NALL Working Paper
Among People Who Are Excluded From The Labour Market
Part One: Context and Case Studies
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Redefining wage labour
An ideology of entrepreneurship
The state and the redefined role of community organizations
UNITE – Homeworkers get organized
Labour adjustment activities
Formation of the Homeworkers' Association (HWA)
CHIC RESTO-POP – Social Entrepreneurship as Work Readiness
Chic Resto Pop: Practices and Issues
A-WAY EXPRESS COURIERS – Using the Economy to Develop the Community
Psychiatric survivor communities
Three phases of organizing
A-Way Express: A Success Story
This document is the first of two working papers from a
research team within the Network for New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL).
The purpose of this working paper is to lay some
essential groundwork for a discussion of our research, currently underway within
- The Homeworkers’ Association, (HWA) a project of UNITE, a labour union
in Toronto. Working with unemployed members and homeworkers in the garment
and textile sector who are mainly immigrant women, this organization has
developed new approaches to training in partnership with government and
- Chic Resto Pop, a community restaurant located in a low-income,
working-class community in Montreal. This is a business (entreprise
d'insertion) designed as a place of training for people on social
- A-Way Express, a courier service that is operated by psychiatric survivors
in Toronto. A-Way uses business development not only to improve employees’
material conditions but also as a vehicle to radically redefine their lives:
democratic processes and personal redefinition are primary goals.
The paper is organized in three sections. First, we examine
the broader context that has given rise to our research project. Context is
important because it defines and shapes experiences for people who face
exclusion from the labour market. A couple of features are particularly
significant here: wider changes in the nature of work, and related changes in
the welfare state. Both arise from structural changes brought about by
globalization of the economy.
Second, using case material, we outline the particular
situation in which our selected organizations were founded and developed their
practice. Each case illustrates changing context and related responses. We are
looking at these initiatives in order to understand how the larger context
shapes participant experiences. In turn, we look at how they respond to and
innovate around constant structural change.
Third, as a segue to a second working paper, we provide
some initial comments on the directions that we are pursuing with our research
into informal learning.
NALL is a five-year research initiative funded by the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Livingstone, 1999). The network
is comprised of almost 70 academic researchers and their community partners,
collaboratively engaged in over 40 projects across Canada. Our focus is on
informal learning as it is accomplished by people who are displaced from the
labour market or chronically unemployed, in the context of community
As a research team, we are differently located in terms of
ethnicity, gender, language and geography. Three of us are tenured within the
university while one is an independent researcher. Whether because of our actual
location or our approach to research and politics, we often feel marginal. We
are “bridge” people: the university-based members play active roles in
providing academic support to community organizations and social movements; the
community-based member plays an active role in carrying the issues and
knowledge/s of community groups into academe.
In 1996, at NALL’s opening session of the research
network, it became obvious that the four of us were already investigating
similar processes within different communities. Using the Network’s resources,
we joined forces to enrich our individual projects and to extend them into
collaborative work that will enable us to go beyond what any one of us might
have generated alone. In the process, we learned to appreciate how each of us
sees the world as well as how the particular contexts in which we work differ
and shape our understanding of the issues. We learned to “work across
difference” to pull together common elements (Narayan, 1988). Primary among
them is a focus on the role of wage labour in personal and social re/definition.
In other words, beyond material support, a job is a desired end.
NALL’s basic objectives are:
- to document current relations between informal learning, formal (full-time
school programs), and non-formal (course-based continuing education)
- to identify major social barriers to integrating informal learning with
formal and non-formal programs;
- to support new program initiatives that promise to overcome such barriers.
At the start of the research network, NALL members understood
informal learning to be:
...any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill
which occurs outside the curricula of institutions providing educational
programs, courses or curricula. It is distinguished from everyday perceptions
and general socialization by people’s own conscious identification of the
activity as significant learning. The basic terms of informal learning are
determined by the individuals and groups who choose to engage in it, without
the presence of an institutionally authorized instructor (NALL, 1999).
At first, we tried to fit our work into the formal,
non-formal and informal categories of learning that shape the Network’s
conversation. However, over time and through discussion, we felt the need to
reconstruct the definition of informal learning because the one noted above
seems inappropriate to the learning that is happening in our sites. Through
field observations and interviews, we have identified three kinds of informal
learning happening in the community sector.
The first is “organizational learning.” By this, we
mean the ways in which community organizations come to understand how to operate
and position themselves within an entrepreneurial culture. Their role in a
restructured economy is not immediately obvious, and is sometimes actively
resisted. There are no courses they can take and the implicit curriculum is
sometimes obscured, but still it must be learned – and quickly – if they are
to survive. Especially significant is learning how to build programs that will
fly in the new economy and receive viable social support while simultaneously
carrying forward historical concerns for social and economic justice. This is
what psychiatric survivors refer to as “the business behind the business” of
their economic development practice (Church, 1997). It invariably requires
becoming adept at a new language in order to secure and sustain funding. For
example, in Ontario, community organizations have learned to replace the
forbidden term “advocacy” with still acceptable references to “public
The second form of informal learning at work in this
sector is “solidarity learning.” All of the organizations we are studying
are immediately concerned with preparing participants for labour market (re)entry
or creating an alternative market. However, only some of the activities that
participants engage in are directly related to the curriculum of the program and
the job. Others take place through social interaction in and around formal
organizational practices. Thus, our interest in these organizations is not so
much in the formal outcomes of business development or job placement as it is in
the learning that takes place simply because these settings bring (often
isolated) people together. For example, during a break in a meeting of the
Homeworkers’ Association, one of the women who had been an activist in the
clothing trade in Hong Kong explained to others how to negotiate more
effectively with employers. The conversation was impromptu and unrelated to the
meeting agenda. We link this and other similar observations to issues of
political identification, citizenship, participation in decision-making and the
building of social solidarity.
The third kind of informal learning we have identified
is what we would term “reshaping the definition of self.” Part of the agenda
of community organizations has always been to achieve individual change through
building new skills and capacities. That is explicit in the curriculum. Beyond
that, and especially in the current political climate, participants go through
more subtle transformations as a result of being immersed in the organizational
culture and their contact with other participants. In an “entreprise
d’insertion” such as Chic Resto Pop, there is group process related to skill
development and work readiness but personal change can come about because of the
wider culture of the organization or the individuals and/or situations
encountered in the setting. Similarly, some employees of A-Way Express
characterize the business as a place of learning about self. “When I became
ill, I felt as if I lost all of my skills,” said one. “The only one I
retained was keeping personal hygiene. I lost all sense of personal identity.
Over time, being at A-Way slowly helped bring back things about myself. Even
now, after many years, there are still changes going on.” Interesting
that those skills include becoming more authoritative, or “bold,” in the
performance of the job. What goes on, then, for some, is both recovery and
reshaping personal identity.
We decided to refer to all three of these types as
“social learning” because the learning that occurs is embedded in social
interaction whether between participants, between different levels of a
community organization, between organizations or, significantly, between
organizational representatives and their funders. It is important to note, as
well, that this social learning is often unanticipated, incidental (thought not
insignificant), and dynamic in nature. It is for these reasons that we think of
the work placement/creation function of these community organizations as the
excuse that makes the real curriculum possible.
Redefining wage labour
Our research sites were all established within the last
ten to fifteen years. They have been initiated from the community sector at
least partially in response to broad economic and social redefinition.
Traditionally, wage labour has been the primary source of income and relation of
regulation for most of the population. However, in recent years, precarious and
part-time work has grown, and there is an increase in related poverty.
Since the mid-seventies in developed countries, the
crisis of work is expressed in a variety of ways (Rifkin, 1995 ; Fusulier,
Fontan, 1998), often with little relation to fluctuations in official
unemployment levels. As we can see at the end of the nineties and the first year
of the first decade of the new century, even if Canadian unemployment rates have
diminished, there is a core group of people who remain unemployed (Yalnizyan,
2000). Also, many of the people who recently joined the work force ended up in
unstable jobs that make them working poor (Schellenberg, Clark, 1995 ; Lochhead,
Ross, 1997 ; Piketty, 1997).
The redefinition of the labour market is linked to a
number of global factors (Rifkin, 1995; Hayden, 1999). Since the end of
the seventies, technological changes and shifts in production to countries with
cheap pools of labour have contributed to high levels of unemployment. The
traditional unionized blue-collar job is diminishing replaced by irregular jobs
in the service sector -- non-unionized and low-wage. The general context of
these shifts is one in which governments abandoned a commitment to maintaining
high levels of employment. Another source of unemployment is reduction in
the size of government itself and the shedding of many public sector workers.
With post-Fordism, "just in time" production has required a flexible
labour market unencumbered by permanent jobs, trade unions, and collective
agreements (Boyer, 1995). We do not mean to imply here that all permanent jobs
have disappeared -- only that there are significantly fewer of them. New,
well-paid jobs are being produced by the economy but in areas of high
The consequences of these changes have been broadly
felt. For many people, jobs are no longer permanent but short-term, precarious
and unstable. At all levels of the economy, people have become contract
labourers, including many who, in the past, would have worked for government.
The bottom of the economy is expanding; groups who traditionally have been
barred from more stable employment are competing for low wage jobs. Youth,
particularly those who do not have advanced levels of education, young single
mothers, and others have difficulty entering the labour market (Gauthier,
Mercier, 1994). Linked to globalization, the competition for work within and
between nations further weakens worker attempts to improve their condition.
Thus, a variety of processes contribute to the exclusion of many from the
labour force and the growing number of people working in precarious unstable
jobs (Benies, 1998 ; Fontan, 1999a).
An ideology of entrepreneurship
One of the characteristics of this period is the rise of
entrepreneurial responses to the problem of work (Shragge, 1997; Dees, 1998). A
defining element of the private sector is its promotion of the ideology of
competition, individual initiative and the bottom line. This sector has pushed
the marketplace as the vehicle for economic and social development as well as a
means of curtailing the social role of the state. As a consequence of this
pressure, the jobless are more and more dependent on the labour market with less
and less cushioning from the state. In the wider society, business has reclaimed
legitimacy as the supreme agent of socio-economic development, displacing the
state and transcending national boundaries. As this dynamic intensifies, we face
the contradiction of economic expansion simultaneous with growing poverty and
homelessness (Fontan, 2000). Some of those excluded respond by participating in
the informal economy through actions ranging from crime to barter (e.g. local
economic trading systems) to “black” market and other kinds of exchanges.
Within the broader re-organization of the state-market
relationship, community organizations specializing in training or economic
development have put in place practices that are shaped by the new
entrepreneurial culture. The assumption they make is that work is a means of
personal redefinition and a way to counter social and/or economic exclusion. In
other words, community organizations are engaging with the market and market
relations as a social integration strategy for people who have been
Community organizations are using an entrepreneurial
model in different ways. Some use training for those without jobs as a
means to foster placement in the labour market. Here we see examples of the
partnership between government, community and sometimes the private sector. Most
traditional training is individualized and tries to impart skills related to
specific demands of the labour market (e.g. computer training) or more general
behaviours that are part of the world of work. Other community organizations
have used collective approaches to produce innovations. For example, groups that
have been traditionally excluded from the labour market (e.g.people labelled
disabled) have created their own work through community businesses as a way of
challenging dominant assumptions about their capacities.
The state and the redefined role of community organizations
Governments around the world have responded to business
dominance by redefining their role and approach (Teeple, 1995; Albrow, 1997).
Reinterpreting Keynesian economics and reducing the universal welfare state,
they have let unemployment rise and reduced support for those who have lost
their jobs. Rather than attacking the issues of poverty and unemployment,
governments have used cutbacks and workfare programs to attack the unemployed
and the poor (Leduc Browne, 2000). Ironically, as the structural determinants of
unemployment and poverty have increased, the state has promoted both rhetoric
and programs that individualize the problem and "blame the victim."
At the same time, entrepreneurship is gaining currency in government circles as
a solution to the plight of the unemployed. Directly administered by government
departments or a variety of intermediary organizations, programs promote the
development of business plans and personal initiatives for the unemployed and
those on welfare. What is the message? Create your own job, join the
labour force, or be subject to the "tough love" of new social
Governments are also redefining their relationship with
community organizations by shifting to them many programs from their own
bureaucracies. Structured through partnerships, these organizations have taken
on a service mandate (Leduc Browne, 1996; Fontan, 1999b). In the context of
cutbacks, the services they provide are cheap, flexible alternatives to the
bureaucratized services associated with the expansion of the welfare state in
the 1970s. We would describe this in a post-Fordist context as a
"flexible" welfare state in which without large bureaucracy and
regularized, unionized work, programs can be run on the cheap and shifted easily
from sector to sector depending on a variety of pressures.
The results are contradictory. On the plus side, there
are new opportunities for community organizations, some of which act as
"intermediaries" between the state and smaller local organizations. We
see innovative approaches to service provision reflecting particular needs at
the local level and new forms of social solidarity and community empowerment. At
the same time, community organizations have been vulnerable to funding
instability as well as being under-funded in relation to the services that they
provide (White, 1997). In summary, community organizations now find themselves
in a complex web of demands. From above there is the carrot of government
funding and support; from below there are the needs and issues of local
constituencies. From within this tension, innovations have been produced,
specifically new approaches to the problems faced by those outside of the
In this section, we present descriptions of three
community organizations that work with people who are excluded from the
mainstream labour market: the Homeworkers’ Association in Toronto, Chic Resto-Pop
in Montreal, and A-Way Express Couriers in Toronto. We chose to study these
organizations because they are attempting to create new forms and traditions of
labour while under considerable pressure to place people in the mainstream
labour market. All of them perceive work as a central element in transforming
people’s sense of themselves and their connections with other people. They
provide us with places in which to understand the intersection between social
and economic exclusion, the labour market and redefined world of work, the
community sector and the redefined programs of the welfare state. They afford us
the opportunity to explore the impact of their activities on participants in
terms of what and how they learn.
UNITE – Homeworkers get organized2
- The Homeworkers’ Association (HWA) is an example of how a labour union
responded to the restructuring of work by departing from traditional tactics
of collective bargaining and strike action in favour of creative alliances
and innovative strategies for working with displaced workers.1
- Chic Resto Pop illustrates the complex interaction between business
development, job-training, political advocacy, and linkages to the wider
culture of the community movement.
- A-Way Express demonstrates similar connections but from within a framework
of self-help rather than professional service provision. Its goal is not
integration but building an alternative labour market that redefines,
accommodates, and organizes the capacities of a heavily stigmatized
The city of Toronto has been a major centre of garment
production in Canada since industrialization. As an industry that makes use of
what are assumed to be women's skills, the garment trade has always been an
employer of female immigrant workers, firstly from Europe and later from Asia.
According to Statistics Canada data in 1986, 94 percent of sewing machine
operators were born outside of Canada, as were 83 percent of pattern-makers and
cutters, and 83 percent of the employees in various textile industry occupations
(reported in The Toronto Star, September 21, 1992, A1). Whereas women
constituted just 29 percent of the work force in manufacturing, 80 percent of
them were in the garment industry (Borowy and Johnson, 1995). Thus, the garment
and textile sector was and continues to be a major employer of immigrant labour.
Historically, homeworking and sweatshop operation was
an integral part of the garment trade. With the formation of the International
Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), firstly in the US and later in Canada,
garment workers became the few unionized female work force that enjoyed decent
wages and employee benefits. Unlike some other sectors with heavy concentration
of female immigrant workers, labour standard legislation and rights to
collective bargaining protected garment workers. Since the 1980s, however, this
has all changed. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Toronto witnessed the closing of
many garment factories, and massive worker lay-offs. Employment dropped from
95,800 in 1988 to an estimated 62,800 in 1992, corresponding to the signing of
the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the US. Between 1985 and 1992, the
ILGWU membership dropped from a high of up to 80 percent to below 20 percent (Borowy,
Gordon and al., 1993). What has happened?
From the point of view of economists and policy-makers,
the garment industry in Canada is a “sunset' industry” because it has little
chance of survival without heavy tariff and trade protection from global
competition (Borowy, Gordon and al., 1993). For instance, the opening up of
labour markets in the so-called “third world,” especially the
industrialization of the Asian Pacific Rim countries and the establishment of
free trade zones there has enabled much cheaper garment production.
Concomitantly, control of the industry has shifted from
manufacturers to large retail chains such as the Hudson's Bay Co. (which owns
Zellers, Simpson's, Robinson's and Fields, K Mart). Retailers' strategy, to keep
up with global competition, is to deliver the most fashionable clothes to the
market quickly. This is made possible, among other things, by technological
innovations such as electronic data interchange to control the production
process. This kind of computerized technology enables retailers to keep better
records of their stock and to keep less stock. Sales of garments on the rack in
retail stores can be communicated to production plants almost instantaneously
anywhere in the world. This cuts down on mass production, storage and other
overhead costs. Retailers also demand quicker turn-around time for production,
and that suppliers provide garments on consignment, and/or at last year's price.
Improved distribution and transportation systems also
allow garments to be delivered more quickly to stores, even from far-away
places. Trade agreements, such as NAFTA (The North American Free Trade
Agreement), make it possible for retailers to order garments from countries such
as Mexico that again undermines both manufacturers and workers in Toronto.
Manufacturers in Toronto responded to their slip of control and technological
changes in the following ways:
- retire and get out of the business altogether. Since garment production is
a relatively old industry in Toronto, many manufacturers have been in the
business since the post-war period and are close to retirement age anyway.
- produce off-shore, either by setting up factories in cheaper locations
such as Mexico and Asian countries as mentioned before, or by contracting
production to factories established in these areas. (This is also a strategy
used by retailers to keep production costs low, thereby undermining local
- become sub-contractors to retailers by becoming jobbers. This is done by
reducing the production plant, for example by retaining a few cutters, and
laying off sewing machines operators, and by using homeworkers on a piece
The effects of these changes are downsizing of industrial
plants and factory closures in Toronto (and elsewhere in Canada). They in turn
have led to massive lay-off and displacement of garment workers, many of who are
women from Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, and India. Thus, we see
that work restructuring is not a uniform process. In the case of the garment
sector, we see how it affected female immigrant workers, who are mainly sewing
machine operators, differently from male immigrant workers, who are mainly
pattern enlargers and cutters. The latter (numerically much smaller) group are
retained while the majority of sewing machine operators are laid off. This does
not mean that they lose their jobs altogether. It means that they are now sewing
garment at home on a piece rate basis, thereby earning non-union wages and
possibly extending their work day to make the same amount of money (Ng 1998,
In response to these changes, the major union in the
sector, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), developed a
number of strategies to ameliorate the effect of the dramatic displacement of
workers in the garment sector. Many of these strategies depart from traditional
tactics of organized labour. From 1990, the ILGWU proposed legislative changes;
conducted research; did organizing outside of the collective bargaining model;
collaborated with governments and other unions to renew the industry; and
participated in coalition building concerning garment workers. In 1995, after a
long period of negotiation, the ILGWU merged with the other major union in the
sector, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to form a new
union called UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).
The myriad activities listed above represent the multi-faceted, innovative, and
entrepreneurial ways of addressing the changing organization of work, not only
in Canada, but globally, and is thus an interesting case study for our inquiry.
The formation of UNITE signals a new era in the history of organizing within the
garment and textile sector in response to globalization.
The remainder of this section outlines the activities
undertaken by the ILGWU from 1990. With this backdrop our inquiry will focus on
the Homeworkers' Association (HWA) formed by the ILGWU in March 1992, as a site
of the non-formal and informal learning.
To understand how the restructuring of the garment
industry affected displaced workers in previously unionized plants, the ILGWU
conducted research between 1990 and 1993. The research had three phases. Phase
One consisted of an evaluation of existing training and adjustment programs. The
outcome of this evaluation will be discussed later. Phase Two consisted of a
survey of the working conditions of garment workers who were sewing at home (homeworkers).
This was an attempt to discover how conditions, such as wage level, benefits,
health and safety issues, had changed for garment workers as they moved into
home sewing. The third phase of the study consisted of an analysis of the
industry including policy analysis and tracking clothing labels to discover
linkages between retailers and manufacturers. This gave the ILGWU a sense of how
the industry had been restructured. The findings of these various studies were
then used for different kinds of action such as in labour adjustment and
In addition, a follow-up research project was
conducted on the experiences of displaced workers in one plant, The Great Sewing
Exchange. This was supplemented by a comparative study on factory-based and
sectoral-wide adjustment committees (ILGWU, 1994). One of us (Roxana Ng) was the
investigator and author of the supplementary report based on her work in labour
adjustment (see below).
Labour adjustment activities
The most immediate action undertaken by the ILGWU, as a
result of the initial research, was to ameliorate the drastic effects of job
loss on its workers. To this end, the ILGWU collaborated with ACTWU, the other
union in the sector, and approached the federal and provincial governments for
funds to set up a labour adjustment committee to look into ways of taking care
of unemployed workers. The Apparel Textile Action Committee (ATAC) was
established in the summer of 1991 to look into labour adjustment issues on a
sector-wide, rather than plant by plant, basis.
ATAC had two arms. The policy arm was a committee composed of
union, community and government representatives, with participation from
relevant resource people such as Canada employment centre representatives and
program developers from educational institutions (e.g. community colleges) to
develop strategies for worker retraining and redeployment. An expert who had
knowledge and understanding of the issues chaired the committee. In the case of
ATAC, knowledge of immigrant women workers was seen to be an asset. In this way,
one of us (Roxana Ng) initially became involved in the situation of immigrant
women workers in the garment industry.
The action arm was an office run by a hired co-ordinator
and unemployed workers themselves. The office took care of the immediate needs
of workers confronting job loss, which included counselling, applying for
unemployment insurance, job search, applying for job training programs, and so
forth. Given the pessimistic outlook of the garment industry at the beginning of
the 1990s, attempts were made by the ATAC co-ordinator to enrol workers in ESL
(English as a Second Language) classes to augment their chances of moving into
re-training programs in other sectors. ATAC existed for three years, from 1991
to July 1994, the maximum period allowable under the federal Industrial
Adjustment Service Program guideline.
In addition to looking after displaced workers, the ILGWU
also organized and participated in a number of campaigns to draw public
attention to the plight of workers in the garment sector. In 1991, a small group
of people, including women from the ILGWU, the WIACT (Workers' Information and
Action Centre of Toronto now defunct), Mujer a Mujer (an organization working
with women in Mexico, the US, and Canada), and a law professor involved with NAC
(the National Action Committee on the Status of Women), came together to discuss
the situation of garment workers. This led to a formal workshop held on November
2, 1991, and the formation of the Coalition for Fair Wages and Working
Conditions for Homeworkers. The objectives were to fight for fair wages and
working conditions for homeworkers, to assist homeworkers to organize, to
educate the public about the growth in homework and related issues, to lobby for
better legislative protection for homeworkers, and to reach out to community and
union groups to build a campaign to stop the exploitation of women workers.
Active members of the Coalition included the ILGWU, the Ecumenical Coalition for
Economic Justice, the WIACT, Parkdale Community Legal Services, York
University's Centre for Research on Work and Society, Mujer a Mujer, NAC, Labour
Council of Metropolitan Toronto and York Regions, and the Cross Cultural
Communications Centre. The campaign was partially supported with funding from
the ILGWU in New York.
In the ensuing years, the coalition was very active: It
lobbied the provincial government for legislative changes that would give
homeworkers, including domestic workers, more protection. It put forward
resolutions in the convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL, November
1991) for the labour movement to address the issue of homework. An example is
the release of the names of three designers and clothing companies using
homeworkers under illegal working conditions in the OFL Women's Conference in
October 1992. In concert with this effort the Coalition launched a postcard
writing campaign directed at three major retailers in Canada (Eaton, the Bay,
and Dylex) urging them to produce clean clothes. This led to the Clean Clothes'
campaign in 1993 that ranked employers according to the working conditions of
their workers. The Clean Clothes List was publicized. These activities
gained a lot of media attention, and made the public aware of the fact that
homeworking was alive and well in Canada, and that homeworkers worked in
As well, the Coalition began to make wider connections
nationally and internationally. In November, 1992, it organized an international
conference to share information on the oldest form of homeworking, clothing,
with the newest form, telecommuting. During the conference, a public
demonstration was organized in front of a major downtown Toronto retail store.
Participants of another feminist conference occurring in Toronto at the same
time joined this demonstration. Again, this led to a lot of media attention on
Formation of the Homeworkers' Association (HWA)
In January 1992, a sub-committee of the Coalition was
formed to organize homeworkers. This is perhaps the most sustained effort made
by the ILGWU to resist the impact of restructuring on workers. Representatives
from the WIACT and Parkdale Community Legal Clinic worked with the ILGWU to
develop an organizing plan. The Associate ILGWU Member Program (AIM) (run by the
Associate Membership Department of the ILGWU) granted Toronto a formal charter
that set up a new local, number 12. This led to the formation of the Homeworkers'
Association, which hired its first co-ordinator in March, 1992, and was
established formally in May.
The biggest challenge in organizing homeworkers was in
locating them and understanding the underground network of contracting and
homeworking. The methods used by the group included advertising in ethnic
newspapers, provision of a hotline service for homeworkers, and word-of-mouth
organizing. Other strategies included monthly legal clinics and social teas on
Saturday afternoons throughout 1992; outdoor family trips on Saturdays in the
summer of 1992; ESL classes in September 1992; a benefit plan introduced in
early 1993, and a pilot women's leadership training course in the winter of
1994. This multi-pronged strategy of combining training courses, social
activities, and service provision continues to this day, and provides a fertile
ground for our study on informal learning.
Funding poses another major challenge. The HWA is
service oriented and therefore requires much human resources to maintain the
services, in addition to organizing. It cannot rely solely on membership dues:
the dues have to be low because of members' low incomes. Support has to be
sought from the union, from governments and other sources (such as private
foundations). Yet, the difficulty for the ILGWU Ontario region was that the
regular dues base had also seen a serious decline because of plant closures. The
shortage of funds meant that the HWA was unable to expand much beyond the
initial targeted community. In 1995, the HWA launched an outreach program to
homeworkers in Spanish and South-Asian communities, funded by the Jobs Ontario
Community Action' project for one year. But since the funding was only for one
year, continuous provision of programs was difficult to maintain. Now, the HWA
services a solely Chinese speaking membership for two reasons. They are the
largest group of homeworkers. And since the ability to communicate in the
homeworkers' language is essential to organizing them, due to limited funding a
decision was made to focus on organizing within the Chinese community.
The most interesting aspect of the ILGWU, from our
point of view, is its transition from the old style business unionism that was
solidified in the hay day of the North American labour movement, to social
unionism, to what activists in the early 1990s characterized as community
unionism. Community unionism expands on social unionism by advocating that
unions become integrally involved within their communities and form coalitions
with other groups working on similar issues. As capital consolidates and expands
its power base, some unionists recognize that it is important for unions to
expand beyond their traditional base and organizing strategies (see Dagg, 1996).
This move was not met without resistance within the union itself. But again the
ILGWU addressed this creatively: in the summer of 1992, a special workshop was
organized to bring together activist members of the local labour council, who
were primarily male immigrant workers who had worked in the garment trade for a
long time, and younger female workers who were homeworkers. The objective of
this workshop was to enhance communication and mutual-understanding. It helped
the development of a cohesive union approach to the changing structure of the
garment industry in Canada.
In summary, the myriad activities undertaken by the
ILGWU and through the Homeworkers’ Association, provide numerous and
interesting examples for us to understand how community organizations respond to
the crisis of work and develop entrepreneurial ways of participating in the
CHIC RESTO-POP – Social Entrepreneurship as Work Readiness
In this section, we discuss the emergence of les
entreprises d'insertions or training businesses in Quebec. Training businesses
are new phenomena that have developed in different localities across Canada.
They vary between regions and in their emphasis but touch on social, economic
and political dimensions and bring together several types of social practice.
Jean-Paul Hautecoeur (1996) describes the new types of practice as follows:
It is obvious that alternative networks and fields of work are growing up,
less dependent on the free market and on state programmes, in a quest for
durable solutions to the crisis of work, of the welfare state and of
neo-capitalist destruction. The aim of such organizations is not to offer a
faint hope of finding a job and becoming integrated ("vocationalized
learning"), but rather to open up areas of useful work where neither the
market nor public services operate ... and to create new local and regional
solidarity by widening collective participation (p. 344).
The discussion that follows will focus on these organizations in Quebec. They
provide training and jobs to those who are excluded from the labour market. The
starting point for these initiatives is the situations and capacities of their
clientele and/or members and the barriers they face in finding work. More
important, these projects address the wider social situation of these
individuals, creating a social and economic alternative. In addition, they
provide a centre for social solidarity, and contribute to a broader social
infrastructure in response to the cutbacks of government programs.
Training businesses are involved in finding ways for
those outside of the labour market to find a way into it and at the same time
they play a social role in the lives of the participants and in the wider
community. Through training programs and related work, the businesses try to get
their participant/employees "integrated" into the labour market.
During the time in these businesses the participant is treated as a worker and
receives a salary-through a government program. (The "employees" in
the training businesses are in reality receiving their income from social aide
(welfare) with a small amount in addition for participating in the program. They
do not receive direct payment from the training businesses in most cases.) There
is a limited period of time that an individual can stay in the
"training-job" - less than a year.
Training businesses are attempts to bring together two
types of practice: training, and business development, and at times, the
production of a socially useful product or service. The target population is
people who face serious barriers to employment, and other social problems linked
to their marginal socio-economic status. Within these organizations there are
variations, but all of them maintain a commitment to the personal development of
those who participate in the training programs. Each of the organizations has
developed autonomously with differing emphases. As well, the structures and
processes within each organization vary, as do the relationships with government
and other institutions. Thus, there is a diversity of practices within a general
As we noted earlier, a growing number of people are
excluded from or have limited attachment to the labour market. They face the
contradiction of de-skilled jobs requiring higher levels of formal education.
Exclusion from the labour market creates a circle in which lack of experience
becomes a greater barrier to entry. Training businesses act partly as a bridge
to either education or the mainstream market and partly as an alternative labour
market. Thus, the first goal of training businesses is to try to find a way to
create useful functions for those outside of the traditional labour market. This
does not mean that the work is "sheltered". Training businesses are
forced to deliver on a service and/or a product in the context of the
marketplace. The problem of chronic high levels of unemployment is their primary
issue, and therefore the marketplace demands for their product and services
remain secondary to training.
Government policy in the area of social assistance has
changed from a passive to an active approach. Welfare recipients who are
classified as able to work are expected to be in training or educational
programs that are designed to lead to labour market insertion. Many of the
training businesses in Quebec are a community response to this shift. Caught
between the administration of workfare programs and the creation of alternative
workplaces, training businesses have had to live a difficult balance. The
choices for funding in many instances have been limited to these types of state
programs. At the same time, training businesses are one of few options for
people on social assistance that recognize the needs and capacities of social
assistance recipients. Rather than viewing their organizations as dead-end,
short-term experiences, some training business in Quebec have argued for greater
social and economic validation of this work and stability for the participants.
They have received some recognition from the government, but in this period of
change their future is far from guaranteed.
Finally, with the changing nature of work and the
redefinition of the roles of government and the community sector, this period is
marked by one of instability and uncertainty. Given these changes, it is
important that organizations begin to express their own definition of practice,
the issues they face and how best they can meet their goals, and define
strategies to work with those excluded from the labour force. The case study
that follows articulates the directions and issues and problems faced by
practitioners within the limits of the redefined welfare state and labour market
Chic Resto-Pop3 is located in the East End of
Montreal, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, an old industrial neighbourhood. After the
Second World War, the working class population of approximately 80,000 and
particularly those in unionized jobs, made gains in wages and working conditions
in the context of the rapid growth of that period. In addition, the expanding
provincial and federal welfare state provided income support programs As well as
a variety of health, social service and educational programs. However,
with the growth of the suburbs around the island of Montreal, many with
unionized jobs left this district and moved to new working class suburbs; the
population shrank from 82,000 in 1950 to 48,000 in 1991. During the same period,
plant closures and relocation coupled with the recessions of the 1980s and the
1990s, and the forces of free trade, contributed to economic deterioration.
Little in the way of economic growth has replaced these losses. The consequences
have been severe. A document from Resto-Pop describes the situation:
We are 47,645 in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve community, but 40% of us live below
the poverty line. Here, there are many single parent households (46.3%). We
have experienced difficulties at school, and reading and writing are often
difficult for many among us, also, more than 25% of our young do not complete
high school...Thousands of jobs have disappeared from our community in recent
years. We know that many hide their misery because they are ashamed. But
people amongst us do not like a run down community with cries and conflicts.
More than that we do not like the insecurity and embarrassment that our
families are forced to live. (Chic Resto-Pop, Translation Eric Shragge)
The process of de-industrialization and the movement of those who had stable
jobs to the suburbs have left a neighbourhood with a weak local economy, high
levels of unemployment and poverty, and related social problems such as a large
number of young people dropping-out of school and drug use.
Community organizations in this neighbourhood have a long
history and still remain strong, innovative and energetic in responding to the
social and economic problems of the community. The range of groups includes
traditional charities, locally controlled and organized social service
organizations, health clinics, cultural groups, and a number of groups with a
tradition of mobilization on a variety of social questions. Many of the former
industries had strong trade unions that have kept their ties with community
organizations. The “popular movement” has organized itself around “Tables
de Concertations”, sectoral groupings that bring together representatives of
community organizations to deal with common problems and issues.
With the economic decline of the area, community
organizations have mobilized to find ways to revitalize the local economy. New
partnerships between government, business, unions, and community organizations
have been structured as part of this strategy. Community organizations
established and structured through these partnerships are being called upon to
meet a variety of local needs through direct service provision. As a
consequence, the state has granted greater legitimacy for the work of community
organizations, but at the same time, their role and mandate has been defined by
the demands of service delivery, leading to a reduction in oppositional
activities by these groups.
Examples of some of the new initiatives include
Joujouthèque, a toy rental service founded in 1978 that more recently added a
repair workshop. Founded in 1983, Boulot Vers is an enterprise that manufactures
furniture for day care centres and rooming houses and trains young unemployed.
Funded by the three levels of government, a community economic development
corporation (CDEC) called the Corporation de développement de l'Est de Montréal
has programs that promote business development in the local community, support
for new enterprise, and help the unemployed acquire training or advice about how
to find jobs. Although these CED initiatives have made some progress, they have
not made a dent in the huge problem of unemployment. Their role and impact is
social rather than generating large-scale economic changes.
Recent changes in the welfare state have important
implications for how Resto-Pop has developed. In particular, income support
programs have not kept up with the needs of the poor, thus creating a demand for
the supplementation of these benefits. Programs to reduce hunger including food
banks and collective kitchens have become common in low-income communities. A
second change was the introduction of workfare measures in the late 1980s, as
the government of Quebec reorganized its social aid (welfare) programs (Shragge,
1997). These programs are designed for those considered able to work. Although
they are not obligatory, there is a coercive aspect insofar as welfare rates are
reduced for those who refuse to participate. Under the guise of training
programs, recipients are placed in private businesses, community organizations,
or educational programs. Funds for community organizations that incorporate
training of welfare recipients became available. These programs have had little
success in placing individuals in employment, particularly on a long-term basis,
but have been useful nonetheless in their social aspects (Shragge and Deniger,
1997). Within this economic and social environment, individuals facing poverty
and unemployment, and coalitions of existing organizations have promoted new
initiatives such as the one that we will discuss.
Chic Resto Pop: Practices and Issues
Twelve welfare recipients organized Resto Pop, a community
restaurant, in 1984. They had two purposes: to create jobs for the founding
members and others on social assistance, and to provide quality, hot, and
inexpensive meals for the poor in the community. These goals have been realized
and the organization has both grown and broadened its activities. It has
introduced a mobile kitchen to provide meals to local schools, and day camps in
the summer. In addition, a musical festival, which is now part of an autonomous
organization, was introduced in 1992. Resto-Pop serves three meals a day, five
days a week. In 1984 it served meals for 50 people, in 1990- 250, and by 1995 it
has reached 800.
Resto-Pop is a non-profit organization managed by a
seven member Board of Directors. Members come from the church and the
professions, and are almost equally divided between men and women. There is no
staff representative on the board, and until recently there was no general
assembly. The operating budget for 1994 was $800,000. Slightly less than half
was from the three levels of government, while the rest was raised from sales of
meals, bingo and donations. There are 19 full-time employees under the
supervision of the director. Four employees are involved with administrative
work, two co-ordinate the restaurant, and 15 others carry out the general work.4
Job development and training is a central concern of
Resto-Pop. It takes in 105 trainees a year on an ongoing basis. The length of
training varies between six and fifteen months. The trainees are all receiving
welfare, and are participating in one of the workfare programs called Expérience
de travail (EXTRA). This program was a controversial part of a welfare reform
introduced in 1988 and many community organizations that could accept trainees
have boycotted it. They have criticized the program because it did not create
real jobs, and the lack of jobs made whatever training was received useless.
Resto-Pop members believed that their using the program was in the interest of
welfare recipients, as a means of connecting those marginalized by poverty to a
wider social process in which their labour was the basis of social
One of the staff at Resto-Pop summarized this position.
Quebec is not only confronted with a crisis of jobs, but also by a
transformation in work. Faced with this transformation, one must not only
reaffirm the principle of citizenship, one must also guarantee a minimal
income to citizens, recognizing the existence and the importance of a new type
of socially useful work. Resto-Pop works in this direction. (translation,
Thus, Resto-Pop has attempted to use the shifting economy and the re-defined
welfare state to be part of a wider movement in Quebec to create a locally based
According to one staff member, who supervised the trainees,
participants are treated as workers with the responsibilities and rights
attached to that role. It is attempting to break the dependency and passivity
associated with individuals who have received Social Aid (welfare) for a long
period. The goals of the training are to promote socially useful work that
permits the individual to rebuild confidence, improve general work habits and
learn new job-oriented skills.
The co-ordinator of Resto-Pop explained that one of the
most important functions of the organization is to support the trainees.
Psychological support and literacy training are provided by a neighbourhood
organization, and a variety of programs linked to the preparation to work. The
content of the training goes beyond the immediate tasks necessary to running a
community restaurant, and includes topics such as social rights. The longer-term
goal of training, according to one of the founders and a former co-ordinator of
Resto-Pop, is to demonstrate that the marginalized people of the district can be
other than clients of the services of community organizations, they can also be
workers and effective managers.
Since 1992, Resto-Pop has carried out an annual study
that shows the most frequent users of their program are single men, average age
of 45, who live alone, and are receiving welfare or Employment Insurance. They
eat on the average six to eight meals a week there. Resto-Pop provides more than
meals; it is also a place for socialization where one can meet others in a
similar situation. The large dining room is also used by community organizations
for the provision of information and discussion of such issues as the social
origins of poverty and the rights of those receiving welfare. Thus, Resto-Pop is
simultaneously a training program, a socially supportive environment and place
that provides meals for members of the local community.
In the fall of 1995, Resto-Pop moved in a new
direction. Pierre Prud'homme, the staff person in charge of training, raised
several critiques about the training and related government policies. He argued
that the government continued to think about and to apply its welfare system as
though it was a system of last resort, acting as if the recipients invented
their own joblessness. Short-term training programs coupled with unemployment
has institutionalized instability and social exclusion of parents from both
economic and meaningful social roles. In light of this analysis, Resto-Pop asked
the government to reform its training program and allow participants to stay for
three years. The government refused arguing that they did not want to encourage
dependence in a protected environment.
Frustrated by the lack of movement by government in a
more progressive direction, and the continual increase in local poverty, the
leaders of Resto-Pop called a conference to examine the underlying economic
issues and the politics of deficit cutting, and lack of adequate government
response. Several hundred community members participated in this event,
culminating in a series of demands and a march to the office of their local
provincial representative. Their demands touched fiscal and monetary policy,
minimum wage, job creation and day care, and training, calling for a full
employment through a variety of actions and innovations (Chic Resto-Pop, 1995).
This high profile and successful event put Resto-Pop on the map as a leader in
the current debate on poverty in Quebec.
A-WAY EXPRESS COURIERS – Using the Economy to Develop the Community
This section moves from a general description of major
psychiatric survivor issues to an overview of three phases of the survivor
movement.5 After a brief comment on the political implications
of a recent shift into economic development through “alternative
businesses,” we then describe the evolution and operation of A-Way Express
Couriers, an exemplar of this particular form.6
Psychiatric survivor communities
Psychiatric survivor communities are complex. While some
members believe in the biochemical basis for mental health problems, others
believe that mental illness does not exist and that the mental health system is
really about social control. Members hold a range of opinions on psychiatric
treatment: those who support established treatment practices; those who want
adjustments to practice; those who want real alternatives; and those who will
not be satisfied until the traditional system is entirely abolished.
Regardless of ideological diversity, psychiatric
survivors are bound together by a relentless commonality of life experiences.
Having been assessed, diagnosed, treated, institutionialized and otherwise
intervened upon, they share the experience of being misunderstood and feared by
other members of society. Many doors have been closed to their full
participation as citizens and many opportunities lost in terms of employment,
housing, training and education. Their marginalization in these crucial areas
mean that psychiatric survivors as a group are generally poor, unemployed and
inadequately housed. Economic participation is fundamental to well being yet
survivors often lack the most basic means to provide for themselves and their
families. While thousands of mental health professionals make a living from the
mental health service industry, survivors struggle desperately to gain access to
Three phases of organizing
Psychiatric survivors began to organize in the 1960’s as
the anti-psychiatry or ex-patient liberation movement (Burstow and Weitz, 1988;
Dain, 1989). Bolstered by allied theorists such as Erving Goffman and R.D. Laing,
they formed a separatist movement characterized by a loose network of the
self-help groups (Weitz, 1984). Their efforts gave impetus to large-scale
deinstitutionalization, a process that was driven by escalating hospital costs
and facilitated by the introduction of psychotropic drugs. In Canada, social
analysts in countless government reports and academic papers have dissected the
ensuing return go community by hundreds of former mental patients.
The consensus is that the communities in question lacked the
capacity to assist and support people who had spent long years in psychiatric
hospitals. The necessary planning simply was not done; essential resources were
not transferred (Trainor et al, 1992). Moreover, the medical establishment
underestimated both the effects of institutional life and the side effects of
long-term psychotropic drug use. For psychiatric survivors, these conditions set
the stage for community life characterized not by acceptance and growth, but by
grinding poverty, homelessness and social stigma. Their real suffering began
after discharge from hospital.
The second phase of the psychiatric survivor movement
was “consumerist” in nature. A feature of the 1980’s, it was noted more
for activist attempts to infiltrate and control the mental health system than by
their attempts to overturn it. “Consumer participation” was the buzzword of
the times. A tremendous amount of labour was expended by “consumers” and
their professional “partners” on attempts to ensure that users of services
had a voice in decision-making at all levels of the service system (Pape, 1988;
Church, 1996b). By contrast, the survivor movement of the 1990’s is (becoming)
In response to economic restructuring, and after a long
history of service system failure, psychiatric survivors have taken up
employment as an issue for which they are responsible. Consistent with the
diverse nature of the community, members are approaching the question of work in
three different ways. Some survivors are honing their job search and interview
skills to improve their chances in competing for mainstream jobs (Lindsay,
1997). Others favour self-employment by attempting to start and run their own
businesses. Still others are engaged in defining and practising community
economic development (CED). Their leaders use the language and processes of CED
as a vehicle for community organizing. The emerging form and the focus of our
discussion is the “alternative business” (Church, 1996a, 1997, 2000).
Founded on strong notions of self-help and a separatist sensibility, alternative
businesses can be considered a form of anti-psychiatry. At the same time, their
leaders sometimes partner with the mental health system in the tradition of
“consumer participation.” Thus, there are continuities and discontinuities
with previous phases of the survivor movement.
Survivor CED is characterized by an ongoing concern for
process. Community businesses are started very simply, by getting a few people
together to learn about each other’s skills and to generate ideas. Development
proceeds through practical problem solving. Organizational structures are
sufficiently flexible to accommodate employee needs. Survivor-run businesses
make use of peer rather than professional training and skills development. They
operate with the expectation that participants will make mistakes and "fail
forward." Participatory management is a key feature, accomplished through
board membership and affirmative hiring. Both give survivor employees experience
in decision-making, a critical necessity for leadership development.
Survivor-run businesses sometimes partner with other organizations or agencies
but they do so cautiously, with a close eye to future independence. As most
operate with a creative blend of public dollars and employee-generated revenues,
they value persistent funding partners.
Psychiatric survivors involved in community business
development have ceased to look to the mainstream economy for solutions to the
severe unemployment problems (estimated to be 85%) that affect their members.
Excluded from the labour market for decades, they have decided to make it a
virtue and create a parallel market for survivors alone. To that extent, they
too have embraced entrepreneurial culture. They have not, however, accepted the
dominant notion of what being a successful entrepreneur means. Survivor run
businesses maintain a commitment to employing the most poor and vulnerable
members of their community, people who have been classified as permanently
unemployable on top of being mentally ill. The businesses do not screen for the
most skilled and experienced. They do not take the cream of their applicants.
Most take applications on first come, first served basis. The major implication
of working with these folks is a reliance on government grants for some portion
of business revenue. Thus, financial self-sufficiency is not the key criteria
for success in these initiatives; profit is not the bottom line.
Survivors doing CED have evolved a qualitative standard
for success to balance the demands for quantitative data made by most funding
bodies. It includes understanding survivor-run businesses as sites for learning,
participation and the establishment of community. Beyond job skills, survivor
employees learn to become decisions-makers in the businesses through membership
on boards and committees. These processes are training for democratic
participation, something that was stripped away from many through psychiatric
treatment and service provision. Survivor CED is a recent development that takes
in a thin slice of the population. Significantly, it is a slice that no one else
wants. For these folks, employment becomes a real possibility when it is a
collective process and responsibility. “The goal of survivor-controlled
businesses,” argues OCAB, “is not improvement in the skills, behaviours and
general functioning of employees. Rather, it is empowerment” (Church 1997:
36). Success is a sense of ownership, a voice in making decisions. Thus, in the
face of massive economic restructuring, OCAB calls psychiatric survivors to
How does this play in the current climate? The
election of the Tories in September 1995 created enormous uncertainty about the
future of survivor businesses in general. Their leaders anticipated that the
formidable new political (economic) agenda might force the OCAB to retreat from
business development into defending the existing rights and entitlements of
workers in survivor run businesses. Now, in the second term of the Harris
government, two things are clear:
A-Way Express: A Success Story
- There has been tremendous support for survivor-controlled community
businesses. While other groups on social assistance became subject to
workfare, the new Ontario Disabled Support Program Act (ODSPA) created a
separate and more supportive income and employment support program for
people with disabilities. Particularly crucial for the survivor community
was government agreement to grandfather existing Family Benefits Allowance
recipients into ODSP, and to ensure rapid reinstatement of benefits for
anyone who attempts to work. Survivors worked behind the scenes to influence
the provisions of this Act, got what they wanted and then gave it public
- There has been a multi-faceted attack on the rights and entitlements of
people who have experienced psychiatric treatment and services. The
range of actions began with the dismantling of subsidized housing but most
critical for survivors was the government’s move to introduce community
treatment orders. Survivors were/are publicly opposed to community treatment
orders, known in their community as “leash laws.” As a founding
member of the Care Not Cuffs Coalition, OCAB organized a survivor-only
consultation with the government representative during which a range of
speakers argued for “a job, a home and a friend.” They also argued
for the education of doctors into proper use of the existing mental health
A-Way Express Courier Service began as a worker
co-operative. It was created under the auspices of the Applause Community
Development Corporation (ACDC), a non-profit corporation that intended to
develop a number of democratic workplaces for consumer/survivors of psychiatric
treatment and services. ACDC gave up the notion of a conglomerate in the face of
nervous provincial funders who were willing to support only a single non-profit
business. A-Way became that business and continues to operate as a division of
ACDC. The idea of a business run by and for psychiatric survivors came from the
survivor community itself. In 1985, users of community support services from
Progress Place and Houselink Community Homes initiated discussions with agency
staff about the possibilities of developing innovative work opportunities. Their
request was timely. The previous year the final report of the Toronto Mayor’s
Task Force on Discharged Psychiatric Patients pointed to supportive, part-time
flexible jobs as a primary need of this constituency.
By 1986, with the help of consultant Jacques Tremblay,
a discussion group had formed. It put forward the notion of replacing work
projects and handouts with empowering workplaces in which employees could be
supported to become more independent. This group met weekly for the next year to
develop the concept. Following a feasibility study, start-up and initial
operating costs totaling $89,000 were secured from several sources: the Ontario
Ministry of Health, the Ontario Ministry of Housing, the City of Toronto's
community economic development fund and the Holy Trinity Foundation. A-Way
Express opened its doors on June 1, 1987.
A-Way Express started out in an office equipped with a
couple of telephones and a typewriter. The business had a manager, four office
staff hired by the couriers, ten couriers and about thirty customers. By 1992,
it had expanded to 45 couriers and seven office staff including a manager and
executive director; there were 700 customers. By 1993, the company had 800 to
1,000 active accounts. A-Way currently had 45 couriers, 17 part-time office
staff and over 1,200 customer accounts. Steady expansion has meant four
different homes for the company. In the spring of 1999, it moved from cramped
quarters over a dry cleaner’s on Broadview Avenue to bright, spacious digs
further east on the subway line.
Unlike conventional couriers, A-Way employees don't use
bikes or cars. They get around on Toronto Transit (TTC): by subway and
streetcar, by bus and on foot. Couriers come into the office in the morning to
find out about their first delivery. After that, they move around the city on
instructions from a dispatcher back at the office. Given the density of traffic
in downtown Toronto, customers often get quicker service from A-Way than they
would from couriers who use other modes of transport. It also means that
survivor couriers do not have to struggle with parking or mechanical problems;
those who experience side effects from psycho-tropic medication are not
eliminated from employment.
In the beginning, A-Way customers came primarily from
the public and voluntary sectors. They included co-ops, social agencies, health
services as well as provincial and municipal government departments. As the
business developed, it put considerable effort into creating a private sector
market. A-Way continues to rely on government offices and non-profit
organizations for business but over half of its customers are in the private
sector. They include law firms, medical offices, consulting companies and
financial services. A-Way offers these customers message delivery with
confidentiality; the business also delivers small packages. The shortest
delivery within the service area (transit system and nearby streets) costs $4.00
with additional fees for more distant destinations. The business now delivers to
a wider geographic area, having expanded east and west. Some deliveries
previously more expensive have become cheaper.
A-Way Express operates on revenues generated from its
courier service as well as grants from the Ontario Ministry of Health. Couriers
work on commission and, depending on how fast they travel, can make the
equivalent of five to seven dollars per hour. The rate of pay is set at about 70
percent of service charges. Some of the newer couriers are not on disability
benefits. They earn 85 percent of commission and can make as much as ten dollars
per hour. Couriers may work as many hours as each decides will fit his/her
needs. A minimum shift is four hours. Most employees work at least two shifts;
the average is three.
ACDC by-laws initially provided for a board composed
one-third by social workers and business people, and two-thirds by survivors who
were also workers. There has been evolution over the years. Currently, A-Way is
composed of a board, a management team and the staff. On the ten-person board,
50 percent of the members are employees. The remaining 50 percent are
“outside” members with expertise in business or non-profit management - they
may or may not also be survivors. The management team includes the office and
marketing managers, executive director, head dispatcher, bookkeeper, primary
phone order-taker and two courier representatives. This team meets biweekly to
discuss current business, and is responsible for all operations, office
administration, implementation of board policies and procedures and purchases.
From the beginning, full staff meetings have been held monthly at which members
can raise concerns and make recommendations. Staff members have ultimate
decision-making power because of their representation at every level of the
business, and through formal reviews of goals and objectives at annual general
About five years ago, A-Way went through the most
significant shift in its 12-year history. During a crisis of financial
management, leadership of the organization passed from the hands of service
providers to psychiatric survivors. After a period of restructuring under the
direction of interim co-directors, Laurie Hall, formerly a courier and office
worker in the business, was hired to replace the previous director who had
resigned. Although the task was tense and stressful, employees were deeply
involved in keeping things afloat through this transition. The difficult benefit
of their actions was the realization that they could indeed run the business by
themselves. This shift took place in the context of broader struggles by the
psychiatric survivor movement to influence the shape of Ontario’s mental
health service systems through “consumer” participation and control. It took
place in the context of support from OCAB, its umbrella organization. The
importance of being survivor-directed and controlled is now firmly entrenched in
A-Way’s culture. This is signified through the structures outlined above but
also through less obvious symbols. In the old days, none of A-Way’s employees
had keys to the office; they often found themselves standing around outside
waiting for someone else to open the door. Today, there are many keys, all in
employee hands. They let each other in.
A-Way is overt about its politics. Removing the stigma
attached to mental illness means showing the public what consumer/survivors can
do when they are given the chance. Consumer/survivors identify themselves
openly, something that A-Way's promotional and publicity material clearly does.
Numerous newspaper articles and the daily presence of the clearly marked A-Way
courier bags on the streets work to educate the public. A-Way's participation in
relevant public hearings and government consultations, on the regional council
of the Mental Health Steering Committee and on the Trillium Foundation's
advisory council ensures that the perspectives of consumer/survivors are heard
in broader circles including among politicians. Recognizing the importance of
being involved in the community, some A-Way employees also serve on the boards
of other organizations, The atmosphere at A-Way is one of teamwork. There is a
substantial relief for survivors to being “out” with their illness, to being
in an environment of shared experiences, where idiosyncracies are more readily
accepted. The organization's participatory management mechanisms help foster a
common understanding of what's going on and a sense of responsibility for the
business that only time can develop. This supportive team environment promises
to keep A-Way as the flagship survivor business in Ontario.
The cases described above provide the background for us to
further our exploration of the learning experiences of marginalized groups, be
they immigrant women, psychiatric survivors, or people on social assistance.
While further and more detailed work is necessary to identify more precisely how
learning takes place in the three sites (the Homeworkers Association, A-way
Express, and Chic Resto-Pop), we can make the following observations. They
provide a guide for our in-depth exploration of (informal) learning at a later
stage of the project.
Methodologically, although we began with the working definition of
informal learning, vis-a-vis non-formal, advanced by NALL, our review of the
case studies suggests that the distinction between formal, non-formal and
informal learning overlaps; these types of learning do not merely exist along a
continuum. Indeed, we found that it does not make sense to distinguish between
the learning that takes place in a structured vis-a-vis ‘informal’
environment, because frequently informal learning occurs within non-formal and
formal educational processes.
For example, the workers who attend a basic sewing
class organized by the HWA may be regaining a sense of a social and collective
identity in addition to learning how to operate an industrial sewing machine. A
compelling example is how a worker at A-Way talked about it as a place of
learning about self in addition to the skills she acquired as a mail courier.
Thus, in our in-depth exploration, we will not start with an a-priori
definition; rather, our investigation will be guided by the participants’
definition of learning in terms of process and content.
At the same time, the questions that interest us the
most about these settings are:
- How do people acquire new knowledge to transform their definition of self?
The A-Way example given is illustrative of this transformation.
- How do people embody the knowledge provided? How do they resist and/or
- How do they learn democratic and political participation in a society that
upholds hierarchy, individuality, and passivity?
- What is the role of the organization’s leadership in structuring and
envisioning a process that encourages and facilitates a counter vision and
analysis of society, and how is this vision transmitted in the learning
Thus, we will pay special attention to the following areas in our exploration:
- The physical and emotional spaces of the learning process. For example,
the kitchen area in A-Way and the lounge at the HWA are places where members
congregate, interact, and exchange information on their problems and social
rights as citizens and workers. Emotionally, whereas some participants
attend classes or programs with an attitude of acquiring new knowledge, some
attend for other reasons (e.g., they are lonely). Thus, people’s attitudes
or emotional spaces are an element in the learning process.
- The power dynamics (such as gender, race, background, age) operative in
the learning environment. These include the organizational structure that
shapes the content of the curriculum, interactions between the
instructor/facilitator and learners, and among learners. The assumption here
is that no learning situation is neutral. Power relations operate to enhance
or hinder the learner’s experience. Explicating how these dynamics operate
will contribute to a more complex and nuanced understanding of the learning
Finally, while in this monograph we have talked about the
three cases as if they were a coherent unit, in our further exploration we need
to dis-aggregate the groups. It is clear that there is a distinction between the
leadership, the teacher/facilitator, and the learners in terms of the roles they
play in the processes we aim to describe. But what about divisions within the
leadership and within the other participants? In A-Way, for instance, there is a
distinction between couriers and office staff. In HWA, garment workers are
internally divided in terms of factory workers and those who sew at home (homeworkers).
How do these different positions shape learning and what is learned?
This monograph presents the three case studies in our
project by situating them in their social, economic, and organizational
contexts. Out of this background discussion we identify the methodological and
conceptual issues we need to take into account in exploring in more depth how
marginalized groups use the learning opportunities presented to them in a
restructured social, political and economic environment. By exploring how
segments of the marginalized population define their own learning and by seeing
non-formal and informal learning as overlapping and simultaneous processes, our
study will both disrupt the working definition of informal leaning by NALL and
1. The HWA is an organization formed to provide garment workers, formerly
working in factories, with a social space in which to share experiences as
workers who now sew at home. Although it is not part of the formal
structure of UNITE, the garment workers’ union, it is affiliated with UNITE
because it grew out of the massive displacement of unionized workers when the
garment sector restructured itself in the early 1990’s. Although not a
community organization per se, UNITE’s practice in working collectively with
those who have lost their jobs is similar to community organizations that work
with the unemployed.
2.This section on the Homeworkers Association draws on a background paper by
Yuklin Renita Wong and interviews and fieldwork conducted by Roxana Ng during
3. This section on Chic Resto-Pop was developed from material published by
Shragge and Fontan (1996a, 1996b)
4. Although Chic Resto-Pop follows much of the practices of an entreprise
d'insertion it is not a member of the formal coalition of these organizations in
Quebec called Le Collectif des Entreprises d'Insertions. The reason is that it
has chosen to work with people who are more marginal to the labour market than
some of the other businesses.
5. In 1983, it was still fairly common to hear people in the community mental
health field talking about the “mentally ill” or the “psychiatrically
disabled.” Several years later, the term “consumer” of service was
being used to challenge those terms. In 1990, the term “consumer/survivor”
first appeared in a brief to government (Church and Reville, 1989). It was
intended to reflect the language disputes that were going on at the time; its
use has since become prevalent. The term “psychiatric survivor” was
introduced to Canada in 1989 by British survivors during the first independent
national conference of mental health service users in this country. It caught on
and is now widely used. All of these terms are in use to some degree depending
on the politics of the people involved. In this paper, we have used
“psychiatric survivors” because it is the term of choice among the people
with whom we work. It continues to be a controversial term among mental health
6. .The material on psychiatric survivors and economic development in this
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