Recently, a combined project was started by multiple organizations in Peterborough to help combat the biggest problem facing the city—unemployment. With Peterborough having an unemployment rate of 9.8%, the second highest in Canada, this is a problem that has been ignored for far too long.
An ailing manufacturing industry has greatly contributed to this but even the available jobs do not provide any comfort as many people are working in unsuitable conditions with ineffectual wages.
Arthur caught up with Matt Davidson, one of the organizers of the Peterborough Workers Action Centre (WAC) to discuss the major causes of this problem and how they may help solve them.
What is the main mission of the WAC?
It is an initiative born out of the reality of employment in Peterborough right now, where there is a city with a lot of unemployment and a lot of the available work being what we call “precarious work.” People are working short-term contracts or part-time, often at very low wages, because it is the only sort of employment available. We want to create a space where people can assert their rights to have a safe workplace and dignified employment. It is an initiative to start developing training for people so they can assert those rights, as well as provide resources so that when people have a problem at work they know what actions they can put forth themselves or through legal means.
What obstacles have you faced so far?
I wouldn’t really say we have had too many issues yet, but it is pretty slow going when you are trying to start something up. We have had one public event so far back in February where we had the coordinator of the Toronto Action Centre come down to talk to us about the idea behind workers’ action centres. We got really good feedback from that event so now it is all about moving forward.
Is the Peterborough Action centre affiliated with the one in Toronto?
No. It is completely independent. It is a joint project of numerous organizations in Peterborough. The New Canadian Centre, United Way, Peterborough Social Planning Council, [Ontario Public Interest Research Group] (OPIRG), and the Peterborough Health Unit. At this point there is no other funding coming in; it is just about what resources we have from the grassroots level here in our community. However, a lot of moral support and advice from people elsewhere has been very helpful as well.
What obstacles do you anticipate in the future?
I think the biggest obstacle is going to be our current economy. We are seeing reluctance in the government to put through policies that would make things better for workers. The Ontario government has stalled on issues such as raising the minimum wage. The current minimum wage is about 19% below what a proper living wage would be. In the federal government there are constant attacks upon workers’ rights across the board. Given that political situation and an economy that still does not have enough jobs, that is the biggest obstacle. But it is also the reason why we are doing this.
Which group of workers do you think will most need the Centre?
I think the people we are hoping to work with are people who work in precarious labour-type jobs. …We do not have one specific group we are targeting, but people working in retail and people working in the fast food are both really good examples. They are both working minimum wage, have no control over the work place, even in things as simple as scheduling. People working on short-term contracts also do not get much job security. They may be able to live quite well, but then the contract ends and then nothing.
That is one segment where workers action makes sense. Not coincidentally, most of these jobs are filled by students who are trying to stay out of debt and pay for school, but are finding that the only places that they can find work are these jobs, where it does not matter whether you have exams. You have to make a choice between going to school and going to work. For this reason I think the Action Centre is relevant to a lot of people living in Peterborough.
How are you planning to reach out to these groups of people?
The model that the WAC uses is that it is not the Centre doing the direct outreach. It is not about us telling people what they should be doing. It’s about us providing resources so that people can assert themselves where ever they happen to be in their different jobs. Working at Walmart is not the same situation as working in a bar downtown or working at a gas station. We want to provide support for people so they can go back and start organizing their own initiatives at their work places. We will be advertising through Facebook and disseminating through different agencies such as OPIRG, but at this point it is about general information and general outreach.
Less than half of the Peterborough population is fully employed. How does the WAC intend to improve job security here?
We want to put pressure on our different levels of government to create conditions that promote job security. Our politicians are falling all over themselves welcoming things like call centre-type jobs. The other day it was announced that there were 50 new call centre jobs in the area. Anyone who has worked in a call centre knows that there is no job security there and a lot of people get stuck there because it is the only way they can pay the bills. Politicians are scrambling after these jobs instead of going after the jobs that can provide proper job security. Things like the minimum wage rising would also give people a little more security. We are working to pull together statistics to show how dire the situation is because we do not believe that all the numbers we are being told about the situations are quite what it seems.
You mentioned how politicians are scrambling for jobs that offer no real job security. What jobs do you think would be able to offer this?
Peterborough used to have a really strong manufacturing base. It was a heavy industry town and with that came a history of workers struggle and unionization that has bottomed out since NAFTA came into place. Instead, Peterborough has been positioning itself for a more service oriented type jobs and a strong economy obviously needs to have a diversity of all of these things. We need to have diverse jobs and set standards for all our jobs.
Some may argue that there has to be a trade off between employment and proper working conditions. If minimum wage rises then cost of production also rises driving many firms out of business. What is your opinion on this? Do you think they can co-exist?
Absolutely! If it can’t exist what does that say about the type of economy we have right now. If we are saying it cant exist then we need to ask why because the economy should be structured for the people living and working in it, not for the people benefiting off of our backs.
However, I do think it can co-exist partly because we have no other choice short of changing our economy. If you look at it, the people who are demanding that we take on more dangerous working conditions and lower wages are the people who are already reaping millions in profits and taking million dollar bonuses in the same year they are laying off half their workforce. They are the people whose reckless actions on Wall St. and Bay St. caused the financial crisis in the first place. They are the ones telling us we all need to tighten our belts. If we all need to then they should as well, and that is not happening.
Also, if we look to history, the Ford Motor company was able to grow and become profitable by paying their workers decently because they realized that if they didn’t their workers would not be able to buy the things that they produced, and then there would be no market for it. So stronger incomes for every one now will lead to an ability for every one to spend more and support our economy.
Given the extremity of the situation the Centre could not have come at a better time. Hopefully with an open space to for people to communicate and share experiences these problems can be solved.