Tireless labour rights activist Rabia Syed is third in our new online-only Social Justice All-Stars series. Know a social justice all-star who deserves recognition? Email editor Lauren McKeon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coworkers call Rabia Syed the “all star” of organizing. At 50 years old, Syed has spent more than half her life working tirelessly in union rights activism. Today, she is a full-time organizer for Workers United, a union that assists non-unionized workers in Canada and the U.S. to achieve the change they want to see in their workplace.
Her job title isn’t as simple as it may sound. As a union organizer, Syed listens to the concerns of non-unionized workers across the country and helps them come together to demand fairness in their workplace. She often takes bold actions opposing employers who are positioned firmly against unions, organizing for workers in health and retirement care, manufacturing, travel and tourism—to name just a few. Some of her biggest wins, as Syed calls them, include unionizing the first Sunrise Senior Living retirement home in North America in 2006. She also organized for a 62-year-old registered nurse to keep her job after her employer, essentially, deemed she was too old to work. “That brings me joy—that we can change the unions,” Syed says. “I couldn’t ask for a more meaningful career.”
Syed’s enthusiasm for helping others has long run through her blood. Born and raised in the Philippines, Syed came to understand what poverty was. As a child, she saw people around her struggling financially to feed their families. However, it was in the Philippines that Syed also discovered a sense of community: in dark times, people would find the help they needed from their neighbours. Her parents taught her to respect others who wanted help. Though Syed moved to Canada when she was 20 years old, it was in the Philippines that she decided to dedicate her life to helping others.
People have taken notice to Syed’s unconditional care for those seemingly without a voice. Workers United union organizer Matt Gailitis has worked with Syed for more than nine years and believes that she works tirelessly for other people by empowering and empathizing with them. “She brings a lot of hope to workers,” he says, “and makes people realize things can be better.”
Syed, however, rarely gives herself such credit—she considers herself to be like the workers she organizes. When talking about what motivates her to do her job, Syed attributes her co-workers for reminding her of the strides she has taken. And though she perhaps underestimates her ability to change lives, Syed is so inspiring even her children have taken up the battle of fighting for equality. Syed has four children, some of which have written and performed songs about workers rights and fair wages. The younger generation is taking workers rights seriously, Syed says. “It’s beautiful.”
Despite progress, Syed says that workers rights in Canada need more attention. “It’s important for workers to know their rights. Race, gender, age these are all barriers and discrimination people face today,” she says, “they also face it in the workplace.”