Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 146: Labour Studies & Justice for Workers — with Kendra Strauss

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Kendra Strauss

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Melissa Roach  0:02
Hello, I’m Melissa Roach and you’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

Building on the conversations about labour that we’ve been taking up in the Women, Work, More series, this episode of Below the Radar features a conversation between host Am Johal and Kendra Strauss, the director of SFU’s labour studies program — talking about trends in labour studies and the issues facing workers today. I hope you enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:38 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We're really excited to have Kendra Strauss with us, the director of the Labour Studies program. Welcome, Kendra.

Kendra Strauss  0:51 
Thank you. It's great to be here.

Am Johal  0:53 
Yeah, Kendra, I'm wondering if we can just begin with you introducing yourself a little bit?

Kendra Strauss  0:59 
Sure. So as you mentioned, I'm the director of the Labour Studies program. I'm also an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. And I'm an associate member in the Geography Department. So I have many affiliations at SFU.

Am Johal  1:15 
That's a lot of areas of research. I'm wondering if we can sort of begin by just talking about the Labour Studies department, because it's actually quite unique in Canada. There's not that many Labour Studies programs across the country. You find business programs nested and embedded inside of universities, but wondering if you can sort of describe what the program is, and maybe even some of the history behind how the program began?

Kendra Strauss  1:42 
Yeah, absolutely. And you're right, that we are a little bit unique. There are a number of labour studies programs within Canada, but many of them are concentrated more in Ontario, and Quebec, which probably has a little bit more of an established history of formal labour studies, or certainly in Quebec, industrial relations programs and departments. But labour studies actually has a long history at SFU. Many people don't realize this, but Labour Studies courses have been taught since, I believe, the late 1970s, many of them through continuing education. We had the minor introduced in 2012, and then the major in labour studies in 2018. So it's sort of been a long process of kind of building up the capacity to offer a full degree program. And we also offer a certificate in workplace rights. And so you know, to your first point, I think what's unique about labour studies programs is that they focus on some of the same topics and processes that you might study in other programs, like economics or business, you know, we look at the economy, we look at jobs, but we look at them from the perspectives of workers, working people, their communities, and that is really the starting point for labour studies as a sort of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field.

Am Johal  3:04 
Wondering how did you, yourself, get involved in the labour movement, and obviously, you studied in different disciplines, but gravitated broadly to the interdisciplinary study in labour. But it'd be interesting to hear your own story of how you find yourself in this position now.

Kendra Strauss  3:22 
Yeah, I'm a bit of an accidental labour scholar in the sense that my first degree is actually a humanities degree. I studied cultural studies and English, and was really interested in feminist theory and feminist politics, queer theory, you know, some of the sort of strands of cultural studies that were really expanding in exciting ways in the 1990s when I did my undergraduate degree. But I also, I suppose, didn't quite find the political outlet that I was looking for, and left my undergraduate degree with no real sense of what I wanted to do with myself, went to the UK, worked for a number of years, and was sort of interested actually, at that point in the way in which environmental politics was sort of intersecting with other social movements. And so I found a program that happened to be in a geography department in the UK, and did my Master's in a program called Nature, Society and Environmental Policy. But through that program, I became interested in questions of economic restructuring, labour force restructuring, worker rights and struggles in the workplace. And in particular, it was through a research assistant position that I did with Professor Gordon Clark, who was an economic geographer at the University of Oxford, where I studied, who had a big project on privatization and individualization in occupational pensions, so workplace pensions. And I had the opportunity, again, a little bit fortuitous, it was a bit sort of accidental, but an opportunity arose to do a funded PhD, looking at kind of cultures of decision making in occupational pensions, and that was what really brought me into direct contact with unions who were obviously very much at the forefront of challenging pension retrenchment and privatization, but also really got me interested in in the whole variety of ways in which workers exercise power and contest power relations in the workplace.

Am Johal  5:35
When you think about labour studies today, or what are contemporary labour issues, of course, many of them relate historically to issues that have come before. But there's new trends and new formations in terms of areas of research from precarious workers to gig workers to, you know, many, many things that the pandemic brought forward as well. And I'm wondering if you can sort of highlight some new and emerging areas of research that labour studies in particular has a vested interest in.

Kendra Strauss  6:10 
I think you've really highlighted a couple of key ones. So clearly technological change, what's been called sort of platform capitalism, gig work, those are all really important areas. I think that one of the perspectives that Labour Studies brings to bear as a sort of inter, multidisciplinary field is both a sort of international or global perspective, potentially, so a comparative perspective understanding that these processes unfold in different ways in different places. And then what happens in countries like Canada, or the US or the UK, you know, isn't representative necessarily of all we need to understand to understand work in a global economy. And you know, that the 1990s in the 2000s, were a real time for exploring processes of globalization, outsourcing, offshoring, and, of course, the rise of the industrial working class in countries like China that were being incorporated into kind of global capitalist labour markets. But it also brings a historical perspective to bear. And I think one of the things that is really apparent about our moment is that we have both a unique set of technological changes unfolding with huge implications for work, but also that technological change and its impact on workers. They are as old as capitalism. I mean, capitalism is a system that kind of relentlessly tries to transform itself. And so precarious employment is both new and nothing new. And so Labour Studies is really on the forefront of trying to understand what that looks like on the ground, and how workers actively contest and resist those changes to kind of shape economies in ways that work better for them.

Am Johal  7:58 
Yeah, I think about, you know, my own father was a lumber grader in Williams Lake and was in a union, but there would be layoffs that would happen in town at other Mills, related to technological changes happening, my mother worked cleaning hotel rooms, you know, barely above minimum wage, most of her most of her working life, and, but at the time, in the 70s, before the big interest rates came forward, you could, you know, put a down payment on a house, you not necessarily had a job for life, but you certainly had some level of stability. And, you know, there would be strikes, layoffs and those types of things, but in the contemporary pace of technological change, and the precarity that that entails. And also, I guess the differences in benefits between public sector workers, private sector workers, or even say, the nonprofit organizations as well, I'm wondering if you're seeing trends or some research coming forward, that's looking at these, you know, essentially versions of inequality playing out in different parts of the of the workforce?

Kendra Strauss  9:08 
Yeah, I think those are all processes that we're trying to grapple with in terms of understanding, partly because, you know, as, as a social science, or as a field aligned with the social sciences, we haven't been very good at collecting the traditional kinds of data that we need to understand changes in patterns of work. So precarious work, which sort of encompasses various forms of insecure work increasingly manifests as insecure, short term, non-permanent work, as well as work that is low paid, doesn't have access to benefits, and often isn't unionized. And you know, Statistics Canada, for example, hasn't been very good at tracking things like multiple job-holding, short-term contracts, some forms of self employment, disguised self employment. And so we're really trying to understand, I think, what these patterns look like and for whom, and one of the things that we do know, from some of the research that's been done, including by Labour Studies scholars in places like Ontario, is that precarious work and its impacts are really unequally distributed. And so we see precarious work, you know, when you talk about your own family, this sort of ability in particular of immigrant workers to be able to through integration into the Canadian Labour Market enter the middle class, an offer, you know, a standard of life and opportunities for their children that are better than what they had is really being undermined by this spread of precarious work, which disproportionately impacts racialized immigrants in Canada. It also impacts women. But, you know, recent data shows as much as we have thought about precarity as something that's very highly gendered, that actually men are as likely or more likely, in some sectors, to be in precarious employment. And that's actually in part because more women are employed in the public sector, where many jobs, although by no means all, because precarious work exists in the public sector, as well, are better quality jobs, then we might see in parts of the private sector. So that's a real reversal, because of course, the public sector was late to unionize. And public sector workers fought to unionize, in part because they were worse jobs than many private sector jobs. So those are, we're seeing all kinds of sectoral, geographical, industrial changes. But you know, to my first point, the real question, and the real problem for us as a society is, how are those impacts distributed? And what are we doing about them as our society becomes more and more polarized?

Am Johal  11:57 
You see in the labour movement here in BC, and other provinces strongly support or raise to the minimum wage and around support for a living wage campaigns as well. Wondering if you can speak a little bit to those attempts at wage increases across the sector? And I guess I'd throw in a third question, which has to do with, you know, contracting out was something that was feverishly expanded in the 80s. And the 90s, and labour movements had, you know, strong arguments against that. I'm wondering if you could speak to that a little bit as well.

Kendra Strauss  12:34 
Yeah, I think wages have really been at the forefront of many of the struggles, both of the labour movement, and I think a really key area where what we might think of as traditional unions have really expanded the base of their organizing, to advocate, for example, for higher minimum wages, the sort of Fight for 15 movement, and its alignment with movements for racial justice, for example. And, you know, we have seen some of those successes. You know, in BC, the current government did commit to raising the minimum wage, not perhaps by as much as many of us would have liked, given how high the living wage is in many parts of the province. Ontario did see gains before the current government rolled some of those gains back. And so wages are clearly really important. And contracting out is part of the story of why reversing some of those declines in wages is so important, because one of the things that contracting out did was roll back wages for many workers who were formerly unionized, often formerly directly hired, for example, within the public sector. So, you know, in BC, it was the healthcare sector, you know, where under the liberals in the early 2000s, we saw these huge waves of contracting out. And I had a recent research project with workers in the seniors care sector, which of course, was one of the sectors right at the forefront of the COVID 19 pandemic. And, you know, workers in that sector, many of them have not seen their wages recover to the levels that they were at in the early 2000s, before contracting out. So these are huge impacts on people's livelihoods.

Am Johal  14:22 
Kendra, I'm wondering if you can speak to a little bit of your own research that you're currently involved in?

Kendra Strauss  14:29 
Yeah, so as I mentioned, pre-pandemic, actually, I collabourated with a colleague at the University of Victoria in the Department of Political Science, Feng Xu, who is a feminist political economist and a China scholar. And we were really interested after sort of years of informal discussions about some similarities that we were seeing both in contracting out and privatization and in the labour process between care workers in China and in Canada. And these are two countries that very seldom get compared, right, Canada, we think of as this sort of, you know, liberal, social, democratic, hybrid welfare state, China is this kind of other model, whatever, you know, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, whatever we call it, we often don't compare them and yet, because the labour is very highly feminized, because this is work that has traditionally been done by families in the private sphere, we see really interesting similarities between the terms and conditions and the valuing of that work. So we were comparing some of those processes in Shanghai and in Vancouver. And then of course, when the pandemic hit, the sort of immediate impacts on the elder care sector really highlighted the ways in which the devaluation of that work, contracting out, privatization in BC, although BC was initially touted as quite a success story, because of things like the single site order that was imposed, it still really pulled back the curtain on the ways in which that work has been devalued, fragmented, and made precarious. So that ended up being very timely. And, you know, I think one of the big challenges facing us as a society is what we decide to do about learning, or seeing for many people for the first time how dire things had become in that sector. So that specific project is obviously in the vein of kind of precarious work, understanding the impacts of precaritization. And then, you know, more recently, in collaboration with community partners, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the BC office, we sort of broadened that into a partnership to actually study precarity, more broadly within BC. So that's just been funded by Social Sciences and Research Humanities Council, as a six-year partnership to study multi-dimensional precarity in BC. And as part of that, we're really hoping to gather some good data on what precarious employment looks like in BC, but also, who is impacted and how not only in the workplace, but beyond the workplace.

Am Johal  17:16 
Kendra, the Labour Studies program at SFU has a really strong steering committee and advisory committee, has lots of people from the the labour movement, from various unions, decades of experience and wondering if you can speak a little bit to what you see as the future of the Labour Studies Department in terms of where you'd like to see it go?

Kendra Strauss  17:39 
Well, we're really lucky, I think, to be developing this program from that unique starting point that you mentioned, where we have an advisory committee that connects us directly with the labour movement in BC. And going forward, I think my hope is that we can continue to build those connections. So that, you know, not only are we offering academic programs that give students a real grounding and insight into the world of work, employment, but also the way that, you know, unions and the labour movement operate and the impacts they've had in BC, and in Canada and beyond. But I think, you know, as we try as a society to grapple with all of these issues we've just talked about; so precarious employment, technological change, we didn't even touch on things like, you know, the sort of so-called migrant crisis. So the idea that we have more people than ever on the move in the world, and how do we reconcile notions of justice with the state's desires to kind of keep people out. You know, the Labour Studies program, I think, can be really crucial in working with the labour movement and with workers in this province, to both understand but also advocate for the kind of society that we want, in which workers have voice, have a decent standard of living and decent livelihoods, and some kind of security and future that they can look forward to.

Am Johal  19:09 
Kendra, for you, what do you see as sort of future trends in labour studies be it in research, or other areas? There's so much technological change happening, as you mentioned, we're seeing a lot of gig workers, as you mentioned, from Skip the Dishes to DoorDash, to all of these forms of employment that don't have benefits. And do you also see, you know, changes in how unions are attempting to organize workers?

Kendra Strauss  19:41 
I think so. And I think unions in the labour movement are very aware of this challenge. It's not easy, because of course, the model of sort of labour relations that we have in this country is an artifact of kind of the post-world war two period when organizing people meant going into a factory, or a fairly large scale workplace. It's not that there weren't small employers, but that was sort of the model of organizing. Platform economies and gig work really offers significant challenges to the labour movement. But the labour movement has also been at the forefront of advocating for social programs and forms of support for workers that involve commitments of employers, but don't end with commitments of employers. And so the question of what our welfare state looks like, what social policy looks like I think is really crucial. Clearly, we have an enormous amount of work to do to grapple with ongoing colonialism in Canada. I think how we think about the economy and labour in the context of things like the land back movement is really crucial. And Labour Studies is really only at the beginning of thinking about this. It challenges our definitions of work, you know, who counts as a worker, and what counts as work. And, you know, I think that in addition to kind of colonialism and settler colonialism, the kind of underlying frameworks of white supremacy and the way in which they also undergird our institutions and shape the fortunes of of racialized workers and workers of colour, it's easy for us to look to the United States and think, you know, well, that kind of stuff doesn't happen here. And of course, we know that's not true, we're only beginning to to acknowledge that slavery, for example, is part of our history here in Canada. So I think there's a lot of work for labour studies to do. Climate change is another one, you know, what does a just transition look like that takes all of these other factors into account. So in that sense, I mean, in some ways, there are huge challenges. And there are days when it feels really, really depressing and grim. But on the other hand, it's exciting to be in a field that is sort of at the forefront of, or should be at the forefront of confronting these, these really major challenges that we have to tackle as societies.

Am Johal  22:08 
In listening to you, Kendra, it really sounds like Labour Studies is an area of scholarship that's still really alive and has a lot of questions happening. It's not just an historical study, and you think about the long history of Indigenous communities and their involvement with labour unions going back to the early 20th century, there's some really strong organizing and connections that were made a long time ago. Wondering if there's anything you'd like to add, Kendra?

Kendra Strauss  22:39 
No, not really. I mean, I, I guess, you know, on that last point, I think the the final challenge, maybe for Labour Studies is to also think about as a field, how we can be a field that attracts scholars, really diverse creative scholars, you know, from from all backgrounds, and who represent a huge, you know, a range of different communities. I think we do have to grapple a little bit with kind of the whiteness of our own discipline and the ways in which labour history and labour studies have historically focused a lot on, for example, industrial workers, or formally unionized workers. And so we still have some work to do, I think, to make sure Labour Studies is also inclusive of all of those perspectives. But you know, it is also exciting in a sense to be a field that is broad enough to incorporate these different... We're a very open discipline rather than a kind of very structured and canonical discipline. And that's kind of an exciting thing.

Am Johal  23:43 
Kendra, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Kendra Strauss  23:47 
Well, thanks for having me. It was a great conversation.

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Melissa Roach  23:52
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Kendra Strauss. For more conversations about labour, tune in this Thursday for the final installment of Women, Work, More: a series about making work, work for women. Thanks again and see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 23, 2021

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