After staying strong on the picket line, and building solidarity that helped shut down the Ontario Food Terminal, Ippolito workers have reached a deal. Workers with Teamsters Local 419 had been striking for paid sick days, fair wages, job security, and respect on the workplace.
Workplace respect is of particular significance in this struggle. All of the striking workers are Tibetan refugees who came to Canada to avoid persecution by the Chinese government. The promise of a better life has been marred by insecurity and disrespect in the highly racialized workplace. At the picket line, one of the speakers told the crowd that management regularly brags about firing and replacing the workers with ease. The employees also have said that their boss, “threatens to punish people for not finishing these tasks in time,” despite making a habit of not providing enough time for said tasks. Workers say they are concerned, as working too fast at this job is physically unsafe.
The strike has also had the effect of elevating the expectations and treatment of workers at the 20 other companies operating warehouses in the OFT. Many of these 350 workers are not unionized, but support the action. Their employers, looking over at the Local 419 strike, have begun treating the workers in their warehouses better. “This little strike is having a ripple effect,” says Tenzin Nawang, an organizer at Parkdale Community Legal Services. “The other day they brought pizza [for the workers]. They never do that. It was like Christmas.”
On November 16 workers held their third solidarity picket, which successfully shut down the OFT for hours – a significant achievement considering the massive volume of good shipped through the terminal. OFT is North America’s third largest food terminal, processing 5.5 million pounds of produce every day. That a relatively small number of workers and community members can plug traffic at such an important link for capital shows the power of working class struggle.
The atmosphere on the line was one of solidarity and optimism. Many of the striking workers had positive, face-to-face conversations with perfect strangers at the line. One of the more charming placards was a painting of smiling baby produce that read, “we’re rooting for you!” Another sign said, “you say ‘tomato’, I say ‘fair contract now!” Montreal-based musicians Union Thugs (who are also Industrial Workers of the Worldmembers) were coincidentally in town during the strike and walked by Steelworkers who informed them of the action. Within an hour, the five-piece band was back with amps, a microphone, and instruments, playing classic labour anthems for the workers.
People came out from several other political struggles to bolster numbers. There were contingents from the Fight For 15 and Fairness, United Steelworkers, and the ongoing OPSEU college faculty strike (which had an increased strike mandate vote less than an hour after the OFT action). This type of movement cross-pollination creates trust based relationships between people, increasing the collective power of working-class people.
The largest group of supporters from the community came from Parkdale Organize, a community group in Toronto’s vibrant neighbourhood of Parkdale. This same group organized towards a major victory through a rent strike against MetCap Living owned buildings earlier this year. There, residents were facing extortionist above-guideline rent increases and horrid living conditions. Many of the residents of this neighbourhood are also Tibetan refugees, and some work at the OFT. “Some of us were involved in the [Parkdale] rent strike this year, so we know how these fights are connected,” the workers said in an online statement. This energetic community provides a model for solidarity and progress for other marginalized segments of the population.
This article was first published on socialist.ca.