JI Newsletter 2021-01-01
Welcome to the January issue of the Justice Internationale newsletter. It’s nice to have all that over with.
In this issue of the newsletter; Jonkle interviews Gaelan Ash about his work organising as a union salt. Ryan Kolman writes about the current eviction crisis in Canada and those organising the fight against it. Ccarla muses about why AirBnB won’t die. Yogthos writes about how the bailout for corporations hit different to the one for people and Loljapes tries to figure out what exactly the new leader of the Conservatives is up to.
“Organize!” is the war cry of the left. All movements require organization. All leftists should be some kind of organizer. But very few people online ever describe how to get into organizing nowadays. This article is meant for just that—how to get into organizing, and, in particular, what “salting” is.
To help fix that, I interviewed Gaelen Ash, a one-time salt for the hotel and service workers’ union UNITE HERE!. UNITE HERE! is a particularly relevant union because it maintains a policy that all of its staff have to start out as a salt before they can be full organizers.
Salting is usually described pretty simply: you get a job somewhere with the intent of unionizing your coworkers. But like a lot of leftist discourse, the actual actions and strategy of salting don’t really get discussed. Even the name—salting—is rarely explained.
To start, the term “salting” comes from the phrase “rubbing salt in the wound”, which is another way to describe agitating a workplace. That phrase is a bit of a misdirection, however, since based off Gaelen’s experience, salts very rarely irritate anyone.
The goal of salts today is to be a sponge. To look completely non-threatening and mundane; to be as friendly and helpful to their coworkers as possible; and to absorb every piece of information they can find. They go to every after-work party and hang-out as much as possible with the other workers. Everything they learn—a workplace’s social dynamics, coworkers, common issues—gets passed along to the organizers as their union prepares its campaign.
This means salting is a never-ending effort. Most salts will have to lie constantly, either outright or by omission. In Gaelen’s case he had to wade through an intense hiring process with a fake name, fake email, a full slate of fake social media, and a fake resume, with friends pretending to be past managers. He had to go to every after-work party and get-together and maintain a completely innocuous and non-threatening personality. He couldn’t avoid boring conversations or coworkers. He could never talk about or show too much interest in politics. He had no time to be with his real friends.
All of that typically has to be maintained for a year or two. If you’re salting a large workplace, a salt could be there for 5-6 years. That’s 5-6 years of tracking down home addresses and phone numbers, seeing what the issues are, seeing who is and isn’t close to the bosses, all as invisibly as possible. All the while gauging support for unionization without ever talking about unions.
Even when a campaign starts, a salt maintains their cover. Organizers can’t let on that they’ve met a salt before. If a salt attends a unionization meeting, everyone has to pretend like it’s the first time they’ve ever met. No one in a workplace should know someone was a salt until the end of a unionization drive.
The upside is that salting is usually successful. According to Gaelen, any organizing campaign in a stadium, hotel, airport, casino, canteen, or cafeteria begins with salting. Any of these workplaces that has successfully unionized has succeeded because of the work of salts. It is exhausting and long-term work—but it is crucial.
So, that’s what salting is. That still leaves us with how to get into salting and organizing in general. Gaelen’s (paraphrased) advice is this:
First and foremost, you have to be doing work that you enjoy. Otherwise, you’re going to burn out. Even if you like the idea of organizing, if you don’t like the work, don’t force yourself to do it. Organize in a workplace you’re going to be able to stay in for a long time.
The first route for organizing is salting, as I’ve described above. There’s been a huge hit to salts due to COVID-19—UNITE HERE! had a ton of salts laid off as stadiums and food service places shut down. But for anyone interested and willing to salt, now, or in the future, the news in Alabama can tell you which workplaces need help, and UNITE HERE! is always looking for more salts.
The second route is to organize an already-unionized workplace. Stagnant and non-militant unions need organizing as much as anywhere else, which can be done by getting militant rank-and-file members elected to union office positions. According to Gaelen, this kind of organizing is the most fun. Workers are pissed about their conditions everywhere, even in a union, and can be agitated, educated, and organized. There’s also no risk. Union leadership can’t do anything to shut you up. You pay dues. You’re nigh-invincible.
If neither of these routes appeal to you, then the last route is to be a paid staff organizer. Many organizations are dismissive of paid organizers and consider them a cop-out, but in Gaelen’s experience a leftist staff organizer can make a huge difference to workers. Most staff organizers are surprisingly just middle-of-the-road liberals. An organizer who will support workers that want to go on strike has a much larger impact than a liberal who might be more timid about direct action. A leftist staff organizer can create militant, truly democratic unions.
None of these routes are be-all, end-all options. If you can’t find a route for yourself in these options, there are many other ways to organize. The one closing bit of caution Gaelen offered was that anyone with a job they love has to be very careful about how they go about pushing for a union. Don’t just start talking to your coworkers about unionizing—reach out as secretively as possible to an already existing union and have an organizer walk you through the process. If you just start talking in the office about organizing you’re going to get fired, and you’re going to get your coworkers fired too.
Currently, Gaelen is following the second route. He’s an active union representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 57 and, in direct contrast to salting, can say whatever he wants and still do good organizing work by being part of a militant caucus.
To close off this article, I’ll paraphrase Gaelen one last time (though this time it’s more 75% quote):
Everything can be changed, everything can be improved, and everyone can be radicalized. The main thing the Left needs to understand is that we need to engage more people in struggle. Every workplace has to be involved in some kind of struggle. There needs to be a lot more contention within the labour market, and our society—we need people engaged in more struggle, and that will lead to more radical unions.
This won’t happen overnight. You can’t just join a milquetoast union and tell people to be radical. It takes a lot of work, years of effort and working at it. But eventually it does make a difference.
It was a story that has become so familiar, hardly anyone noticed. In September of 2019 BDO Canada released a survey detailing the financial hardships facing the working-class. In the survey BDO revealed that over half of all Canadians live paycheque to paycheque, with over a quarter reporting they don’t have enough to meet their daily needs. With so many of its people living on the brink of financial ruin, the silence from governments across the country was deafening.
Now here we are, a little more than a year after BDO released its devastating survey, and the financial ruin that our governments turned a blind eye to, fueled by a global pandemic, has come knocking. Unemployment has skyrocketed along with food insecurity, what little savings people had have evaporated, and personal debt has reached levels we’ve never seen before. Yet from coast to coast to coast Canadians are now facing another growing epidemic: eviction.
With provincial eviction moratoriums gone, landlords have kicked things into high gear, filing tens of thousands of eviction notices across the county. Major landlords have also been waging a lobbying campaign, pushing stories about the hardships facing small ‘mom and pop’ landlords in order to convince governments not to enact further protections for renters. In reality mom and pop landlords only account for 4% of the Canadian rental market. The rest of the market is dominated by large, multi-million dollar corporations with deep institutional ties and political backing. The only thing these predatory landlords have in mind is profit; placing shareholder dividends above the safety and well-being of working-class Canadians.
In Ontario the Landlord and Tenant Board has moved to an online hearing format, one that tenant advocate Kenn Hale has called “chaotic”. The online-only model has made it nearly impossible for tenants to present their circumstances and, even more worrying, has made it difficult for tenants to access badly needed legal advice. In an effort to clear the backlog of cases that predate the pandemic, tenants are given as little as 60 seconds in this new format to present their cases with hearings being rammed through even when tenants are unable to log in to the online proceedings.
In these virtual hearings many tenants have been pressured into repayment agreements that are impossible for renters to meet. Some payments towards rent arrears have reached as high as half the tenant’s monthly rental cost on top of their current month’s rent. Landlord and Tenant Board adjudicators regularly remind tenants that if they’re ever “a day late or a dollar short” on a single arrears payment their landlord can get an automatic eviction order from the LTB without a hearing, enforceable by the sheriff.
There is no indication these circumstances will improve either, with Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government taking no action after the legislature unanimously passed a motion in December to freeze pandemic evictions. According to the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, ACTO, more than 7,000 cases were heard by the Landlord and Tenant Board in November with more than 4,500 cases scheduled for December and no signs of cases slowing down in the new year.
Out west the tenants of a 21-unit, three-storey apartment in Victoria were given notices in October saying they had until February 28th to move out. Some of the building’s residents, including seniors with fixed incomes, have lamented the decision and questioned why, during a public health crisis, landlords are allowed to force tenants out.
“It’s been really devastating,” said Tom Kershaw, a 72-year-old who has lived in the building for nine and a half years, “It’s just been overwhelming, the stress.” Kershaw pays $590 for his ground floor bachelor, a price that would likely double if he’s forced to find a new home.
“This isn’t an eviction for bad behavior”, said Joan Davy, a tenant in her 60’s, “This is a completely baseless eviction. It’s a renoviction.” Davy said if she’s forced to find another one bedroom in the current rental market it could take up to 70% of her income. Not only are these evictions devastating financially but they seem to contradict provincial public health orders that are meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. “On one hand, I’m not supposed to see my family members at Christmas,” said Davy, “but I’m being forced to enter multiple buildings [to search for a new apartment]?”
A group of tenants from the building are disputing the eviction notices with the Residential Tenancy Branch, but because of the backlog of cases at the government agency they were told a hearing might not take place until February, mere days before the date of eviction.
And yet amidst the deafening silence from political leaders, while government agencies continue to churn through eviction cases like relentless meat grinders, working-class Canadians are getting organized.
In Victoria the tenants fighting their mass-eviction order have enlisted the help of local tenant advocacy group Together Against Poverty, who are providing legal services to help the tenants navigate the complex legal process.
Back in Ontario advocacy groups like Keep Your Rent, along with ACTO, have been helping to provide renters throughout the province with the resources they need to take a stand. And across Toronto tenant unions have begun to spring up to challenge the greed of corporate landlords. In September one of these unions, the Goodwood Tenants Union, successfully prevented the eviction of an elderly Indigenous woman who has serious health issues.
“When neighbours heard about this woman [getting evicted] we were outraged because she’s older, she’s Indigenous, and she’s unwell.” said Goodwood Tenants Union member Carly Tisdall.
Neighbours took turns patrolling the property in the east Toronto neighbourhood, keeping watch in case the sheriff showed up to change the locks on the elderly woman’s apartment. When the sheriff did arrive neighbours were quickly notified and within minutes dozens of tenants came together to block the sheriff, along with accompanying Toronto police officers, from evicting the woman.
Another group, the East York 50, a conglomeration of tenant unions from the Crescent Town, Goodwood Park and Teesdale neighbourhoods, have attended their members eviction hearings en masse with legal representation to force the Landlord and Tenant Board to push their cases to a later date. The group has also marched from their district to Victoria Park and Danforth, blocking off the intersection and demanding the Landlord and Tenant Board be shut down.
These are just some of the incredible stories of success that show the strength and power working people have when they come together. As this pandemic and economic crisis continues to unfold more renters are put at risk of eviction. But if we organize and support one another, together we can stem the rising tide of evictions.
When this public health crisis showed up on our doorstep, governments asked working-class people to sacrifice for their own health and safety and for the health and safety of their communities. Canadians honoured their part of the social contract. Youth across the country sacrificed their graduation ceremonies; a special and pivotal moment in a young person’s life. Families faced with shuttered schools and daycare services found a way to balance home schooling, childcare, and work. Seniors in long-term care, separated from their loved ones had only brief, painful, and at times, final visits through window panes. And now when those same people, who have sacrificed so much, need help the most, politicians have abandoned them. Instead politicians have championed the cause of corporations and the wealthy to further line their own pockets. But, if Canadians continue to organize and fight back against these unjust evictions, then governments will end up on the losing side of history.
It’s safe to say that most of us hoped that if COVID-19 was going to destroy our social lives, and kill a bunch of people, it could at least have the decency to shut down short-term Airbnb rentals. But no. Thanks to its near-monopoly on the short-term rental market, Airbnb is recovering from COVID-19 much faster than other businesses. Their stock has shot up 146% since the company went public at the beginning of December.
It’s hard to believe, but before Airbnb became the gentrification juggernaut that it is today, it was just meant to be a quick moneymaker for three guys struggling to make rent.
In October 2007, Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia found out that their rent would be increased by 25%. Without steady employment, Chesky and Gebbia had to think of a way to make some fast cash. So they bought an air mattress and rented out the spare room in their apartment on weekends for extra money. Like the underdogs of a feel-good rags-to-riches story, they earned enough money for next month’s rent, evading homelessness and making lifelong friends along the way.
A heartwarming origin story, but we know Airbnb didn’t stop there. While Chesky and Gebbia’s original vision involved homeowners renting out spare rooms for extra cash, the reality is that Airbnb has completely distorted the short term rental market, artificially deflating vacancy rates and decimating affordable housing.
The concept of Airbnb in itself is morally neutral and could have been useful in communities without hotels or for people renting out an extra room in their home to help pay their mortgage. However, a significant portion of Airbnb hosts own at least ten properties, and 81 percent of Airbnb’s revenue comes from whole-unit rentals where the owner is not present during the guest’s stay. Significant portions of residentially-coded buildings are being used as short-term rentals, and under the conditions set by capitalism, neither Airbnb nor their hosts are really doing anything society perceives as wrong. In fact, the fear of landing in the poor house is so pervasive that, if I’m being honest, I understand why people would buy up properties to use as passive income. Their greed is motivated by the fear that they’ll slide into poverty after one wrong move. This logic gives Airbnb hosts the ability to dismiss their monopolization of the housing market as a shrewd step in self-preservation. Similarly, Airbnb can ignore hosts’ abuse of their app in favour of making profits because, under capitalism, they are morally bound to their investors who can pull their money out of the company at a moment’s notice.
As depressing as it sounds, the fate of Airbnb was pretty much sealed by the nature of our market economy. Western capitalism is a pyramid scheme in that, no matter someone’s wealth, they always feel beholden to a higher economic power and vulnerable to poverty, making it necessary to exploit the people below them. Capitalism motivates us to exploit each other, so that even the most well-meaning apps will eventually contribute to that exploitation. The only way out is to avoid market-based strategies altogether, and to dismantle the system that rewards exploitative behaviour and prioritizes profit over people.
CRA recently announced that some CERB recipients are being asked to pay everything back. Turns out the CRA failed to make it clear whether self-employment income should be treated as gross income or net income, and many Canadians who applied for assistance in good faith are now being punished. There has been a lot discussion in the media regarding CERB and whether people have been taking advantage of it inappropriately.
Meanwhile, a much less known CEWS program quietly awarded billions in bailouts to companies the money was intended to forestall layoffs. Instead, the bailouts ended up being used to pay out shareholder dividends instead creating a slush fund for billionaires. Companies abused the ambiguous wording of the CEWS program and ignored the intent of the program. Yet, there is no talk from CRA about making the companies pay their bailouts back. This shows a double standard in how the government deals with private citizens and large corporations.
Furthermore, there is no clear rationale behind simply giving money to corporations with no strings attached. Bailout money is funded by taxes and it amounts to a thinly veiled wealth transfer to the top.
Let’s take a look at some of the alternatives that the government could do instead. The first option would be to make the bailout a loan. The companies would receive money if they needed to make ends meet in the short term, but would be required to pay that money back once they started being profitable again. Another option would be for the government to act as a venture capitalist and take a stake in the company in exchange for the money. Finally, the government could let the company fail and give a loan to the workers to buy it out as a cooperative.
All of the above options would make more economic sense than simply throwing tax money at poorly managed companies to do with as they like. These approaches would also preclude abuse that’s currently happening since the companies wouldn’t make a net gain from the government assistance.
Some would argue that the pandemic is an unexpected event, and it’s unreasonable to hold companies responsible for it. However, this is precisely the risk that the business owners claim that they take in exchange for pocketing the majority of the profit created by the company. A well managed company should have a fund for a rainy day instead of just paying out shareholder dividends and operating expenses on razor thin margins. Planning solely for the happy path is poor management because something unexpected is guaranteed to happen sooner or later. The current system encourages reckless behavior on the part of the companies because there are no consequences to poor planning.
On October 30, in a speech to the Canadian Club Toronto, Erin O’Toole laid out a ‘a new conservative vision’ for Canada. The event began with the light farce of the host giving a shoutout to the (apropos) event sponsor; Waste Connections Canada. It then continued into heavier farce as the leader of the Conservative party gave a speech extolling the virtues of high union membership, warning about the dangers of Canada becoming a nation of Uber drivers and, finally, ended on a call for “policies that build solidarity, not just wealth”.
Before we start sending O’Toole red flags to hoist over Conservative Party HQ we should note that a lot of the language he used was skillfully caveated. O’Toole only spoke appreciatively of private union membership, but had nothing to say about public unions. Likely because public unions are the more powerful and politically assertive elements of Canada’s labour movement. He was also happy to speak out against Uber, but didn’t connect his denigration of the gig economy with any positive policy proposal (will the Conservatives be supporting efforts to unionize Uber drivers?). This article by David Climenhaga gives a summary of the various ways O’Toole’s speech fails to match up with his record, and contains some theorizing about why O’Toole has decided to make this seeming volte-face.
However fun it is to theorycraft about the calculations, whats and whys that go into Conservative decision making, the more pertinent question seems to be: is this a move that could actually deliver voters to the Conservatives? O’Toole seems to be trying to feel out a middle-way between positions that have been pioneered in other countries. He’s looking for something less psycho-drama than Donald Trump’s ‘l’état, c’est moi’ populism and less paternalistic than David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Both of these approaches were successful, for a while, electorally, so it makes sense O’Toole would look to them when trying to craft what comes next. That being said, the initial signs are that O’Toole hasn’t been able to turn his party in a more worker-friendly direction. Looking at the official statements put out by the Conservatives since O’Toole gave his speech, only two directly reference what could be loosely be called ‘labour issues’*. Bashing the Liberals on their COVID response, and attacking China, both take precedence over concerns about the Uberization of Canada.
All the same, lefties shouldn’t laugh at the idea of a Conservative leader getting chummy with unions, or working people. We may have economic theories that give us reason to believe that the working class can never be permanently bought off by a capitalist party, but elections are not decided by a careful parsing of the consequences of the labour theory of value. Even an administration as fundamentally scatterbrained as Donald Trump’s showed it was able to deliver something to labour when it included a raft of provisions in the USMCA that strengthened labour rights in Mexico, thereby reducing the incentive for American companies to offshore jobs there. In his speech, O’Toole linked the worsening of prospects in Canada with the rise of China, and criticized China for its increasing assertiveness. The joining of those two issues opens a path forward for O’Toole if he wishes to plow forward with his policy pivot. The Conservatives can make splashy public announcements about how they would support Canadian workers against Chinese predation, while in the background reassuring big donors that their businesses can also expect to get government protection from perfidious China (either in the form of direct cash handouts, or indirectly though provisions that protect Canadian businesses from foreign competition). I’d imagine if this sort of policy was ever actually carried out it would be businesses that found themselves receiving the lion’s share of the benefits, but that doesn’t stop it from being an effective messaging strategy that the Conservatives can use to win votes. As O’Toole said when he marked his first 100 days since becoming leader—“It’s been a busy 100 days – but I’m just getting started”.
* One statement criticized ‘Woke Foods’ for not allowing their employees to wear remembrance poppies, the other criticized the Liberals for not better supporting Canadians working in the aviation sector.
- A Salting How-to with Gaelen Ash - jonkle
- The Price of Eviction - Ryan Kolman
- AirBnB: The Economics of Poorphobia - Ccarla
- Not All Bailouts are Created Equal - yogthos
- O'Toole's Union Play - loljapes
- Web support - snoe, yogthos
- Editing - loljapes, jonkle
- Typesetting - loljapes
The JI Newsletter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. If using material from the newsletter, please credit the author and provide a link to the relevant newsletter in your attribution. Any content produced using material from the JI newsletter must be licensed under the same terms.