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Why aren’t we talking more about the politics of labour?

Oops! What we missed in our 50th anniversary issue

Nora Loreto@NoLore

This Magazine is 50 years old. To celebrate, This editors embarked on an ambitious project: they featured 50 ideas from “Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators” to “share their best big ideas.”

I was struck not by what was there, but what was missing: Of the 50 ideas, there wasn’t one that dealt specifically with work.

Neoliberalism has atomized our struggles. While many activists use intersectional analyses to help cross barriers or silos, intersectionality as practice remains on the fringes of progressive organizing. On the mainstream left, we struggle to make connections to broader issues, broader experiences and, critically, to link our boldest ideas to the vessel necessary to create fundamental change: our labour.

Work is fundamental to our lives. We work to survive. Our value under capitalism is measured by our work. Regardless of whether we count down the days until our next break, our next job interview, or our next project, work remains the most important location in the lives of most people.

Surely, social change requires work, labour, workers, and the labour movement.

But for the Left, work is often isolated from broader social struggle. Rather than seeing our work sites and our labour as necessary components for social change, we see work separately; as a location in and of itself that is exclusive from other struggles. Often, we relegate labour struggle to union activists who are paid.

This ignores the fact that work is critical to delivering social change. Of the 50 ideas that This featured, you’d be hard pressed to find a single idea that didn’t require the world of labour to either deliver the desired change or change itself in some way to implement the bold vision.

For example: to confront climate change, we must imagine the role of workers in the transition to an oil-free economy: how would energy workers, those in the skilled trades, public sector workers, and retail workers engage in this struggle from their workplace?

If we want a national child-care system, we must talk about work: both working parents and the childcare workers required to deliver a new system.

If we want community food centres, we must talk about how workers could be engaged in designing, delivering, and resourcing such a program.

If we want radical health care reform, we must place patients alongside nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers, social workers, secretaries, archivists, maintenance staff, and everyone else who makes the health care system operate to achieve our radical reforms.        

If we want to enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we must include workplaces as a site of reconciliation, both to deliver on the commission’s recommendations but to also reach Canadians where they spend most of their waking lives.

There is no new internet without tech workers, there are no alternative food systems without farmers and grocers, there are no new Canadian films without actors and crew, there is no support for artists without funding artists to do their work and paying people to promote and help them out. 

And, within our workplaces, there is no shortage of things we need to fight to improve. We need better pay. We need (better) workplace protections. We need (better) pensions. We need (better) jobs.

Canadians spend an average of 36.6 hours every week at work. When we imagine the biggest and boldest ideas for the future, if they don’t explicitly consider how working people could or should be involved, we relegate our social change to those of us with the privilege of jobs that let us fight for social change for pay, or those of us who have the money and time to volunteer.

This is extremely isolating. If our best ideas for the future of Canada can’t loop in workers in an intersectional way that respects the other identities they hold, our campaigns will have no future.

There are radical ways in which we can change our workplaces, but there are also important and mundane ones too. From the fight for a $15 minimum wage, to protecting survivors of domestic assault from losing their jobs, from building workers’ power through coops or traditional labour movement structures, to the possibilities that emerge when we consider using strikes as a tactic to force governments to keep their promises to Indigenous people and their communities, we must not forget the powerful role that work plays in all of our lives.

Nora Loreto is a writer and political blogger. She's the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media.

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