Low-wage workers organizing in Newfoundland
Mark Nichols is an organizer with the Workers’ Action Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, which brings together workers in low-wage, precarious jobs to support each other and to fight collectively for decent work for all. Scott Neigh interviews him about what low-wage work looks like in Newfoundland and about the network.
In the mid and late 2010s, lots of Canadian jurisdictions saw campaigns waged under some variant of the slogan “Fight for $15,” all of which aimed to raise their respective minimum wages, and some of which had broader reforms in their sights as well. The results of these campaigns were uneven across the country, and often the increases that they won were smaller and slower than low-wage workers wanted and needed. But, nonetheless, many made important gains. More recently, workers and their supporters in many places have been shifting to a more general focus, and it is in the context of this broad movement of workers’ centres, solidarity networks, and other organizations that exist beyond (but often in relation with) the formal labour movement that the Workers’ Action Network NL situates itself.
Nichols’ journey to being an organizer has been a long one. He joined the Canadian military right out of high school and had a 20-year career. Over that time, he started learning a lot about social injustice, and when he left the military he studied to become an Anglican priest. In the decade and a half that he served in parishes, work in support of social and environmental justice became more and more a part of his ministry – to the point that when he left his last parish, he decided to find a way to devote himself more fully to being, as he put it, “in the trenches” of such struggles. That took a few different forms, including a nine-month stint working for the minimum wage campaign in Newfoundland, but by late 2021 he was hired to be one of two initial organizers of the Workers’ Action Network NL.
Historically, Newfoundland’s minimum wage has usually been among the lowest in Canada, though minimum wage campaigns have made some slow progress, and it is scheduled to finally reach $15/hour in a little over a year. Low-wage workers in Newfoundland are concentrated in the food service, hospitality, and retail sectors, and they face much the same struggles as in the rest of the country – everything from getting paid too little to live on, to unpredictable and often last-minute scheduling, to arbitrary and unfair treatment from employers, to many different forms of wage theft. According to Nichols, basic labour protections in the province are inadequate in many ways, and far too often employers run roughshod over those protections that do nominally exist and rarely face consequences.
According to Nichols, Newfoundland tends to oscillate between Liberal and Conservative provincial governments, and “we’ve always basically had a neoliberal pro-business government, whichever party has been in power.” He pointed to Premier Danny Williams, who served between 2007 and 2010, as something of an “exception”, but he said that other than that, “I’ve never seen a government take serious action to improve the lot of workers in this province. Businesses are cared for first, and we just do some performative stuff for the benefit of workers after.” He added, “My feeling, my personal view here, is that we haven’t had governments who’ve really cared about the plight of low-wage workers in this province.”
When the labour/community coalition Common Front NL decided to found the Workers’ Action Network, they also had in mind the fact that employers have plenty of organizations allowing them to intervene in the political life of Newfoundland, and around 40% of workers in the province have a union, but the most vulnerable workers have to this point had little collective voice.
After Nichols and digital organizer Sara Moriarity were hired in November 2021, the first step was to do research. That included developing a very detailed understanding of relevant law and regulation in the province, in part to produce the new network’s website and other resources, as well as learning about what workers’ centres and solidarity networks do in other jurisdictions.
The network launched in February 2022. Its key priorities so far have been outreach and education work. The outreach has included lots of online and social media efforts, and an ongoing online survey to learn about the experiences and needs of low-wage workers in Newfoundland. As the pandemic has gradually eased somewhat, they have been participating more and more in offline community events, and have plans to be present on many postsecondary campuses in September and to make visits around the province in the near future. The core of their education work is “know your rights” workshops, which have largely been held online so far but, again, will be increasingly happening offline in the future.
Nichols emphasized that the network is not a union. “Some of the workers that we would be reaching out to and trying to organize, they may indicate that they would like to actually unionize their workplace. We don’t do that. But we would put them in touch with those who can help them with that. We’re really here about organizing workers outside of that collective bargaining context.”
However, the network has some capacity to support individual workers who are pursuing complaints via official processes. As well, in the spirit of modelling solidarity, they regularly take part in picket lines of unionized workers that are striking. And in terms of campaign work, they are supporting an initiative from the St. John’s Status of Women Council demanding proactive provincial pay equity legislation, as well as a local version of a campaign being led by the Ontario-based Decent Work and Health Network for paid sick days for low-wage workers.
The exact details of how the network will grow and evolve are still uncertain, in part because they are very committed to making sure that it is worker-driven. Nichols said, “Outreach and educating workers … take up a lot of our time right now. But over time, as we organize, as we build that critical mass of workers, there will be a fleshing out of our work.” It is a key priority for them to eventually have the network governed by a board consisting entirely of workers. Nichols said they are hoping to be part of efforts to acquire space that they can share with allied organizations, which will greatly facilitate their ability to host in-person events and bring workers together to build the network.
Nichols has been particularly keen to learn from organizations like the Workers Action Centre in Toronto about how to orient the network as a movement organization. He said, “It’s very easy to slip into being a service organization or an advocacy organization. And it’s not that we don’t provide a service, or that we don’t advocate on behalf of workers. It’s just that we’re very, very focused on making sure that this is a worker-driven organization.”
They have not yet formulated specific demands for improving labour standards in the province, but Nichols expects that will happen, probably in the not-too-distant future. In the longer term, he dreams of things like developing the capacity to take direct action against wage theft – he is particularly inspired by the work of the Naujawan Support Network in Ontario’s Peel Region – as well as a major public education campaign and a broader movement demanding labour law reform.
Nichols said, “To every worker in Newfoundland and Labrador who’s in low-wage or unstable jobs, and you’re looking at how difficult your situation is, how you’re treated at work – the one thing that we want you to know is it doesn’t have to be this way. Oftentimes, your rights are being violated. And there’s courses of redress that you can take, and we can help you with that. But also, there’s rights you should have, but you don’t have. And if we come together and build this community of low-wage workers across the province, we will have a loud collective voice to push government to make those changes to labour standards legislation. It doesn’t have to be this way, the way it is right now. We can change it. But it’s only in solidarity with one another that we will be able to change it.”
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
Image: By Tania Heath and used with permission of the Workers’ Action Network NL.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter