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Labour Day protesters call for better wages, working conditions

Demonstrators march in solidarity with striking workers

On Sunday September 4, the day before Labour Day, the Montreal chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW)  organized a march to protest precarious working conditions, the stagnation of industrial worker’s salaries, and economic disparities in Canada. Approximately 100 to 150 people were in attendance, many of whom were “Wobblies”, an affectionate name for members of the IWW.

Protesters gathered in front of the fountain at the Maisonneuve Market, in the Hochelaga neighbourhood of Montreal, carrying banners, signs, and flags emblazoned with the IWW logo.

Prior to the march, demonstration leaders spoke of the dangers of forgetting the true meaning of Labour Day: a day to commemorate the past and current struggles of international labour movements, and to assure better working conditions, hours, and wages for the working class.

“[September’s] Labour Day is effectively the capitalist Labour Day. […] May Day, in history, is the actual labour day.”

They also addressed what they saw as a corporate takeover of Labour Day. “[September’s] Labour Day is effectively the capitalist Labour Day […] May Day, in history, is the actual Labour Day,” Tim Gauger, a member of Montreal’s IWW chapter and a McGill employee who attended the protest, told The Daily, referencing May Day’s traditional commemoration of those who died in the Haymarket Massacre of 1886.

“The ruling class doesn’t want [us] to remember that,” Gauger continued, so they moved Labour Day to September, so the memory of May Day and the struggle [wouldn’t] live on.”

As a member of Montreal’s IWW chapter, Gauger marched to show solidarity for his fellow Wobblies, notably those who were on strike that day: as of September 4, around 200 of Montreal’s Old Port workers have been on strike for 101 days, along with Frite Alors employees,  a number of whom have recently unionized in an effort to assure better wages and employee benefits. Workers from both unions marched and spoke in Sunday’s demonstration. 

Old Port and Frite Alors workers voice demands

“It’s now officially been 101 days since we went on strike,” said one Old Port worker to the crowd through a megaphone in French. “This is the fourth time that we have refused the management’s offer: the last offer was effectively the same as the mediator’s last offer, but with a few extra trinkets.”

The Old Port workers on strike, members of the Syndicat des employes du Vieux-Port de Montreal (SEVPM), are seeking a significant wage increase and want to boost entry-level wages from the current $10.67 an hour to $15 an hour, which they have declared a “living wage.” According to the SEVPM, the management’s latest offer proposed an entry level-wage of $12.38 an hour. They have also demanded better benefits. “As of now, all regular and occasional [Old Port] employees are not guaranteed sick days,” the speaker continued in French.

“We started this strike for better work conditions, demanding an increase in salary, a dialogue between the bosses and the workers, which as of now is inexistent, and paid sick leave,” a Frite Alors employee on strike said in French to the crowd. “The food service industry, where the majority of workers are women, relies on a model of cheap labour, and workers that are unsatisfied with their conditions are forced to look for another job in their industry rather than try to demand recognition for their rights.”

“We want to reappropriate this struggle, and put in their face that we still struggle.”

According to Montreal’s IWW chapter, Frite Alors employees on strike have demanded an increase of $2 an hour for all kitchen employees, with an additional $1.80 an hour for female employees, as well as five paid sick leave days per year, and a minimum of 20 hours of guaranteed work per week.

Reappropriating the struggle

Not all those who spoke during the march were workers on strike. Among those invited to speak at the demonstration were members of the BAILS committee, a Montreal organization that fights growing gentrification in the Hochelaga and Maisonneuve neighborhoods. Their initiatives decry the development of expensive condos and shops over affordable housing for lower to middle income families in the neighbourhood.

Liliane Dupont, a member of the BAILS committee, highlighted the superficial nature of gentrification in her speech, deploring what she sees as city initiatives that seem to help people by cleaning up neighbourhoods, but that do little to actually improve families’ social conditions.

“Yes, the new parks are beautiful, and yes, the new flowers on Rue Ontario and Rue Sainte Catherine are beautiful, and yes, Rue Ontario is now very clean, but the sidewalk still dirties your pants when you’re sitting out in the street [because rent is too high], so let’s continue our demonstration, and continue to demand better working conditions as well,” Dupont exclaimed in French.

In an interview with The Daily, Adam Veilleux, a Wobblie and construction worker, spoke on behalf of the march’s organizers about the importance of these strikes.

“We want to reappropriate this struggle, and put in their face that we still struggle,” said Veilleux. “The [Old Port] union is fighting Ottawa, and you fight this big institution, and go protest in Ottawa in front of Trudeau, [yet] the Old Port site continues running with scabs [editor’s note: people who refuse to strike], then nothing happens. The site continues to make plenty of money.”