Originally published in the NS Advocate.
KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Efforts are well underway to establish a Workers Action Centre in Halifax, something that could make a big difference for low wage workers who do not enjoy the protection of a union.
Workers Action Centres educate workers about their rights, and support workers who are being cheated or discriminated against by their bosses. That support can take the form of legal counsel, education, or even direct action, if that’s what it takes.
Typically the centres support vulnerable non-unionized workers, such as live-in domestic workers, temporary foreign workers, retail and fast food workers, farm workers and so on.
At last weekend’s Organizing for the Long Haul conference members of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council (HDDLC) and Solidarity Halifax announced that the two organizations are teaming up to get a Workers Action Centre established here in Halifax.
“If you have trouble with the boss and you don’t have a union there is really nowhere to go. That’s why the labour movement here in the city and the province has wanted to get a Workers Action Centre off the ground for a long time, says Suzanne MacNeil, president of the HDDLC. “Our unions are not really set up to help you, and neither are support organizations in the non-profit sector.”
The plan is to start small, says MacNeil, who hopes to set up a regular clinic using borrowed office space and volunteers by the spring. She also mentions taking on one or two campaigns, developing educational material, and training union activists in labour standards as they apply to non-unionized workers.
There will be a direct action component as well, MacNeil expects. “Sometimes, when there is picketing in front of an employer, all with the buy-in from the workers, you are much more likely to get the instant justice you want,” she says.
The HDDLC is putting $5,000 towards the Workers Action Centre. The hope is that this week’s convention of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour will support a resolution to match that amount.
A look at the Toronto Workers Action Centre website suggests how beneficial such an organization can be for workers who often have nowhere to turn to when they’re being taken advantage of by their bosses.
Pam Frache is a labour activist associated with that Toronto organization. She’s in town to speak about Ontario’s Fight for 15 & Fairness at the Solidarity Halifax conference and the Federation of Labour conference.
“The Toronto Workers Action Centre plays a very important role in helping workers to be active in solving workplace issues,” says Frache.
“As somebody who only came to the Centre in the last few years what struck me is that they are not just a service agency, it’s a way of empowering workers to fight for systemic change while we address the issue for that worker using the laws that are there. We put a lot of effort into building the capacity of workers to lead, to grow their political skills and their organizing skills. ” Frache says.
Quite a bit of the work at the Toronto Centre is focused on enforcement. Labour Board orders to comply are frequently ignored by employers, says Frache.
Often the barrier to people exercising their rights is simply not knowing what those rights are, says Frache, pointing to the extensive work the Centre has done with Toronto’s Chinese, Tamil and Spanish-speaking communities to address this.
“It is very exciting that there is a now project in Nova Scotia,” Frache says. “And to start small and to make sure that it is informed by workers’ experiences, that is exactly the right way to do it.”