Solidarity in Deed: Poor People's Organizations, Unions, and the Politics of Antipoverty Work in Ontario
This article explores the possibilities and challenges of building working-class solidarity by offering an anthropological perspective on the relationships between poor workers’ organizations and formal trade unions in Ontario, Canada. I examine two community-based, poor people's organizations, ACORN Canada and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, in order to document their recent struggles and examine the nature of their linkages with labor unions. The intersections of poor workers’ organizations and unions illustrate key ways solidarity can be and is being put into practice, but also suggest the need for broadening and deepening how solidarity is understood and pursued given the material conditions of poverty and poor people, and the current cultural and ideological terrain.
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Although largely absent from mainstream political culture in Canada, the concept of solidarity is like oxygen for unionists. Solidarity emphasizes workers’ connectedness and the need for collaboration and support, even when the specific sites, emphases, or actors vary. Solidarity is at once an idea, a feeling, a motivator, an aspiration, and a social force.
Solidarity is never automatic or assured, however. It is actively and consciously produced by workers and their organizations forging common cause. Thus, the ways solidarity is put into practice vary. Moreover, the lived experiences of labor politics can challenge, deepen, or reshape how solidarity is understood and practiced. Anthropologists have long had an interest in shedding light on the relationships among work, political consciousness, and individual and collective action (see, Nash 1979; Sider 1989; Menzies 1992, 2002; Gill 2000; Dunk 2003). Much of the recent anthropological research on work has centered on the connections among workers’ ideas, organizing, and political action across ethnographic sites (see Griffith 2009; J. Fisher 2010; Karjanen 2010), including the challenges of fostering solidarity in neoliberal contexts of material and cultural competition and disaggregation (Durrenberger and Erem 2005; Duke et al. 2010; Kingsolver 2010). This article contributes to the discussion by exploring the challenges and possibilities of building solidarity within the working class by considering the relationships between poor workers’ organizations and formal trade unions in Ontario, Canada.
When Marx (in Tucker 1978:4) argued that it is workers’ “social being that determines their consciousness,” he was not suggesting an automatic and deterministic relationship between what work is performed and how social actors think. Instead, he was asserting the importance of understanding how workers’ material conditions and consciousness relate. More recently, Gavin Smith (1989, 1999) has emphasized the need for anthropologists to examine how forms of livelihood relate to social actors’ political identities and action, and how forms of collective action are produced in historically specific places and moments. In other words, labor, understood as a social process, can inform, challenge, and remake workers’ vision of the socioeconomic realm. In a necessarily reciprocal fashion, workers’ understandings affect how they choose to act, for what goals, and with whom.
Actors are differently positioned in socially and historically constructed socioeconomic relations and, of course, engage in different kinds of work. These conditions affect the types of power and capital available to them. Poor people do not possess substantial economic capital or power, but, nevertheless, they demonstrate agency through everyday acts of resistance (Scott 1985; Clark 1998), and through concerted, sustained, collective action of different kinds. There is a great need to capture and better understand the collective action of poor workers, in my view. This article offers a small anthropological contribution to such a project, one focusing on the relationships between poor workers’ organizations and formal labor unions, and what these dynamics reveal about the potential for fostering and sustaining working-class solidarity.
I combine and analyze data from participant observation in antipoverty and labor struggles in Ontario, interviews with antipoverty organizers, and documentary sources produced by scholars or workers’ organizations. I begin by untangling the homogenizing category “poor people” and consider how poverty relates to work and understandings of who is a worker. Next, I move into a discussion of two poor people's organizations, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and ACORN Canada. After outlining the goals, methods, and structures of these two organizations, I reflect on what the cases reveal about the shape of labor-poor worker linkages. I seek to understand what contributes to the building and maintaining of solidarity between different kinds of working-class organizations, thus also consider the tensions that have emerged due to differences in ideology and the forms of political action pursued. I argue that the relations between poor workers’ organizations and unions illustrate key ways solidarity can be and is being put into practice, but also suggest that there is a need to broaden and deepen how solidarity is understood and pursued given the material conditions of poverty and poor people, and the cultural and ideological terrain of the contemporary neoliberal context.
Ontario has the largest economy in Canada and the highest provincial population at 12 million people (Statistics Canada 2009). Historically, Ontario has been a manufacturing hub with much unionized employment in steel, automotive, and pulp and paper, as well as good-paying public sector union jobs in government, health, education, and so forth. About 30 percent of Canadian workers are union members (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada 2009). Nevertheless, over the last 30 years, the poverty rate has been as high as 18 percent and never dropped below 9 percent (Novick 2011). Currently, about 1.6 million people in Ontario, or 12.5 percent of the population, live below the low-income cutoff measure used by Statistics Canada (Campaign 2000 2010). Six hundred thousand manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2003 (Tulloch 2011) and low-wage, precarious, contingent work is increasing (Winson and Leach 2002; Vosko 2006; Law Commission of Ontario 2010; Coulter 2011).
All poor people are united by the fact that their earnings are inadequate, although the specific reasons for their poverty vary. Unemployment is a key cause of poverty. Since 1976, the unemployment rate in Canada has fluctuated between 6 percent and 12 percent, with even higher rates for young workers (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada 2011). In other words, even at the best of times, 6 percent of Canadian workers will be unable to find waged work. Underemployment also causes poverty when workers are unable to find waged work which is full-time and/or year-round and sufficient to meet their subsistence needs. Poverty-wage employment is another source of poverty. For these workers, even if they are able to find full-time, year-round work, their minimum-wage earnings do not lift them above poverty levels. Thus, even paid employment itself is not necessarily an escape from poverty. Inadequate fixed incomes, such as disability benefits, social assistance, unemployment insurance, or old age security payments, also lead to poverty. Moreover, many workers find upon being laid off that they are unable to collect the employment insurance for which they paid (Canadian Auto Workers n.d.). Poverty is not a static, monolithic category or state of existence, and it can become a reality at any stage of a worker's life. Elucidating these different causes of poverty reminds us that the poor are not homogeneous, nor are the causes of poverty singular. At the same time, they all result from social, economic, and political inequities in the current class system.
Putting the spotlight on poverty and poor people challenges us to think about how work and workers are conceptualized. Some antipoverty organizers with whom I spoke avoid the term “poor people,” opting instead for the concepts “low-income workers” or people. Certain anthropologists (e.g., Marcus 2005) and antipoverty activists (e.g., Clarke 2002) critique approaches that disconnect poor people from the realm of waged workers and social inequality, insisting instead on a class-based understanding. At the same time, by incorporating unpaid social reproductive labor (e.g., Bezanson 2006) into our understanding of work, it can easily and convincingly be argued that all poor people are workers. In this vein, welfare recipients have pushed to be taken seriously by labor unions, often enlisting the argument that every mother is a working mother, but also emphasizing the mandated labor required by workfare schemes, or their identities as unemployed workers (e.g., Tait 2007). Many have argued that the separation of the poor from the category of working class and the exclusion of poor people from class-based representative organizations have exacerbated social divisions and stigmatization, inhibited organizing, and contributed to the further weakening of social policy by constructing it as targeted rather than universal, and disconnected rather than integral to the lives of most people (e.g., Groff 1997). While recognizing the poor as part of the working class, differential experiences, intersectionality, and/or local specificities should not be neglected. For example, even among social assistance recipients, the unpaid workloads of single mothers with young children are more substantial, and this should be recognized (Little 2001).
Consequently, in this paper, I use both the terms “poor workers” and “poor people,” with supplementary specifications as required, to capture differences as well as commonalities. Moreover, we need to think not only about the politics of language but about material realities – and how social relations and practices shape understandings and political action.
Poor People's Organizations – Understanding OCAP
I focus on two community-based organizations comprised primarily of poor people: ACORN Canada (hereafter ACORN) and the OCAP. Without seeking to create a rigid dichotomy or to oversimplify, I suggest that in addition to being two main vehicles for poor people's organizing in Ontario, these organizations exemplify two of the dominant streams or models of poor people's organizing in North America overall. OCAP pursues mass protest and disruptive action, the strategies that Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1979) argue are the most effective for poor people. ACORN draws on the organizing model promoted by ACORN founder Wade Rathke (2009), which centers on building community-based and driven organizations of low- and moderate-income people. Such an approach is comparable to the poor workers’ unions promoted by Vanessa Tait (2005:16), sites where “mobilization and institutionalization can coexist.” These are not formally recognized trade unions, nor are they centered on a particular workplace or employment sector. Instead, they are rooted in neighborhoods. “Since poor people's livelihoods commonly fluctuate between earning wages and receiving welfare or unemployment benefits, their labor activism almost always concerns itself with more than just workplace issues” (Tait 2005:11). I will examine each organization and outline its relations with formal trade unions, then reflect on what these cases reveal about the politics of solidarity and antipoverty work.
Unemployed workers’ unions in London and Toronto, Ontario, created OCAP in 1990. The organization is firmly rooted in Toronto, but simultaneously fosters and supports specific and broader antipoverty and antiracist struggles (Ontario Coalition against Poverty n.d.). While Piven and Cloward (1979) discourage the formation of formal organizations, suggesting that they can demobilize poor people and institutionalize dissent, OCAP has an executive, a small staff paid a very modest wage, and regular meetings, but no mandatory membership fees or attendance. As such, it is difficult to know how many people are members; although in 2005, estimates were between 200 and 300 (Greene 2005). Moreover, many people will turn to OCAP for help when under extreme economic duress or in crisis. People involved with OCAP are motivated by economic necessity, support for the organization's goals and methods, or because members provided essential and appreciated assistance and interventions. Historically, the national offices of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), and Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario (CUPE) made major, annual financial contributions to OCAP. A number of union locals also provided donations (Greene 2005).
OCAP is an explicitly antipoverty, anticapitalist organization which focuses on organizing, direct action casework, and other kinds of mobilization (Feltes 2001; Shantz 2002). The identities of poor people and their experiences of oppression are accepted, given legitimacy, and used as motivation to build collective resistance. In many ways, OCAP fosters an explicitly lower-working-class consciousness – whether people are presently engaged in waged work or not – and seeks not to make a moral case to those in power, but rather to unapologetically and boldly emphasize the rights of poor people. The organization's analysis is rooted in class conflict and its goals are decidedly transformative. As organizer John Clarke puts it:
If the working class is reaching such a level of polarization and a section of it is experiencing such misery and privation, we are in a profoundly dangerous situation. It is this that prompts OCAP to bypass the politics of futile indignation and token protest and to build a massively disruptive form of social resistance which can actually stop the attacks and induce a political crisis. [Clarke 2002:384]
A key strategy driving OCAP is the need to support and defend poor people while linking their individual situations to larger social inequities, power structures, and economic injustices. The idea of direct action casework is a clear example of this strategy, and the organization will use the individual crisis of a person or family as motivation for organizing and mobilizing a larger group to directly intervene, whether at a welfare office to prevent the denial of payment or a place of residence to stop an eviction or deportation. The individual case is to be conceptually and literally connected to the policies and processes that caused it, and OCAP activists argue that they are successful in halting or correcting the individual case about 80 percent of the time.
OCAP gained prominence in the mid to late 1990s as it fought against the neoliberal policies of the provincial Conservative government through various protests and marches, squats, mass panhandles, the establishment of tent cities, and other direct actions. They successfully defended many poor individuals and families, and won tangible expansion of provisions for shelter from Toronto's municipal government, in particular. At the same time, OCAP has supported union members in their struggles. For example, OCAP activists assisted with a CUPW day of protest at a mail distribution center in defense of two postal workers, providing essential unpaid activist labor that helped block bosses from entering the station, while allowing all workers and the general public through (Dominick 1999).
OCAP continues to respond to contemporary material conditions of poverty and challenge the systemic causes of inequality (Clarke 2009). Their ongoing actions include confronting individual cases of eviction, deportation, and welfare denial, and supporting First Nations struggles, working in particular with Tyendinaga Mohawks (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty 2007). OCAP and other antipoverty activists uncovered and promoted a hidden legislative clause which affords a special diet allowance for social assistance recipients, an additional payment of $250 per month to fund food and foster better nutrition, if deemed medically necessary. OCAP organized medical clinics where poor people could be assessed by a doctor to determine if they were eligible for the special diet allowance, which succeeded in garnering additional, tangible benefits for hundreds of poor people. Simultaneously, OCAP consistently challenges dominant economic processes and institutions through various means including boisterous demonstrations of poor people and their allies, where banners can be seen that read “Capitalism is Broken” and “No War but the Class War.”
The provincial Conservative government's reign (1995 to 2003) was a particularly significant time for OCAP. Between 1995 and 1998, massive Days of Action were organized across the province by labor unions, antipoverty organizations, and other members of civil society to demonstrate against the government's agenda, which targeted working-class rights and organizations. The Conservatives cut welfare payments by 21.6 percent, substantially reduced public housing, froze the minimum wage and disability allowances for the full 8 years, laid off thousands of public sector workers, retracted employment equity legislation, tightened the rules for union organizing, eliminated agricultural workers’ right to unionize completely, and ushered in many other neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation (see Ralph et al. 1997; Leach 2002). Various strikes took place as well, including one by Ontario's teachers, who engaged in the largest education workers’ job action in the history of North America against restructuring legislation, which, despite their efforts, ultimately passed (Bedard and Lawton 1998). These demonstrations of resistance were formidable, but multiunion, mass actions like the Days of Action were not expanded or even sustained. OCAP was frustrated by what the activists saw as union demobilization. At a social justice event which explored the question “What is radical?” OCAP organizer Sue Collis silenced the room when she angrily declared: “The right is radical. Five hundred thousand kids in poverty in Ontario is radical. The right is radical, but the resistance is nowhere near radical.”
Thus, in 2001, seeking to sustain and build the resistance commenced years prior, OCAP and other members of the newly formed Ontario Common Front organized a series of events targeting the Conservative government, and called for a fall season of economic disruption to amplify the fight back (Clarke 2002). Members of the CAW “flying squads” (groups of mobile, activist unionists) and union locals increasingly supported the call for increased agitation. They attended many of OCAP's events to show solidarity through physical support with the poor people being particularly hard hit by the Conservatives’ policies. In June, Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was “evicted” from his constituency office in Whitby by OCAP members who sought to both single out the politician with significant economic power over millions of people's lives, and theatrically illustrate the impact of an eviction, something so many poor people were being forced to confront. This resulted in damage to some of his office furniture, and members of OCAP were, of course, arrested as a result of the action.
This incident was cited by the national CAW leadership as reason for the termination of financial support for OCAP.
Actions that are designed to encourage or create violence and or destruction of property are not consistent with the CAW's commitment to social unionism. The CAW prides itself on its commitment to militant, non-violent and non-destructive actions in defense of its members and their families, as well as those in our society who live in poverty. [Canadian Auto Workers 2001:n.p.]
At that moment, the union asserted ongoing support for a very different kind of antipoverty work, one focused not on mobilizing poor people but rather on servicing them:
This decision does not indicate a lack of concern or a withdrawal of support for people living in poverty. On the contrary, the CAW will increase its support for the homeless through other agencies like Eva's Phoenix – an initiative to aid youth in getting off the streets. The CAW is also actively involved with the United Way helping them to raise funds to assist people living in poverty. [Canadian Auto Workers 2001:n.p.]
OCAP organizer John Clarke (2002) believes that this elimination of funding – and overall support – was not due to the destruction of office equipment, but rather because of opposition by the CAW leadership to OCAP's more ambitious plans for escalating economic disruption. The CAW's annual donation had been the largest OCAP received and was essential to their ongoing operations, so its loss was serious. In a letter sent to then CAW President Buzz Hargrove, OCAP organizer Sue Collis (2001) articulated her organization's position on political action, poverty, and solidarity.
OCAP holds a reputation for responding to issues in a degree proportionate to the seriousness of any given situation. This has led us to develop a system where we are able to address the day-to-day realities of poverty our constituents experience. Through what we term “direct action casework,” we are able to successfully resolve disputes by avoiding the lengthy delays of reviews, appeals and tribunals that often mean the difference between maintaining housing, or being forced onto the streets. This tactic, we feel, is justified by the urgent and immediate needs of the people we represent and the consequences they face without our intervention … CAW members have shared in these successes and have had an important hand in helping to stop many cruel and unjust deportations in the last year. I believe also, that they [the CAW members] have been profoundly touched by the circumstances, terrible risk and courage of the parents and children they have met. Notwithstanding this success, as caseworkers, we have become aware of a tremendous increase in the number of cases, and personal experiences of tragedy and indignity. It has been resolved, through our membership, that the mandate of the organization must be to seek resolution to the policies and legislation that gives rise to these circumstances, and not simply increase the numbers of caseworkers proportionately to the results of government cutbacks.
It is this second mandate of the organization that has led to the call for a “fall campaign of economic disruption” against the Harris Government. The last six years in Ontario have been characterized by policy after policy causing dramatic, widespread and increasing hardship. In this context, the resistance that people are forced to take up becomes equally more pitched. This situation calls for the development of politically sophisticated actions and campaigns that seek to substantially change and improve people's lives rather than simply register our dissent. When allies are involved, as with the fall campaign, a broader coalition is formed to assess the situation and to troubleshoot potential conflicts and outcomes. I acknowledge your justified concerns surrounding the action in Whitby, and specifically the references made with regards to CAW involvement. At a recent meeting, OCAP organizers, myself included, apologized to the staffers, flying squad leaders and members present surrounding the CAW association to OCAP and the press release issued and I am extending that same regret to you.
From this meeting, it was made clear that larger, more involved actions, require the greatest amount of care and consultation with our allies and we will continue to welcome that input from all levels with the broader struggle … To clarify any misunderstandings, the organizers and members of OCAP do not take pleasure in engaging in actions such as that in Whitby, but see it as a necessity, given the very real daily lives of those looking for help. Leading up to Whitby, three women in four days, from an Indian Reserve hung themselves, just prior to the community asking for our help. The last death was that of a 12 year old girl who took her own life because she had not eaten in days and had no real belief that her situation would change.
In these circumstances, I will not denounce the actions taken in Whitby, but rather present them for your consideration. I do not expect that this will serve as a basis for the CAW to change its decision with respect to funding, however, given our long relationship of involvement in each others struggle, I thought it appropriate and respectful to provide you with the real circumstances to this particular action and to thank the board for its past financial support.
In the letter, Collis is attempting to convey the severity of the poverty with which OCAP deals regularly, likely cognizant of the fact that while the union leadership is sympathetic to experiences of poverty, they are not forced to directly confront its graphic realities on a daily basis. She uses the material conditions of extremely poor people's lives under the Conservative regime as explanation for the organization's approach and tactics. In other words, Collis is trying both to address the specifics of the Flaherty eviction and to demonstrate the brutality poor people were confronting in order to explain and contextualize the impetus for OCAP's form of political action. She also recognizes the challenges of working in coalition with organizations pursuing different strategies, and identifies a willingness to engage in greater dialogue in order to sustain relations of solidarity. In this case, she was also seeking solidarity that could be expressed through ongoing financial support. Her attempt was not successful.
A fissure had been growing between an increasingly militant OCAP and many unions, and the divisions were often expressed publicly. A few months before the eviction action, the Ontario Conservative Party held its annual convention in Toronto. The Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL), the provincial labor union umbrella organization, organized a protest at the site of the convention, rather than bolstering the nearby OCAP march that had been planned in advance. After the OFL's rally had ended, OCAP activists arrived at the convention site surrounded by substantial police presence. OCAP organizer John Clarke (2002) accused the unions of deliberate betrayal, pulling no punches, and suggesting that the protest was organized deliberately at a time and place that would prevent labor activists from participating in OCAP's march and leaving poor people vulnerable to police repression. The termination of the CAW's financial support was another visible marker of division, and one with more lasting material effects for OCAP. I will revisit union-OCAP relations in the concluding section and consider what the case exposes about the politics of antipoverty work.
Poor People's Organizations – Understanding ACORN
Labor unions today provide more support to another poor workers’ organization, ACORN. ACORN has been growing since its founding in 2004 in Toronto and now has chapters in Hamilton and Ottawa in Ontario and in Vancouver on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia. ACORN membership is community-rooted rather than workplace-centered, and grounded in neighborhoods with a high percentage of low-income residents, although the discursive focus is not explicitly on “poor people.” ACORN is self-defined as an organization for low- and moderate-income people which builds people's and communities’ power, and its current slogan is “Uniting Communities for Justice” (ACORN Canada n.d.). Yet individual members will self-define as poor and assert their income insecurity publicly through rally signs such as “Living paycheque to paycheque – living wages now.”
Organizers are paid modest wages. They build membership by knocking on doors and asking residents questions about what the biggest local concerns are. Hamilton organizer James Wardlaw (2010) explained the process:
[I'll say] “I'm working with some of your neighbours making some changes in the neighborhood. Some people are concerned with X, Y, Z …” Crime in the area, the costs of housing, utilities, whatever those three issues are … We are always looking for new issues and trying to find out what people are really fired up about. People will sort of latch on to one of the issues that we've said, or all three, or they'll have some issue of their own. And then we'll ask if we can sit down for five minutes and talk to them about how to solve the problem. About half the time, people are going to sit down with an organizer and have that conversation. Then we'll ask what the [main] problem is, to make sure that we're talking about the thing that they're most passionate about. What they want to see changed, and what they understand the solution of the problem to be – and then, who the target is, who is responsible for making that change, so the landlord, or the politician, or the corporation. And then we'll ask about getting from A to B, forcing that target to implement that change, if they'll identify what it's going to take. And the answer is, almost invariably “a lot of people.” And we ask them if they want to be a part of that, and then we ask them if they want to join ACORN.
The recruitment conversation is seen as crucial by organizers, and is clearly a form of consciousness-raising through inquiry and a push for heightened involvement. Members of ACORN pay monthly dues – generally between $10 and $30 per month – and elect local executives. Organizers facilitate the work mandated by the executive and membership, but are adamant that the members own and run the organization. The few staff organizers are paid a modest wage. They do much of the labor of membership building, material production, and fundraising, and provide the political framework, but the content and specific local pursuits are driven by the members. ACORN emphasizes a campaign-based and action-oriented organizing impetus, focused on an issue of high priority for community residents and on building momentum. Wardlaw (2010) explains: “An organizer I knew said once that there were two rules at an ACORN meeting. One is that staff don't talk, and the other is that members have to plan something. In our meetings there has to be something that moves the campaign forward, so an action has to be planned … Actions are the lifeblood of this organization.”
The actions differ depending on the particular neighborhood and membership base. This highlights the importance of the local, and the intersections between the public and private spheres for driving political action within the organization. But the targets can be multileveled, and cross-sectoral. Recent or current examples include targeting an individual or corporate landlord to undertake building repairs; pushing local government for infrastructure improvement or polling stations inside apartment buildings; and campaigning for landlord licensing, inclusive zoning, affordable housing, or the regulation of high-interest lending institutions (ACORN Canada n.d.). Recently, ACORN partnered with the Toronto Environmental Alliance to engage low-income renters in energy conservation programs and train tenant leads to engage their neighbors (Marshall et al. 2010). This partnership focused on community development and the integration of environmental consciousness, rather than the explicit targeting of an inequity or the structural causes of environmental degradation, but is nevertheless a noteworthy new chapter for both antipoverty organizing and environmental activism.
The organization counts tangible changes including increased regulation of the payday lending agency to million dollar investments in repairs and low-income housing as well as the building of community power as victories (Duncan 2010). ACORN has also played a pivotal role in living-wage campaigns and coalitions across Canada (Lemieux 2009). ACORN was integral to the broad-based coalition of labor unions and other progressive groups that succeeded in winning a historic introduction of a living-wage policy by the New Westminster City council in British Columbia, the first in Canada (ACORN Canada 2010). The collaboration among the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, ACORN, other progressive groups, and the social democratic New Democratic Party (including an unexpected by-election victory in 2007 centered largely on the minimum wage) is credited with forcing the current Ontario Liberal government to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour (e.g., Schwartz 2009). It had been frozen between 1995 and 2003 under the Conservatives, like social assistance and disability benefits, and had only seen minimal increases since the 2003 election of the Liberals. Although the minimum wage is now frozen again, and well below the rate calculated as a living wage (Mackenzie and Stanford 2008), the campaign meant a small increase in income for poor workers, and demonstrated the potential of multiorganizational solidarity and direct collaboration.
Given that many organizations in Ontario and around North America (Karjanen 2010) are focusing on publicly mandated living wages as a means to reduce low-wage worker poverty, the strategy makes sense. Such campaigns are a central way labor unions and poor, nonunionized workers collaborate in Ontario today, in a sustained demonstration of solidarity. The multipronged and multileveled approach allows both independence and cooperation, with organizations contributing in ways which draw on their resources and strengths. It is undoubtedly an effective way to approach social change. Labor unions are playing a role in promoting living wages for all workers, particularly low-wage workers who are without the protection and benefits of a union at their place of work.
Overall, ACORN is an example of a community union (see Cranford and Ladd 2003; Black 2005) and a poor workers’ union (Tait 2005). There is no workplace to use as a focal organizing nexus or unified body of labor to withdraw as a form of resistance. Many members of a community union would not have a union at their place of paid employment if they are engaged in waged labor. Instead, organizing is based on community membership. As such, the approach is clearly well suited to a focus on local issues, locally rooted larger issues, and organizing based on electoral politics. Like some Canadian labor unions, the organization is a distinct national organization, but also a member of ACORN International. There are now national ACORN organizations in 10 countries, both in industrialized nations and across the Global South (ACORN Canada n.d.). ACORN Canada holds firm to the belief that the work needs to be done on the ground with people, and that the members are to control what goes on. As such, the payment of dues is seen as an important political statement, in addition to a needed source of revenue. ACORN National Director Judy Duncan (2010) explains:
If you look at any of these other groups, where the money comes from is what dictates the style and the model that they are using. Having a membership owned and run organization actually enables us to be independent. So, really, it's so important in terms of what our model is.
Despite the collection of dues from approximately 30,000 members in Canadian communities forming the core organizational funding, ACORN also relies on other sources of revenue. The rest of its funding comes from grants from nonprofit foundations, governments, individual donors, and labor unions, but organizers insist that the members ultimately own the organization. Organizers will also occasionally canvass in wealthier neighborhoods to solicit individual donations and report good success with this supplementary, no-strings-attached approach.
Labor unions support ACORN and show solidarity in a range of ways, including with financial contributions, other forms of material support such as the provision of office space, and in collaborative campaigns such as the living-wage initiatives. At the same time, ACORN members provide support to unions, particularly by mobilizing members for demonstrations and other events. Many individual union members, locals, and national offices share a political belief in the need for greater power for low-income people, and support ACORN as a demonstration of solidarity.
Expressions of Solidarity
These two cases provide insights into the construction of solidarity between working-class organizations of different kinds, and the role of ideology and strategy in affecting ruptures and allegiances. So far, the content and tactics of ACORN campaigns share many similarities with labor unions’ own current efforts, even if the organizing and membership-building strategies differ. Direct collaboration on particular campaigns has been pursued. As a result, relationships between ACORN and Canadian labor unions have been characterized by mutual respect and cooperation. Solidarity is expressed discursively and materially.
In contrast, OCAP's relations with unions suggest that were the emphases of ACORN campaigns to extend beyond the shared reformist or social democratic political terrain, and/or were their tactics to become more militant, union support could become less enthusiastic or be withdrawn. OCAP, too, has been openly critical of labor bureaucrats and perceived union conservatism (e.g., Clarke 2002, 2009). However, the Canadian labor movement is not a monolithic body, nor is any one union. OCAP has consistently received financial and political support from CUPE 3903, the local representing teaching and graduate assistants and contract faculty at York University in Toronto, a demonstration of internal union autonomy and a localized form of solidarity. Discussions are also ongoing with other university-based CUPE locals in Ontario where the elected executives share OCAP's analysis and support the organization's strategies and goals.
OCAP chooses not to shy away from the politically unpopular topic of welfare, no doubt due to the large number of their members – and poor people more generally – who are on welfare, and because of the organization's commitment to giving legitimacy to the realities of poverty. Consequently, the organization confronts the inadequacy of payments directly and, in recent years, has been building a “Raise the Rates” campaign, seeking and gaining support from a broad cross section of labor unions, including the Ontario Nurses Association, the Ottawa and District Labour Council, various CUPE locals, and CUPE-Ontario as well. OCAP organizers have been more conciliatory recently, and even the CAW provided a financial contribution to the Raise the Rates campaign in 2011, a promising step after the earlier estrangement (Clarke 2011).
This growing support suggests that more unions are reviving a relationship with OCAP, expressed in particular through targeted material and political support for specific campaigns. The nature of the relations between OCAP and unions is tentative but, simultaneously, a work in progress. OCAP as an organization continues to explicitly call for socioeconomic transformation, and although mobilization remains central to the organization's approach, the bold, militant actions of the early 2000s are less common. However, with a recent rightward shift in the Canadian government and municipal government in Toronto, the material conditions for the poor are likely to worsen. How exactly poor workers and unions respond in such a context is still being determined. The tactical differences and divergent aspirations that have caused certain ruptures historically may resurface as sources or division, or leaders may establish clearer axes of collaboration. The ideologies and agency of union leaders will have an effect on the future of labor-poor worker relations as well. The labor movement has had a widespread shift in elected leadership in the last few years, with some unions shifting left and others right. For their part, overall, labor unions’ agendas have remained reformist and their tactics legal. Internally, great debate is occurring among unions about ideology, goals, and strategy. Consequently, forms of collaboration will likely be worked out, when and where organizations are willing.
Canadian unions have consistently been supporters of broader antipoverty coalitions and organizations advocating for social democratic reforms and concentrating on lobbying, education, and so forth. The organizing of low-wage workers is also central to the political action of some unions, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE-HERE, and such efforts are another kind of antipoverty work. Of the organizations driven by poor people on which this paper focuses, ACORN continues to receive greater support from labor unions. The community union framework used by ACORN is integral to its efforts and certainly mirrors strategies used by ACORN in the United States (Delgado 1986; R. Fisher 2009), and by other poor workers’ organizations (e.g., Lorence 1996; Groff 1997; Goode 2001). Canadian organizers draw proudly from these kinds of traditions, seeing them as the most effective way to resist inequities. The right appears to agree and feel threatened by the approach. In the fall of 2010, ACORN USA was forced to file for bankruptcy after a multifaceted campaign against the organization that included doctored secret video footage, attacks in the right-wing media, and various lawsuits. ACORN USA leader Bertha Lewis (ACORN USA 2011) stated: “ACORN has faced a series of well-orchestrated, relentless, well-funded right wing attacks that are unprecedented since the McCarthy era. Our effective work empowering African American and low-income voters made us a target … For ACORN as a national organization, our vindication on the facts doesn't necessarily pay the bills.”
No doubt that the groundwork laid by decades of poor people's organizing will mean that the communities regroup in another organizational format, but the attacks, too, will likely recommence.
Scholars have identified various forms of intra- and intergroup exclusion, and divisions can be based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, educational level, union membership (or the lack thereof), among other factors (e.g., Dunk 2003; Duke et al. 2010). The right has a long history of creating and disseminating gendered and racialized categories of relative pity, (im)morality, or disdain to describe poor people, and this pattern has continued in the neoliberal present and, arguably, has been amplified (Little 1998; Mayson 1999; Swanson 2001; Kingfisher 2002; Coulter 2009). By producing and reproducing political cultural, popular cultural, and everyday stereotypical notions, the right constructs poor people as flawed, suspect, lazy, criminal, and/or manipulative, while a very small number are heralded as the moral or hardworking exceptions, deserving of charity, or, even better, of celebration as individualized hegemonic success stories. The poor are constructed by the right as a separate and problematic social group, disconnected from working people or “taxpayers.” This is conceptual and discursive work undertaken to promote working-class division, gender and race-based discrimination, competitive individualism, and social hostility, thus facilitate the implementation of right-wing public policy changes and profit accumulation.
Stronger alliances between more powerful sectors of the labor movement and low-income people and their organizations would defend against the isolation and targeting of poor workers (Tait 2005). The ACORN USA case serves as a warning that poor workers’ organizations, even when operating within the mainstream political framework and eschewing militant direct actions and transformational ideology of the OCAP sort, are subject to marginalization and destruction. The idea that poor people may organize and take coordinated action, even if only to pursue modest reforms and basic economic rights, is unacceptable to neoliberals. They recognize that unless checked, co-opted, or appropriated, such collective consciousness and action have the potential to build toward a meaningful shift in the economic and social order.
Of course, poor people are not automatically more militant or transformative than workers with more comfortable material conditions. Some poor people will feel too marginalized and disempowered to resist, or be too busy desperately trying to make ends meet. Poor workers are heterogeneous, and they vary in their analyses, political consciousness, degrees of involvement, and preferred tactics, like the rest of the working class. Yet as these cases and others demonstrate, poor workers organize and pursue collective action of various kinds. The material conditions and political consciousness of poor people coalesce in the formation of organizations rooted in the lived experiences of poverty, and which fit on a continuum between reformist and transformative. To draw from Leach (2002:193),
The local politics of class, historically constituted and always gendered and racialized, include the everyday experiences of workers, the organizational forms with political potential that emerge, and the regulatory framework within which organizations and individuals operate.
Thus, there are different kinds of working people who organize in a range of ways and who can be supported through various means. If the ongoing attack on collective rights and working-class people's livelihoods is going to be curbed, let alone if modest or more substantial social change is going to be achieved, poor workers need to be engaged, organized, and supported in the actions they deem appropriate given their circumstances and the social contexts of poverty. Poor people may, understandably, feel more anger or greater urgency. As a result, they may engage in collective action that differs from or even challenges the approaches of labor unions.
The idea of solidarity, however, tasks workers with trying to understand each others’ contexts and striving to collaborate across gendered and racialized political, conceptual, spatial, and economic terrain. Solidarity does not promote homogeneity, but rather understanding and support despite certain differences. Solidarity points to the connections among working-class people – including those who are unemployed, underemployed, and poorly paid by whatever source. The holistic pursuit of solidarity means promoting public policy that benefits all workers, pursuing the unionization of low-wage workers, and supporting poor people's own modes of organizing. For unions, a commitment to solidarity with poor people's organizations can be demonstrated through material, financial contributions, through partnerships and collaboration, and/or through rhetorical declarations which help explain why poor people fight back. Such public pedagogy provides a counter-narrative to the negative, mainstream constructions of poor people and offers alternative ways to understand and speak about economic exploitation and oppression. Anthropologists, too, are very well positioned to engage in intellectual labor which fosters solidarity, in theory and in deed.