ndria Babbington was elected as new president of Toronto and York Region Labour Council and inaugurated on June 3, 2021. This body, a local arm of the Canadian Labour Congress, represents over 200,000 unionized workers in the Greater Toronto Area. Babbington is the first woman of colour to lead the city’s Labour Council. She visited a few picket lines over the weekend, including striking workers at the Black Creek Community Health Centre, and workers with Wine Rack. The Hoser met with Babbington after her arrival and speech in support of SEIU Local 2 Wine Rack workers in Kensington Market.
You mentioned solidarity unionism when you were speaking. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means, and how it relates to what's going on at Wine Rack, and also, more broadly in Toronto?
It's really important to have the support of other unions when workers are going through this. I always say, when unions come, it shouldn't be about them showing sympathy. They should come knowing that they're honing this fight, because whatever is happening with these workers, it doesn't matter if they stay six more months, or two days later. The result of what they get back is what other union members will look forward to. If they fail at this, that message is sent to the next employer who's going to bargain with another group of workers in the end. So it's definitely important for all of us coming together to show that we are honing in. This is us, this is our fight. It's not SEIU’s fight, it's our fight. That's our faith, that’s our background.
In 2009, the Labour Council came together, and they brought leaders together to say —when we were going through the [economic] crisis back in 2009 —where everyone was coming together to show that they're standing together in the time of crisis. That was very helpful. For the bargaining that came up later, the library union had to go out [on strike] for the first time out there knowing that all of the unions were coming out to say, ‘you know what, something is happening here. And we better go there because it's our struggle.’ It sends that message, whether they're bargaining with the government or they’re bargaining with another corporation out there, that wherever they see this fight going on here, even if it's five people standing there, there are thousands supporting them on their level.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got the experience and the knowledge about organized labour's value?
When I came from Jamaica, back in 1984, I started working in the hospitality sector where it was frightening to me. It was weird to see so many, mostly women, people that just came to the country as I did, immigrant women of colour. They were working, they were sad, and it was hard work. And then I realized that there was so much disrespect, witnessing some of that, where management didn't have to hide to really crap on somebody. They do it in the hallway, they do it anywhere, and eventually it was drilled in our head that ‘it's a revolving door. This business is the revolving door, you don't like it? Go away.’
Most of this treatment wasn't happening to me because I had a small group of ladies that were helping me. They were older than me, and I was really young at the time, so they kind of pulled me under their wings.
But I looked at the large group of women. How sad they looked. We were going through sexual harassment in the workplace. The guests were coming in, doing that to co-workers. And they couldn't do anything. Some of them were saying, ‘I can't talk about that when I get home.’ And I thought ‘this is not how I was raised.’ I was raised knowing that we take care of each other in our community. And I decided, ‘no, I'm gonna step up to the plate for it.’ Others were helping me. I did that for several years as a shop steward in my workplace, and got onto the Health and Safety Committee, spent a long time fighting for injured workers in my workplace. Later, my union decided that I should come out as an organizer to help.
I decided...I'll switch over to healthcare, and I actually got a job [at the union] when I first started. Because the president of the union said, ‘you know, what, let's try for a year. You're representing 750 in your [current] workplace, how about representing 1000?’ Teach 1000. Not just going out there fighting the boss for them, but teaching them how to stand up, and to speak up.
That's what happened in 2002. I started working for my union, Unite Here. I came out where I was given 14 hotels across the GTA, which was weird, because no one was getting them. I had 14 of them across the city, to the airport. But I think what I was most proud of about that was: I was teaching them that, ‘yeah, you appreciate that I'm fighting the boss, but whenever I'm doing this, I need you. Right beside me. Not behind me.’ A lot of that was teaching them to be strong. When you speak up, it’s fine. And I'm proud to know that, coming out of that workplace and seeing how militant it is, because those workers are still doing that, and the ones that retire, they pass the torch on to others.
Later on I started, for a few years, seconded through the Labour Council, through my union, doing even bigger [assignments]. I was going out to the labour movement to go to their tables to talk about the campaign around workers rights, pushing them to take on the fight around the whole labour Employment Standards [Act] (the Act and resulting reform, Bill 128), what was happening with that. Even if your union had decent wages, you need to step up for community, and other workers that were making low wages.
So we took on the minimum wage campaign. While I was doing that, again, I always wondered if I made a difference going to another labour table because they are all so different. Every union has a whole different personality to it. And then I realized one of my biggest ‘parts’ is just spending some time just to talk to them about how they mobilize. Not just the flag at the picket line, but how do you tease out the fact that a lot of workers in your workplace are leaders. Not just in the union, they're leaders in their community. When they're not at work, they're in their community leading it. So how do you use that to tap in, when you bargain a contract, and they're still angry? They're angry because you're able to bargain some of the things at your bargaining table, but you don't know the other side of their life: that they need to fight the politician. So how do you engage them in that stuff? Slowly, you see a lot of that where a lot of our members are not white collar workers. They start to understand that ‘I can actually fight on the picket line, and I can also go to the poll to vote.’ And understand what it is that you're voting for or against.
Andria Babbington spoke to striking Wine Rack workers in Kensington Market on June 19. Video by Kevin Taghabon
There's been a lot of uprising, struggles and new social movements over the past five or 10 years or so. How do you see Labour Council’s role in supporting those types of struggles in Toronto?
Labour Council has been doing a really good job the last few years, not just drilling down into what's happening at the labour table. As I said, when we start recognizing that our members have bigger things at stake than just, sometimes, the boss. They have to figure out how to live in their community: if their rent is paid or not, even though they have a job or what’s happening in their own home country. Because of that, Labour Council spends a lot of time trying to build that bridge. Not everybody is welcoming, because sometimes they don't trust us as labour coming in. Are you coming in to lead their community? Are you coming in to tell them what's good for their community? So that's been a challenge, too. We’re going in with the understanding that we’re here to listen, we're here to work with you to figure it out. ‘What do you need, what tool do you need for your community?’ There are definitely a lot of uprisings out there. The Labour Council is gentle, and patiently trying to figure out what’s needed. We’re ready to work with each group out there as long as we are standing with a position where it’s about rights, it’s fairness. It’s not just being radical. You have to know that.
We’ve got a checklist [for] our own members. As you go out there and take on certain things, you have to make sure that you're not crossing the line, where the same member’s coming back going, ‘hey, you know, you don't know anything about my community. So how did you get involved in something here?’ But we make sure that we are ready to help with any situation that's in any of these groups, as long as they're welcoming us at the table.
What would you say to people who are in precarious sectors like retail, food service, and especially young people who have never had the experience of being inside of a union shop? What would you say to them in terms of how they should be pushing and what perspective they should bring to the workplace, and what labour is worth to them?
A lot of us - as we call ourselves, union or labour - have the privilege of inheriting it. We inherited it. We walked into a workplace that was already organized. A lot of us never got to organize from scratch and see what it was then, and now. We'll always encourage anyone that's out there, young people, or anyone that is trying to figure out if it makes sense to be ‘here’ or ‘here’ [*gestures to her left and her right side*], that it's very important to know that you have the labour movement on your side. We celebrate every year, whether it’s a statutory holiday, whether it's maternity leave that someone won, whether you are injured and you’re covered. There's so many things. The minimum wage that people look at saying, ‘oh, it's $15, it’s $14, it's not enough.’ What they don't understand is that a lot of these [struggles] with unions on side is what makes it make it more successful.
You have nothing to lose in joining a union knowing that there is power behind you. That when you're alone, trying to fight, and you believe in some stuff where people sometimes lose their jobs. You know it's right, and you’re trying to push. And who is the union, right? It's not the guy in the address down the street [at the union office], it’s the numbers behind your back. That's what the union is. So I would always say to them, ‘try to figure out what is the union and what's the importance of joining one’. Aside from the dues that always become the elephant in the room. What do you get out of it?
If you have to organize the workplace to get that power? Go ahead. If you walk into one that’s already organized, don't just go in. Try to figure out where you can fit into it, because when you're passionate about these things, you get to become one of those who help to improve it. Union’s are not always perfect - it's the people. And sometimes it's the individual that just got hired that really lifts it to another level with the kind of fire and drive that they come into their workplace with. They shouldn't shy away from it. Go in knowing that you have this fire in your belly for changes, and then insert that into it.