by Emily Leedham
While we can share many facts and statistics about low-wage work as a feminist issue, our organizing practices within the labour movement needs to reflect the reality that women deserve autonomy in every step of this fight.
You might know women represent over 60% of minimum wage workers across Canada.
And that women make 74 cents for every dollar men make – with the gender wage gap being much larger for women of colour, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities.
And you might be aware that this economic instability makes it harder for women to leave abusive relationships, enabling violence against women and girls..
But these facts are no more than pixels on a screen if the women they impact aren’t at the helm in the fight to change them.
Unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand the fear, anxiety, and helplessness that poverty creates. It backs you into a corner; your options may feel limited or non-existent. Depression and despair can creep in when you see no way out. It’s easy to feel like you only exist for your employer, to make your bosses rich, without anything in return. If you are financially dependent on an abusive or unhealthy partner, it is hard to feel like you have any real options to leave that relationship. This is sexist, racist, patriarchal oppression; it’s impacts being economic, psychological, and spiritual. I have experienced these things as a white minimum wage earner, but it is important to acknowledge that the majority of minimum wage earners are women of colour, and have this economic stress compounded by racism and xenophobia.
But women working these low-wage jobs do not need to be saved by well-meaning, financially privileged, folks in poverty-reduction committees or politicians with promises. This only further erodes women’s agency over their own lives. Instead, resources from individuals and organizations with more privilege need to be directed to engage more women, unionized and non-unionized, in labour organizing.
In Ontario, the Worker’s Action Centre has provided a space for women in non-unionized low-wage work to determine the demands of the Fight for $15 & Fairness campaign and develop organizing skills through workshops and leadership training programs offered in multiple languages.
Deena Ladd, co-founder and coordinator of WAC, shared in an interview with Rank & File Radio that the WAC’s primary goal was to build a movement of low wage workers in precarious employment, specifically immigrants, migrants, workers from racialized communities, women, youth – workers who don’t often find themselves in a union.
The language of “feminist empowerment” has been dominated by corporate culture – used to promote the careers of a select few women as entertainers, business owners, CEOs, and politicians. This language, while employing rhetoric about “women supporting women,” completely side-steps the reality that there is only room for a few at the “top” of any business or organization. Once a woman gets to the top, they simply fill the role of bosses with a duty to deliver profits for shareholders, not liberate their employees.
The workplace breeds competition among workers for hours, wages, promotions, and favor from the bosses – labour organizing should do the opposite. Our concept of feminist leaders and role models should be those who share knowledge, skills, and power with other women, not those who concentrate it among themselves.
“We trained a bunch of organizers back in 2016,” Ladd continues. “That was the launch of our Feet on the Ground training program. That really made a difference because what we were able to do is, instead of resources being centralized in a traditional campaign, we centralized some of [it] – but our organizing was split up into many different communities, and then a lot of mentoring and support in terms of how to do door knocking, how to do petitioning, how to deal with the myths that people have around an increase in the minimum wage.
“That deep kind of political education and organizing training…has really provided the backbone of the campaign, and meant that there’s many more people on the ground in these different neighbourhoods and regions and cities that have been able to sustain and organize with the campaign.”
As right wing groups like Rebel Media, Sons of Odin, and the Yellow Vests promote sexism, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia, and become emboldened and more organized in Canada, the labour movement needs to respond by building power among women, non-binary and racialized workers, as well as migrants and immigrants.
This means labour leaders supporting and expanding the work of workers’ centres like WAC. It means establishing them where there are none. It means prioritizing the Fight for $15 and being open to creative, resourceful, and militant organizing among workers. It means building solidarity across borders and supporting migrant worker organizing. And it means building bridges with feminist and anti-racist community groups, sharing knowledge, and co-developing strategies of resistance.
This International Women’s Day, let us reclaim feminism for the working class, and promote labour organizing as a means for women to assert their own autonomy and dignity denied by the bosses.
“At the end of the day,” Ladd emphasizes, “if you [have] workers who are making minimum wage willing to be on the streets and talk about this to other workers – and fight for it – that’s what’s going to sustain you in the struggles ahead and the pushback.”
Edit: This article was edited on March 9, 2019 to include a statement on the author’s positionality as a white working class settler.