A group of Canadian unions and organizations are making the effort to organize precarious workers, focusing on particular job sectors instead of individual workplaces.

By H. G. Watson

At a downtown Toronto hotel in late April, a mixed group of about 50 students and 20-something's are mixing with each other in a small conference room, trading Twitter handles and media industry war stories.

They are here to hear canada.com data journalist William Wolfe-Wylie, Torontoist writer Desmond Cole and freelance animator Sagan Yee discuss the intersection of the digital world and storytelling — though the free drink tickets probably helped too.

At first glance, you might not guess that this is a way to get people talking about unions. But the hosts of the event, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), are hoping that by bringing media workers together to network and learn, they can also get them thinking about working conditions in their industry.

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This technique is just one of the ways that a group of Canadian unions and organizations are making the effort to organize precarious workers; focusing on particular job sectors instead of individual workplaces.

A few months prior to the digital media mixer, CMG organizers Karen Wirsig, Datejie Green and Katherine Lapointe explain their multi-pronged approach to engaging freelance media workers in a conference room at their downtown Toronto office.

"The union is playing more of a central facilitation role," said Green. At the mixers, she hopes that people will talk, not only about working conditions, but also connect with other professionals and swap skillsets.

Along with the digital media mixers, CMG also runs workshops on contract negotiations and preparing taxes for freelancers, a blog dedicated to freelance issues called The Story Board and, as a local of Communication Workers of America, offer an associated member program which gives free memberships to student and entry-level journalists. 

All of these methods are ways that the union can engage with potential new members for their freelance unit, CMG Freelance.

"What we miss out on when we always focus on that 'one way of doing it' is that we, as a labour movement, haven't provided enough opportunities to bring workers together whether they belong to a union or not," said Wirsig.

Traditionally, when a union organizes, they are dealing with what is known as a "closed shop" — a workplace where there is a stable, secure workforce. But the nature of precarious work means that organizers are unlikely to encounter this, at least at first contact.

Media workers freelance, sometimes with multiple skill sets. Janitors, personal support workers and other temporary workers cycle through sub-contractors, switching workplaces week-to-week, if not day-to-day. And while retail and food services workers may stay in the same workplace for many years, the abundance of, for example, Wal Mart stores, means that management can simply shut down a store if the threat of unionization rises.

Some unions and workers' groups have begun to look more broadly at their organizing tactics.

H.G. Watson is a CWA associate member. She has also done paid freelance work for CMG's blog, The Story Board. To continue reading this article, please go to rabble.ca where this was originally published.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.