be able to just put a call out for action and have it happen. Workers need more convincing now because of the pressures you were talking about, the horrendous cost of living stresses. They’re working short, the fact that they’re constantly understaffed, they’re exhausted. They’re concerned for their families and their communities takes precedence sometimes over putting in an effort for their unit. I totally understand that. So if we can incrementally move them to come to the conclusion that that important work that they do and the things they worry about can be solved eventually through their own collective action, that’s where we’d like to get to in just about a year’s time when we’re at the bargaining table. And regardless of who wins the election in three weeks, they’re still the boss.

I know some unions who I respect a hundred percent. And that’s one thing I wanted to touch on, my relationship with other unions, and Alberta’s fantastic. We work very closely together, but some unions are really pinning all their hopes and dreams on the NDP winning in three weeks. Personally, and I’ll go on the record here, I don’t think it’s going to happen unfortunately, because that would take a lot more pressure off of us if the NDP were in government. But even if they are, they’re still the boss. And this is what we’re trying to encourage our members to deal with a boss as a boss, regardless of what political stripe they are. So that’s how we continue to at least hold our ground for the moment. I think we’ve done well doing that, and now we’re incrementally slowly building again, probably for something big next year.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about that real quick and then I promise I’ll let you go. But we’ve got these contracts up next year, and like you said, regardless of who’s in office, boss is a boss. Sadly, a lot of workers in the US have learned that during Biden’s presidency. Mr. I’m going to be the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen. Also, I’m going to squash railroad workers and make it impossible for them to strike. So it’s important to keep that in mind. Not to say that you can’t make more gains when you have a friendlier administration, of course, and you got to take all that in stride. But ultimately, a boss is a boss, like you said, and ultimately, the labor movement should not entrust the decision-making power to people in high places and just hope to curry favor with them.

As you said in the beginning, the power comes from the rank and file and they should always be the one sort of driving the change that we need to see, not just hoping that gets handed down from on high. So in that vein, I wanted to ask, A, what is going to really be at issue during these bargaining sessions in the year? And B, because I want to ask how we can all, across borders, better support one another. I wanted to ask if you feel there is an existing sort of connection or sense that what’s happening in Alberta and what workers with the AUPE and beyond are going through there? If folks feel a sense of connection with the other labor actions we’re seeing in Canada. You guys just had a massive federal workers strike. Across the United Kingdom, you’ve got lecturers, teachers, NHS workers, ambulance drivers on strike. France is still on a general strike. The US is kind of like we’re running up behind, but we’re still seeing more union elections, more strikes than we’ve seen in many, many years. Is that your sense too? Is there a sense that there’s something, there’s more of a groundswell amongst the members, and how can we all support you guys going into bargaining next year?

Guy Smith: I think the actions we’ve seen have been inspirational. And I think, for us, it was the education workers in Ontario, the massive strike that they had, defying the government. That’s inspirational. And that’s an example that I use for our members. The recent PSAC strike, again, they got their demands met as far as I know through that strike action. And these are tangible examples that I can provide our members, but there’s a sense that it happened overnight. I get asked, Why don’t you just call a strike, a general strike?” I’m going-

Maximillian Alvarez: Let me snap my fingers here.

Guy Smith: I was going to say, Oh, why didn’t I think of that?”

Maximillian Alvarez: You get that in the states. Just a quick aside, you get that a lot. And for us, it happens with a lot of people who I think don’t know about the nuts and bolts of labor organizing, but you get more lefties in the US being like, Why don’t we just general strike?” It’s like, Well, mother fucker, why do you think?” It takes a lot to get that many people to take collective action. It’s not that easy. Yeah, that would be great, but how are we going to get there? Like you said, how are we going to get the intermediary steps to mobilize that many people?

Guy Smith: Yeah, so I use these recent, and also, you mentioned what’s happening in the UK, which I find inspirational as well, the amount of strikes there and saying to my members, this is a place that I’d like us to get to, the threat of strike is sometimes more powerful than the actual strike. I’d like us to be that confident collectively for us to be able to take on our bosses that way. But remember also the work that, like you was saying, that gets there. It’s not just about waving the magic wand, right? Because otherwise I would’ve done that a few hundred times in the last few years. And I think the fact that we are focusing so much on this sort of very methodical, strategic plan that it’s getting there. And just a little bit of an aside on that, we asked them to pick the area that they wanted folks on.

We gave sort of four areas, and the vast majority pick workplace power because they see that as the root of everything else we need to achieve. So yeah, we have some time to build and we’re going to continue to work with other unions as well. I know that a lot of the strategies we’ve used over the years, other unions emulate us, and we take stuff from them. We got very close relationship with not only Alberta unions, but with the BCGU, which is our sort of fellow comrades in BC, very close with them. We’re learning all the time from them and they learn from us. So we are sharing that information and support. And you can find, wherever there’s a picket line in Alberta, you’ll find AUPE members out there supporting it. And I think that’s so key that workers are seen as supporting each other. It’s not union presidents sort of shaking hands, it’s actual workers in the streets. So I think it’s there, the glue is there holding us together.

There is a challenge, of course, when we’re all in bargaining together because other unions with the same employer will be also in bargaining. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we are supporting each other as well on our various demands because we would have different demands. So that support is there. And I think we’re always looking for really good examples of struggle around the world to use as an example. And I haven’t had a lot of experience with the US labor movement, but when Wisconsin happened in 2012, I think it was, as soon as that happened, we sent folks down there and there’s wonderful video of my vice president who was exhausted from traveling for like 24 hours, standing in the state legislature with an AUPE flag and bringing greetings of support from AUPE to the workers in Wisconsin. That was amazing. You never forget that power. And then cheering them on.

And then I actually went down there as well, and we shot a little documentary. And I could have been in Madison, Wisconsin, I could have been in London or anywhere in the world. It’s the sense of solidarity that you feel supporting each other when we’re in struggle. And that was fundamental. And it happened so quickly, Max, that’s the thing. It’s just a matter of reaching out and offering support across borders or even across the sea. Having said that, the amount of work that it takes to get our own house in order and to build a good foundation for that is where I think unions should focus quite honestly on their own struggles. But once you’ve built something, then you can look around, okay, we got something solid here. We can actually not only support ourselves, we can support others. And I really get a sense of that building, nationally and probably internationally too.

So I do feel it, and I think as we were saying earlier, I think it is in reaction to the fear of a right-wing mobilization across the world. Again, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you see the same elements, Nazi elements almost, and fascist elements. It’s very scary. And then you say, well, it never happened here in the liberal democracies that we have. It’s happening in Alberta and I’m sure everywhere else as well. And it’s scary. And these are the kind of lessons that we have to learn as leaders, I think, when we’re talking to workers, it’s about explaining why we feel terrified of the potential of a right-wing taking over. It’s not telling them, Oh, those guys are nut bars”, because that doesn’t do it. It’s got to be a much deeper engagement to explain why we as workers have to stand up and push back, not only against our bosses, but against certain elements in society which are very dangerous.

Federal government workers stage a protest outside Service Canada building in Scarborough district of Toronto, Canada on April 19, 2023. Approximately 159,000 federal government workers in Canada went on strike. Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Emily Leedham: My name’s Mary Newman. I am a journalist working with the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s majority publicly funded media organization. Elon Musk has labeled us government funding. To be fair, we get about 70% of the funding from the government.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, so you guys snagged one of the state affiliated media things?

Emily Leedham: Yeah, we did.

Maximillian Alvarez: Fun times we’re living in, right? Well, Mary, geez, it’s so cool to get to meet you in person and sit down and chat here. We’re at obviously the 30th convention of the Canadian Labor Congress, and you and I have connected before this for other great media work that you’ve been doing with the CBC. I wanted to ask how you got into doing that work?

Emily Leedham: Well, when I was back in the UK, I worked for the BBC again as a casual, and then I moved here and I emailed people, phoned people to try to get work at CBC, and it was pretty rough. Started out in radio, worked in radio for five months. And then out of the blue, no more shifts, moved to TV, been working there for about three years. And even after five years there, I’m just, only now I do, I have a weekend only contract, and I’m one of the lucky ones. And our department just found out that we’re having lots of cuts. So they’re axing a show and other shows, they’re having some of their staff scale back and all the staff are casuals, or at least the vast majority are casuals. And it sucks.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus, man. Yeah, that sucks. Like we were saying before we started recording, I think you said we’re definitely in the start of a recession, and it’s been so tragic to watch across the media landscape. Folks were focusing, at least in the US, more on the kind of high profile stories of Fox News firing Tucker Carlson, CNN firing Don Lemon. And of course, everyone hates that level of corporate media, but what a lot of folks aren’t seeing is that at the same time, we’re seeing mass layoffs at publications across the board, ESPN, Vox, the Washington Post, Vice News Tonight, so on and so forth. And it’s just so depressing to hear that those cuts are happening up here too. And I want to ask you about that in a second.

But I guess just before we do, while I’ve got you here, I was curious if you could say a little more about the sort of working environment at the CBC. In your time there. You mentioned that a lot of folks are casuals. Could you just tell us a little more about what it’s like to actually work at the CBC? Because I imagine most folks listening to this have no fucking clue what that looks like.

Emily Leedham: Yeah, well, working in news, I have to work all hours. Sometimes I start work at four in the morning, sometimes I have to work late. Often I work doubles to fill in for people. So yeah, the working conditions aren’t ideal, but I think people go into journalism because they care about what’s going on in the world, and they want to inform people. And people working at the CBC, they really believe in public service and they want the CBC to be as good as possible. And people give a lot of themselves to the work, but unfortunately, CBC relies heavily on temporary, casual employees. There’s people who have been there for literally decades who are still casual, and it’s difficult to plan your life when you don’t know how you’re going to be working. You don’t know if you’ll even have a job. And it happens to people, it just happened to the department I work in, and I’m one of the lucky ones, as I say, having a weekend only contract. But yeah, it’s difficult at the best of times being a journalist and with this uncertainty in the labor market, it’s even more difficult.

Maximillian Alvarez: And again, it’s something that we down in the states have been feeling as well. And it’s really sad to say, it just gets worse at every step down because I don’t know, we don’t even have fucking healthcare that people can rely on. And I’ve been talking, we just interviewed folks with the Writer’s Guild who are on strike now. Hollywood writers are on strike. And we heard from there that similarly, you’re on kind of a project by project employment model. And with the rise of streaming services, those contracts have been getting shorter and shorter. They’re trying to squeeze as much labor out of the writers as they can in as short amount of time as they can. But what that translates to is, a lot of people aren’t racking up enough hours to pay their rent, to afford their healthcare, yada, yada, yada. So we’ve got a real fucking crisis, pardon my French, across the media landscape right now.

And like you said, the CBC, you got at least a little more stability, but not a whole hell of a lot. And we’re talking about the CBC. This is an institution, I was watching at my hotel last night. So tell me a little more about the cuts that just kind of came down the pike.

Emily Leedham: For American listeners, it’s probably important to say that although we do have publicly funded healthcare in Canada, as in the UK where I’m from, it’s definitely not universal. And people at CBC and across Canada do rely on benefits that come through their jobs to afford things like dentistry. And for instance, recently I had to pay over four grand to have dental work done and it wasn’t cosmetic. I really needed it. And even having a union job, they covered a small part, a few hundred bucks. But yeah, it’s not universal by any means. Some people I work with really rely on the benefits that come through working at the CBC. For instance, I work with a refugee, she came to Canada four years ago and relies on her benefits for speech therapy, and now she’s gone from five days to one day a week. So she’s not going to be eligible for her benefits, so she can’t get the speech therapy she needs, and she’s terrified like lots of people.

So even though Canada has this reputation for being progressive and having these universal services, they’re not as good as they should be. And in provinces like Ontario, where I live, I live in Toronto, the government there has been rolling back on healthcare and lots of other public services. And it’s not just an Ontario problem, it’s happening across Canada. So people’s reliance on the benefits they get through their job are even more important, even heavier now. So a lot of my colleagues, well, I’m a bit tired still because I was up with a colleague the night before last, just commiserating with her because she found out her hours have been cut and it’s pretty depressing.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus. Yeah. I’m so sorry that you and your coworkers are going through this, and of course, sending nothing but love and solidarity to you all and really hope that, I don’t know, I hope that across the US, Canada and beyond, we can find better, more sustainable models for supporting journalism because this is just nuts. This is unsustainable. I just interviewed for the third time, these amazing, striking journalists at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. And that paper is an institution that’s existed for as long as the United States has, going all the way back to the Gazette back in the Pittsburgh area, and it’s just been taken over by these corporate shitheads who want to kill the union, want to turn it into just a kind of money generating content factory. It’s just a really, really sad state of affairs right now. But the good thing is that, because of the union representation there, these owners can’t just do whatever they want. They still got to sit down and talk with the workers and negotiate the terms of whatever decisions are made. So I wanted to ask about that really quickly, and then I know you’re tired and I’m going to let you go, I promise. But could you say a little more about the union? And I guess what your experience with the union has been and where they fit into the current situation y’all are going through at the CBC.

Emily Leedham: Sure. So at CBC, we’re with the Canadian Media Guild and they’re very supportive. And, actually, in response to the way CBC treats temporary workers, there’s been a temp worker collective formed. But it’s actually led by a guy, a friend of mine, Julian Uzielli. Shout out to Julian. Once he got a staff job, he then used that as an opportunity to advocate for temporary workers because I think a problem, definitely at CBC and across the board, is it is hard for temporary workers to advocate for themselves because by the nature of their job, they’re precarious, and they know that already, even if they aren’t seen as rocking the boat, they could just lose their job out of the blue. So it does make temp workers meek and the CBC relies so much on temp workers.

And because these workers are precarious, they start work early, they do unpaid work, because they’re so desperate for a staff job. And there’s no recognition that the temporary workers, they come up with the ideas for the show, they do all the pitching, they get the guests. Without them, there wouldn’t be content.

And it’s just a bit dispiriting to see that the head of CBC is on nearly half a million dollars per year, yet they can’t afford to give temporary workers a contract. And it would benefit them for everyone to have some stability because living without stability takes its toll and it means your health isn’t as robust, it means you’re more likely to have mental health problems. It is in their interests as well as ours. But yeah, it’s not a priority for them. And they say they have to keep people temporary because it makes things, I think they use the word fluid and they can get rid of shows-

Maximillian Alvarez: Flexibility.

Emily Leedham: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Maximillian Alvarez: The fucking, the term the gig economy loves to use.

Emily Leedham: Yes. Yeah. So my union, CMG, it’s a good union, but I do think more or workers with staff jobs need to step up and advocate for the temps because not many do. And it just makes this sort of a two tier system, which definitely works in CBC’s benefit because as I say, it means that the temp staff, they will work for free. They’ll start work two hours early to come up with pitches just so that they’re seen as a good worker and are more likely to get a staff job.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I guess on that note, the final question is we’re having this conversation literally at the Canadian Labor Congress. I guess, how does that struggle, both media workers in general, but also temporary and part-time employees? I guess, how do you see that fitting into the labor movement, such that it is in Canada right now?

Emily Leedham: Just about every sector, they’re relying more and more on temps and casuals the way things are going, even the federal government does. There’s no industry that really treats the workers with the respect that we deserve, and it’s just going to become more and more of a problem.

So I think coming to an event like this is really important just to learn from other activists about how they’ve advocated for their workers, especially their casual workers. And last night I went to an event with international activists, and that was really inspiring just to see the sacrifices that other people will go to, not just for themselves, but for their colleagues as well in order to advocate for better working conditions. And the struggle isn’t just confined to Canada or North America, this is a struggle across the world, and we have more power if we stand in solidarity with people from other countries as well. Like last night we heard from delegates from Haiti and Mexico, and I mean, comparing what we go through to them, I mean, it does… On one hand, it makes me feel lucky, but on the other hand, we can advocate for more for ourselves and a better deal for them as well. And really, our fates are all linked because often jobs in Canada, they’re taken away and they’re shipped to places like Mexico and Haiti because the labor’s cheaper. And having international solidarity is really important, especially going into a recession.

James Russwurm: My name’s James Russwurm, I’m with UFCW 401 out of Edmonton. I’m representing a group of video game testers that unionized last year in April.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, James, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at The Real News Network. We are, of course, here in Montreal at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. And The Real News is here to talk to as many folks as we can, learn as much as we can about what workers like yourself are going through, struggles you’re involved in, the state of the labor movement in Canada, and ultimately how we can support one another better across international lines. 

And I’m really, really excited to connect with you and talk about your guys’ campaign because you’re the first video game union to form in Canada. Right?

James Russwurm: That’s correct, yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man. Yeah. So I want to talk all about that and I want people to know where things stand with that campaign and what they can do to support y’all. But before we get there, let’s take a step back because I love to talk to folks about how they got into doing this work and what that work looks like, because I frankly have zero fucking clue of what video games developing, testing, what the day to day of that job looks like. So I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your path into that industry and in so doing, just give us a sense of what the day-to-day work in that industry looks like.

James Russwurm: Absolutely. So to answer your first question of how I got into it, I actually worked in a different capacity. I worked in hospitality and tourism prior to COVID. During COVID, I was laid off, as were so many other of my fellow employees. So I took it at the time, I always wanted to get into video games development that way. So I went back to school. I went to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and while I was there, I applied to work with Keywords Studios and they got back to me and said, Hey, are you interested in taking this job?” I said, Yeah, that’s great. What’s the pay?” Well, It’s minimum wage?” And I went, Okay. Yeah. I’ll still take it.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Was that a shock to hear it?

James Russwurm: I was hoping for a little bit more than that. I wasn’t expecting them to go… just so everyone knows Alberta minimum wage is $15 an hour, so that is the bare minimum that they could pay us. But it’s sort of a passion industry, you want to get that foot in the door. So I said, Yeah, I’ll take the job.” Started working on it and it was great. So I started there. So what that looks like, it’s not just like you’re just coming in every day, just sitting down playing a video game and testing it. So our-

Maximillian Alvarez: Is that what most people think you do, is just sit on a beanbag and just play Sonic the Hedgehog all day?

James Russwurm: Exactly. I don’t even have a beanbag. I wish they’d give me a bean bag. But yeah, so we were actually working from home because it was the pandemic and everybody was working remotely. Then we had a meeting, I would say in April of last year that sort of changed things, but the actual day-to-day work is like, someone will tell you, Hey, go to this level, check out these things, write a report on it, send it back to us.” We’re going to write or report files and issues, we’re going to give that back. So I did that for about a year, and then I was promoted up into the next level where I am now a quality analyst. And that throws people for some loops because they don’t really know what a quality analyst is. And what that is, so instead of being the one that writes the test, or sorry, that runs the test, you create the test. So you’re creating the test for the workers to go do, they are testing what you need to do, and then you relay that information back to the developers and they make changes and stuff. So like a middleman between the testers and the developers. But it’s quite a technical job. It requires a lot of technical writing skills and a lot of know-how in sort of broader video games and how they work.

So we wouldn’t consider ourselves unskilled laborers because you pretty much need a post-secondary degree to even be considered for these types of positions. And we have people from all different types of backgrounds and degrees, everything from drama to technical design. So we really represent quite a broad selection of individuals all working as video game testers.

So in, I believe it was February of last year, we got sort of called into a meeting with our managers from Keywords Studios that said, Okay, starting next month, you’re all going back to the office full time. That’s just what’s going to be happening.” And we had been working for the last three years from home, there have been no issues regarding metrics or performance or anything like that. So it took us as a bit of surprise that there wouldn’t be any leniency, there would be no hybrid. It was just, Nope, back in the office five days a week.” We’re what’s called embedded services, so we work directly in the offices of the studio, which is currently BioWare. Their employees were not required to come in every single day.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh wow. Wow.

James Russwurm: They were offered fully remote, hybrid, whatever they wanted. So we sort of scratched our heads a little bit at that and went, Well, why are we being forced back into the office?” And then for those of you who don’t know, we’re in Edmonton and downtown parking in Edmonton where our office is about $250 a month. When you’re only making minimum wage-

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus man.

James Russwurm: … over the course of a year, it’s almost 10% of your wage that you’re just paying to parking and gas and car insurance, et cetera. So plus the additional 45 minutes on your day there and back, and that’s if you’re driving, if you’re taking public transit… Edmonton public transit’s pretty bad, so you’re going to be at an even further disadvantage, and you’re going to spend more time on the public transit, you’re going to spend money on transit passes. I mean, it’s over $100 a month for a transit pass in Edmonton. So we were all going, Can we afford to keep working here? If I’ve got to go back to the office, I’m already cutting it close. I’m saving costs because I’m at home. I don’t have to commute. I can make my own food at home. I don’t have to go out for lunch or I have to work socials and all of these other things.”

And so we decided, Okay, we’re going to have a conversation.” And I approached one of our members and said, Hey, how does this affect you? If we have to go back to the office next month, five days a week, what does your life look like now?” And they were telling me, Well, I don’t have a car, so I’m going to be spending over two hours a day on public transit, just going to and from work.” And we were just like, there’s got to be a better way. So I said, How about unionizing?” I said, Are you interested?” And they went, What’s the union? What does that do? What does that mean?” And then that’s sort of where I started.

So I had previous experience with unions in the sense that my dad worked for the Power Workers Union in Ontario for 30 years, and it’s one of those industries, you work 30 years, you retire, you got a great pension. So I understood the power of unions at the time, and it’s been a topic in the video game industry for quite some time where people say, Hey, you know, guys should unionize.” Because a lot of people don’t know that it’s quite an exploitative sector. Because we work in something that is a passion industry, like I said earlier, I’m willing to accept minimum wage for the experience and the opportunity and the exposure to get into that role. And we just sort of said, Hey, we got to do something.”

There were some questions on who would be in the bargaining unit and who couldn’t be. So what I started to do was just sort of reach out to our members just discreetly. So we’re all remote, we’re not in the office. So I couldn’t just grab somebody by the arm after work and say, Hey, let’s go get a beer. I got something to talk to you about.” So I had to be a little bit more cryptic than that being… I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the application Discord. So we had sort of an out of work social Discord that had a lot of our members on it. And so I just started reaching out to them directly, a little cryptic at first, being like, Hey, could I talk to you about something?” Yeah, I never reached out-

Maximillian Alvarez: You up?

James Russwurm: It kind of felt like that at times where you’re just like, I don’t want to say it’s not serious, but when you got a minute, can we talk?” And that’s sort of how I started reaching out to our members sort of discreetly and building out a base. So there were about 20, 22 of us, and there were some questions on who could be in the unit because we did have supervisors and managers and things like that present, but we ended up getting about 17 union cards signed. And it was great because it was electronic. With COVID, one of the benefits that came out with it was you didn’t have to go and sign a union card anymore and go all over the city and track people down. It was like, Hey, here’s a link and fill it out.”

And then what we did was we built a community within the Discords, we made a server, and then it was like, you signed a union card, you get an invite, and then once you’re in, then you can chat to everybody else who’s already signed a union card and talk about workplace issues and talk about what’s bothering you and building this group up from the ground.

And we reached out to everybody. Everybody got a chance to say yes or no. And then by the end, we had about 17 cards signed. So much to some of our members’ enjoyment, we submitted our application on April 40th, or sorry, April 20th, 4/20. Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: On brand.

James Russwurm: Yeah. So we submitted that, and then we took off from there. And that’s sort of how I got my start and how we got the whole ball rolling with the unionization.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. I mean, that’s incredible because those basic questions that you reached out and asked your coworkers, because like you said, going back to the office from work from home, to transitioning to five days a week in the office… That wasn’t just a, Oh, I don’t get to wear sweatpants anymore,” which is how it’s talked about in the mainstream media. It’s like, no, this is an immediate chunk of my take home pay that just is gone.

James Russwurm: Yep. Mm-hmm.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I really want to emphasize for people watching and listening to this that just taking that step to turn to your left, turn to your right, ask your coworkers, What is this going to mean for you?” That is organizing, that is where it starts and look where it grew from there. Right? And I wanted to just hover on the technical details for a second.

James Russwurm: Absolutely.

Maximillian Alvarez: Because I talk to so many workers in the United States who are similarly trying to unionize their shops, whether they’re Starbucks workers, Amazon workers, graduate students, nonprofit workers, so on and so forth. And as you probably know, the US is not a very labor friendly place.

James Russwurm: Unfortunately.

Maximillian Alvarez: So when I talk to people outside of the US about the Rube Goldberg system of rules and hurdles just to get to a union and election, most people’s question is, How does anyone get a union in the United States?” And the sad fact is most don’t.

But I say all that to say that for us, the standard process is to get people to sign union cards. If you get above 30% of the eligible bargaining unit members in your shop to sign cards, that triggers a National Labor Relations Board election. But it’s a long, drawn out process. You get a date for an election that’s usually a month or months away, in that time, that’s when the boss can turn on the screws and hold captive audience meetings. The election process is not easy to navigate. So there’s a lot of shit put in people’s way. I wanted to ask if it’s the same or-

James Russwurm: A little bit. Yeah, so I’m from Alberta, we have a conservative government right now that just recently in their last term, repealed the majority card rule. If you had the majority of the workers sign a card, boom, you’re just unionized.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.

James Russwurm: So they got away with that. They just threw that out the last time they got elected. So we still had to have that month process where we had, pretty well everybody on the team had signed the card. And we had a few that were just like, I’m just a little uncomfortable with signing the card. I’ll vote yes when the vote comes around, but I don’t want to be involved in any of this organizing because if this all goes bad.” And we respected those people and we knew, we don’t want to pressure you or really lean on you. We respect your decision. We gave everybody the option to say yes or no.

So we went in with a majority. I think we had almost 70% of the team had signed cards at that point. So we knew we were in a good spot for going through the boat, but we still had our employer try to claim people who didn’t even work with us in the province and sort of dilute that pool. Right?

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.

James Russwurm: Because they think, Oh, maybe they just hit the minimum threshold for cards, we’ll throw some more people in there. Oh, now you don’t have many people anymore. Too bad,” right? It turned out to be a little bit funny because when we still passed the review, they’re like, Yeah, they got more than enough cards.” Well then suddenly those people are no longer part of that bargaining unit like we don’t want you to represent those people. So we were like, Okay, well, we have the cards, so what happens next?”

We had some executives flying to Edmonton, never before have we seen anybody from any other regional office or anything like that come into Edmonton. They booked a hotel conference room and said, Hey, we’re going to be here for two days, come by, tell us what your problems are, we’d love to help you solve them.” I don’t think anybody went. And I think that sent a pretty clear message to them as well.

And so after that, I think it died off a bit. We didn’t really get any captive audience meetings. I think that a lot of people… It also helps that we’re remote. We’re all in our different homes, so they can’t come into work and ambush us and be like, Hey, we’re all having a meeting in the office right now.” It’d be sending us a Zoom link and then whatever, just minimize it and go do something else while they talk about anti-union stuff or whatever. But I never had that happen.

And then eventually we got to the vote, and the vote was, it was also virtual, so we had signed our mail-in ballots. So we had all received them at our home, mail them back in, they all go to back to the labor board and the labor board counts them. And when I was watching it on Zoom, because there was me and another member from UFCW there, and then of course a representative, their lawyer from Keywords Studios, and she opened them all and went through them all and I’m like, Oh, she’s just checking to see if they’re all there and then she’s going to do a count.” And then once she was done with them all, and she was like, Unanimous. It’s a unanimous yes.”

And I just was like, yes,

Maximillian Alvarez: Do the slow motion pump.

James Russwurm: Yeah. Yeah, that sounds a good message, right?

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.

James Russwurm: So I was super proud of our team there to just come together unanimously, because we didn’t want to be in a position where we had a portion of people who didn’t feel like this union was for them, or it wasn’t the right fit. So just the team sending that signal to us as the organizers and to the union and UFCW and to our employer. Right? That sort of resounding message, Hey, we’re ready to go. We’re ready to fight on this.”

And then after that vote we started getting into contract negotiations, which we’re still in today. We’re working on our first contract, and it’s slow-going, but we are talking about a lot of things that don’t exist in other union contracts, or we’re talking about work from home, that is something that we want enshrined in our contract. That’s sort of like, Hey, if our workers don’t have a demonstrable need to be at the office, they should not be required to be there. And if you do require them to be there, then you got to give them some sort of stipend, a monthly allowance or something like that for parking, for fuel costs, et cetera, et cetera.” So that was one of the big factors that we wanted to do.

And funny enough, we kind of already got it because after the submission to the labor union, they have what’s called a freeze. You can’t change working conditions on the workers anymore, which means, you can’t send us back to the office, that would be changing our working conditions. So our members have actually been able to continue working from home for the last year, and we’ve, in some cases, save people about 3000 bucks of a year in parking and fuel and things like that. So it’s been nice that we’ve been able to already enact some of those changes that we were going for with one of the big ones being work from home. We kind of already have it right now. And then when we get it enshrined in our contract, then it’ll all be official.

And the other thing is obviously wages, because we get paid minimum wage, if you’re sort of a starter, just game tester, which is about 15 bucks an hour. The average price, I think about a one bedroom in Edmonton right now is $1,200 a month. So we have people who are spending almost 50% of their paycheck just to go to rent. Right? We’ve got members who can’t move out of their parents’ place because they can’t afford a place on their own. So we’re really trying to get those wages up, at least at a living wage for Edmonton, which is about, I believe right now is $22.50. But yeah, I don’t know, with the way inflation’s going, maybe that changed since last week. So it’s just our way of battling back against these high prices in these inflationary environment, it’s all we can do.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I mean, that’s without a doubt the biggest common thread that I’m hearing from workers across industries, not just here in Canada, but in the US, United Kingdom, France, I mean, all over the world, we are in the midst of a really intense cost of living crisis. Right?

James Russwurm: Absolutely.

Maximillian Alvarez: Even just the phrasing of that always creeps me out. But I mean it’s been this really big equalizing factor that I feel has brought folks in from industries that may have in the past seen themselves as separate from your standard blue collar worker. Right? I mean, you’re seeing more nonprofit workers, folks in tech, not just you all in Edmonton, but down in the states. We’ve had really critical union drives and labor actions in tech, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Activision. Right? So something’s really happening here. And what I’m hearing from more and more folks is cost of living is a big one. Right?

James Russwurm: Yep.

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s like regardless of the industry that we’re in, there are of course some exceptions, but by and large, people are noticing the same trend, that we’re working longer, we’re working harder, and yet it is taking more and more to make ends meet with rent, with groceries, gas and electric bills, so on and so forth. So it really does feel like we’re all taking in water and people are turning more to unions, collective action, worker mobilization, to fight for what working people deserve. And I think that’s really, really exciting to see. And I wanted to ask in that vein, if that was a difficult part of the process for you, was to get folks to see themselves as workers who should unionize in the first place? Or did y’all see yourselves as part of this groundswell that we’re seeing in tech or even beyond with the increase in unionizations, the strikes? Yeah. Was that-

James Russwurm: Yeah, a little bit, actually. The way we look at it is we’re all workers. Right? If you go to work for your money and you got to work, you’re a worker. Right? It doesn’t matter if you work in video games, it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber. Right? We work for our dinner. We all do. So there’s no sense in us being like, Oh, well, we’re above this,” or, We don’t need collective action because we’re treated so well.” Because the reality is not, the video games industry is highly exploitative across not even just for testers, even developers. I don’t know if you’ve heard the phrase crunch before, but what that essentially is, is when you’re working on a project and you’re getting near the end and you’re going, Okay, we have this release date that we can’t really move because we’ve shipping our products to vendors and they’re going to put it on their shelves and it’s going to be ready to go, but there’s all this work left, so we’re just going to do 80-hour weeks until that happens/​” And there’s been projects that our members have worked on where that has lasted for six months.

Maximillian Alvarez: Geez.

James Russwurm: Just unrelenting over time, no breaks. People sleeping under their desks is not uncommon in the sphere. And the industry’s trying to change that culture a lot, especially from the studio levels. They’re trying to get away from that, better planning, delaying games, that kind of stuff. But the reality is, for a long time, and still even to this day, that is what’s happening, is people are being exploited because they love what they do. And it’s really hard to watch. And that was part of the reason that I really wanted to get a feel for how the team was feeling. Because coming into this, when I was starting, I didn’t really have any experience in video games, but the people on my team had been around the block and they had seen a lot, and they could see it a bit into the future of where we could be heading and wanting to protect ourselves against that. Right?

In our contracts, overtime is a really big thing that we were talking about. Right? Because generally that’s been the safety net for the studios is, Oh shit, well if you can’t make our deadlines, we’ll just grind our workforce until it’s done.” And it’s not healthy, people burn out, it’s terrible for mental health and that’s what we want to protect ourselves from is those sort of exploitative measures.

And so, yeah, we absolutely feel like we’re in line with all the other labor, because that’s what happens to almost everybody. Grocery store workers are getting hosed this pandemic with their hero pay and that was taken away. We were lucky that we weren’t out on the front lines during COVID, but we 100% support everybody who was. And we want to make sure that we can make all labor better for everybody regardless of what sector you’re in.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I’m like the hero pay is the perfect example. It’s the one that I always go back to.

Because it makes the case to any worker out there, even if you are in an industry where you feel like you got it better than a farm worker or a service worker or something like that. A boss’s promise is temporary, a union contract is in writing. Right? Because we saw that in the states, like Amazon got all this publicity in the early days of the pandemic when it offered hero pay, not hazard pay. Because if you call it hazard pay, then you have to keep paying as long as the hazard persists. But when you call it hero pay, it just seems like something that you’re giving out of the benevolence of your own heart. Right?

But it does really make the case that if we have an inflation crisis or we’re in the circumstances that we’re in now, a lot of those promises, the working conditions, the pay, they can go away, they can be changed out on a whim and passed down unilaterally. And if workers don’t have a union, a collective voice on the job, it’s like, what do we do? What do we say in that regard? So it really is in everyone’s interest to have that organization in their workplace. Even if you like your job. Right?

James Russwurm: Yeah.

After months of negotiating with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government, PSAC said they had failed to reach an agreement over cost-of-living raises to keep up with inflation. LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

Maximillian Alvarez: Which is another thing that I’ve heard from y’all, is we don’t want to leave and just find something else. There is a lot we’ve invested in this, but we should be paid a living fricking wage.

James Russwurm: Yeah. Right? And you want to be able to pay your bills at the end of the day. And that’s any worker, I feel that working a full-time, normal job should be able to do that. And our members can’t right now. Right? Because of the pay, and I think it was, I don’t want to say easy, because organizing is not easy. It can be difficult at times, but it’s necessary. And if you feel that way about your workplace, if you’re saying… You look to the people to your left and right, they’re being exploited, or you feel like you’re being exploited… Just talking to your fellow workers and saying, Hey, this decision that just happened, how does that affect you? How does that make you feel?” Right? I never knew how far that would take me to being able to organize.Right? And I think that that’s really the message that we want to put out there is, yeah, it’s work, but it’s worth it. Because at the end of the day, what we have now is more than we had even before we unionized, and we don’t have a contract yet. We have legal protections that are protecting us from just them firing us all. It’s a lot harder to do those types of things once you have union recognition. Then the contract comes afterwards, and then whatever you can agree on.

It was an easy sell for a lot of our people because there’s not a lot of guarantees in the games industry for working, especially us as contractors. You may work on a title, and then at the end of that title they say, We don’t need any testers anymore.” You’ll lay off, and you can all go on EI or whatever, and next time that there’s a project, you can apply, and then maybe you get the job.

The carrot that they dangle in front of you is these studios. They say, Hey, if you do a really good job on this, the studio’s going to want to pick you up and hire you.” And there is some truth to that, but the reality is, say you have 60 people. Maybe two of those people are going to the studio.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.

James Russwurm: It also creates this intercompetitiveness of people trying to stand out and one-upmanship that we really want to get away from because what my conversation was to them, I said, What if instead of that we could get recall legislation into our union contract that says, Hey, if you worked on this project, if there’s another one coming up, they got to hire based on seniority.’” And that’s something else that we’re talking about with our employer as well because right now there is no guarantee that when you’re done a project, you’ll ever work in games like this again, right?

Maximillian Alvarez: Right.

James Russwurm: Maybe there was a manager that just didn’t like you, and you’re just never going to make it past the interview phase. We wanted to make sure that it’s fair and that, based on how much time you’ve put in, you can come back and then you can continue your work, which is more of a guarantee than we ever had before.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, yeah. James, I want to thank you for sitting down and chatting with us. I want to thank Action Network for letting us use their booth. I wanted to just end on a final question, where do things stand now with the fight for the first contract? And more importantly, what can folks watching and listening to this do to stand in solidarity with you all?

James Russwurm: To answer your first question of where we are today, we’re still in the midst of negotiations. Actually, I’m doing some virtual negotiations Wednesday, Thursday with my employer, and then we’re still building out the contract, but we’re hopefully going to be done by the end of the summer, which is our goal. We’ve seen movement from the management side as well as a, Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. We want to finish this.” Because they’ve been at it a long time too. They got to fly to Edmonton from Ireland anytime they came to negotiate with us. We’re hoping that in the next couple of months we’ll be able to come out and be like, Hey, this is our contract. This is what we got.” And be an example for anybody else who wants to follow afterwards. So what I can say to people who are maybe out there listening to this, what they can do to support us, Hey, if you work in video games, find a way to reach out to us.”

You can probably find us through a lot of ways. We’d be happy to talk to you, share our stories, and help them. But also, if people could change their perspective a little bit on what we do, you came up against us a lot, especially when the story broke. People say, Oh, those video game testers, they sit around and play games all day.” Remember that we’re workers just like everybody else, and we’re just trying to get a fair deal. All we’re asking for is a living wage and share that knowledge with other people. When maybe you hear about another games worker down and, Oh, my job is killing me.” Say, Hey, you look at these, have you considered unionization? Because so far, it’s worked well for them.” And that’s what I’d like.

Liz Ha: My name is Elizabeth Ha. I guess my most important role is, I’m a mother to two girls, and I am from Windsor, Ontario. The work that I do in labor would be, I’m part of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. We’re a provincial government union. My activism is in not just labor but also the community. I’m currently the vice president at the OFL, which is the Ontario Federation of Labour, representing workers of color, and then also ACLA and CBTU. I am a member of both those, which is Asian Canadian Labour Alliance and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Maximillian Alvarez: Elizabeth, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at The Real News. I really, really appreciate it. We are, of course, sitting here at the Action Network tent at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress, and we’ve been talking to as many folks as we can over the past two days, learning as much as we can about the state of the labor movement here in Canada, what our fellow workers across industries are going through, and how folks are fighting for the working class. I really wanted to sit down and chat with you because of all the incredible work that you do, really, but especially in terms of your work fighting for workers of color and fighting for migrant workers in Canada. I think that this is something that really I have a personal connection to.

It’s something that we try to cover extensively at The Real News Network as well, because as exciting as the energy we’re seeing in the organized labor movement is, and as exciting as it is to see more established unions nominally support the energy of young workers at Starbucks and Amazon and service industry workers across the board, that’s all very exciting. But there’s still so many workers who are left out of the movement or who are written out of the movement itself, because, like migrant farm workers, for example, in the United States, farm workers were deliberately written out of the National Labor Relations Act for very racist reasons and are very underrepresented in the movement as a result of it. That doesn’t mean that we forget about them. That means that we have to fight that much harder to support them as they are dealing with hyper-exploitation, rampant discrimination and harassment, wage theft, so on and so forth. I wanted to ask if you could just say a little more about your organizing and advocacy work as it pertains to workers of color and migrant workers in Canada.

Liz Ha: When you talk about migrant workers in the States, it’s very, very similar to migrant workers in Canada. I know this because I’ve talked to workers in the States, and when you hear their stories, a lot of it happens here in Canada. Being from Windsor, we’re about 30 minutes, 40 minutes from Leamington, and we have one of the highest populations of migrant workers in Ontario. It’s just, I’ve been doing this work for years, and I think because of the pandemic in the last couple of years, it’s really put a spotlight on what’s happening, and people in the community are starting to see it. Growing up in Windsor, you’d go to Leamington for field trips and stuff, and you would see migrant workers, but I don’t think people really knew their working conditions or their living conditions. When COVID happened, initially, when the borders closed, they weren’t allowed into Canada. The farmers, they couldn’t find anyone to do this work. Canadians don’t want to do this work. I think most people know the health and safety risks and the lack of everything. Nobody wants to do this hard labor.

Maximillian Alvarez: You get paid like shit. You’ve got no bathrooms. You’re getting harassed by supervisors. Not great.

Liz Ha: The other thing is, I think the employer wants migrant workers because they are able to do whatever they want, pay lower wages, not pay them. They’re working overtime but not getting paid overtime. They are doing work that they’re not supposed to do, like demeaning personal errands for their employer. There’s on and on. When they weren’t coming in, the employer went to the government, was able to lobby, and the government, so if you have money, basically the government listens, and they opened the borders, then they were deemed essential. They came in. The problem was, when you look at essential workers, healthcare workers were essential workers. There’s a number of them. We called them heroes. We put signs on our lines and all this stuff. But when the migrant workers came in, they were essential, but they didn’t get the same welcome.

They didn’t get the same protections as other essential workers got. We started to hear about workers getting sick in the workplaces. What happened was, in Canada, if a certain workplace, a worker got sick and they got COVID, and I don’t know the numbers, but the health unit would come in and basically close the business. We knew there were hundreds of workers getting sick on these farms, and we had to go and make sure someone checked on them. We were able to get a lot of information from the workers because we’ve done so much work. We have a history, and there’s a trust. They were able to share pictures of what they got to eat. They told us how they didn’t get PPE, and without them even telling you know, in certain workplaces, you cannot social distance. You’re literally working beside another person.

In their housing, there’s definitely no social distancing. You’re sleeping in bunk beds with another worker or two bunk beds, so there’s four workers in a small room with shared bathrooms, shared kitchens, and things like that. On top of all that, they’re restricted. They can’t leave the property anymore because the employer were not letting them leave the property, take groceries, or anything because their reason was to protect the community in case somebody had COVID. Meanwhile, they come in knowing they didn’t have COVID. These employers were given money to quarantine their workers. We know a lot of them were not quarantined, and there was no accountability. No one asked the employer, Can you show us a receipt that this worker was quarantined?” No, they just pocketed this money, and the workers were maybe quarantined for a day, two days a week, and then they were working.

But with that said, they still do not have COVID. The reason people were getting sick was, some of these farms were bringing in people from the community to do the work. They were actually bringing COVID into these workplaces, and the migrant workers were getting blamed for bringing COVID into the country. I remember going to a store and purchasing all this stuff, and the cash register lady, whatever, she said, Oh, you’re buying all this stuff. Are you stocking up?” Because I’m like, No, I’m bringing them to Leamington and all.” And this guy behind me, and I had my daughter, which bothered me, he said, Why are you bringing this stuff to those people? They bring all these diseases in, brought in COVID.”

This is what’s happening with micro workers. The good thing is, people started to see how these workers were being treated. Even though I’m telling you the story of this one person, there was a lot of people that brought in PPE and brought in donations of food. Businesses were cooking culturally appropriate food so that we can bring it down to Leamington. We had boxes and boxes of fresh produce coming in from Toronto that we would try to get to these farms, to the workers.

We had grandmothers making masks for them. It really showed people still cared, and they were able to get up and take care of each other. These workers, it’s not like this is their first time. Some of the workers have been coming for 10, 20, 30 years, even generations, and they’re still treated like this.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. We’re talking, in this corner of the country, primarily agricultural workers?

Liz Ha: Yes, like farm workers.

Maximillian Alvarez: I just wanted to clarify that because in the states, and I know in Canada too, there are definitely pockets across the labor market where employers exploit migrant labor and even migrant child labor, as we’ve been hearing about in the United States. We’re talking meat packing plants. We’re talking construction sites. But we’re also talking about farming operations across the country. What you were saying is that when COVID hit, farm workers were deemed essential along with other classes of workers, but no one wanted to do those jobs. So the farmers lobbied the government to essentially ease migration restrictions so that migrant farm workers could come in.

Liz Ha: Right.

The work that I do, it is community work.

Maximillian Alvarez: The farmers would get paid for having those essential migrant farm workers come in, and they would get paid to quarantine them, but they wouldn’t actually do that. They would just pocket the money and kick the workers out into the fields. Then they would pen the workers in, not let them leave, and occasionally bring in workers from around town who would get them sick, and then they would be stuck there in a locked pen. Do I have that right?

Liz Ha: Yep. That’s exactly what was happening.

Maximillian Alvarez: Cool. That’s great. Jesus, man, that’s so dark, and I’m so grateful to you and to others who are doing everything you can to fight for and fight alongside these workers who, as we said, are too often left by the wayside. I wanted to ask about that for a second. I would say, in the United States, there are some exceptions. There are established unions that have gone to the mat for the most marginalized and exploited of workers. You’re seeing positive developments like Laborers’ Local 79, the construction workers union in New York City. Instead of doing what people typically think of construction workers in New York City doing, which is blaming undocumented workers and non-union workers as the enemy who are undercutting our jobs and our wages, they’re reaching out to these workers, largely migrant and undocumented workers in the city or returning citizens coming home from prison, who are ripe for hyper-exploitation and have to work for the most union-busting, exploitative, corner-cutting demolition and construction companies in the city.

The unions reaching out to these workers and fighting for them, creating things like an excluded workers fund because they weren’t eligible for federal COVID or state COVID benefits, that’s really positive to see, but it’s still, in my assessment, the exception that proves the rule. So I wanted to ask where the plight of migrant farm workers specifically, in your experience, where that fits into the broader labor movement, if at all, in Canada.

Liz Ha: The work that I do, it is community work.

I was lucky enough where we were able to pass a resolution at my union to say, Okay, let’s start doing some work with organizations like Justicia.” The resolution was about when we do training or reaching out to the community, sometimes we need the resources and funds to do this work and making unions recognize that you have that potential, and these are workers too. We were able to get that convention floor to pass a resolution. So that allowed me, who moved the resolution, to be able to do some more of that work.

I’m hoping that it was moved because they want to help workers. But I think at the same time, there is just a part of me that thinks it’s about also, not advertising, but, a lot of unions do things for the wrong reasons. They want that stamp, like their logo on stuff, or they want recognition for things. As I did this work, I sometimes will mention my union, but I wasn’t forced to, so I just continued doing it. I do think more unions need to look at not just their own members. When you look at unions historically, they don’t just advocate for your dues-paying membership. Historically, they fought for workers in general. That’s what our unions, all unions everywhere, should be doing. They need to see why we have a problem. Why is this low percentage of our population not part of a union? Why? How are people viewing unions?

As a racialized woman, I think that in our communities, we don’t trust unions because they’ve historically discriminated or they’ve used our communities for certain things. If you continue to do that, why would we want to participate in a union when, even after you join, only a certain group of people get to benefit from some of those things? I think the labor movement needs to wake up. I think this is the time. I believe it’s the time. I’ve never heard the words equity, diversity, inclusiveness in spaces like this as much as I’ve heard it in the last two years. But with that being said, I’m just hearing it. I need to see it. As a human rights activist, you need to show me, or I can’t continue making you look good because I’m part of a community that has been there for me, and that’s where my fight is.

But I do see this as a moment where there is so much opportunity for unions to do the real work for them to survive, really, in the long run. Because right now you can have a rally to fight for whatever the issue is now, but after a month later, when you’re done fighting, the bigger issue is still out there. There is still not enough housing for people there. The price of food has gone up. People cannot afford groceries anymore. Where I live, the cost of rent, there’s so much homelessness, the unemployment rate in my area has gone up, everything. I feel like workers are at a point where they’re angry. They see what’s happening.

I think that’s where unions need to tap into it and say, Listen, what can we do to help and not take over what you’re already doing? Here’s a space for you to speak. Tell us what your experience is. What is it that we need to do?” Because when you talk about affordable housing or whatever, labor will say, Okay, this is what we need to do.” But we’re not the ones struggling. If you’re part of a union, you have a collective agreement. You make pretty good money, and you have a union that protects you. You probably have benefits, a pension, all this stuff, and you’re fighting for people that can barely pay rent or you’re trying to increase wages. Meanwhile, you’re getting paid $25. We need to start moving aside and letting the people who are living these experiences be the voice.

Maximillian Alvarez: Just on that note, to really underline the stakes, first and foremost, they’re the obvious human stakes, which you laid out. People not being able to sleep under a roof, people not being able to feed themselves or their children, people not being able to access the healthcare that they desperately need, people who can be fired from their jobs like that just for who they are, what they wear.

Liz Ha: Right.

Maximillian Alvarez: No just cause whatsoever. We have so far to go in fighting these injustices and fighting them for all working people, like you said, not just those who are fortunate enough to have a collective bargaining agreement. There are those basic first-principle human stakes of like, We need to do this because it’s what’s right.”

Then there’s the second secondary stakes, like you said, it’s like, We need to do this, otherwise the labor movement will die. We’ve been in decline for decades. So for our own salvation, we need to be thinking about how we can expand our movement and reach as many workers as we possibly can and think in that mode.” And then on the third order that I was thinking of as you were talking is like, We’re not the only ones making a play to appeal to working class people who are feeling that pain right now.” There is a rising increasingly fascistic right wing that is speaking to this pain and harnessing it for its own political agenda.

I think the question is, as the great labor organizer, Aminah Sheik, put it in a recent piece that she publishes, How are labor in the left rising to meet this discontent, this frustration, anger, and pain with the cost of living crisis, with the eroding social safety net, with increased climate catastrophe, and endless war?” All of this stuff is happening, and working people are feeling it. What are labor and the left doing to meet that, meet people where they are, speak to that pain, and harness that into something, a movement that can fight for better? Because at the same time, the right is making those appeals and tapping into that anger and doing what they always do, which is directing it back towards migrants, people, trans people, just carving out certain privileged sectors of the real, true working class, and everyone else is trying to steal something from you. I guess I meant to ask in that regard, when we’re talking about the migrant farm workers in your area, are these primarily workers coming from Latin America and the Caribbean?

Liz Ha: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. I assume that, like in the United States, they get sucked into that reactionary fervor and painted as the ones who are stealing our jobs and the ones that need to be targeted for elimination.

Liz Ha: Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: Anyway, you’ve said so much that it’s just making me really, really think about how important it is to act now because this shit isn’t going away and the stakes are only going to continue to increase dramatically. So I guess I just wanted to ask in that vein, What would it look like or what should it look like for the labor movement, but also for all of us to make that commitment to fighting for the working class writ large, not just organized labor?”

Liz Ha: That’s a hard question. I think that the key piece is to make people realize it’s not just about themselves and to really think about, Who are you doing this for in this moment?” Because as activists, we became activists because we wanted to be the voice of someone that didn’t have a voice, or we’re fighting for the rights of our workers. But when you’re thinking about that, I think about the future generation. Even as an activist before I had kids, it’s very different now that I have kids. Because as I go to a rally, it’s like, I don’t want my kids to go to this rally. I don’t want them fighting for this.” And it makes me think of everything that I have and all the people that came before me so that I can have those things. I think people need to understand, sometimes people think activism might be a bad word.

I think if you want to do the right thing and be that voice, then, to me, you’re an activist and you’re doing the right thing. I think labor needs to be like, I don’t know, I can’t see this as being a quick fix because labor, the structure of the movement, needs to be reinvented. I don’t want to say, Just smash it down and build it.” But in a way, you have to really look at the structure of your union and the people that are making these decisions, like, Are you including voices?” Every union has equity groups, like workers of color, people with disability, all these different equities.

You’re giving them space and sometimes a voice, but are you really listening? Are you really taking what they’re saying and saying, How do we fix this? How do we open this door? What do we need to do?” And I think that’s the problem. We’re doing things because we have to. We have a committee because we have to. But then, are you going to do something? I’ve got so many things going through my head to answer this question, but I don’t really have one solution, I guess, because it’s so hard. I think that the key thing for me right now doing this work is trying to get unions like the labor movement to see how important it is for them to connect with the community, not just workers in their unions, but all workers as a whole. They definitely have the resources to do this, and this is the moment to do it because I think people are ready. I think workers are ready to say, Enough is enough. We’re not going to take this anymore.” People can’t survive, survive, survive, survive.

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Kamau Franklin: I’ll back that up completely. I think Mariah’s completely correct. When we speak to folks in the community, there are folks who are informed, but there are a good amount of people who don’t know about it. And there are other folks who are carrying on with their day-to-day lives trying to survive, trying to make it out of here. But once you start talking about it, the innate reaction based on the conditions that people live in is like, well, why do we need that? We know that that means they’re going to just be in our neighborhoods and communities, arresting more people, taking away our young people that instead of providing centers for our folks to go to, providing other things and activities or improving the education system that they would rather spend again, not only just the 30 million that the city is supposed to be giving. And that number, again, is increasingly going higher once we do further investigation into how the money is actually getting to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

But the same corporations who several years ago were saying that they were on the side of Black Lives Matter, have now given 60 million dollars or close to 60 million dollars to fund a project like this. People see it on their face that these same corporations which underpay us or have enough money like Mariah mentioned earlier, to give to a project like this. So it’s not hard to convince people or it’s not hard to make it clear for folks what the purpose of a Cop City is and what the role is of police in their lives. And so when folks understand that and hear that, for the most part they have questions and they are opposed to the idea that this is the way the city should spend its money.

I will also say for the people who are working class, people who live adjacent to the forest, and it is mostly a working class black community that lives adjacent to the work to the Weelaunee forest, those folks were promised that the forest would stay intact and that it would be used for nature trails, for parks, for places for their kids to enjoy and understand nature and again, to continue to serve as a preventer of climate change.

That area’s prone to flooding. Clear cutting that’s already happening in that forest will only add to the flooding in that neighborhood which will impact working class black communities. Those communities overwhelmingly have said that they are opposed to the building of Cop City. That that was not what the promise was. The promise was for them to have an area where they can bring their kids to, where they can have a park and so forth. It was not to build a militarized training center, which is going to have shooting ranges where cops are practicing how to shoot day and night in that forest next to this working class community, that people understand that this is a targeted approach to dealing with working class communities as opposed to giving resources to these communities. They’re going to flood these communities with more cops.

Maximillian Alvarez: I’m going to lose my shit, man.

Mariah Parker: Does it not make you feel insane? It makes me feel so insane.

Maximillian Alvarez: I’m losing it.

Mariah Parker: It makes you feel so insane. And particularly they started clear cutting the forest a little bit earlier this year. And so photography and drone footage is coming out where there’s this scar on the earth where this beautiful forest used to be. Where I was at a music festival. There are people out there just vibing, enjoying music. There’s folks camping out, there are families, there’s children. They used to take children here to do field trips, to study the ecology of the forest. And now there is this, you see footage come out, they’re giving some journalists a tour of the forest today or what used to be the forest. And it drives me totally insane to see this. And I feel like speaking of common reactions of working class folks, that same shit of just being mind boggled and infuriated instantly is something I get all the time when I’m talking to people about this who haven’t heard about it before.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I know our task is to turn that into action, which again is why I’m so grateful to folks like yourselves and everyone else out there doing that unsung work, everyone listening to this who is also doing that work day in, day out. We need you guys always, and we need more folks doing that work even just to make sure that people know that this is happening in the first place, let alone building on that and talking about why we should be invested in the fight against it, what the future looks like if we don’t fight. And I think, yeah, it’s the point you both made is just so poignant and I really want folks listening to sit with it because in many ways you guys know this, but it does really bear repeating. The safest communities are not the ones with the most police.

They’re the ones with the most resources and the most kind of shared wealth access to things like drinkable water and a bed to sleep in, a house to live in, schools to send your kids to, grocery stores, not just dollar stores, so on and so forth. It’s not throwing more police at poor and working class neighborhoods, is not going to somehow magically make those neighborhoods safer. How do I know that? Because that’s what we’ve been fucking doing for the past half century or more. And it hasn’t worked, at least by the supposed goals of that approach to policing. But anyway, I digress. So because I know I only have you guys for about 10 more minutes, so I wanted to bring things back to, I think we’ve done a great job of communicating to people why the push to build Cop City, the construction thereof, the sort of shadowy government and industry forces behind it, why all of those are already an issue for working people that we should care about.

But then there’s also the draconian crackdown on the protestors against Cop City and it’s a fundamentally connected issue, but it is almost sort of an issue within itself that we and that the labor movement needs to have a serious discussion about, because that is also going to directly impact us. It’s not just that they’re all the other kind of aspects to labor, workers’ relationship to the police that we already know about when we’re on strike. Who are the ones beating picketers and clearing way for scabs to come through the picket lines? It’s the cops, right? So when coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama at Warrior Met Coal were on strike for two years, who was it who was escorting scabs past their picket lines? Who was it who was enforcing these business friendly rulings by local judges, these injunctions limiting the amount of people who could picket, how far away from the entrance they could picket?

It was the police. And so we already know that in terms of limiting workers’ ability to exercise their right to free speech, their right to assemble, their right to go on strike and to withhold their labor, the quote on quote, criminal justice system has a historically antagonistic relationship to working people expressing those rights. But it goes even deeper than that. And I hope that folks listening to this can sort of hear the resonances with the interviews that we’ve done with workers in different industries over the past six seasons. Just think about the railroad workers. They had their right to strike, stripped from them by the most, quote on quote, pro-labor union president that the US has ever seen, and a congress that happily went with that decision and they gave the bosses, the rail carriers, everything that they wanted. And so when workers have our rights to withhold our labor to speak up and to exercise those basic fundamental rights, the bosses win.

And also most people in this country can be fired without just cause. So it’s not even a question of do I have these rights at work? Most people fucking don’t. We already know that they don’t, you can’t speak up for shit without losing your job and potentially thus losing your home and if you lose your home and we live in a society that criminalizes poverty, so you’re going to get beat up by the police and shuttled into prison. So are you guys seeing the connections here?

Permanent links below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People” Theme Song
  • Studio Production: Jesse Freeston
  • Post-Production: Jules Taylor
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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