Windsor Wobbies Build Street Solidarity

Windsor IWW union label

For the last year-and-a-half, the IWW in Windsor has been working on a campaign to organize panhandlers and buskers in the downtown core of this border city. The campaign started out as the Windsor Street Solidarity Committee and in late 2014 has expanded to form the Windsor Panhandlers and Buskers Union.

In late November 2014 I had the pleasure of sitting down with Fellow Worker (FW) Richard from the Windsor General Membership Branch (GMB) and one of the main organizers in the Windsor Panhandler and Buskers Union. He explained how the campaign started: “At first we really just did what were basically patrols with branch members around downtown.” At this point they called themselves the “Street Solidarity Committee.”

“We would check in with people, help each other get in touch with people on the street and get them in touch with our organizers if there were any problems.” Through their organizers on the streets and the patrols, they managed to recruit a handful of members who added numbers to their committee.

“Eventually we started dealing a bit with the police; if there was a problem with a member we would talk to the member and then the police, and then if a local business complained, we would speak to the business. Then we would try and work out a deal where the buskers and panhandlers could stay.” Richard described their interactions with the police as generally adversarial but not overtly hostile. Holding up two hands, he illustrated this relationship by lightly bumping them together. “We try not to run into each other too hard too often so that we can still cut a deal,” he said.

One of the problems Richard described was helping members deal with businesses that asked the police to remove the members from public property near their store. However, they also have one larger campaign under their belt. In 2013, one city council member tried to bring in an anti-panhandling measure called “Care Meters.” These are basically parking meters that collect money for charities. Usually they go hand-in-hand with restrictions on panhandling to certain parts of town during certain times of day.

Richard described how they tackled the issue. “We decided to organize a public meeting on July 1, 2013, to discuss our side of the issue. We had some speakers talk about people’s rights, about police violence, and also about addiction issues.”

Before the meeting the same city council member who was pushing Care Meters was confronted while harassing an IWW panhandler downtown. “Well, he just called the others in the union and we had four Wobblies down there right away,” Richard said. The scene of the altercation just happened to be across the street from the Windsor Star offices (the local daily newspaper) and the event made the front page the next day!

“This brought a lot of attention to our public meeting and attendance was really good. We had people speak on addiction problems, on issues facing First Nations people, and accessing services for people on the streets,” said Richard.

When the city council met to discuss the motion on the Care Meters, the only speaker to the motion was the city solicitor, who told council members that the bylaw would probably be overturned if someone brought forward a Supreme Court challenge. Richard was beaming when he told me this part: “After that you could hear a pin drop in the council chambers. The motion died on the floor with no one voting for it or even speaking to it.”

Now the Panhandlers and Buskers Union is back to building their membership up through smaller actions and building power on the street from what they describe as small victories. They hold a business meeting every two weeks to check in with each other and work on how they deal with the police and local businesses, and they even keep regular office hours. This is definitely a campaign worth watching.

This article appeared in the January/February Industrial Worker.