Solidarity through Racial Justice

Solidarity through Racial Justice is an Online Learning Platform and a Webinar. Thank you to all those who joined us for our webinar on Nov. 9th, 2022. You can revisit the webinar here or at the bottom of this page. We recommend engaging with the learning content on this page before watching the webinar. Stay tuned for our future offerings!

The past few years have been important moments for working people. Through the pandemic we saw the essential nature of our collective labour – a vivid expression of an old labour saying, our society only works because working people do. At the same time, we continue to re-awaken to how racial injustice plagues our society. Movements for racial justice, long simmering from systemic inequalities, such as #blacklivesmatters, #IdleNoMore and #stopAsianHate represent some of the most recent manifestations of age-old struggles against racial inequality.

As we prepare to rebuild from the devastation of the global pandemic, it is critical that we are steadfast in our commitment to build solidarity. We know that working people and racialized communities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We were on the frontlines and at home ensuring our communities’ needs were cared for and taken care of. To truly build back better from the pandemic, now is the time for us to build solidarity through racial justice.

A Message From Brother Craig Reynolds

“Solidarity is like a muscle, it must be developed and trained. We develop it through shared experiences and hardships: on picket lines, through collective struggles against the unjust practices of our employers, and through our own commitment and journeys of learning.”

— Craig Reynolds, Ontario Regional Executive Vice President

This web page and the associated webinar is an invitation for you to strengthen your capacity to be in solidarity with BIPOC workers. Racism has undermined the labour movement and we have to combat it to build the solidarity that is needed to win for all working people.

Solidarity Denied: What does the history of BIPOC Worker Struggles tell us?

“No history, no self. Know history, know self”

a saying from the Filipinx/Asian American movement

To explore the history of BIPOC Workers in Canada is to understand how race and racism has often served as a major issue in society at large, but also in the labour movement – both historically and to this day. By sharing here how BIPOC workers were treated in the past, we invite you to think about how conditions today are similar or not. We encourage you to look back in history and reflect on how we have progressed, and how issues continue to exist. This is an opportunity for each of us as part of the labour movement to learn about our histories and reflect what we are, and what we can be.

It is important to tell the histories of BIPOC workers struggles, because for so long these histories have been ignored especially in our own labour movement. This is particularly unacceptable because as you will find in these histories there were many times throughout history where unions have been on the wrong side of things in their treatment of BIPOC workers.

Here are some of the main themes you will encounter in the historical case studies below:

  • Labour market and social exclusion: BIPOC workers often faced significant Labour market and economic exclusion and they were often forcibly restricted or legally banned  from working in many jobs and professions. This would have long standing economic and social implications for these communities.
  • Race, Unionism and Settler Colonialism: While unions today are becoming increasingly diverse through changes in the economy and the struggle of BIPOC workers and those from other equity seeking groups, for much of history Canada’s unions were often only focused on representing white (usually male) workers. This was because they were operating as part of a larger project of violent settler colonialism focused on building a “White Man’s Country” through the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples and the exploitation and subordination racialized labour.
  • Social Justice/Social Movement Unionism: Workers throughout history fought not only for their rights at the workplace, but the rights and wellbeing of their communities broadly. In fact, the legalized labour relations and even welfare state that many of us take for granted today, only arrived after decades of struggle by progressives, radicals and working people of all backgrounds. As you will encounter in this collection, these radicals, progressive and BIPOC workers fought not only for fair treatment at the workplace but also for social justice throughout society.

Learn more about these themes in the content below and also by watching for a recording of our webinar below.

Black Railroad Workers and the Fight for Inclusion in Labour and Society

The historical experiences of Black Porters in Canada and the USA, serves as one of the most illuminating and thorough excavations of BIPOC workers’ involvement and struggles with the labour movement. The story of Black porters serve as a powerful illustration of how black workers fought for better employment opportunities through unionization and social justice more broadly. To understand these experiences, we have curated a number of videos beginning with the most well known and popular adaptation of this history, the CBC’s ground-breaking television series “The Porter”. The Porter provides a dramatized series based on the real histories and real experiences of black workers. You will find it in many of the themes we discussed above such as: how Black workers were historically excluded from the labour market, how they fought racism within the labour movement, and ultimately how this group of workers came to shape the Canada that we know today. We have included the trailer below, and you can watch the entire series for free here

In addition to viewing “The Porter” series, we also encourage you to watch this contemporary artistic interpretation entitled “Derailed” also based on the experiences of Black railroad workers. This launch event includes a wonderful overview with deep insights from labour leaders Andria Babington, John Cartwright and academic Cecil Foster. 

You can watch the full film in full here and visit the digital exhibit here.

After watching this we encourage you to think through some of these reflection questions and explore some of the further learning materials.

Reflection questions:

  1. From watching the Porter and Derailed what types of employment did Black workers have access to? How did racism and sexism impact the types of employment that were available to Black workers? Do you think racism and sexism impact black workers in today’s workplaces?
  2. What was the response of white labour unions when black railroad workers asked them to represent their interest? Were you surprised by this, why or why not? Do you think similar things happen in our labour movement today?
  3. Aside from making gains for their members, what were some of the achievements of the union of black railway porters? What does it tell us about what role unions and the labour movement can play in advancing social change and racial justice?

Further learning:

Indigenous Longshore Workers: Resisting Colonization and Discrimination

Indigenous workers – including those from the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations – played a major role in the early shipping industry in what is known as British Columbia. The history and working experiences of these longshore workers is one that is finally becoming increasingly recognized. Most well known was IWW Local 526, a Local of multi-racial but predominantly Indigenous workers nicknamed the “Bows and Arrows”. In a context where Indigenous workers were often excluded from white unions, The Bows and Arrows organized to give a collective voice to Indigenous workers and to protect the rights and livelihoods of their members. The experiences of the longshore workers and IWW Local 526 illustrate how Indigenous workers have resisted and struggled against colonialism and genocide while fighting for economic justice for their families and communities. The video and article below provide an insightful introduction:

Additionally, this is informative podcast “On the Line: Stories of BC Workers Ep. 9: Indigenous Longshoremen & the I.W.W.” provides an insightful overview of indigenous longshore workers and their experiences working on docks and with union organizing. The podcast has been included below or you can find it at this link

For a even more in depth discussion, check out this episode of the Dockers Podcast where current dockworkers Dan and Joulene Parent interview former dockworkers: Sam George, Ron (Red) Baker, John (Corky) Cordocedo, and Ken S. E. Baker about their experiences as longshore workers. It is a touching and powerful discussion, worth checking out!

After engaging with some of the materials above, we encourage you to think through some of these reflection questions and explore some of the further learning materials.

Reflection questions:

  1. Why did Indigenous workers end up joining the IWW instead of other unions?
  2. In addition to offering protections at work, what other features or functions did either the IWW or the unions that were formed out of it, serve for the Indigenous workers and members? What lessons can unions today learn from this?
  3. In 1886, First Nations workers made up the majority of the workforce in British Columbia.  Over time this continued to decrease. What do you think happened and what consequences do you think it had on Indigenous workers, their families, and communities?

Further learning:

Asian Workers and the Struggle against Xenophobia and Exclusion

Many Asian workers throughout history also came to labour in Canada. One example of this is the struggles and experiences of early Chinese railroad workers who played a major role in building the Canadian Pacific Railway, which would be one of the major precursors to the Canadian Confederation. More than 2/3 of the workers who built the railroad were Chinese migrant workers. Chinese workers on the railroad were paid much less than white workers and did some of the most dangerous work. It is estimated that more than 600 Chinese workers died while building the railway. Chinese railroad workers would launch one of the first major railroad strikes in North America with more than 3000 workers involved. Despite their work, Chinese workers would be one of the first groups to be banned from entering North America because of their race and ethnicity – initially through a prohibitive “Head-Tax” and then out-right ban through the Chinese Exclusion Act.

After engaging with some of the materials above, we encourage you to think through some of these reflection questions and explore some of the further learning materials.

Reflection questions:

  1. Upon the completion of the railroad, how do you think the Chinese railroad workers were treated by the employers, government and society at large?
  2. Chinese railroad workers did some of the most dangerous jobs on the construction of the railroad but were also paid far less than white workers. White workers and their unions often saw them as “un-organizable”, nor fellow workers to be in solidarity with. Instead, they pushed for laws to exclude Asians from the country and sometimes even enacted out-right violence. Do you think there are similar dynamics happening in our society or the labour movement of today?
  3. The experience of Asian workers shows that organized labour has not always been supportive of immigrants, this is especially the case for ‘non-white’ immigrants. What do you think are the implications of our history where Asian and other racialized workers were excluded from the labour movement?

Further learning: