Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Household Workers Unite!

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015)

Within a short period of time, Premilla Nadasen has established herself as one of the most important historians of the US labour movement writing today. In Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and her previous book Welfare Warriors (New York: Routledge, 2005), Nadasen explores how class, race, gender, culture, and the law constitute the meanings of the work of social reproduction and the ways in which working class women of colour have disrupted these meanings, defining this labour as work, the home as a workplace, and in the case of domestic workers, claiming a right to organize as workers. In doing so, Nadasen’s scholarship centers a working class black feminism long marginalized in male-centric histories of the Civil Rights and labour movements, and in middle-class white women’s histories of the women’s movement.

Household Workers Unite is a narrative history of African-American domestic-worker organizing and activism. The book focuses in on the period between the early 1950s and late 1970s when “domestic workers established a national movement to transform the occupation” (3). While Nadasen draws on a range of sources, including government reports and journalistic exposes, it is the oral histories of African American women activists—brilliant organizers like Geraldine Roberts, Dorothy Bolden, and Josephine Hulett—that anchor the book. These women tell their own stories about the meaning of their labour, their desire to be viewed as a worker, and the fight to transform their occupation. As working class African American women, their stories connect to the broader struggle for black liberation, highlighting the racial exploitation of domestic labor, and are a form of activism, “a strategic way to make sense of the past as well as the present and to overturn assumptions about domestic workers” (3).

Anchoring the book in stories “not told about domestic workers, but stories that domestic workers articulated themselves” (3) serves a political purpose. As Nadasen notes in the book’s introduction, mainstream media narratives around domestic work cast these workers as victims, disempowered and without agency. The narrative of victimization denies domestic workers’ agency and marginalizes not only contemporary domestic worker organizing but a rich history of collective action stemming all the way back to 1881 when African American laundresses in Atlanta formed a Washing Society and went on strike for better wages and working conditions, effectively shutting down the city.

While the 1930s witnessed another wave of domestic worker organizing, New Deal labour legislation failed to treat the home as a workplace and denied household workers coverage under basic labour protections, including the right to a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. These gendered and racialized exclusions were mirrored in social policy, as the white male industrial worker and his caregiving wife became the model around which labour law and the welfare state were constructed, denying African American women and other women of colour full citizenship. This is legal and historical backdrop for the rise of a national domestic workers’ rights movement focused on ending the exclusion of domestic workers from employment protections institutionalized in the New Deal.

Yet prior to the emergence of a national movement, Nadasen tells us that organizers like Dorothy Bolden in Atlanta and Geraldine Roberts in Cleveland were cutting their political teeth in civil rights struggles. Unlike the middle-class, male leadership of that movement, the likes of Bolden and Roberts were working class women with little formal education. They experienced the realities of white supremacy not only in public spaces, but also in the homes of their white employers. Yet domestic workers resisted, playing a pivotal role in some of the earliest civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery bus boycott. They raised money by cooking and selling food, and mobilized other household workers in support of the campaign. And they stood up to employers, insisting on being treated as full human beings not only on the bus but also in their workplace.

In the milieu of the black freedom struggle, domestic workers increasingly came to understand their exploitation as a legacy of slavery. Rather than reject their identity as domestic workers, “they claimed it and sought to bring recognition and respect to the work they did” (57). As Nadasen writes, “Motivated by the civil rights movement, they came to believe that black freedom could best be achieved by mobilizing domestic workers to press for improvements in their occupation” (56).

As local domestic worker organizing efforts grew in number, leaders adopted the tactics of the civil rights movement to a nascent domestic worker rights movement. In the 1960s, the movement developed multiple and sometimes overlapping strategies, including professionalization and where possible, unionization. In the 1970s, domestic workers campaigned for full citizenship rights and forged a sometimes-uneasy alliance with middle-class women’s organizations. While divides of color and class were never truly overcome, organizations like the National Organization for Women and figures like Gloria Steinem supported a campaign for minimum wage legislation for domestic workers. The perseverance of movement organizers, and their ability to leverage the power of middle-class women’s organizations, led to a series of victories. In 1974 and 1976, amendments to federal labour law extended protections, including the right to the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, to some categories of household workers. For the women at the heart of the movement, these victories meant they would be recognized as workers, not servants, disassociating household work from the legacy of slavery.

Sadly, at the peak of its power, the movement atrophied. Whereas over one-third of employed African American women in the United States worked as domestics in the 1960s, black women increasingly found opportunities in the growing service sector. The movement also lacked sustained sources of funding.

Yet since the late 1990s, there has been a rebirth of domestic worker organizing. Local organizations such as Domestic Workers United in New York City now form the backbone of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). The movement has fought for and won domestic worker bills of rights in a number of states. As the concluding chapters of the book make clear, immigration has changed the face of the movement and the question of immigration status has posed new barriers to organizing. Old battles need to be fought anew. As Nadasen states, “The shifting, contingent, and contested notions of work and citizenship suggest that this has been an important arena of political struggle for marginalized groups—a struggle that is still unfinished” (147).

Nadasen has done American labour history a great service. By recovering the voices of African American domestic workers and resurrecting a little know history, Household Workers Unite pushes the boundaries of the discipline, troubling those narratives of the labour movement that continue to center the experiences and struggles of the white male factory worker. In the days I wrote this review, the leadership of the United Auto Workers union expressed its desire to sit down with newly minted President Trump to talk trade. Meanwhile, the folks in the domestic worker movement are gearing up for the fight of their lives as their undocumented sisters are threatened with mass deportation. Maybe we should be looking less to the factory floor, and more to the kitchen, for the working class upsurge our historical moment so desperately needs.

A version of this article was published in Labour/Le Travail Vol. 79

When it Comes to Poverty Reduction, Budget 2016 Earns Failing Grade

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Another provincial budget, another Liberal betrayal of Ontarians living in poverty. Despite past promises, the provincial government’s Budget 2016 does not prioritize poverty reduction. While the budget does include some concrete measures designed to make life more affordable for low and moderate-income households, as Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley has remarked, “modest program improvements in certain sectors are being paid for by across-the-board cuts to others.” Make no mistake about it: despite overtures to “social investment”, this is an austerity budget and makes a mockery of the provincial Liberal’s poverty reduction commitments.

Back in 2007, the Liberals announced a much heralded poverty reduction strategy with the modest goal of reducing child poverty by 25 percent over five years. However, according to economists with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario ended its five-year strategy with the same level of child poverty as when it began in 2008.  While long overdue increases in the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, the roll out of full-day kindergarten, and the introduction of Healthy Smiles Ontario (a program providing dental care for kids in low-income households), have all been important developments, since the austerity budget of 2012, the Liberals have beat a hasty retreat in their War on Poverty.

Our self-styled “social justice premier”, Kathleen Wynne, is a former schoolteacher and has written her fair share of report cards. Well it’s time to issue the Wynne government a poverty report card and in subjects ranging from social assistance to food security, the provincial Liberals are earning very bad grades.

F in Social Assistance

Close to 900,000 Ontarians rely on social assistance to help meet their basic needs. Since the Harris Conservative’s cuts in 1995, welfare incomes have been grossly inadequate, falling far below the poverty line.

For folks on social assistance, Budget 2016 does bring some good news. The Wynne government has committed to ending the dollar-for-dollar claw back of child support from social assistance, although the amount of child support that single parents will be able to keep has not yet been determined. Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has pointed out, there is no new money for legal aid services that give single parents the assistance they need to obtain child care support orders.

In terms of social assistance rates, the budget includes a 1.5 percent increase in rates for families on OW and ODSP recipients and a 3.7 percent increase to the rates for single individuals without children on OW (which amounts to an extra $25 a month). However, the increases will not kick in until September and October. Furthermore, with inflation at around 2 percent, a 1.5 percent increase actually amounts to a cut in the real income of families on OW and folks on ODSP.

F in Child Care

According to the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, Ontario tops the list of the highest and least affordable child care fees in Canada, with long wait lists for subsidy in many communities.

Despite this, Budget 2016 offers no new money for child care and creates no new child care spaces. As Carolyn Ferns, Public Policy Coordinator of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, has said “The Ontario government is squandering its chance to make real progress on early learning and child care.”

The budget ignores the affordability crisis facing Ontario’s parents, especially low and moderate-income families. Subsidized child care can be a route out of poverty, especially for single mothers on social assistance. Sadly, the Wynne Liberals are doing nothing to improve access to quality, affordable child care.

D in Housing

With long waiting lists and a huge backlog in repairs, social housing in Ontario is in crisis. Yet the budget doesn’t serve up any major new cash for social housing needs and instead simply repeats previous commitments.

There is an injection of $178 million over three years into the Liberal government’s existing affordable housing strategy. This will go into assistance to those fleeing domestic violence (a $2.4-million pilot) and homelessness outreach ($45 million). Details are thin on where the remaining $100 million will be spent, although the budget says it will support 1,500 new supportive housing units providing assistance to those with disabilities and other needs. Again, this is not new money but simply the repackaging of previous commitments.

Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre points out, there is no increase in direct funding to low-income households, especially folks on social assistance, to pay for the housing-related expenses—like first and last month’s rent, utilities arrears, and furniture replacement. These expenses used to be covered by the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which the Wynne government axed in 2013.

F in Food Security

Rising food and housing costs are leaving many cash poor folks with the dire choice either paying the rent or putting food on the table. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, food costs are up 4% and vegetable prices have increased upwards of 18%. Food bank use has been on the rise throughout the province. The Daily Bread estimates that after paying for rent and utilities, the average food bank user has an income of only $6.67 a day to try to live on. With no commitment to food security in Budget 2016, people living on low-incomes will continue to have to rely on food banks and experience the health problems associated with poor diets.

B in Post-Secondary Education

On the poverty file, post-secondary education is the one bright spot in Budget 2016. Changes to the post-secondary grants and loans system and education-related tax credits will mean that students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive more in non-repayable grants than they pay in tuition for most post-secondary programs.

These changes apply to anyone who is eligible for OSAP, including those receiving social assistance. While the devil is in the details—students and/or parents will stay have to pony up $3000 to access these grants—this appears to be one subject in which the Wynne Liberals are worthy of a decent grade.

However, the government is providing no new funding for post-secondary education overall and this means little will change for the army of precarious part-time instructors who now do the bulk of undergraduate teaching in Ontario and who often earn near poverty-level incomes.

New Initiatives

The provincial government has announced it will be setting up a guaranteed basic income pilot project but with few details, we should reserve judgment on this subject.

Overall grade: F

When it comes to poverty, the provincial Liberal’s 2016 budget deserves a failing grade. In Ontario, there has been a 38% increase in poverty over the past 20 years. Nearly one in five of the province’s children live in poverty and close to 7 workers are now earning within $4 of the minimum wage. Ontario families pay up to $19,000 a year for child care, the highest costs in Canada. And as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has said, “below-poverty incomes for people on social assistance continue to leave them in dire circumstances.” Overall, Ontario funds all of its social programs at the lowest rate in Canada.

The need to build a strong anti-poverty movement in Ontario has never been more pressing. Not simply an example of the moral callousness of the Wynne government, Budget 2016 is a reflection of the current weakness of our movement. If the provincial Liberals are to earn better grades, we will need to encourage them—with protests, rallies, organizing, activism, and effective advocacy—to go back to school.

Simon Black is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University, and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group

“We the North” and the Marketing of Blackness

Monday, March 16th, 2015

In my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension, I deconstruct the rebranding of the Toronto Raptors–with a big shout out to  Gamel Abdel-Shehid.

The Raptors are hot. Toronto’s professional basketball team sits atop the Eastern Conference and are arguably the NBA’s most exciting team to watch. But the on-court swagger has been paired with a slick rebranding, the centerpiece of which is the “We The North” campaign.

The campaign’s lead commercial intersperses Raptors’ highlight reel dunks with shots of amateur ballers —primarily young black men—on street blacktops and in gymnasiums. Some of the city’s racialized, working class neighbourhoods—Jane-Finch, Regent Park, St. James Town—act as backdrop. There are graffitied walls, tattooed (black) bodies, and imposing apartment blocks. According to Raptors’ exec, the sixty second spot portrays Toronto’s “authentic basketball culture”. Only two days after its release, the ad had garnered 500,000 views on YouTube.

Last year, the Raptor’s named Toronto-born hip hop star, Drake, the franchise’s “global ambassador”.  But Drake didn’t lead the rebranding efforts; that task fell to a multi-million dollar creative agency called Sid Lee.

The Raps “redefined brand identity”, as the agency calls it, fits an NBA history of on the one hand commodifying blackness—black culture, style, music—while on the other policing black identity and black political expression. For example, ex- NBA commissioner David Stern devised a dress code to prevent players from wearing hip hop fashions like baggy jeans, fitted baseball caps, and chains. As Dave Zirin noted, this move “reflected fears that profit margins would shrink if NBA brass did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority Black league, all with an eye on the green.”

When NBA players recently warmed up wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, responded by saying: “I respect our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for them to abide by our on-court attire rules.”

As We The North and the Raps embrace of hip hop culture suggests, the franchise see profits to be made from marketing a certain kind blackness. In a 2005 essay, “Who Got Next? Raptor Morality and Black Public Masculinity in Toronto”, York University prof Gamel Abdel-Shehid argues that “as an almost all-black league in a racist culture”, the NBA has had to market “a certain kind of blackness as entertainment”. When the Raptors came to Toronto in 1995, the franchise confronted white Canada’s association of basketball with hip hop, gangs, and school violence. To be a commercial success, the team had to “market a certain version of black public masculinity that accords with rigid (essentialist) caricatures of black masculinity in the racist realm of American popular culture.”

What Abdel-Shehid called “Raptor Morality” hinged on an aesthetic that tied together basketball, black masculinity, capitalism, the failed nuclear family, and a mythologized “inner city”. It played on individualistic narratives of young Black men working hard, staying out of trouble, and “making it” through pro sport.  “In place of a collective struggle to combat the nightmares of racism, police brutality, and class exploitation,” Abdel-Shehid writes, “the Raptors offer a Hoop Dream.”

For Abdel-Shehid, the Raptors’ success “attests to the ways in which forms of capital have relied on pop cultural notions of blackness to sell an image to everyone, regardless of the average level of consciousness of ‘race’ and racism … It is important to pay attention to the kind of blackness that the Raptors attempt to narrate, and to locate this process within the history of Canadian attempts to write black experiences out of the nation.”

So back to We The North, the Raptors and TO in 2015. While people of African descent make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they account for 25 per cent of the civilians stopped and documented by the police. Black men are up to ten times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In the city’s high schools, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites.

In the interests of profit, the Raptors market a commodified blackness while as a franchise remaining silent on the policing, state-sanctioned violence, and other forms of institutionalized racism to which Black bodies are subject to in the city on a daily basis. There are some aspects of the Black experience in Toronto that just don’t fit the Raptors “redefined brand identity.” To paraphrase legendary comedian Paul Mooney, “everybody wanna be black, but nobody wants to be black”.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine Volume 49 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2015

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Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

How Martin Luther King’s legacy speaks to our Canadian reality

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

My op-ed for The Toronto Star on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Most Canadians, even those with little knowledge of American history, will know King as a leader of the African-American civil rights movement, a Christian minister and a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. And many will be acquainted with the public address with which King is most closely associated, the I Have a Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August 1963.

The version of King commemorated on the third Monday of January each year in the U.S. — the version Canadians will be familiar with — is that of a prophetic, revolutionary voice tamed and made safe for an America — and a world — still characterized by racial, economic and social injustice. As African-American philosopher Cornel West has said, “Martin has been deodorized, sanitized, sterilized by the right wing and neo-liberals to such a degree that his militancy is downplayed.”

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his death, King departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech against America’s war in Vietnam. Standing at the pulpit of Harlem’s historic Riverside Church, King denounced the war, connecting his government’s military adventures abroad to the failure of the war on poverty at home. The programs designed to house the homeless, feed the hungry and provide jobs for the unemployed — “the real promise of hope for the poor” — were starved for cash as the war effort was ramped up.

As King said that day, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

He argued that America must “undergo a radical revolution of values” for “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King’s criticism of U.S. imperialism, his commitment to ending poverty, and his belief that the promise of civil rights could not be fulfilled without economic and social rights did not endear him to a broad swath of the American public. In the months before his death, his disapproval rating stood at 74 per cent; among black Americans it was 55 per cent. In the wake of his Beyond Vietnam speech, some mainstream civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King, fearing he had aligned himself too closely with the radical left of the Black Power and peace movements. The Washington Post declared: “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . and . . . an ever graver injury to himself.” In denouncing the war, he had denounced a president — Lyndon Johnson — who had taken political risks in supporting civil rights legislation. Financial contributions to King’s civil rights organization dried up. “I’d rather follow my conscience, than follow the crowd,” King replied.

This is the King we seldom hear from today, the King who called for a “radical revolution of values.” His message is a moral beacon, a light whose source may have been the black church, a prophetic Christianity forged amid the struggle against American apartheid more than 40 years ago, but it illuminates the dark corners of Canadian democracy today.

In Canada, we have spent $11.3 billion on the mission in Afghanistan, yet in the latest federal budget there was little for the 3.2 million of our fellow citizens who live in poverty.

We can afford to spend upward of $25 billion on new fighter jets to patrol the skies, but do not have the money to address the crisis of affordable housing that leaves so many Canadians homeless or precariously housed.

We live with racial inequalities — for example, racialized Canadians are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians and in Toronto black males are three times more likely to be carded by police — yet do little to address institutionalized racism in our labour markets and criminal justice systems.

One in five aboriginals lives in poverty and many live without access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. Schools on reserves face funding gaps between $2,000 and $3,000 per student each year compared with provincial schools. Yet we have a prime minister who is more eager to greet two visiting pandas from China than First Nations youth who have trekked some 1,600 kilometers to Parliament Hill.

Too many of our political leaders have become well adjusted to injustice. Too many are willing to sacrifice equality and dignity for all on the altar of free markets and the national security establishment.

In that same speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “These are revolutionary times . . . people all over the globe are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

From the Arab Spring to the global movement to end violence against women and girls, from anti-austerity protests in Europe to Occupy Wall Street, from rebellions of urban youth in France and the U.K. to indigenous struggles in the Americas, once again people are on the move the world over. We are waiting for new systems of justice and equality to be born.

At home, student protests in Quebec, union demonstrations for labour rights and, perhaps most important, the Idle No More movement, have questioned a social and economic order that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a world free from poverty, racism and militarism is a universal one. His is a legacy worth wrestling with as we forge the path to a more just society.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, April 4th 2013, p. A25.

The Meaning of Hillsborough

Friday, January 18th, 2013

On April 15th 1989, Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest met at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, in the semi-final of English soccer’s oldest and most prestigious competition, the FA Cup. With only minutes played, police stopped the match. At one end of the stadium, in the lower tier of a stand allocated to Liverpool’s traveling support, fans were climbing the security fences which penned them in. Others were being lifted to safety by those seated in the stand above. Attempting to ease crowd pressure outside the stadium, police had ordered open a large exit gate; bodies surged into the stand’s lower-tier.  96 fans died in the crush; hundreds more were injured.

In the days following, higher-ups in the South Yorkshire Police engaged in a secret campaign of misinformation and victim-blaming that has taken twenty-three years to uncover. Many fans knew the truth—that the police were criminally negligent—yet their voices were ignored by the powers that be. Ignored because they were working class people from Liverpool –and because they were football fans. Only ‘trade unionist’ and ‘young black male’ were more despised identities among the ruling elite of Thatcher’s Britain.

Feeding stories of fan drunkenness and aggression to the conservative press, South Yorkshire Police produced a history in which they were exonerated from any wrong doing.  Newspaper headlines read ‘Dead fans robbed by drunk fans’,  Liverpool fans ‘were drunk and violent and their actions were vile.’ Rupert Murdoch’s Sun ran the headline ‘The Truth’ claiming fans had urinated on police officers resuscitating the dying. Thousands of Liverpool fans arrived ticketless at the stadium, The Sun claimed, so they were ultimately responsible for the tragedy. The deceased were at fault for their own deaths.

This September, after 23 years of Liverpool fans campaigning for the real truth, an independent Hillsborough investigative panel released its final report. The panel found that 116 of the 164 police statements taken in the wake of Hillsborough were doctored to show the South Yorkshire force in a better light. Broken turnstiles, unheeded safety concerns, but most importantly, police mistakes had led to the dangerous overcrowding and the deaths of the 96. The panel’s most tragic finding was that 41 of the victims may have been saved had the police’s response been competent.

The police-orchestrated cover-up reflected the contempt for working class people, and particularly the working class of Liverpool, which characterized Thatcher’s rule. Liverpool was a city in revolt against Thatcherism, refusing to quietly accept the neoliberal doctrine of ‘free markets and disciplined people’.

Monetarist policies designed to punish the industrial working class had led to high unemployment rates across Britain’s industrial north, but nowhere was harder hit than Liverpool, with unemployment bordering on 50% in some inner-city neighbourhoods. The Liverpool riots of 1981, two years after Thatcher’s election, saw unemployed youth fight street battles with the city’s police.

Thatcher’s advisors said there was “a concentration of hopelessness” in Liverpool, the result of a declining economy caused by industrial strife. In other words, the city’s working class was too unruly, driving capital elsewhere.  Responding to calls for investment in the city, one of Thatcher’s cabinet ministers said “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’?”

Following the riots, with their collective middle-finger up at Thatcher, the people of Liverpool elected a socialist city council, run by a radical left faction of the Labour Party. To borrow the title of a history of the period, Liverpool was A City That Dared to Fight.

Given this context, it is a shame that the independent investigation was unable to determine was how high up the police ranks the Hillsborough cover-up went—classified cabinet documents on the matter will be released in 2019. By the time of the disaster, the South Yorkshire Police had formed a close relationship with the domestic intelligence service, the MI5, collaborating to crush workers in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.  If the miners were the ‘enemy within’, as Thatcher branded them, then the city of Liverpool was ‘enemy territory’. We know now of the collusion between Thatcher, the secret services, the police and the tabloids to defeat the miners. What we are yet to find out is how far the Conservative government went to humiliate, vilify and defame the rebel city of Liverpool.

Published in Canadian Dimension Jan/Feb 2013 Issue

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

A People’s History of the Yonge Street ‘Riot’

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

May 4th 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap singles chart, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”. This sentiment underscored a sense of injustice when Los Angeles police were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Toronto cops implicated in the shooting death of Black teenager Michael Wade Lawson walked from the courtroom free men on April 7th. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot as he stood unarmed in his rooming house, leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee. A year later cops shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto Police in the space of 15 months.

Just days after the uprising began in LA, 22-year -old Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by Toronto police. And so on May 4th  the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor,  to protest the killing of Lawrence, the Lawson verdict, the intense and ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with Rodney King and the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering 50 to 60 people, primarily young Black men and women. But as they began to march, the numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, white youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!” as they moved through the streets to the US Embassy—in solidarity with King—and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying the police and their allies at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing version of the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The crowd, however, remained; young, angry and insistent that the demonstration continue.

As the protesters moved up Yonge Street, windows were smashed and the cops were pelted with bottles and stones by an increasingly militant crowd. The police attempted to block the march at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the crowd was not for turning, gathering pace as young people strode towards the roadblock with intent. The cops moved the buses and backed up, beating a retreat westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, a co-founder of BADC and veteran organizer, recounts the growing anger of the young demonstrators: “A youth came up to me and said “Mr. Farrell this is our time. We have to get back at them for how they hurt us, they hurt us; we have to get back at them”.

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street from Bloor, heading towards police headquarters. According to Farrell, “Every single window pane on Bay St. was broken. The police knew where the youth were going and must have thought, ‘Nah this can’t take place.’ Anything could have happened.” Police horses and the riot squad met the march, batons lashing out at the protestors. After a long standoff — police headquarters under siege by the young and militant –the crowd dissipated, some protestors moving back down Yonge.

The media called it a ‘riot,’ but in the words of Farrell it was “a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, a mobilization, an uprising against police brutality and the fashionable indifference to injustice displayed by the city’s political elite.

“The moment was surreal but necessary,” says hip hop intellectual and march participant Dalton Higgins. “You read the history of social movements, about moments of resistance like the Brixton or Watts Riots, moments driven by oppressed peoples,” says Higgins. “It was like a scene out of a movie, out of a documentary on the civil rights movement. This was the feeling; the same kind of rage and anger.” And hip hop was central to the political awakening: Higgins remembers, “That generation was weaned on Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian, KRS One, and Queen Latifah. It was cool to be versed on one’s culture, one’s history; you know, to be conscious. We rocked t-shirts and medallions with messages of Black pride.”

“The powers that be were shocked”, recalls Farrell. “We had had long demonstrations before, long speeches and so. And the police would harass you on the way home; give you a parking ticket and that sort of nonsense. But this time, the police had to move their buses, shifted out of the way of these youth; youth totally incensed, angry. The event was a political catharsis. A cathartic moment, even for the city, because what happened was a log jam broke; a log jam of denial of the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That riot broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the rebellion, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In his findings, Lewis stated “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism…It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that are unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping-out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut. Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism` cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.” The province’s anti-racism secretariat was expanded, employment equity legislation introduced, and funding for existing programs like the now legendary Fresh Arts was forthcoming from both the municipal and provincial government. The JobsOntario Youth program enabled programs like Fresh Arts, as well as private businesses, to hire youth. “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer and community elder Julian Falconer “is that the only time government attention is focused on racial problems is when they reach crisis point.”

At a BADC press conference the morning after, as broken glass still glittered on the sidewalks of Yonge and Bay streets, the late, great Dudley Laws summarized events this way: “What we saw yesterday was the frustration and the anger of the people coming out. We have waited for the justice system to deal justly with our community and it has failed.”

American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.” The privileged have called the events of May 4th 1992 a ‘riot’. It is a ‘riot’ in police records and in the pages of the city’s newspapers. It is a ‘riot’ in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains premised upon the marginalization of the city’s urban ‘others’ and whose power depends upon the suppression of the historical memories of the rebellious, the resistant, and the resilient, upon the active containment of their struggles, their stories and narratives.

But a people’s history cannot be contained, hidden, or erased. While the ‘official’ history of the Yonge Street Rebellion gathers dust in the dead spaces of government office buildings and newspaper archives, a people’s history of anti-racist organizing is being preserved and honoured. This is happening in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling. It is in blogs, which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, and on stages and community radio. And it is also in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and to making histories of their own.

 

Sources:

Interviews with Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins

Toronto Missing Plaque Project

Wasun. 2008. A Short History of Community Organizing Against Police Brutality in Toronto: The History of B.A.D.C. and Beyond<http://basicsnews.ca/2008/03/a-short-history-of-community-organizing-against-police-brutality-in-toronto-the-history-of-b-a-d-c-and-beyond/>

Wright, Lisa. 1993. “A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering.” Toronto Star, May 3: A1.

*Acknowledgements: Thanks to Verle Thompson for sharing her knowledge of Fresh Arts and JobsOntario Youth. Thank you to Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins for sharing their memories of the rebellion. And much respect to Wasun for documenting the history of police brutality and BADC organizing in Basics Community Newsletter.

 

A version of this article was published in Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture 2012

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6