ANTI-ASIAN RACISM UNDONE
Building Worker Action
Livestreamed on May 29th, 2021
Min Sook Lee:
Hi everybody, welcome to Scholar Strike Canada, Anti-Asian Racism Undone, and the panel that we're entering is called Building Worker Action. My name is Min Sook Lee, and first let me begin by acknowledging the sacred land that we're on, and the land that we live and work on. For over 15,000 years, this land has been home to Indigenous people who have lived and continue to live in relation with the land in ways that have been proven to be ecologically sustainable, vital, and deepen our humanity, by honoring our relations. This land is the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Annishnawbe, Huron Wendat Indigenous peoples. Colonization is first and foremost about land, the control of it, and the erasure of Indigenous people from their land. This dispossession continues today. So land acknowledgments like this one are not just words, for a footnote in history, but they’re words to testify to our responsibilities today as settlers, those brought against their will, diasporic people, and arrivants. Let us honor the treaties.
So welcome to this space. As I said, this is the panel Building Worker Action and my name is Min Sook Lee. I'm so pleased and really quite honored to have this opportunity to have a focused conversation with two community activists, labor organizers, who have been part of, and have led movements for change in this country for decades.
For 20 years Deena Ladd has been working to improve wages and working conditions, primarily for racialized communities, women, low wage workers and immigrant workers. And for the past 12 years, Deena has been working to build a membership-based worker center in Toronto that can improve wages and working conditions for many working people. The Workers’ Action Center, WAC, works primarily with low-wage immigrant workers and workers of color in precarious jobs that face discrimination, violations of rights and no benefits in the workplace. Thanks for joining me here, Deena.
Great to be here. Thanks.
Min Sook Lee:
Thank you. And Winnie Ng is a labor rights activist and scholar with a deep commitment to anti-racism, equity and worker empowerment. Winnie is the immediate past Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University. Winnie Ng started in the labor movement as a union organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, immigrant workers, ILGWU, and then later on with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, HERE local 75, working with hotel workers. Winnie Ng was the Ontario Regional Director of the Canadian Labour Congress for eight years. And over the decades Winnie has been involved in innumerable community organizations, and as a founding member of the Asian Canadian Labor Alliance. Thank you, Winnie, for joining.
Thank you, good to be here.
Min Sook Lee:
It's great to see both of you, because I ordinarily see you in rallies, or protests or organizing meetings. So this is an unusual opportunity to carve out time in all of our busy schedules to stop and reflect and to share stories, and to think about organizing the strategies and opportunities for organizing in this particular moment.
And I think both of you, as community and labor organizers, you've been working inside, alongside and outside the labor movement, and have changed it through your organizing, and the work you have done has ensured that Canadian unions have a space for racialized workers, for women, for gender diverse communities. You've changed the labor movement from multiple places, of positions and positionalities. And you've radicalized it, in my opinion. In your points of contact, you’ve radicalized it, and challenged Canadian unions to be part of the growth of working class, multiracial, intersectional, labor rights organizing, that's transnational.
I wanted to talk to both of you about the coming to political consciousness, and the kind of formative experiences that you have had prior to joining the labor movement, because I always find that really interesting. How is it that you came to be the strident, challenging change makers that you are right, there were formative moments. Some of them aren't the most pleasant or the easiest to tap into. But in many ways, the kind of like the instructional ones in which we learn these early life lessons about how racism, sexism, how they work together to enforce poverty? Could I ask both of you to think about and reflect on those moments, and how you tap into them to think about committing to a path of political action? Deena, did you want to start?
Sure. So yeah, I think that my experience in England really started that process of political consciousness. I would say that I was part of that first generation South Asian growing up, born in England, in the 70s. And so it was part of that whole first generation British. And so in some ways, the racism that we experienced on a day to day basis was something that now I look back and when I emigrated to Canada, when I was 16, I actually started to just understand it better, once I was away from it, because the daily experiences of racism, of every day, going to school and having to be careful of who you might bump into, the skinheads on the estate, the experiences of being with my mum who wore saris, and who were constantly harassed on the streets, the issues of my father, being at work and dealing with a very racist trade union that didn't really step up to support him. He was a car mechanic.
So all in all, I think all of those experiences, and then the the duality of also being a South Asian woman in a very restrictive and prescriptive family - so very, weren't allowed out of the house, we weren't allowed to cut our hair, we weren't allowed to be like the white people. And so it was like my parents are, I think a lot of South Asians kind of try to protect the culture, by not allowing us outside of the house basically. I literally had only ever been on a bus by myself once, before I ended up in Scarborough, and then having to take like three or four buses to get to high school. So, tightly chaperoned not allowed to wear makeup, not allowed to cut your hair, not allowed to look at boys or do anything like that the white people were doing, basically. And then, but then also being in this situation, and then growing up in the school system. And dealing with the kinds of racism at school, the streamlining, like many of us were told we shouldn't go to school after high school, there was so many things. I feel like I could write a book about it.
But I think that basically, I think all of that stuff just felt really wrong. It felt really wrong, it felt so unjust. And then it wasn't until I got to Canada that I started to just kind of - started to understand it, because I started right when I was 17. But very active in the student union, the student movement. But it was also during a period of very conservative time. So the right wing Student Union closed down the Women's Center, tried to pull out of the student movement. The Ontario Federation of Students tried to close down CKLM, tried to stop us from doing any progressive organizing. It was also the time of Philip Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, who was espousing eugenics in terms of the belief there. And that was also the time of L’Ecole Polytechnique, when 14 women were murdered in Montreal. That was in my second year of university, here at Ryerson. So all of these things led to this kind of my formative years being really feeling like stuff did not feel right. But then like really, truly understanding as I said, when I got to Canada, I think all of those injustices and all of those experiences and thought into just really fundamentally make more sense,
Min Sook Lee:
Right. And well, thanks for sharing that, the narrative of the journey of starting to live through those experiences, and then coming to a point where now you're going to fit those pieces together, and build a frame or an analysis around that in language or words. So before going into the articulation of a politic that would kind of organize or explain much of that, much of that in some ways, which is deeply traumatizing, very personal, very emotional, but explain it in a way that is outside of you, that is structural and systemic. I'd like to talk about that. But before doing that, maybe Winnie, then we can bring you into the conversation. Because if you and I've never asked you this Winnie because we never have an opportunity to sit down and reflect like this.
Yes, a lot of times Actually, I really appreciate this opportunity. I mean, this is, to me, a bit of an intergenerational conversation. So I'm 20 years older than both of you. And so, there are a couple of very personal stories that I might as well share. I was born in Hong Kong, and came to Canada as a lone foreign student in 1968, at the age of 17. So similar age. I came on my own, and like then, like most of the foreign students, we were able to work part time, and work full time in the summer months, to sustain to put us through school.
So there are a couple of work experiences that really shaped my bearings both as a worker as an activist. And as a person of color. One is my first job summer job in Montreal, I was working as a chambermaid, or a room attendant now, at Queen Elizabeth hotel, a unionized workplace. And at $1.25 an hour, I clean like any other room attendants, clean 17 rooms a day. I think, it's those four months - I experienced racial and sexual harassment. And as a young worker, I was too scared to ashamed to even complain about it. And I didn't actually - I was just counting the days that I could leave. So when I left, I left with a sense of anger and guilt. Anger that, why did I not speak out? And guilt, that I had the luxury to go return to the comfort of learning when that was reality, and still very much as the reality, of a lot of workers or women of color, immigrant women who work in the hospitality industry. And so maybe that's what gives me that rage and guilt, that gives me that sense to to keep on speaking out more in the later years.
And then the other pieces of my life, later on my mom immigrated over in early 1980s. And she worked as a sewing machine operator, on Adelaide, and as an older worker, at the age of 60. After a couple of years working in a designer's shop, she was told by her boss that she was too old, she was wasting a sewing machine and was asked to leave. And so these are to me those experiences, that stay with me. And then I think the last one is, as a young mother, watching my daughter, who's now 42 coming, home at the age of three coming home with a picture of herself, with hair that's painted in yellow crayons. And to me, I think those moments, it's forever sealed in my mindset.
It's saying there's so much that we need to do, if we are, as an activist, as a movement builder, it's there are all these facets of me, of my identity that need to have a way of expressing it, need to be taken as whole. Right. Usually in the labor movement, we talk in grievances, we file grievances and saying “to be made whole.” And to me, I think all my years here in Canada, has been a journey of trying to push for more space, to have the opportunity to be made, and be recognized as whole. Yeah. So in essence, the intersection of race, class and gender, it's always to me, that's the fire that keeps me going all the time.
Min Sook Lee:
You know, it's always interesting to me how political activists develop ideas about change, social change, and how we can participate in that, and how we can flex power, right, social power, political power, and economic power. And both of your stories and some of what you've just shared with me, they tell me a lot about how those formative experiences stay with you. They stay with you permanently. And sometimes, in the moment of them happening, you don't have the political power to respond to that, or to change that in the moment. But then those memories, or those feelings, and those emotions, they are sustained inside, and then you spend the rest of your life in some ways renegotiating that. And making sure that that's not (sound cuts out).
You're talking about being a student activist at Ryerson, when you were enrolled at Ryerson? Doing that to being a labor organizer, there's some steps in between. Was there a moment where you were organizing you were like, yeah, screw this, I can really implement and impact change through organizing. What was an early organizing victory for you, that taught you this is possible?
I would also say I think I arrived in Canada with a real developed class consciousness, because I think the process of immigrating here, too was a really big issue, especially seeing my family. I was lucky to, not like Winnie, to come with my mum and dad and younger brother. But the whole process of settling in this country was brutal. And seeing my dad come as a car mechanic, and then not being able to get - basically told he couldn't work as a car mechanic. And then Mum, who was an office worker, basically dealt with a lot of sexual harassment and bad working conditions. And just seeing them really struggle was was also part of that.
But I think that one of the earliest things that I was involved with was at the end of my first year. So I started Ryerson at 17. And at the end of my first year, the engineering department, students that had dominated the Student Union, basically shut down the Women's Center on the last day of school. And so I ended up spending my entire summer - I was basically commuting from Scarborough, working in the Scarborough Town Centre as a retail worker. And then any spare time I had it was poured into basically contacting - so I mean, you can just imagine i'd barely been in the country for a year, and I didn't really know what I was doing - so I'm just trying to contact women's centers and women's organizations to write letters of support, and it became like a year long campaign to get the Women's Center in new space.
Basically, we were thrown out of our space, and the Writing Center was put in there. And they were hoping that the women would just disappear. And it was - I think it's really important to remember that it was a period of time, it was like 30 years ago, when sexual assaults and rapes happened on campus. It was the staff, OPSEU staff members that would come to the Women's Center and say, “Hey, did you know that this is going on?” Because it was not like - there was no harassment center, there was none of the internet infrastructure at that point. It was just before L’École Polytechnique, it was when you know, at Queen's University, “‘No’ means tie her up, ‘no’ means beat her into submission.” It was during that period of time where, just to be part of the Women's Center was actually putting a target on your back. Being queer was putting a target on your back. I remember the queer sign. It was called Be Glad at that point, the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Alliance, their sign was banned, our sign was vandalized every single day. Every single day it was up, it was vandalized.
So it was a period of time where it’s incredibly conservative. And so yeah, so we won the space for the Women's Center, we ran a really important campaign. And I think that was the period of time where I was starting to understand what organizing meant. And that led me to then work with other students to develop Ryerson Students Against Racism, made sure that the Students’ Union had pink pages at that point, which was the first time it happened, really just trying to push the boundaries of all of those things.
I guess for me it was, I moved to from Montreal to Toronto in 1975. So my first full time job was actually at University Settlement House, right behind the art gallery, in the heart of the Chinatown then, as a crisis counselor, as an organizer. And so I was working with a lot of newcomers from Hong Kong, from China, where the family unit usually had the husband working as a restaurant worker, and the wife of the mother works as a sewing machine operator, right on Spadina, one of the garment factories, and between them they juggle the childcare, and so on so forth. And it's recognizing the - within the workplaces, the exploitations, the divide and rule that goes on and on.
I'm just gonna share a really short story, there was one particular workplace where the employer, at the end of every year in his Christmas party, will put all the names of the workers in a box, and they do a lucky draw. And oh, after the pizza, they get, there'll be two winners. And these two winners, these two workers would be entitled to the 4% vacation pay in the year. And it's those situations that I recognized, as a social worker, you can't - the individual solutions are bandaids. It's not deep enough to create that sense of unity among women workers from the different language groups, from different places.
And so that's when I made the lead to go into as an organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, because it's in that sense, I've always used that - when you hold a fist in the labor movement - it has to be you clasp, clench your fist, and you can’t fight employers, you can't fight the power of the abuse of power with two fingers or three fingers. So how do we - that has been an ongoing journey. It's how do we create that clenched fist? So that's my own journey.
And I must say, there are times I'm sure Deena feels the same, that it's tiring to be the first. It's tiring to be the first union organizer, woman of color organizer and being dismissed and looked down on as well. So I guess we’ve all gone through some of these experiences. But it's also that sense that, how do we engage without losing ground, and without losing our own integrity and dignity and hope as well?
Well, this is where I feel like I've been following the path laid out by Winnie, because I ended up at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. In my fourth year, at Ryerson, they have placements at that union. And I started my - so in 1991, I started my placement there. And I really felt like the members, and I think that that ultimately, it's really about the members that I just felt like I'd come home, like these women were my family, right. I grew up with these women, most of my family in England work in the garment industry, in the plastics factories, in the hosiery firms. You know, packaging biscuits and crisps. That's my family, right? So I came to the union and I was like, “Bloody hell yeah, I feel home. This is amazing, how do I work with these women?” But it was, unbeknownst to me that Winnie had just left, that was just ahead of me. And I had just missed her. So I ended up at the Garment Workers’ Union until 1997. For exactly all of the reasons that Winnie just outlined, in terms of - it just made so much sense to work with women from our communities that were there to help facilitate their ability to organize, and to become that fist. And I think that is the most incredibly exciting work to be done. To be honest.
And a lot of times, it ties in with, how do we in union organising, how do we harness that anger, or that sense of being treated unfairly and encourage them to act? And if I can, Min Sook, if I can reflect on some of my own union experience, we as organizers - I guess then it a much more bureaucratic way of doing things, and Deena you can talk about it - we organize, we sign up workers, we do house visit, we sign up workers, we win the vote. And then we pass it on to these “business agents”, who hardly don't know these women whatsoever. And they take it from there, they take everything out of my hand. And to me, I think this is where it's the downfall. And I was part of that, too. And it's the need for continuous organizing, right? Continuous organizing beyond winning the certifications, but continuous organizing throughout. So people could be more empowered to demand, fight for their rights, fight for what's in their contract. And I think this is where - if we had to do it all over again, it should be just one continuous unit, rather than organizers separate from being a business agent, or being a union rep. Because then this is the way we develop the critical relationship that deepen their sense of belonging and deepen that sense of commitment as union members,
Min Sook Lee:
You know, Winnie, you're talking about, in some ways, different visions, or ideas, of trade union organizing, or labor organizing. Contrasting bread and butter, business-style unionism, to social unionism, a union movement that is much more holistic in terms of understanding its relationships outside of institutional structure, which is quite radical. And, though earlier, you were saying, Winnie, there's some of this fatigue, and being tired of always being the first and having to - without a doubt being the first woman of color in the room, in many of these union spaces, you had to address and negotiate and think through how to deal with many different ways in which racism, sexism were directed towards you. And you had to really - I'm sure, I know, you as a thoughtful organizer - be thoughtful and strategic about deciding which fights to take on in the labor movement, right. Can you talk a little bit about that, Winnie?
I think I go in those spaces, I go in with my eyes wide open, and have a sense of, what do I want to use that space for? To maximize? For example, when I took on the position as the CLC Regional Director in Ontario, I walked in knowing quite clearly we need to nurture, to bring in more racialized folks, trade unionists, into everything that we do within the institution, within the labor movement. But at the same time, I know that I'm going in with an agenda, to open up spaces for the younger ones that were coming in. So that's when we started the whole solidarity works, where a lot more young workers, regardless whether they are from the union or the community, to have a space to share some of these issues.
I think part of the tiredness, the fatigue is more the repeated effort having to keep proving yourself among these white male leaders. And then in some of these times, when we push back, when we challenge the status quo, then our loyalty to the labor movement or to the organization is taken to task. And I've paid deeply for standing up as well. But then I think that refusal, among all of us who are activists to say, we are not going to settle for the crumbs, we are not going to be silenced, and we're not going to stay put in the space that you prescribe to us - I think, to me, that's where the affinity with other workers of color, Black, Indigenous, and racialized folks, becomes such a support, and such a nourishment to the soul for all of us as activists. You know that this is not only your experience, but experiences among all of us. And we need to strategize, come together and strategize on how we could make it better for the next generations.
Min Sook Lee:
Yeah, Deena, I feel like you can come in here. I want to ask you about a few things you said there, Winnie, but I would like to ask you, Deena, because you work inside labor. And then you clearly made a very deliberate choice about working with the Workers’ Action Center about founding the Workers’ Action Center, as deciding that there needed to be a space that was worker controller, worker directed. Can you talk about that more?
Sure. I think one of the positive things that I experienced working with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was, it was also at this time when the NDP was in power. And so there was a lot of money to support community initiatives, and different things. And there was this moment, during the ILG when I was there, that we were doing a lot of different things. So we had started up an association for women, mainly Chinese who worked at home, who were doing sewing. And we started the Coalition For Fair Wages And Working Conditions, for home based workers, we were starting to organize Tamil women who were working in the home doing food production, Latinas who were doing craft-based work at home. I was able to set up a childcare center at the union, I set up computer classes, Link classes, ESL classes. I was doing a lot of training with our members when I first started at the union. Even though it was like probably like 85% of women, only one woman was on the District Council. The representation was atrocious. And so there were a lot of systemic issues. But a lot of progressive women ended up being heard. And we were allowed a bit of freedom.
That really changed when we merged with another union in 1995. And so long story short, I hit the brick wall, and was in some ways forced out of my work, forced out of the organizing job that I had, and felt a little lost after that, in terms of trying to - I thought I was gonna stay with the union probably for the rest of my life, because the women and the members were just so incredible, and felt like my family. But I think it also kind of made me feel - and a number of other people - think about, why did we hit the brick wall? Why wasn't there a more flexible understanding of what an organization could do in the labor movement? How could you build an organization that would actually reflect and be a space for racialized workers, for women of color, for the workers who had the least power in the workplace?
And I think there was this moment, especially in the union that I was working for, where our communities were not seen as a whole, they were seen as - well these communities are hard to organize because of what they've experienced back home, but these communities have a lot of political organizing from their own home countries, so we should focus on these people, not these people. And it was a numbers game, it was like, we don't want to focus on small workplaces, or subcontractors, because they’re too hard to organize, we want to go for the workplaces that are over a hundred. And you know, you need to perform, and it was almost like, pressure to unionize in a basically capitalist business way, it was disgusting. And it was just everything in me that was just wanting to run away.
And I ended up being out because what my beliefs were were coming into conflict. So, I ended up leaving, but I think what all of that stuff led me - so I don't regret it, because I think what it did was it taught me some really hard lessons around understanding, what is it that we need to - can we really transform a trade union? Or do we need to start again, do we need to start a new organization? Is there a way to explore what that could be, and what the potential power of that could be when you have racialized staff, when you have an emphasis and a priority and the belief that our communities can organize, and resist, and be given leadership and power and decision-making, and we can achieve change, and we don't need white people to do that for us? Like, what a friggin concept.
And so the Workers’ Center has been - I've been working on it now for over 20 years. And now we have this Workers’ Center where I still feel like I'm still learning every single day how to do this work. But what we are doing is we're doing all of that, we are prioritizing workers who have the least power in the workplace, who have the least ability to unionize, who have the least ability to get access to basic labor standards, and to try to open up the space for them through their own workplace experience to become leaders in the struggle. And that has been an absolutely incredible sort of experience.
And I think that it is because I was sick, just like Winnie was, of pounding my head against the frickin brick wall of saying, “No, no, just give us a chance! We can do this! Look at the potential!” And none of that was allowed. And I feel like I've been going to union conferences for a long time. I remember a conference in 1995, at the Ontario Federation of Labor on community unionism. We're still having that conversation! And it's one years 2021 like, enough! We just have to just get on with the work. And so part of the center was about me just getting on with the work, and fed up with spending my time trying to transform stuff, and just saying, you know what, there are worker centers in the US that have just decided to just frickin do it. I want to try and figure out how to do that. And so it's been a really difficult journey. It's been a tough journey. But it's been one that, now we're at a place where I'm so glad that even though it was very scary, we just pushed ahead to do it.
Min Sook Lee:
Well, I wonder, if we could be a bit specific, what do you think are the kinds of organizing approaches or strategies that racialized low wage workers bring to the table that's different? That's unique, that's distinct, that is effective? What are the perspectives that make organizing in community union organizing a thing of its own?
I mean, I think people are fearless. Like, I think people have nothing left to lose. I mean, they're already in the shittiest jobs, the worst conditions, they’ve lost everything. And I've heard consistently, “Oh, well, those people they can organize they're just too busy, busy surviving.” I say bullshit. If you don't have those people who are the core of your organizing, you ain't going to do anything. And so I am inspired every day by the fearlessness, by the commitment, by the sense of justice, by the sense of comradeship that our communities bring. I mean, I'm not romanticizing it, there's a lot of other shit too, for sure, right? There's fear, there's, you know, the challenges of building a multiracial organization. But at the end of the day, when you start with women of color, racialized women, Black women as your base, and you work to improve and change the conditions that face those workers, you bring everybody else up.
And I think that we've seen that during the pandemic, the kind of incredible courageousness and bravery of migrant workers, of farmworkers speaking out and losing the ability to be in the country of women who are care workers, who have been trapped inside employers’ homes, but have said, screw it, I'm going to speak out. International students who are just like pushing the boundaries, undocumented workers, women from the Latinx community that have just been fearless in their organizing around Status for All. I mean, I could go on and on and on.
And it's about building a movement that brings everyone in, I feel like when I was within the union, it was kind of like, we're allowed to deal with you, but we're not allowed to deal with you, and you have left the union, so we can't deal with you. And so part of the Center has been about, let's break down those barriers. If you're unemployed, you can still be a member, if you're on social assistance, if you have lost your job, if you are - it doesn't matter, you are part of the labor movement, and you have a role to play, you have a position here. And so part of it is just kind of breaking down all of those silos, all of those boring, stale, male white roles, and just saying, let's just friggin throw it away, and let's just figure it out. And so yeah, made lots of mistakes. But how the hell are you supposed to learn, right? And I think fundamental in that is about how to do that real work, I think that Winnie was saying around, how do you teach people to be the fist? Or they know how to do that work, but how do you bring everyone together to be that? They individually might be there, but then how do you help people work together to be part of that struggle together, regardless of where they may come from in the world? And that has been really exciting.
This is where Workers’ Action Center has been a beacon of hope. And I guess, I'm not giving up on the labor movement. But there's - how do we replicate that approach within the labor movement? Min Sook, your earlier questions, I could say, like, when I work with the PNP, workers who had jobs pulled out under their feet. When the company filed for bankruptcy protections over the July 1st, long weekend, and they came to the factory, came to the workplace after long weekend, and found the whole place locked down. It's when workers have nothing else to lose. There's a whole different sense of dignity and strength that the white leaderships always underestimate. And to me those are the powerful moments.
And the other examples that I want to bring in is the more creative ways of organizing, of keeping the members engaged. For example, when I was at the HERE Local 75, the women members, Black, racialized women, they were the ones who said, “How about we start a choir?” So all these women, 40 of them, after working a long day, at 430 would walk over to Trinity Church right next to Eaton Center and have another hour and a half a song, a choir practice. And this is where they learn and nurture that critical connections, they learn songs. So, union politics or political consciousness is not just through education and speeches, it's through the songs that they sing together about fighting back, that we are the lions, who are fighting back.
And to me, I think those are the moments that - within the traditional labor movement, we have not been willing to take the risk, been willing to put enough trust among the diverse members to make that space a whole lot more integrated - I hate the word inclusive - to make the place and deepen that sense of belonging for all members. Right? And that's why it's so critical that if we shouldn't be “let out of the gate” per se, but how do we recreate, how do we dismantle, confront and dismantle white supremacy within our labor movement? Not just within the workplace, but beyond, and create a whole new movement, a whole new community that is grounded on progressive and radical politics?
And how do we create those spaces where people can stop feeling so isolated in their work? So many low wage workers, and so many workers of color feel so - just imagine you go to work, and you just deal with indignity and lack of respect and poor working conditions every single day. And you spend the majority of your time in these places. And then you go to a union meeting, where basically there's a table in front, where the Secretary and this person there, and there's a roll call, and it's so formal, and it's isolating and disconnected.
And I'm not saying that - this is not me dissing trade unions. What this is about is saying, we have to have critical reflection on how we do every single thing. Because it all sends a message to someone, it creates a distance of the union and us, whereas we're supposed to all be the union, right? There's not supposed to be this separation. But so many union meetings are held in this bureaucratic, disconnected, isolated way. And people are scared and nervous and intimidated.
So that's one of the things that we try to do, is just break that down at the center, right? I mean, obviously, the pandemic has been difficult in terms of, how do you do that online. But like, in our center, it's like music, and food, and having a cup of tea together, and breaking open the box of cookies, and making sure that every - you know, and people are serving each other and just trying to create that sense of warmth and family, because we need that to be able to struggle. How do you sustain yourself and nurture yourself to in that daily struggle? And if you don't get that from your union, if you don't get that from your place of work, like where are you getting it from? In many cases, we're going home to our families, who are also all stressed out and trying to struggle to pay the bills, right?
So it's a real kind of trying to tear apart all of the things that we know, and rebuild it. And in some ways, because we've started the Workers’ Action Center from scratch, there was no pathway, we had to kind of develop it ourselves and figure it out. And as I said, it's not been perfect. And it's certainly, we're still learning all the time. But I think because we didn't have that baggage, like because we could just start from what we knew and how we wanted to do stuff, it has helped create a culture that people feel - people talk about the Workers’ Action Center, being a member, as being part of the WAC family. And that to me makes me feel really good. Because I think at the end of the day we got to have each other's back, and you don't necessarily feel that in a lot of organizations.
Min Sook Lee:
No, I think that there's a global trade union culture that is quite radical and revolutionary in the global South, primarily. My own personal familiarity is with trade union culture in Korea, for example, which was very tied to a democracy movement that overthrew a government, right? what we're dealing with here in Canada is a trade union movement that's still very much a Eurocentric one, that's aligned itself with very colonial ways of operating, and as professionalized an understanding of its role in civil society. And it's very much a barrier for racialized workers to see themselves in that structure. But, not giving up on the labor movement. It's actually about working within, alongside, and throughout.
So, we've only got about nine minutes left. And I was surprised how quickly this has happened. And I really had so many other things to talk about. I wanted to ask you about lessons in the last year and the pandemic. Without a doubt, I think the pandemic has radicalized people, has made people understand the choices are quite stark. And it's become a cliché to say that the pandemic has exposed the stark inequities in our society and democratized them. Not just that, but also the rhetoric and the hypocrisy of celebrating and valorizing essential workers, but then denying them paid sick days, or like basic supports and benefits.
So, in the short time that we have left, Winnie and Deena, I wonder whether you want to reflect on, what do you believe are - because this past year has been the time of urgent learning in some way, urgent doing and urgent learning, all kinds of simultaneous, right? So what are the kinds of lessons that have really stood out for you about the need, the organizing that's happening with racialized low wage workers, and what's working? What are the challenges?
Winnie, did you want to go? I mean to be honest, like, I think the organizing and building and keeping that sense of connection. So one of the - obviously we were so stressed out, because we knew that so many of the people that we know in the workplaces wouldn't necessarily get employment insurance, no benefits, working for cash under the table, migrant workers. I mean, so it was a real incredible sense of like, holy shit, what the hell are we going to do? And so we just, so we just just listened and organized, and kept everyone connected. So we immediately went into working with Foodshare to supply food boxes. And we turned the Workers’ Action Center into basically a distribution center on Saturdays. So every week, every Saturday we had, we had food boxes, we had frozen dinners, we had PPE, we raised money to get income into - especially folks’ who were migrant and undocumented workers’ hands, who have no access to anything.
But through that process, we still kept organizing around the federal $15 minimum wage, the income benefits status, we started the Status for All campaign with the Migrant Rights’ Network, and, and all the groups across the country who organize around migrant worker rights. And so when people were coming in on Saturdays for their food boxes, it was a chance for us to connect, say how are you doing? You know, are you eating properly? Like, what's going on? How are things happening? And and then, oh, guess what's happening? We're launching this campaign, and we're doing this, and can you get involved in this.
So we just kept moving on paid sick days, moving on the Status for All, moving on the income benefits, moving on all of the issues that were directly impacting workers. And then people started to come out to all the actions. And so what we started to see was, especially the Status for All stuff, was that many of the new people that we were meeting, that we were connecting with - because we just opened our doors, and we said, whoever needs support, just come. Tell everyone. And that's what we did. We just basically said, we would just try and find the money to help as many people as possible.
What that's led to has been like a massive increase in our membership. We now have close to 400 members, which was - you know, we started out with 200. And all of those members are really active and have been engaged with the center. We are learning how to organize digitally, but I think the big thing was that trying to immediate - deal with people's immediate needs was critical, but then also connecting them to the broader political issues. And saying like, this is happening, you need food, let's get you food. But this is the frickin problem. Like, why are you not getting access to benefits just because you don't have a valid social insurance number? That's crap! So let's do this. And then having wins along the way on the political front, has then helped bolster all of that stuff.
So I think that symbiotic relationship between the immediate needs, throwing everything again, out of the door, just going okay, let's just go for whatever people need. Let's just respond. And then but but continuing the organizing. But through that experience, I've learned, that's really critical.
Yeah. It's really good that actually what's happening with Deena's shop, and you know, at the Workers’ Action Center, it's happening across the globe. Like I volunteer with the International Domestic Workers Union, and they've been devastated with the pandemic, or their members. So in Cape Town, South Africa, that's exactly what's happening. They have soup kitchen, people coming together, bringing whatever they have, and then sharing it within the broader communities. It’s happening in Asia countries and elsewhere. To me the pandemic also manifests that no one is safe until all of us are safe. And so the the linkage between global South and global North here, it's that sense of equity that that needs to be to be addressed, particularly now with the vaccine shortage. It's a replica of the leverage and the positioning.
And I guess the other lesson of the pandemic also ties in with the global Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the murder of George Floyd. And as Angela Davis said, it's such an extraordinary moment, that for the first time ever, systemic racism is rendered visible. So as racialized folks who are involved in our own communities, how do we seize this moment and make and do something much more radical and revolutionary? And to me, it's how do we build that links with folks who are fighting on anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism, and anti-Asian racism and Islamophobia, and all the other isms? How do we build and be united to confront white supremacy? To me, I think that's a priority now within the labor movement. It's how do we seize this moment, and start building and start confronting and having that courage to say, I'm not alone, and we should take this on? Because right now, it's, you have all these equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. It's like a whole booming industry. But all the EDI, IDE, if we don't address some of the source of the problem in terms of capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy, this is going to be DIE, die, for the labor movement. And so I'm sensing an urgency and part of being on this is saying, let's push the frame and push the space. So we can have some really challenging conversation, even though it might be creating discomfort among the white brothers and sisters, but it needs to happen.
I think opening up that space, I think we can assume that people understand what white supremacy is, and I think that part of it is opening up the space for people to to have those deeper conversations. Because I think that if we don't understand truly what white supremacy is, then we won't understand our own natural alliance and solidarity that we have with the Black community and with the Indigenous community, and you can get kind of like distracted and swept away into those diversity and inclusion initiatives. We saw that in 1995, when that was also a hotbed of like diversity training as well, and a lot of money was made by a lot of people. I think you could see that happening again.
Part of it is also about, so for WAC, how do we support our staff and our senior leaders to understand what white supremacy is, and have that conversation? And so we've been reading Policing Black Lives by Robin Menard, which was suggested to us to do as a book club. That has been a really interesting moment for us to consistently not just have one conversation, but to go chapter by chapter by chapter, and actually collectively understand the legacies of systemic racism and colonialism that Canada is built on. And I think that we are having conversations that we wouldn't necessarily do because we dealing with urgent issues all the time. So carving that space out and and being supportive to one another in that discussion is really quite critical at this moment so that people can go deeper, but be supported to go deeper in their understanding.
Yeah, and being also reflective in terms of our own position and complicity in this whole project is set up. I’ll end with Andrea Smith's quote, how do we ensure that our model of liberation does not become a model of oppression for others?
Min Sook Lee:
Okay, well, that's, that's a good quote, to end with, I have to say both of you, I want to thank you, because I feel like we were able to travel with a bit of a chronology, going back to memories and lessons learned through the decades of organizing that you have both been part of, but also then use that to reflect on the current moment. And that's what's so critical about the current moment. It's an opportunity and a challenge. It could so easily - and we are seeing co-optation happening in real time, where urgencies become mollified through diversity management, or through a different way of understanding how to respond that are not structural or systemic.
So, it's so important to have the reflective time to think about what happened previously - even in fact, in the 90s, Deena, when you're talking about that moment of a lot of organizing, particularly around the cultural front, on identity politics, and what happened to that moment, what real sustained change did we achieve? I think we did achieve quite a bit. But we're building on that, there was a push back from that the mid-90s. And I remember it so distinctly, I was working at CKLN, when CKLN was being attacked and dismantled, because it was a very empowering media hub, and a space for grassroots organizing. So, I have to say, being able to to share with both of you some of the lessons learned and ideas of how we move forward, has been really instructive. And I want to thank you.
It's interesting, Deena that you're talking about reading Robin Maynard. Because she is a panelist for this program. She is going to be speaking tomorrow in a panel with Harsha Walia, Erica Violet Lee and Ian Tian, moderated by Beverly Bain, tomorrow afternoon at 430. There's a great program for this entire two-day weekend, thinking through anti-Asian racism, not through one siloed lens, but through a very intersectional lens understanding that you can't separate anti-Asian racism from so many of the other structures of oppression and discrimination. Winnie and Deena, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you have a great afternoon. Thank you.
Thanks for inviting us. Thanks, Winnie.
Thank you Deena. Good luck with your AGM tonight. Bye.
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