The Provincial Young Workers Committee (PYC) recently hosted the 9th annual Young Workers Conference. The theme centred on the troubling reality today’s millennials are faced with – precarious work and underemployment. From August 5-7, OPSEU’s young workers from across the province gathered at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto. They were engaged and empowered to take active roles in creating change in their locals, workplaces and communities.
Discussions centred on precarious workers, many of whom are young workers, and how they work side by side with permanent employees doing the same job but earning less. Employers have stated that "union rules" prevent them from offering permanent jobs. Participants explored the impact of an outcome where workers are pitted against one other. Very often, permanent employees are made to believe that immigrants and other precarious workers are out to get their jobs.
During the first two days of the conference, invited guest speakers provided a firsthand and familiar account of the reality young workers face as they enter the labour market. For many, they worry about paying off a large student debt, a direct result from the high cost of education. As a result, young people opt to live at home with their parents well into their 30s. Others have to work more than one job in order to make ends meet. In fact, presenters highlighted a reality that many of the newly created jobs in Canada are part-time, insecure, contract, casual and non-standard.
Wage inequality may just be the tip of the iceberg. For those young workers able to secure employment, there is also the issue of “underemployment.” Many of these workers were present at the conference. These skilled and educated individuals were fortunate enough to find work in their chosen fields. However, they were increasingly required to accept part-time, temporary work without benefits or a pension plan with little job security and unstable hours of work. They all came to the same conclusion – young workers are the hardest hit by this reality.
A majority of the participants were new union activists and/or attending this conference as their first OPSEU function. They came to understand the importance of union struggles and why they remain relevant today. In addition, these young workers were able to walk away with a bit more pride. They were proud to be union members and of the work that OPSEU has done in advocating for workers’ rights throughout the province.
Looking to introduce new and innovative ways to network and engage as activists, the PYC opted for a more “experiential” approach to this year’s program. Participants had a direct, hands-on experience with union activism. Following a creative action workshop Saturday morning, OPSEU’s young workers took to the streets of downtown Toronto that afternoon. Armed with picket signs and pamphlets from OPSEU’s We Own It Campaign, these young workers interacted with members of the public and talked about the impacts of privatization. They highlighted the importance of sustaining independent, healthy communities across the province instead of starving public services and privatizing them.
The Saturday evening program invited conference participants to take part in a Labour History Walk of Toronto. Organized by members of the PYC, the tour looked at the struggles, gains and losses of working Torontonians who sought for fair and equitable working conditions. It also looked at connections between activism and employment legislation that workers want and need in Ontario.
To cap off an already robust weekend, participants broke off into groups on Sunday morning. The final activity called for a focused discussion on the following areas of concern to young workers: childcare, living wage/precarious work, privatization, the environment, equity, and the cost of education. Facilitated by the PYC, members were asked to look at specific issues people should be concerned about as it related to their chosen topic – the problem. Then, they had to explore and strategize about what needed to be done to solve that problem – the vision. Finally, they examined where people can make a difference – the action. In addition, participants were asked to commit to some form of individual action which they plan to pursue upon returning home to their communities.
Citizen journalism was another new approach introduced at this year’s conference. Members were asked to document their own participation by creating video testimonials and/or diaries using their smartphones. Their submissions were compiled by OPSEU’s in-house videographer with the final product sent to participants. This was in addition to staying connected with the PYC and OPSEU on social media using the hashtag #PYC2016.
OPSEU’s Young Workers Conference is an annual event organized to coincide with the United Nations’ International Youth Day (IYD) on August 12. This Day recognizes the efforts of youth to make the world a better place – simply by becoming involved their communities. Year after year, OPSEU enthusiastically joins the UN in celebrating and encouraging this. It also constantly reaffirms its long-standing commitment to young workers because OPSEU knows that they are the future of this union and the labour movement.
The PYC would like to thank the many OPSEU advocates and invited guests who demonstrated their commitment to young workers rights by participating at this event. They would also like to extend a warm thank you to members of OPSEU’s Executive Board for their leadership and constant support in getting more young workers involved and engaged with their union. Finally, to OPSEU staff whose commitment, dedication and hard work greatly contributed to a successful conference.
For more information: https://opseu.org/event/2016-young-workers-conference