About Andria Babbington

Andria Babbington is the President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, representing over 220,000 union members in Canada’s largest urban centre. An immigrant to Canada in her youth, Andria joined the labour movement when she began working in the hotel sector in downtown Toronto. She became one of the youngest chief stewards in her union’s history at the age of 19. As a union organizer for many years, Andria played a pivotal role in campaigns like Hotel Workers Rising, which raised the living standard for thousands of hospitality workers across North America.

Andria has been on the Labour Council executive board since 2004, serving for eight years as Vice President. She is the first woman of colour to sit as President. Andria is committed to fighting for a just economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond; equality and justice for all workers; growing the labour movement by increasing union density; and fighting for climate justice to ensure a future for our children.

Q: Please give me a brief overview of the Council’s history.
Our Labour Council has always been about working people organizing collectively around a vision of economic and social justice. Our story began on the land of Indigenous communities, and it has been forged with those who have come from around the world as immigrants or refugees to build Canada’s largest urban centre.

In 1871, a small group of trade unionists came together to found the Toronto Trades Assembly. They were barrel-makers, shoemakers, printers, bakers, cigar-makers and metalworkers, and soon joined by other occupations. The first women workers joined in 1882. It was a time of rising workers across the world.

This labour movement has been tested and strengthened by generations of immigrants over the decades, as each new wave discovered that in order to have a fair share of Canada’s prosperity they helped to create, they needed collective power: a union to fight for dignity and living wages. From the beginning, our unions adopted the principle “What we wish for ourselves, we wish for all.”

This year, I became the first Black woman to lead a Canadian labour council. Together, we continue to break new ground in the labour movement.

Q: What is the landscape of the labour movement in Toronto and York regions currently?
A: The 220,000 workers we represent belong to dozens of local unions in industries as diverse as education, healthcare, construction, media and the arts, manufacturing, retail, public service, social services, and more. While not every worker belongs to a union, some of the standards set by the labour movement over the last 150 years are to everyone’s benefit.

I came to labour as a hotel worker, and learned early on that immigrant workers needed to stand together for dignity and decent conditions in the hospitality sector. As a larger proportion of the workforce is now in frontline service jobs, that experience helps guide my leadership.

Over the last two years, we have witnessed the unequal impacts of the pandemic on these industries and on the daily lives of workers and their families. Our Labour Council community recognizes that some of us are hurting worse than others, and that the pandemic recovery is going to take all of us. The Labour Council and workers across Toronto and York Region are rising up for a just recovery to come out of this pandemic stronger than before.

Q: What are some important milestones achieved by the Council that still positively impact members today?
A: We have always been about shared prosperity. In its earliest decades, the Labour Council built campaigns for employment standards, sanitary conditions, limitation of working hours, and equal pay for women. It also called for public ownership of essential infrastructure and the creation of the publicly-owned Toronto Transit Commission, which turned one hundred years old this year. Many of the benefits Canadians take for granted—public healthcare, old age pensions, social services, and paid maternity leave—were the product of workplace victories that were then turned into public programs for all. The Labour Council continues to fight for public health measures, pandemic income relief, and a quality public education system.

Q: What are some of the key agendas/policies that the Council is prioritizing now?
A: Our current campaigns focus on a just recovery from this pandemic, including racial justice and climate justice.

We believe that climate justice is union business. Climate change affects all of us, and we in the labour community must get out in front of the issue to create a job-rich transition to a low-carbon future.

The Labour Council has a long history of challenging discrimination and bigotry. In 1947, we helped establish the Toronto Joint Labour Committee for Human Rights. Building inclusive unions that embrace those common values is one of the most important tasks we have. Beyond the workplace, we strive to build a more inclusive society.

The socio-economic crisis caused by the pandemic has wreaked havoc in the Canadian workforce. We know there’s no going back to pre-pandemic normal—and frankly, we think that normal wasn’t so great. So we are fighting smart and hard to get a pandemic recovery plan that is good for workers. Helping more workers enjoy the benefits of unions is one way to accomplish that.

Q: How has the labour movement evolved even in the past 25 years and how has the Council worked to help its members with those changes?
A: We have seen a shift from industrial jobs to the service sector, and digital technology is disrupting traditional workplaces. We are seeing a rise in “gig” jobs: labour that falls outside of traditional job descriptions and tends to be precarious, low-paid, and in many cases, dangerous. All workers deserve protection from exploitation. We are working with allies to unionize gig workers and to advocate for policies to ensure gig work is still decent work.

We help create the pathway to good careers. Community benefits policies make sure these careers are open to everyone in our communities, union training centres provide top-quality skills, and a transition to a low-carbon future can open up many new doors for working sustainably.

As Toronto’s population changes there are more women and people of colour in the workforce, and we have been leading struggles against systemic racism and unequal conditions. Labour also looks outside the workplace to see what is needed in our communities. Lobbying for childcare, better public transit, higher minimum wages, and stronger public health measures are all part of our collective effort for a better society.

Q: The issue of paid sick leave garnered a lot of attention and conversation in the wake of Covid-19. What is the position of the Council?
A: Paid sick leave saves lives. The evidence for this has been made clear during the pandemic. We know that people are going to work sick. This is not good for the worker, not good for productivity, and not good for others around them. Households still need to eat, even if a breadwinner needs time off work. The Labour Council has consistently advocated for permanent, legislated paid sick days for all workers in Ontario. Most recently, we have supported a call to legislate 7 paid sick days, and 14 paid sick days during public health outbreaks.

Q: What has stayed the same in 150 years of labour protection?
A: The power of working people is a constant and a foundation for our movement. We know that when people join together and mobilize for collective action, they can and do change the course of events for the better.

Q: How are you commemorating 150 years?
A: Labour Council is recognizing this milestone anniversary with a year-long celebration of our history. Under the slogan of “Together we did, together we can, together we will,” the festivities launched virtually on April 12, 2021. We created Labour150.ca as a digital museum, a home for the people and their stories that made our movement. The stories also tell the lessons learned from the past, that we can use to help shape the future. Labour150.ca is a place to honour the individuals and groups whose contributions set the path for us.

In addition to Labour150.ca, we are hosting a number of events throughout the year commemorating other milestones: from the first labour laws, to the creation of the Toronto Joint Committee on Human Rights, to winning paid maternity leave and organizing the Metro Days of Action. In partnership with Myseum of Toronto, we told the story of Toronto’s Labour Day Parade history and we’ll tell a few other key labour stories. We’ll wind up the year with a big gala—which we hope will finally be in-person!