At the age of fifteen, I landed my first job at Canadian Tire. That was the start of a career in the service industry where I would spend my next fourteen years working in retail, grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels from Manitoba to Vancouver Island.
For me, working in the service industry became the distraction that kept me from doing what I really wanted to do with my time. It represented the reluctant acceptance that rent had to be paid, groceries needed to be in the fridge, and that I had little choice other than to participate in a system that I knew was built upon inequality and exploitation.
Over those years, I became more engaged in my community, and more interested in social justice and environmental protection.
There’s no doubt that the formative years of my activism occurred during late nights after work, before work, and in between split shifts. As soon as I clocked out, that was when the real work began. I can recall sending emails and updating websites late after the restaurant closed and after I had finished putting up the bar stools. Much like my friends and comrades that lead similar lifestyles, it didn’t matter how long the days were – we were reconciled by knowing that we were doing the right thing.
Countless hours of volunteering were dedicated to ‘fighting the man’, while we worked two or three jobs at a time to pull together the hours needed to make it by in a city as expensive as Victoria. It only makes sense that I, and so many of my friends, would be constantly straddling the line between mental / physical / emotional burnout and effective organizing.
With this in mind, I couldn’t help but to notice that over these years of organizing which brought protests to the steps of the Legislature, marches down Government Street, and rallies in front of City Hall, very rarely did we question how our everyday lives were explicitly engaged in the capitalist economy. Very rarely did we challenge the point of production.
I am now one of the organizers involved in launching the Retail Action Network. Through this group, we are calling on workers to strategically bring their activism with them to their workplace.
As workers, especially in the service industry, we spend hours of our labour serving Americanos for bosses that don’t pay enough, selling clothing that was made by exploited women in Central America, washing dishes with chemicals that impact our health, pumping fuel at gas stations that have stolen their profits from Indigenous peoples, or selling poisonous vegetables grown by companies like Monsanto.
As activists, we have an extraordinary opportunity to change all of this. By bringing the organizing that we do to the workplace, we can put a wrench in the cogs of capitalism and disrupt the assembly line of inequality. This is a great chance to challenge these corporations from a community level, confront the boss’ power, and reshape our communities by evicting exploitative employers that would otherwise set up shop in our neighbourhoods.
For many of us that have spent years fighting relentlessly outside of the workplace, why not combine these two worlds and organize on the clock? At the very least, it’s a great way to finally find work as an activist.
Many employers want workers to walk over each other and compete for a job that is slightly less worse than the next, or leave those lousy jobs for the next one of us in line. We can overcome this individualized and isolating process. We can be politically engaged and community-minded through the low-wage work that we do.
Through the Retail Action Network, we are calling on retail and hospitality workers to come together, join the network, and specifically target exploitative employers in a number of creative ways
We are offering support and solidarity to workers that are in disputes with their bosses. We are getting jobs at the places that are known most for the exploitative practices and organizing from the inside. We are finding a way to turn low-wage and often demeaning work into a point of pride and community engagement.
From walkouts and strikes, to union organizing, to slow downs and interruptions, to pickets and leafleting outside of workplaces, this is a way that we can truly challenge the profit-driven companies that exploit our people and our planet. The corporate world can’t be lobbied through moral obligation; it will only be affected by its profit margins and reputation. Through doing this, we can help to create worker co-ops, push for progressive collective agreements, and support businesses that offer a living wage.
The worker’s movement is changing, and this struggle goes beyond wage increases and protecting our individual interests. This worker’s movement draws on anti-oppression, environmentalism, and an open commitment to social justice, decolonization, and anti-capitalism.
The exciting part is that we can be creative about how we redistribute power back to the people. Through the Retail Action Network, we are energized by new possibilities for workplace organizing. If you are interested in making significant change in your community, challenging the profit-driven model, and becoming a part of a growing network of workers and labour activists, get involved with us now!
Work together. Organize. Win.