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  • Volume Eight, Number Eight: December 2003

    Squeegee Council “Wobbles” for Uphill Battle

    John Hughes

    The Vancouver Squeegee Council’s spokesman, who identifies himself as “Blais,” says his organization was created because squeegee workers are among the most oppressed in the country—and workers is how they want to be seen, not as vandals or charity cases, worthy of forming a union.

    Squeegee ProtestBlais says the occupation he and his colleagues pursue qualifies them as “lumpenproletariat” and that they need help in dealing with the pitfalls inherent to their “sub class.” Vancouver squeegee workers announced the creation of the Squeegee Council and its partnership with the Vancouver branch of the Industrial Workers of the World on October 11. Blais hopes the IWW, known to many activists and labour historians as “The Wobblies,” will fill some of their needs.

    The Wobblies, according to labour history reports, flourished in BC among miners, woodworkers, fishermen and rail workers in the early part of the 20th century and made it mark on history here for establishing the first permanent eight-hour day in the forest industry, and for its “free speech” fights against government censorship and restrictions on freedom of association on workers in those days.

    Its BC membership peaked at over 20,000 in the early 1920s. However, it declined swiftly due in part to state repression and as large sections of this members broke away to join the burgeoning industrial union movement of the 1920s and 30s. Since then, the union has survived with a tiny membership, acting largely as a movement of conscience, criticism and support for more conventional unions.

    So did they get involved with the squeegee workers? Blais says its is the only lower mainland labour group that is serious about taking them on as members. The council is a tiny one with only five confirmed members and a very loose agreement with the union but both groups claim their partnership has the potential of attracting more members if there are initial successes in addressing the occupational hazards of squeegee workers.

    Squeegee PeopleFirst on the list of problems to be dealt with for the squeegee workers is their place in the eyes of the law.

    “It is not illegal for someone to ply the squeegee trade but working in the in streets causes police to hand out jaywalking tickets at $86 a pop,” according to Blais.

    Those who cannot pay are jailed and conditions of release often include stipulations that they refrain from owning a squeegee or associating with other squeegee workers. Ticketing for operating without a business license is another tactic police use against the squeegee set.

    Vancouver IWW secretary, Gordon Flett, also an activist with the Vancouver and District Labour Council, says that the union has set up a “legal team to help squeegee workers become familiar with their rights and to fight tickets handed out to them.”

    He adds the IWW has a history of organizing what he calls “marginalized groups of workers” who often don’t directly associate themselves with other workers and whom other unions tend not to approach. This has included an effort to organize prison labourers in Ohio in the mid-1980s.

    Flett would like to expand the fledgling group’s activities in this area, including creating a larger “street union,” listing sex trade workers and street musicians as potential members.

    Blais says the Squeegee Council’s legal team has its work cut out for them if they are to prevent some of what the council says are the worst abuses of the Vancouver Police against them. He recounts events in which police terrorized squeegee workers, chasing them down sidewalks on their motorcycles and stealing their squeegees. The Squeegee Council hopes that their lawyers will have greater success in finding out what law it is that allows police to confiscate the tools of their trade. Blais asked Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham this question personally and was not given a response.

    As important as the questions of law enforcement and legal representation are for the Squeegee Council, equally pressing are issues of transience and drug use. Flett describes squeegee workers as people who tend to “come and go” and acknowledges that early organizational efforts have been difficult because of this.

    Blais says that many squeegee workers have drug habits. These people are likely to indicate that they are interested in helping out with the organizational efforts but fail to follow through. “The benefits of organizing are clear to the organizers but it is not evident that the majority of those who stand to gain the most from such a plan are interested in it,” he said.

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