In a lead up to the World Day for Decent Work on October 7, 2021, we are speaking to five Unifor young workers to learn more about them and the issues they want to see addressed to ensure a bright and equitable future for all.
Nikki Lyons-Macfarlane is a Unifor Local 4504 member who works at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, as a library technician and is also a member of the Atlantic Young Workers' Committee. Outside of their work, they volunteer for a youth organization in the city, and spoke to us about why affordable housing must be part of our fight for economic justice for all.
Why do you think affordable housing is important for young workers?
I will start with a personal story. My wife and I were renting and living in a house. It got sold and we had three week's notice to move during the pandemic. We had to scramble to find a place to live. Our rent went up by $250 at the time, and this whole thing made me realize there is nothing affordable in this city. I was aware of it before, but the fact I had to find a new place so quickly really hit home for me.
Affordable housing isn't just about whether you can afford to buy a house. There are vacancy issues, there are affordability issues like how much rent takes out of your monthly income. In many cities, minimum wage has not kept pace, which means if you're renting, basically all your money is going into rent.
Fighting for affordable housing is about recognizing that everyone should be able to afford a home - it's a basic principle. If you lose your job, you need to know you won't be left out in the street.
This issue is very linked to access to affordable transit. It's really hard to go to work through an expensive and complicated transit system and then not have a safe place to go home to. And that's just the reality too many workers are facing now.
For many people my age, questions of money - where money goes, how to get medication, putting kids in day care - all that stress can lead to mental health issues. So housing is a basic human right, and we're at the point where we need to step up our fight.
How do you think the union should take action on affordable housing? Why is it important to recognize this as an issue?
Union members all need a good, safe place to live. We can't go to work without a home. We can't fight for a better world without a home. We can't show up to union meetings if we are out there scrambling to find a place to live, or if we are priced out of the neighborhoods where we work.
Our union, including our national president Jerry Dias, has a high profile with many governments. We can use our voice to push governments to recognize housing as an important issue - one that is really connected to decent work and economic justice.
It was so devastating to see the recent removal of homeless people out of a park in Halifax. Sadly, the issue was sort of swept under the rug. But the main problem remains: where are people going to find the housing they need? What are the barriers right now? What can we do collectively to remove them?
We have a lot of work to do to raise awareness. Young workers cannot get our feet on the ground, we cannot get settled in life without affordable housing. And at this stage, it will require significant government action to change the current course.
What would you recommend to Unifor young workers who want to work on affordable housing?
There are many groups and organization working on affordable housing. On the National level, ACORN Canada is a great voice. You can find your local chapter and see what they are doing in your community. If there is no active group, then the first step would be to learn more about what's happening locally. Who is fighting for housing? What are the barriers to access?
It is really important that we create connections between many issues. You can't go without housing, period. A lack of affordable housing is a mental health issue, it's a public health issue. It affects individual in many ways.
I also want people to know that they can advocate for affordable housing even if they don't feel they have the bandwidth to do protests and be on the ground. There are many ways to get involved and plug into the fight. If all you can do is spend 5 minutes a day on activism, then maybe make a phone call, or put out a tweet. It's a long fight, and every bit counts.
What is one thing that got you through the pandemic up until this point?
My wife is my rock. We have been here for each other this whole time. I couldn't imagine being alone during the pandemic. We have been playing video games, watching silly stuff on Netflix and playing with the cat.