In Windsor, Ontario, when the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association paid to install iron-spiked railings where panhandlers sit, the organization which called attention to it was the Street Labourers of Windsor (SLOW). They also took a stand when the city intended to install “care meters,” in which people can drop change, instead of giving directly to panhandlers. SLOW’s fear was that this was the beginnings of removing, entirely, homeless people from the streets. If there are care meters, why do the homeless even need to be there?
While SLOW formed in response to attacks on panhandlers and street performers, the group’s organization draws on the workers’ movement. SLOW is not simply doing advocacy or acting as a charity. “We are a real union,” says Andrew Nellis, one of the organizers. SLOW is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with members signing membership cards and paying union dues that are geared to income.
Many people, however, dismiss SLOW’s status as a union. A condescending editorial in the Calgary Herald stated: “Panhandling is not a job. Yet, when panhandlers join a union, as they are doing in Windsor, Ont., it is an attempt to elevate panhandling to the level of a respectable occupation — even though it is nothing of the kind.” The mayor of Windsor, Drew Dilkens, expressed doubts himself, saying, “They are not employees, so there is no protection of a union to do something like go out on strike. None of that applies to them.”
And, even within the labour movement, many are likely to dismiss SLOW’s union status. Some would acknowledge the importance of bringing more people into the movement, noting the growing number of non-unionized workers. They’ll applaud the efforts of workers’ centres, which help organize such work- ers and inform them of their rights in the workplace, and similarly commend the efforts of organization which raise awareness about broader conditions facing the working class. But they’ll still withhold the title of “union” from such organizations. A union, for such people, is conceived as an organization which wins collective agreements with a group of workers’ employer. All other organizations are relevant to the labour movement but they are not unions.
SLOW would certainly not count as one. But why not?
SLOW and the Ottawa Panhandlers’ Union, a similar organization that Nellis was involved with when he lived in Ottawa, are organizing people who are forced to survive by whatever means. These are people whose struggles are conditioned by the same forces which lower the wages of all workers, unionized or not, disappear benefits, make work precarious, and disempower people in their workplace. They are as much a part of the working class as people who are narrowly-defined as workers, people formally employed by a boss.
We’ve seen similar struggles to expand the definition of “worker” before. Between the 1950s and ’70s, African-American domestic workers expanded the definition of household labour, and consequently extracted better wages and conditions for themselves. They simultaneously deepened our understanding of what the working class should really mean.
What SLOW and the Ottawa Panhandlers’ Union have started is relevant everywhere, to state the obvious. Last year, in my city of Vancouver, Pigeon Park Street Market and various street vendors in the Downtown Eastside were relocated. The city moved the Bottle Depot, which was originally in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, on the 0 block of East Hastings St., in the broader context of ongoing condo developments in the area. People are being displaced to “clean up” the streets for the benefit of the new, wealthier, residents.
Imagine a union which might embolden such workers — because that’s what they are — and ensure they can engage in collective action to gain real power in the workplace, wherever, or however, they define it?
Daniel Tseghay is a CD columnist and a reporter for Rankandfile.ca. He is based in Vancouver.
This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (Short Change).