CWA Canada part of global effort by municipalities to tackle precarity

CWA Canada had two representatives at the Decent Work City conference in Seoul, where they shared what the media union is doing to address precarious work and to give freelancers some bargaining clout.

Lise Lareau in Seoul Lise Lareau described for delegates how the Fairness in Factual TV campaign is targeting abuses of the ‘independent contractor’ classification in labour law.

LISE LAREAU | Canadian Media Guild

It appears that the boldest and bravest ideas to address a wide range of issues from labour to the environment are coming not from federal governments but from cities and their leaders.

That’s one takeaway from Decent Work City, a conference organized and paid for by the city of Seoul, South Korea, to address precarious work and provide a forum for some solutions tested in municipalities around the world.

The other takeaway from that December conference: CWA Canada and its largest Local, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), are important players in a global effort to think about ways to secure bargaining clout and better representation for freelancers of all kinds. That’s both an honour and a responsibility.

Don Genova CMG Freelance

Don Genova’s presentation focused on the Canadian Media Guild’s efforts to empower freelancers and help them get better pay, benefits and protections.

CMG Freelance branch President Don Genova and I – as a co-ordinator of the media union’s Fairness in Factual TV campaign – were invited to address two different panels.

Don discussed how his freelance branch has offered services, education and knowledge to empower independent journalists who otherwise would not have access to a labour organization.

For me, it was a chance to use the campaign as an illustration of another theme that wove through the conference: the abuse of ‘independent contractor’ classification in labour law and the resulting flattening of wages and rights. The conference’s keynote speaker was David Weil, author of the groundbreaking book The Fissured Workplace, which has shaped my approach to these issues.

What the Seoul conference made obvious was how many efforts there are worldwide to improve workers’ salaries and rights, but how disparate they all are, and sadly, how unconnected they are from traditional labour unions.

Among many others, we heard from the London Living Wage Foundation, which is part of a global effort to boost wages (not just the minimum wage!); an academic and city leader from Johannesburg who was behind South Africa’s first-ever minimum wage law, which boosted wages for nearly half the population – even as the unemployment rate hovers around 27 per cent; and from the insanely smart city staff behind New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free legislation.

Unfortunately, other than for this conference, there doesn’t appear to be a network to knit these groups together unlike, say, in environmental advocacy.

The Seoul conference yielded another eye opener: Those who attended Decent Work City all understood that the poverty and social fallout from rising economic inequality will be felt the most by municipalities.

Canada is not politically structured for cities to lead the way in major societal change, even as they wind up with the responsibility to deal with many of the issues on the ground. But that doesn’t mean mayors are not trying to change this.

Last year, Edmonton played host to the inaugural Cities and Climate Change Science Conference, which brought together 800 academics and policy makers from around the world. It was linked in to the United Nations and organizations that set the pace.

The Seoul conference organizers and Mayor Park Won-soon want to achieve something similar on an ongoing basis.

As a result of this conference, I plan to connect with relevant policy makers and academics in the Toronto area to see how we at CWA Canada can connect our work with freelancers into a bigger community of precarious workers.

While our members are largely ongoing employees and not considered precarious, our industry as a whole is subject to enormous economic insecurity. We need to be part of a change in laws and policies that protect and benefit workers – and it turns out we have a unique voice to be able to do that.

(Lise Lareau, a past president of the Canadian Media Guild and former member of the CWA Canada Executive, is a co-ordinator of the Fairness in Factual TV campaign.)

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