The Exception as the Rule
Toronto’s Social Reproduction Organizing in the Age of COVID-19
October 14, 2020
The ongoing global pandemic and inadequate government response in Canada have ignited some necessary conversations around the conditions of occupational health and safety at work, precarious workers’ organizing, insufficient employment insurance schemes, and employment standards enforcement across the country. Such responses are often preoccupied with struggles in the workplace – at the point of production – prioritizing and separating issues traditionally branded as “labor” from the work of community organizing and struggles on the street for the decommodification of everyday life. Issue relegated to the periphery include: rent strikes, mutual aid initiatives, and calls to defund the police that have been galvanizing Canadian neighborhoods since this past March.
Drawing in part from our own experiences with organizing in the city, we trace the decommodification movements around food and shelter in Toronto ongoing in the midst of the pandemic, including Keep Your Rent! and the People’s Pantry; the organizing of essential workers, including migrant laborers; as well as calls to defund the police in Toronto, which have challenged the market imperative and widened our horizons of what is politically possible.
Organized labor has stopped short of counting how struggles at the point of social reproduction are intimately related to organizing on the “shop floor,” thus not admitting how capitalist social relations as a whole operate, continually opposing class to other oppressions. We argue that deprived of such a holistic approach, the calls for a better future in Canada and beyond so far have fallen into an outdated welfare state paradigm ultimately limited by methodological nationalism and its settler colonial capitalist infrastructure.
In this piece, we survey initiatives in Toronto and ask how these struggles have been a part of actual labor history. In detailing organizing around issues of living conditions, we document an expanded notion of “class” and “struggle” to highlight the intertwined relationship between the spaces of production of commodities and spaces of production of labor power, indeed, connecting mothers, domestic workers, migrant farmworkers, teachers, unhoused people, and more.
We refer to “social reproduction” as the mental, manual, and emotional labor involved in maintaining existing and future life, an integral part of the production process.1Laslett, Barbara, and Johanna Brenner. 1989. “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives.” Annual Review of Sociology 15: 381-404. The global capitalist market has no “internal mechanism for creating the laborer” on which it depends, thus the existence of the laborer is naturally assumed.2Ferguson, Sue. 1999. “Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition”. Critical Sociology 21(1): 1-15, 6. See also Ferguson, Sue. 2014. “A Response to Meg Luxton’s ‘Marxist Feminism and Anticapitalism”. Studies in Politiical Economy94(Fall): 161-168.
In settler colonial capitalist societies like Canada, a drive for profit leads to on-going primitive accumulation in the form of land dispossession and displacement, as well as privatization of natural resources and life by further commodifying and financializing healthcare, education, and housing. Contradictions between human need and capital accumulation have been mediated historically by the state through public services, social programs, so called “nation to nation” mandates, protective labor legislation (for some), and importantly, cheap resources and migrant domestic labor from the Global South.3Arat-Koç, Sedef. 2006. “Whose Social Reproduction? Transnational Motherhood and Challenges to Feminist Political Economy.” In Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism, ed. Meg Luxton and Kate Bezanson, 75-92. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. The work done in households and communities closes the gap between wages, public services, and historically given standards of living.4Picchio, Antonella. 1981. “Social Reproduction and the Basic Structure of Labour Markets.” In The Dynamics of Labour Market Segmentation, edited by Frank Wilkinson, 193-209. London: Academic Press; Vosko, Leah F. 2006. “Precarious Employment: Towards an Improved Understanding of Labour Market Insecurity” in Leah F. Vosko (ed.) Precarious Employment: Understanding Labour Market Insecurity in Canada. Montreal/London: McGill-Queen’s University Press: 3-39; Bezanson, Kate, and Meg Luxton, eds. 2006. Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism. Montreal; Kingston; London; Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Since March 2020, Canada has lost over 2 million jobs, with record-high 13.7% unemployment in May. Majority of job losses took place in services, accommodation, and food industries. The unemployment rate for July was 16.2 % for non-white Canadians compared to 9.3% white Canadians, with numbers higher for women than men.5Press, Jordan. 2020. “Canada added 419K more jobs in July, racialized workers had higher jobless rate: StatsCan”, The Canadian Press, Global News, August 7. https://globalnews.ca/news/7256830/job-numbers-july-2020-coronavirus/ Food banks usage increased by 20%, and at a rate higher than during the 2008 crisis. While the government has declared various businesses and services essential, including food/farming and meat processing industries, the broader healthcare network, transportation, as well as retail and delivery work, the workers deemed “essential” did not see this reflected in their protection, pay, nor decision-making capabilities in the workplace.
At Scotlynn Farms, for instance, located about 75 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, Ontario, 199 of 218 migrant workers tested positive for COVID-19.6Jacobson, Adam. 2020 “Migrant worker says he was fired from Ontario farm, faced deportation after voicing COVID-19 fears”. CBC, July 31. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-july-31-2020-1.5670052/migrant-worker-says-he-was-fired-from-ontario-farm-faced-deportation-after-voicing-covid-19-fears-1.5670073 Three workers, ages 31, 24, 55 have died as a result of living and working in sub-standard conditions in Ontario, with no proper sanitation or personal protective equipment, not to mention access to quality healthcare.7Rodriguez, Sofia. “Third Ontario migrant worker dies of COVID-19.” CBC News, June 21. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/third-ontario-migrant-worker-dies-of-covid-19-1.5621487 As of June 13, executives from three of Canada’s largest grocery chains had cut the temporary pandemic wage bump of $2 to employees who make minimum wage while stocking the shelves of supermarkets that feed Torontonians during the pandemic.8Sagan, Aleksandra. 2020. “Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys Say Pandemic Pay Cut Was Made Independently Despite Emails”. Huffington Post, July 10. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/loblaws-metro-sobeys-pandemic-pay-emails_ca_5f08f75cc5b6480493d01664
Like elsewhere, working people are caught between two deadly choices: either continue working and risk infection, contamination, and death; or alternatively, fall further into poverty. Those on the front lines – a largely racialized, gendered, and migrant workforce – have been left on the hook for the welfare of the community at large, without any guarantees of their own safety. As a result, the inhabitants of Toronto cannot afford skyrocketing rents that have ballooned in the last decade. News reports continuously detailed how approximately one-third of renters did not pay April rent and through May to July these numbers increased incrementally.9D’Amore, Rachel. 2020. “Rent Is Due May 1. Experts Say CERB Isn’t Enough for Some Canadian Tenants.” Global News, April 29. https://globalnews.ca/news/6882311/coronavirus-canada-rent-rights-may-1/.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of people kept their rent in the Greater Toronto Area as of August 1. We did not need the new quantitative data reports to know that neighborhoods with the highest concentration of visible minorities and working-class people are being hit the hardest. Rexdale, a Toronto neighborhood in its northwest, is home to the city’s highest proportion of people who work as cashiers, truck drivers, and laborers in plastics manufacturing, many of whom would have been deemed “essential” during lockdown, had the highest infection rate of any neighbourhood in Toronto — 1,308 cases for every 100,000 people.10Allen, Kate, Jennifer Yang, Rachel Mendleson, and Andrew Bailey. 2020. “Lockdown worked for the rich, but not for the poor. The untold story of how COVID-19 spread across Toronto”. The Star, August 2. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/08/02/lockdown-worked-for-the-rich-but-not-for-the-poor-the-untold-story-of-how-covid-19-spread-across-toronto-in-7-graphics.html
The federal and provincial government’s response in the form of social distancing measures, an emergency relief benefit program, and calls on Canadians to show kindness and support to one another, assumed that this pandemic has hit everyone equally. Major news outlets, as well as speeches by politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, continuously highlighted the “generosity” and “charity” of the general public in Canada.
And they were correct. In this crisis, like in any other, poor people bear the brunt of the violent system. Those who have stepped forward in their communities and neighborhoods, building responses to the crisis by developing community networks – providing support in the form of food, medicines, clothing, mental and emotional care, and other kinds of mutual aid – are mostly working people struggling to meet basic needs.
While epidemiologically the pandemic has been universal, economically and socially it reveals and furthers the deeply entrenched social relations of class, race, gender, and passport, amongst others. In this way, conditions of life under COVID-19 offer us a view into the lives of society’s poor majority. The pandemic is not just a crisis of care – a sentiment on the Canadian left that calls for “band-aid” reshuffling healthcare, education, and social security funding. The pandemic has revealed a generalized crisis of the system’s ability to reproduce itself, which requires a deeper critique of capitalism using the tools provided by years of community organizing efforts.
In the Canadian case in particular, COVID-19 has defied the state-sponsored internationally exported image of a “comfortable” and charitable Canadian population. The pandemic has revealed the realities of a modern settler colonial capitalism that relies on the politics of dispossession and exploitation, reproducing society’s pre-existing inequalities and disproportionately hitting our most vulnerable: Black and Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, the elderly, the unhoused, and an essential workforce made up of largely immigrant and racialized women.11Draaisma, Muriel. 2020. “COVID-19 Affecting Certain Groups in Toronto More than Others, Preliminary Data Suggests.” CBC News, May 5. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-officials-covid-19-outbreak-may-5-update-1.5556401 Despite this reality, the Federal and Provincial governments have yet to release disaggregated medical data on who has been most affected by the virus.12Zimonjic, Peter. 2020. “Trudeau, Ontario Health Minister Say They’re Looking at Collecting Race-Based Pandemic Data.” CBC News, June 5. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-elliott-covid-19-race-based-data-1.5600824.
Essential Workers of Social Reproduction
In surveying the situation of essential reproduction workers, their struggles, and their organizing efforts, we turn to those involved in care work in the public sector. Care workers in particular have been compensating for the inadequacy of social and healthcare services, as the result of a years-long neoliberalization agenda: privatization and deregulation, including the more recent attacks on healthcare and education by Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford.13For historical background of neoliberal policies in healthcare in Canada, please see Armstrong, Pat, Carol Amaratunga, and Jocelyne Bernier. 2001. Exposing Privatization: Women and Health Care Reform in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Cossman, Brenda, and Judy Fudge. 2002. Privatization, The Law and the Challenge to Feminism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Service Employment International Union (SEIU) Healthcare has called on the province and local police to launch a public inquiry and criminal investigations into deaths at long-term care homes tied to COVID-19.14SEIU Healthcare. 2020.“SEIU Healthcare calls for public inquiry and criminal investigations into COVID-19 related deaths”. SEIU Healthcare, May 5. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/seiu-healthcare-calls-for-public-inquiry-and-criminal-investigations-into-covid-19-related-deaths-879705526.html Long-term care facilities have seen some of the highest death rates including those of health care workers.
By May 5th in Ontario, 3000 health care workers in both long-term care facilities and hospitals had contracted the virus. These represented 16 % of total cases in the province.15Pelley, Lauren. 2020. “Union Calls for Public Inquiry, Criminal Investigations into COVID-19 Deaths at Long-Term Care Homes.” CBC News, May 5. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/union-long-term-care-inquiry-1.5556136?fbclid=IwAR0BA4HIXW51y76e9s1JDR-1Yy_SWROcizm7GsUCPi7OzWAWjxTB0QKwOOQ. Rapidly, as of May 12th, the numbers of infected staff, patients, and care facility residents more than doubled, totaling 7894.16Ontario Health Coalition. 2020. “RELEASE & REPORT: Staff & Patients Infected by COVID-19 Outbreaks in Health Care Settings Almost Doubled, Death Toll Increased by 333.7 % in 2-Weeks: Outbreaks Are Not Under Control.” Ontario Health Coalition, May 12. https://www.ontariohealthcoalition.ca/index.php/update-hospital-and-long-term-care-health-care-workers-long-term-care-residents-infected-with-covid-19-5/?fbclid=IwAR0HdXLAk874JfaG180VBJOXXIS5hUxyGTdKBU5vz1q39AnunKphjhkWUps
Many frontline workers had to juggle the reality of their overexposure to the virus and the need to push for better conditions at work. Nursing staff across the country have participated in various protests since the outbreak occurred. Issues ranging from lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to overwork have pushed many to organize. Staff at one downtown Toronto nursing home, Sherbourne Place, refused the unsafe working conditions that come with low wage front-line jobs, compromising their devotion to their patients, risking being seen as entitled and not self-sacrificing enough for the love of their patients in the eyes of the Canadian public.
Given the serious concerns of illness and death on the part of personal support workers, these refusals signal the need to challenge failing healthcare infrastructure – an indictment of the politics of late capitalism. The disposability of front-line workers mirrors the reality of the vulnerable populations they care for. Both are unproductive from the perspective of capital by virtue of their existence as “dependent” and unprofitable subjects of care and “natural,” “loving,” “devoted” feminized and racialized caregivers.
Care workers’ organizing has become a necessity. The very recent Designated Early Childhood Educators’ (DECEs) successful unionization drive is a case in point. DECEs – essential care workers tasked with looking after the children of working-class families – support elementary school teachers in Ontario in facilitating all-day kindergarten. Black and immigrant women are overrepresented in the ranks of DECEs. With the expansion of kindergarten to full day, these workers make it possible for parents to work longer and more flexible hours.
Yet these workers are underpaid, with no access to benefits, including many who work as on-call “occasionals.” Amongst the many cuts to social programs and privatization schemes, Ontario’s Conservative government under Doug Ford has particularly weakened the public education system. Cuts to programs like Grants for Student Needs, resulted in a loss of at least 2500 positions that provide in-class support to students and disproportionately affected services provided by education assistants, custodians, school secretaries, library workers, child and youth workers, speech language pathologists, and early childhood educators.17Kaiser, Kathryn. 2019. “What Doug Ford & the PCs Have Done in Ontario.” Art Blog, April 30.https://artblog.kathrynkaiser.ca/what-doug-ford-has-done-since-ontario-election/.
While the well-off were able to supplement the loss of public school programs with the private education services needed for their children’s development, it is working people and their children who bore the brunt of these cutbacks in provincial spending and who cannot afford market-based solutions.
Aminah Sheikh, an organizer with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) speaking on the recent organizing of ECE’s during the COVID outbreak, explains:
What drives a worker into solidarity in a workplace union drive with their colleagues is dignity and respect. That also applies to why workers come together outside the workplace and fight for dignity and respect in the community. Both spaces are intertwined, you don’t magically stop being human when you enter work or vice versa. Early childhood educators are fighting for dignity and respect in the classroom for our students but also in their communities for their students.
On July 30th, Ford announced a plan for the “Safe Reopening of Schools” in September.18Government of Ontario, Office of the Premier. 2020. “Ontario Releases Plan for Safe Reopening of Schools in September.” Government of Ontario Newsroom, July 30. https://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2020/07/ontario-releases-plan-for-safe-reopening-of-schools-in-september.html Ford announced, “We have the incredible front-line health-care workers—PSWs, doctors, nurses—through the peak of the pandemic, dealing with COVID patients […] Now, it’s time teachers step up, everyone else has sacrificed.”19Tsekouras, Phil. 2020. “Ontario teachers clap back at Premier Ford after he told them to step up. This is their response”. CTV News, August 28. https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-teachers-clap-back-at-premier-ford-after-he-told-them-to-step-up-this-is-their-response-1.5083115
As we are writing this, schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 8 are attending school five days a week, with one cohort for the full day, including recess and lunch – all in all a full “back to normal” situation of 24-30 kids per classroom. Ontario’s four major education unions (AEFO, ETFO, OECTA, OSSTF/FEESO) representing the province’s elementary and secondary teachers and education workers had declared this plan as falling short of the $3 billion needed – an budgetary estimate necessary to fulfill health and safety regulations.
In addition, Ford’s plan fails to support online learning for households that choose to keep their children home, or students in schools who have unique learning needs.20OSSTF. 2020. “Ford Government Jeopardizing Safety of All Ontarians with Underfunded Return to School Plan.” OSSTF- Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation. July 30. https://www.osstf.on.ca/en-CA/news/ford-government-jeopardizing-safety-of-all-ontarians-with-underfunded-return-to-school-plan.aspx. Managing both online and in-person delivery of education– and the incessant gaps in between – falls to the teachers, households, and children. We know that the Conservative Ontario government is ready to sacrifice working class families in the name of profit. Our early predictions were that poor, immigrant, and Black neighborhoods in the GTA like Mount Olive would see an increase in already high rates of COVID-19 as kids go back to school.
Yet this was not the full story. In early September, when the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) released in-person registration data, it was clear that highest registration numbers for in-person schooling were in wealthy, white neighborhoods. Lowest registration numbers were for in-person schooling in working class, racialized neighborhoods.
Knowing that health and safety regulations would not be met in these under resourced, older, overcrowded schools, working class households opted out of in-person learning and chose online learning for their kids. Ford used this opportunity to collapse classes, cut teacher, librarian, English as Second Language (ESL) specialist, special education and other positions. On September 8, Parkdale Organize issued a call “We Won’t Abandon Our Schools,” asking parents to change their enrollment to in-person. They wrote:
In wealthy neighbourhoods across Toronto, in-person enrollment sits at 80-95% for their elementary schools. In working class neighbourhoods like Parkdale, Jane and Finch, Markham and Eglinton and throughout Scarborough, 25-60% is the norm. So, what do they know that we don’t know? They know that when they keep their kid enrolled, they prevent classes from being collapsed and resources from being removed from the school. They know that if they ever feel unsafe bringing their kid, they won’t. They know that they can push their school for safer conditions while they bring their kid to the parts of the day that they are comfortable with, even if that just means outdoor time.21Parkdale Organize. 2020. “We Won’t Abandon Our Schools”. Parkdale Organize, September 8. http://parkdaleorganize.ca/2020/09/08/we-wont-abandon-our-schools/
Evidently, the provincial government is using working class households’ fear for their kids’ (and thus their own) health and safety – itself due to the inadequate response by the very same government and years of austerity measures – for further neoliberal restructuring in the province.
Intimately related to education and social reproduction for children, housing has been a focal point of current political struggles. Rent strikes are being organized across the country, touching major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, pushing to the fore a series of long-standing grievances held by working-class communities. In the last 15 years, average rents have rapidly increased across Ontario as the supply of affordable housing has decreased. As the “WE CAN’T WAIT: Preserving Our Affordable Rental Housing in Ontario” (2019) report states, since 2006, in Toronto there has been a 36% decline in units that rent for less than $1000 for a 1-bedroom, with a 51% increase in units renting for $1000 to $1500 and a drastic 323% increase in luxury rentals with rents above $1500.22Tenant Duty Counsel Program. 2019. “We Can’t Wait: Preserving Our Affordable Housing in Ontario.” Report by ACTO- Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. https://www.acto.ca/production/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FINAL_Report_WeCantWait_Nov2019.pdf., 1.
Officially, the problem of housing has long been left to the NGOs and charitable government-funded programming. Much can be said about the seeming spontaneity of rent strike actions, but the level of organizational capacity in the neighborhoods affected indicates the broad support among residents for transforming living conditions. The rent strike has become the embodiment of more than just a sporadic and temporary response to a crisis caused by COVID-19. It is a demand for safe and adequate housing for all as shelters remain overcrowded, closing their doors to the houseless and women and children seeking safety from domestic abuse – especially during a lockdown.23Endicott Keresztesi, Orion. 2020. “Housing = Health: Car Caravan Says Housing for All.” Spring Magazine, May 6. https://springmag.ca/housing-health-car-caravan-says-housing-for-all?preview=true&_thumbnail_id=3050&fbclid=IwAR1xnH5p5ZXhO-JI0BQ3FMq5mLqPrSLr-QZp8uMwpg771Hdskor4SOeN2yc.
Prior to COVID-19, on average one woman in Canada was killed by an intimate partner every six days. Over the course of the quarantine there has been an estimated 20-30% increase in domestic violence in Canada, where just between April 1 and May 4 over nine women and girls across Canada have been killed in domestic homicides.24Hayes, Molly. 2020. “At Least Nine Women and Girls Killed in Domestic Homicides in Canada during Pandemic.” The Globe and Mail, May 12. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-at-least-nine-women-and-girls-killed-in-domestic-homicides-in-canada/
Years-long organizing efforts by groups like Parkdale Organize, its affiliate Keep Your Rent Toronto!, and People’s Defence Toronto have laid the foundations for the city’s momentum. People across the Greater Toronto Area, particularly those in high density neighborhoods and conglomerate apartment buildings have encountered signs declaring “Keep Your Rent!” and “Keep your rent and your CERB money.”
The flyers themselves demonstrated the wide reach of rent strike organizing as slogans are translated into Magyar, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Arabic, and Russian, among other languages. As rent strikes gained hold in North America more generally, they revealed the connections between a shifting retail rental landscape and the expansive logic of financialization and capital investment.
An understanding of the current landscape has indeed informed the work of groups such as Keep Your Rent Toronto.25Keep Your Rent Toronto. “Who Are Toronto’s Landlords, Really?” Landlords of Toronto n.d. https://www.landlordsoftoronto.com/ The prevalence of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) in major Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver have come to dominate the housing market and this fact has been highlighted in the messaging and pretext for rent strikes.
Organizers have offered a critical analysis on the negligible presence of “Mom and Pop” landlords – a key part of the Provincial Conservative Government’s rhetoric of support for “hard done-by property owners” – who account for approximately 3% of Canadian households. Instead, organizers have turned the spotlight onto the relationship between finance capital and our growing housing crisis.26Ibid. As REITs mobilize housing in the form of ‘publicly traded stock options’, the average renter is increasingly unable to burden the emotional and financial cost of an investment strategy that deploys the tactics of inflated rents and evictions to increase profit margins.27Keep Your Rent Toronto. “What Is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)?” Landlords of Toronto n.d. https://www.landlordsoftoronto.com/
While working on this piece, the existing squeeze on tenants has only intensified through the passing of Ontario’s Bill 184, deceitfully called, Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, 2020.28Government of Ontario. Ontario Legislative Assembly. 2020. Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, 2020 by Hon. Steve Clark. Bill 184. https://libguides.wvu.edu/c.php?g=418946&p=2855160#s-lg-box-8755630. The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario has called it a “short-sighted approach to a long-ignored and pressing social problem,” a housing crisis, that has only been “deepened” by this pandemic.29Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. 2020. “The Only Tenant Protection in Ontario’s Bill 184 Is in the Title.” Globe Newswire, May 28. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/05/28/2040377/0/en/The-Only-Tenant-Protection-in-Ontario-s-Bill-184-is-in-the-Title.html.
The “eviction bill” is how many in Toronto now refer to Bill 184 because of its provision stripping tenants of their rights – tenants who were previously entitled to hearings before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) in cases of eviction. It at once empowers landlords to enforce payment plans without a hearing, simplifying and fast-tracking the process of obtaining an eviction order especially if the tenant was short on money or late with their payments before the pandemic.30Trapunksi, Richard. 2020. “Should I Sign a Rent Repayment Plan?: With Doug Ford’s Bill 184 Expected to Pass, There Are Some Things Tenants Should Consider to Avoid Eviction.” Now Toronto, July 18. https://nowtoronto.com/lifestyle/real-estate/resident-expert-repayment-plans http://torontocovidevictions.com/.
As Toronto is facing its worst eviction crisis – with the first evictions ordered after lifting the provincial ban reaching to approximately 60 households per day – tenants with Keep Your Rent! continue to demonstrate the seriousness and popular resonance of their organizing efforts through various actions. Some have been well covered in the media, including putting pressure on Mayor John Tory to use his powers to halt evictions in Toronto; holding a blockade to stop sheriffs from conducting evictions; and promising a “COVID evictions tracker,” a tool to better organize neighborhood resistance to evictions in Toronto.31The Canadian Press. 2020. “Toronto protesters block sheriffs from conducting evictions amid COVID-19”. CBC, August 18. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ont-eviction-protest-1.5691332 See the following website for the COVID-19 evictions tracker initiative in the GTA: http://torontocovidevictions.com/
While Mayor Tory has access to an expensive condo in Yorkville – one of Toronto’s wealthy downtown neighborhoods –mothers in Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York, Mississauga, Parkdale, and Thorncliffe, put on their masks and commute to work despite the ongoing pandemic, all in order to feed their households and extended family and keep from being thrown out of their homes.
Indeed, in Toronto like elsewhere, we are witnessing what Marxist Feminists have called the “financialization of social reproduction,” where daily life becomes a direct and immediate site of accumulation for finance capital.32Lavinas, Lena. 2013. “21st Century Welfare.” New Left Review 84: 5–40; Lavinas, Lena. 2017. The Takeover of Social Policy by Financialization: The Brazilian Paradox. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.; Federici, Sylvia. 2014. “From Commoning to Debt: Financialization, Microcredit, and the Changing Architecture of Capital Accumulation.” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 2: 231–44.
The violent incursion of financialization into the housing sector, through renovictions and gentrification, pushes many households into houselessness, especially during the pandemic. What is it, if not the on-going primitive accumulation by settler-colonial capitalism? Bearing no responsibility for the reproduction of life and labor, capital insidiously permeates more and more spaces of reproduction to gain profit, and the settler colonial, racist, patriarchal capitalist state – as is evident in the case of Ontario – legalizes the violence.
Mutual Aid Initiatives
The emergence of mutual aid networks, both formal and informal, has helped to address some of the glaring holes in the province’s priorities, which have been felt acutely during this crisis. Solidarity in the form of providing food and other necessities to neighbors, friends, and the larger community has been crucial to the survival of many throughout this time.
Mutual aid projects serve an important function in the reorganizing of communities away from dependence on the market. In the context of food insecurity and food deserts, Black Creek Community Farm in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood – historically one of Toronto’s most underserved communities – has been addressing its community’s needs during this crisis by cultivating and maintaining community gardens. In the acute period of March 13-30, Black Creek Community Farm had delivered a total of 1751 boxes of fresh produce to members of the community and beyond, the majority of the recipients being families with children under 12.33Black Creek Community Farms. 2020. “Emergency Food Box Statistics.” Black Creek Community Farms, March 30. https://www.blackcreekfarm.ca/2020/03/30/emergency-food-box-statistics/
Black Creek Community Farms services a largely Black and racialized area, where the “COVID-19 rates are more than 10 times higher” and in which the residents are employed in industries deemed essential and are low-income such as manufacturing (between 11-25 % against the city’s 8 percent).34Yang, Jennifer, Kate Allen, Rachel Mendleson, and Andrew Bailey. 2020. “Toronto’s COVID-19 Divide: The City’s Northwest Corner Has Been ‘failed by the System.’” The Toronto Star, June 28. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/06/28/torontos-covid-19-divide-the-citys-northwest-corner-has-been-failed-by-the-system.html
A similar initiative, The People’s Pantry, has done immense work to connect with and service up to 5000 people living throughout the GTA. Since March, their team has grown to approximately 500 volunteers, and TPP had delivered 11,000 cooked meals, 1496 grocery bundles, and 1025 specific meal requests, including in the more remote and poor neighborhoods with a high concentration of essential workers.35The People’s Pantry. 2020. Facebook post, August 10. Accessed August 11, 2020. As one of TPP’s main organizers Jade Da Costa explains,
Our initiative formed in response to COVID-19, but our roots go much deeper than that. TPP was founded by women, queer, trans*, Black and people of colour who were trying to do what we have always done: uplift our friends, families, and peers against systems of imperial violence. When the pandemic hit Canada, we drew on this energy to help our communities waver the augmentation of these systems, doing what we could to promote universal access to food, joy, and care, and the power of that act – the act of love – resonated with those around us.
TPP has shown that mutual aid initiatives can evolve beyond emergency measures to create spaces of community building and envisioning future models for food justice. In Ontario alone, 460,000 people receive social assistance at any given time, with a sizeable number of single-parent households.36Government of Canada. 2020.“Social Assistance Statistical Report: 2009-2013.” Government of Canada, May 3. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/social-assistance/reports/statistical-2009-2013.html
While mutual aid networks cannot presently account for the scale of people’s needs, they have been successful on two fronts. Mutual aid organizing has shown the necessity and relevance of organizing around issues of social reproduction. And it’s begun to expose the lack of social infrastructure, whether it be through the existence of food deserts, the inability of people to access necessary benefits, or the undervaluing of essential labor.
Struggles around decommodification of food are intimately related to those around decommodification of housing and education. They reveal just how the burden of the food and housing crisis has fallen largely within the purview of private domestic arrangements, which serve to reproduce healthy workers for the labor market.
Rent strikes and mutual aid initiatives in Toronto have challenged the ideal of a self-sufficient family that has underpinned the ideological-material context of the debt economy. It is not surprising that with austerity politics further defunding our education and healthcare systems, we see an increase in police budgets as part of a disciplining of the boundaries of private property and reinforcing of settler colonial social relations, including the criminalization of poverty and evictions.
While we cannot provide a fuller picture of the relationship between over-policing and growing inequality, it is necessary to name the fact that police departments in provinces like Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario have seen steady increases to their budgets, a discernible trend over the last 10 years.
Between 2009 and 2018 these provinces have seen police spending grow by 42 % overall and contrasted with 37 % growth in all other municipal services combined.37Cardoso, Tom, and Molly Hayes. 2020. “Canadian Cities’ Police Spending Ranges from One-10th to Nearly a Third of Total Budgets, Globe Analysis Finds.” The Globe and Mail, August 17. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canadian-cities-police-spending-ranges-from-one-10th-to-nearly-a/ In effect, the criminalization of poverty, the deepening homelessness crisis, and denial of basic needs have grown steadily with the diversion of funds from all other social services to policing.
As we enter the second wave of COVID-19, from the immediate site of struggle – daily life-making in Toronto –we learn today that the basis for social and economic change in Canada and globally must be centered around basic human needs. A social reproduction analysis offers a materialist, holistic understanding of social relations.
It reveals how organizing around low-income, essential, and disadvantaged work that largely falls to immigrant women is inextricable from struggles to abolish the police, over the lack of affordable housing and food insecurity, and over racialized inequalities. All of these are intimately and internally related struggles of working-class people.
In this sense, the pandemic has been a trial run for envisioning a different way of living and working, exposing two powerful fronts. Rent strikes, mutual aid organizing, and “essential” front-line strikes threaten the most sacred of profits for capital, precisely because they have to do with human life. When organized in a way that prioritizes “people over profit,” reproduction of labor expresses capital’s limits and challenges market imperative.
What we were told was “impossible” a few short months before the pandemic hit subsequently became necessary in its aftermath. People confronting the new reality of COVD-19 – another crisis of our late capitalist system – have borne witness to a widening of the horizon of possibility for building an alternative society from the concrete and immediate struggles around decommodification.
Yet much of the current critical analysis produced in Canada on the political economy of COVID-19 tends to present a fragmented view of social relations and an ahistorical and disembodied view of class struggle that separates workers from their homes, communities, and cultures by prioritizing employees’ bargaining with employers, or else demands on the welfare state to ease that unequal relationship.
Such engagements with power are deemed more progressive and valid forms of resistance. The labor movement continues to posit “race” as a cultural phenomenon and gender and class as social and economic, as if work is disembodied and life stops at the end of one’s shift, falling short of revealing the full chain of events involved in (re)producing capitalism. As Himani Bannerji asked way back in 2005,
is the type of homelessness experienced in Toronto possible outside the way capitalist economic and social development has proceeded in Canada as a whole? Redressing the wrongs in this case, one has to think and ask on grounds beyond the immediate situation, go above and behind it. It would not do to think of “poverty” as an issue or problem by itself, only to be added to “race,” class, or gender, or to conceive of these outside of capital.38Bannerji, Himani. 2005. “Building from Marx: Reflections on Class and Race.” Social Justice 32(4): 144-160, 146.
The working class is diverse, with experiences encompassing a variety of oppressions beyond (but intimately related to) waged work. This is of course a form of work that historically did not include Black and Indigenous people, (im)migrants, and women engaged in feminized labor. In fact, for the majority, lack of resources necessary for daily reproduction is often experienced first and is most immediately threatening to life.39As Aaron Jaffe writes, COVID-19 is “shining a light on and clarifying what was hidden or only dimly visible: that there is something troubling and violent in the way that we hang on the very possibility of waged work. And there is something deeply disturbing in how the wage and the work we are compelled to do for it dominates all our other needs and shapes, or better, contorts the way we reproduce ourselves. Now that the virus has equated working with taking increasing risks with one’s life, the waged nature of reproducing life can start to seem like a bad bet”, see Jaffe, Aaron. 2020. “Social Reproduction Theory in and beyond the Pandemic”, Pluto Press Blog, https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-in-and-beyond-the-pandemic/. On a critique of wage and moving beyond work as we know it, please see: Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work. London: Duke University Press.
Political struggle and strategy must be, therefore, measured within the concrete contexts of people’s daily lives. As many social reproduction feminists have argued, we must begin by shifting our understanding of what organizing for a different world looks like in the here and now, from the economy’s existing contradictions and people’s existing struggles.40Ferguson, Sue. 1999. “Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition”. Critical Sociology 21(1): 1-15; Bhattacharya, Tithi. ed. 2017. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.
Workers, neighbors, and mothers in Toronto and beyond are making it very clear that working conditions are intimately tied to the reproduction of our neighborhoods, households, communities through struggles around housing, food, and care. The praxis of organizing around life-making – “We Keep Our Communities Safe!” – offers a pedagogy for the future.
In the process of finding themselves facing exploitation, evictions, lack of food and healthcare, and then organizing with others for the first time, neighbors learn first-hand that the state and the market can indeed be challenged and successfully transformed before them, in turn, leading to a transformation of their political position from local and immediate need to structural and systemic change.
We echo what Kathleen Brown, an organizer in Michigan, has powerfully stated in her April Facebook post: “Involved in mutual aid networks, neighborhood chat groups, tenants’ organizing, and workplace agitation? You’re building soviets, comrade.”41Brown, Kathleen. 2020. Facebook Post, April 5, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2020. Workers in need are proving that the personal is not only mutual, but relational and political. Indeed, today more than ever, “health and life are becoming established as collective and politically central matters.”42Cross Border Feminists. 2020. “Cross-Border Feminist Manifesto: Emerging from the Pandemic Together.” Spectre, April 20. https://spectrejournal.com/cross-border-feminist-manifesto