Tag Archives: Canada

Millennial Activists in the Labor Movement: Two Cases from Canada

By Rachel K. Brickner

In March 2018, motivated in large part by a pattern of bounced paychecks, the workers in four locations of the Smiling Goat cafe chain in Halifax, Nova Scotia voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Workers at two other Smiling Goat locations have been unionized since 2013 and 2015, when those cafes—then under the ownership of the Just Us! cafe chain—were part of a barista unionizing campaign that mobilized young, progressive activists and called attention to the employment crisis facing millennial workers.

Unlike more well-known activist movements in which millennials have played an important role, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Dreamers, the Halifax barista union drives focus specific attention on millennials’ experience in the workforce and within the labor movement. And with good reason: millennials are engaged in an economy in which there has been poor median compensation growth since the mid-1980s. And yet, only 5-10% of millennials belong to unions—a factor linked to higher wages and better benefits—despite their support for organized labor and a slight uptick in union drives in workplaces with younger workers.

As Meaghan Dalton and I wrote recently, what was unique and important about the Halifax barista unionizing drives was that they were led mainly by women and LGBTQ workers for whom the general challenges of the precarious employment context were exacerbated by gender-based discrimination, harassment, and marginalization. For example, women spoke of unequal treatment and work assignments. Transgender baristas noted awkward and discriminatory treatment by customers, managers, and staff, as well as the difficulty of finding and changing jobs. It was not surprising, in these baristas’ analysis, that gender queer workers were at the bottom of the working class. The leaders of these drives turned to the SEIU because they thought that belonging to a union could make a positive difference in their employment experience. As one movement leader put it, “there’s not really many [employment] options, but [does] this option also need to be as bad as it is?” Supported by the SEIU, the Baristas Rise Up campaign raised awareness of the baristas’ experiences and mobilized local progressive activist networks and the public behind them. Ultimately, baristas at three of five targeted Halifax cafes voted to unionize.

This case illustrated clearly that issues of identity cannot be neatly separated from economic issues as traditionally understood. As such, Dalton and I argued that it is important for the labor movement to take an intersectional approach, viewing the experiences of workers—and, hence, their motivation for organizing—as crucially linked to their membership in different groups.

While the specific identity aspects of the Halifax baristas’ organizing drive may be unique, their case confirmed some of the obstacles to Millennials’ labour organizing that have been noted by others. For example, given declining rates of unionization, millennial workers do not necessarily know a lot about unions or have experience in the labor movement. The Halifax leaders got their start through personal connections in the SEIU who helped the barista leaders learn the ropes of organizing. It is incumbent on organized labor to reach out to millennial workers and empower them as labor organizers. Unions have come under criticism for being slow to organize young workers, despite precarious employment in the low wage service sector. Although unions are focusing more organizing attention on millennial workers, even one SEIU organizer noted of the Halifax barista union drives, when there is no guarantee of success, “how much resources do we want to put into this campaign in hopes that it will continue to spread?” Additionally, labor laws, procedural requirements, and outright intimidation make unionization difficult. Even when unionization is successful, workers and their unions cannot control the market: in Halifax, four of the five cafes involved in the barista union drives closed or were sold.

The challenges of unionization suggest the importance of alternative organizing models through which millennials can participate in the labor movement. The “$15 and Fairness” campaign in Ontario is one such model. Specifically, $15 and Fairness is a coalition of union and non-union labor activists, health providers, faith groups, campus communities, and migrant workers groups. The coalition took advantage of the provincial government’s call for a “Changing Workplaces Review” to advocate for provincial legislation that would address six key demands: a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, labor protections and rights for all employees, fair scheduling practices, the right to organize and unionize, and respectful workplaces.

Millennials and young workers have been critical to the $15 and Fairness campaign. Campus organizing networks at 14 post-secondary institutions have used awareness raising activities, days of action, lobbying efforts, and strike support to draw attention to the shared work experiences of members of the campus community—low wages, precarious work, poor working conditions, and Islamophobia and other forms of harassment and discrimination. These activities have allowed the networks to build solidarity among students, full- and part-time faculty, and custodial and food service workers. Off campus, unionized and non-unionized millennial workers have used grassroots organizing and face-to-face outreach around the province to call attention to the need for decent work for low wage workers.

Many of the $15 and Fairness campaign’s demands were met in Ontario’s “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act” (Bill 148), which passed in November 2017.

Unions are important for millennial workers, like the Halifax baristas, who want a collective voice in the workplace that will allow them to negotiate better wages, benefits, and working conditions. However, in a political and economic climate where there are significant obstacles to unionization, campaigns like $15 and Fairness create other important avenues for millennial activists to become involved in a more inclusive labor movement. Such campaigns expand the labor movement beyond unionized workers; acknowledge the experiences of workers from marginalized groups, like transgender, indigenous, young, and immigrant/migrant workers; and build coalitions to demand legislation that supports decent work for all.


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What do the ALS ice bucket challenge, Alberta oil, and Leonardo DiCaprio have in common?

10142156Hollywood star, Leonardo DiCaprio, was in Alberta for a new documentary about the environmental impacts of the oilsands (a.k.a. tar sands). He met with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations who have been protesting against developing the oilsands. DiCaprio is among a host of celebrities speaking out against the oilsands. Others include Desmond Tutu, Neil Young and James Cameron. They join other celebrities who have been vocal opponents of the Keystone pipeline including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kevin Bacon.

Proponents of the oilsands and the pipeline, including the Prime Minister’s office, have dismissed celebrity involvement in Alberta’s oil industry. According to Yahoo Canada News, the Prime Minister’s Office has commented in the past about “the energy-demanding lifestyle often afforded to such celebrities” and Tim Moen, leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, referred to it as celebrity cheap talk demonizing Alberta’s oilsands. Moen told Yahoo Canada News that “The people I take seriously are people who actually create solutions. People that find ways to get cheap clean energy into the hands of people who want it.”  Continue reading

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Direct and Indirect Challenges to the Pipeline

pipeline_protest1Over the course of the last two years, two pipeline projects – Northern Gateway and Keystone – have generated opposition from environmental groups in both the U.S. and Canada. As Rennie of the Canadian Press (June 17) notes, the pipelines have become highly political in both countries. In an article I wrote for Critical Mass, I mentioned that in the U.S., the Keystone pipeline project has posed a problem for President Obama and the Democrats given that environmentalists are against its construction while many others see it as creating jobs. There has been a tremendous push in Congress to get Obama to sign legislation that would allow for Keystone’s construction on the one hand, and Democrats hoping that Obama would veto such a bill on the other. Nonetheless, policy experts seem to believe that the Keystone project would inevitably move forward – if Canada is building a pipeline anyway, why shouldn’t Americans benefit from it? In fact, earlier polls did show that the American public thought energy security was a more important issue than greenhouse gases and a majority favored the pipeline’s construction (although the saliency of the issue among the public has likely varied greatly over the last year). Continue reading

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Review of Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia

Welcome to Resisterville

Rodgers, Kathleen. 2014. Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia. UBC Press.

By Catherine Corrigall-Brown

Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia by Kathleen Rodgers opens with a vignette. In 2004, residents of the small and remote Canadian town of Nelson unveiled a plan to erect a statue celebrating the contributions of the thousands of American Vietnam War “draft-dodgers” that had made their way to, and settled in, the region between 1965 and 1973. What seemed like a small local matter garnered significant international interest, including media attention from outlets such as the New York Times and Fox News. At the height of the controversy, the public discourse echoed the divisive debate that had surrounded the actions of the war resisters since the Vietnam War itself.  While some news coverage described the monument as lunacy, shameful, or cowardice, other outlets argued that the resisters deserved recognition and respect. Continue reading

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Secularism? Nationalism? The Québec Tea Party? What’s the Charter of Values Really About?

quebecblog1In late August, when news of the Parti Québécois’ (PQ) proposed Charte des Valeurs or Charter of Values spread (the Charter bans the province’s civil servants from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols), many expressed concerns that this would stir up dormant ethnic and religious tensions in Québec. It led to the removal of the only minority Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament when the MP suggested that the Charter is a form of ethnic nationalism. Early on, critics warned that the proposed Charter would see tremendous backlash calling it draconian, an example of “Stephen Harper-style wedge politics” (Maclean’s, September 20) and even Putinesque (Globe and Mail, August 20). Well-known human rights lawyer, Julius Grey, told Ingrid Peritz of the Globe and Mail that such “values” rules were more typical of the political right than of a party like the PQ that sees itself as progressive. “A charter of values smacks of the [U.S.] Tea Party,” Mr. Grey said. There are two issues here. First, who supports the Charter of Values and who mobilizes around it? Is the Charter tapping into a conservative streak in Québec public opinion and might there be a ring of truth to Grey’s comparison to the Tea Party ? Second, what are the political incentives for the PQ government to pursue such a policy? I don’t claim to provide a complete answer here, but it is clear (at least to me) that this is an attempt by the PQ to set an alternative policy/electoral agenda, confuse the electorate, and reclaim lost territory in rural (and more conservative) Québec where it lost ground. Continue reading

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An anti-gay marriage movement?

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), should we expect a strong backlash from opponents of gay marriage? If so, what will this backlash look like? Right now, we have heard statements from a few key opponents – from Michelle Bachmann to Mike Huckabee. But will opposition grow into a full-scale countermovement, especially as state legislatures increasingly become the site of the gay marriage conflict? I also ask this question in light of the recent French example where the legalization of gay marriage led to significant involvement of both grassroots and elite elements (albeit motivated by different grievances) converging to attack the Hollande government’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

Supporters of gay marriage celebrate after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and declined to rule on the California law Proposition 8 in Washington, D.C., U.S. on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Supporters of gay marriage celebrate after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and declined to rule on the California law Proposition 8 in Washington, D.C., U.S. on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Countermobilization in France around the recent legalization of gay marriage raises several key issues. First, despite the fact that it was well known to activists that protests would not deter the French government from going through with the legislation, protests grew increasingly more intense and continued to do so following the legislation. Second, as I noted in a previous post, it became increasingly clear that what has people mobilized is not so much the right of gays and lesbians to marry but rather, the part of the legislation that deals with assisted procreation and surrogate motherhood for gay couples. Continue reading


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Backbenchers’ voices might mean new political opportunities

Political sociologists and social movement scholars have often commented on the overly broad definition of “political opportunities.” Many have called for specifying the nature of political opportunities especially so as to better operationalize and link political opportunities to policy outcomes and social movement mobilization. Indeed, political opportunity structure has referred to the more static nature of a country’s institutional arrangements (for instance, type of political system, electoral representation, etc.), to the more dynamic kind focusing on the presence of sympathetic party elites, party control of government and agenda setting. Continue reading


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“Gayxtremism” in France?

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of the intersection of cultural and institutional factors in understanding the cross-national politics of marriage equality. One important part of this context is attitudinal shifts regarding gay marriage. According to a PEW survey, American public opinion has moved markedly in support of gay marriage in the four years since California’s Proposition 8. Recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings have brought out demonstrators on both sides of the debate. On a CNN international report (March 27, 2013), one opponent of gay marriage proclaimed that this is an issue for the people, not the court. According to Jeff Toobin of CNN, conservative justices have recognized the “growing popularity” of gay marriage and have argued in favor of using the democratic process (especially at the state level) rather than the non-elected judiciary. Continue reading

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Will Québec Anglophones take to the streets?

Anglophone municipal leaders are worried that the Parti Québécois (PQ) government is destroying linguistic peace according to a March 12 Globe and Mail article by Rhéal Séguin.  Since the PQ formed the minority government late last summer, language has been back on the political agenda in a very contentious way. Québec has had its ethno-linguistic battles historically between the Francophone majority and the Anglophone minority (although the language debate has expanded to include other linguistic groups).  Through most of the last decade, the language issue seemed to have quieted down.  Scholars like Meadwell and Pinard have described the cyclical nature of mobilization, demobilization and remobilization of the nationalist movement (and by consequence, the ebb and flow in the salience of ethno-linguistic politics). There are numerous reasons given about the perennial revitalization of language politics: from labor market competition, to threats to the French language, to political pandering. Whatever the reason this time, it begs the question as to how Anglophones will respond; specifically if they are more likely to resort to disruptive collective action. Continue reading


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Cross-national gay marriage politics, the courts, and the context of activism

Mobilizing Idea’s recent Essay Dialogue on movements and the courts was inspired in part by the DOMA case on the U.S. Supreme Court docket. In her essay, Martinez discusses the role of the Supreme Court in light of a changing political and cultural context regarding gay marriage. While U.S. states have become increasingly polarized on same-sex marriage (SSM), public opinion appears to have shifted in favor of marriage equality. These environmental shifts may be important for legal mobilization. Drawing from classic sociological theory, Martinez writes that “When activists turn to law and demand legal change, it only works when the cultural conditions and political conditions are out of alignment with law. The law changes to match social beliefs and practices.” As Bua of the Huffington Post claims, “the times they are a ‘changin.’” Continue reading


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