News and Blogs

The economy is all of us: Community benefits organizing in Canada




The Broadbent Institute’s leadership development and training mission is to build backbone for left organizing in Canada. This takes on many forms, including training activists for campaigns. Increasingly we are aligning our organizational objectives, and that has opened new areas of leadership activity that focuses on our policy priorities: climate change, inequality and democratic renewal. This has led us to focus on supporting the development of a community benefits movement in Canada.

The economy is all of us

Across North America, neoliberal policies, globalisation and deindustrialization have stripped communities of well paid, unionized jobs in manufacturing, decimating segments of the working class, and negatively impacting the social and economic fibre of neighbourhoods and in some cases entire municipalities.

A corresponding growth in the low wage service economy is making workers increasingly precarious, and this process is often gendered and racialized. In addition, precarious workers are increasingly living in communities with limited access to transit, amenities and services. At the same time, a new and more dangerous populist right has made appeals to them with anti-state, anti-government, anti-union, and anti-media appeals that threaten to weaken in large segments of the population attachment to democratic institutions. Years before Donald Trump made his appeal to struggling workers, Rob Ford triumphed in Toronto’s most diverse and poorest neighbourhoods.

Progressive responses across North America have increasingly identified the need to simultaneously centre climate, racial, gender and economic justice, while searching for ways to foster working class and precariat class agency and action. The practice of building power for these aims points to a conjoined imperative: the need for the most marginalized to experience local political wins while at the same time experiencing a material difference in their lives. It’s the opposite of gentrification.

This urgent imperative for simultaneous political and material gains demands a reprioritizing of progressive practice in which increasing the capacity of these place-based actors, while simultaneously biasing their success with innovative supports and means, therefore grows in importance as a core area of activity for progressives.

Place + climate + economy + race + class -> community benefits campaigns

Community benefits agreements are legally binding contracts that specify the benefits a community will receive from an infrastructure or development project, including jobs and apprenticeships, living wage requirements for workers, first source hiring, affordable housing and other neighbourhood amenities – like space for childcare, or environmentally beneficial changes. The critical element is that development benefits target specific marginalized groups of people where they live, rather than displacing them.

Community benefits coalitions are formed when unionized workers join with community groups organized around place or issues like environment, transit or equity. They recognize that their collective power can advance their interests more effectively. They come together to find grounds for consensus on a shared vision for how to make change and what change to make.

The Partnership for Working Families, which coordinates these efforts across the United States, says its vision is to build powerful local organizations that campaign together to combat poverty by raising standards in low income communities. They build labour and community power – and emphasize building a base. Base-building efforts encompass intentionally developing leaders; confronting inequality in all its forms; and specifically naming racial justice. They believe economic decision-making should be inclusive and open, economic development strategies should create opportunities for workers and assets for community, and they organize for broadened public participation and accountability – including measurable benefits.

A role for the Broadbent Institute

Community benefits campaigns have taken hold in Canada, starting with organizing for the Vancouver Olympics and efforts by hotel workers, members of UNITE-HERE Local 75, in the inner suburbs of Toronto. Urban residents are learning important lessons from First Nations resource agreements. Since 2013, the movement has grown alongside promises of massive infrastructure investment, particularly transit construction projects in Ontario. Interest in community benefits campaigns is growing in cities across the country. 

In this nascent movement, the Broadbent Institute plays a facilitative role, supporting the efforts of leaders learning in action about building successful campaigns and long-term labour-community power. Since providing strategic planning support to the Toronto Community Benefits Network, we have committed to developing curriculum and training for the network, its members, and the leaders who will be organizing on the ground. The institute has also responded to emerging opportunities in Windsor, Hamilton, and in Toronto neighbourhoods.

Without a deep knowledge of the principles of community benefits campaigns as a strategy for equity and equitable economic participation, for organizing and building power on the ground, this work is not possible. It has been a unique and important foundational contribution to movement building.

We will be sharing more about what we do and learn in this work to foster organizing for equitable economic development and power building by workers and residents imagining the economy and the future they want to build for themselves where they live.

Read more about our work.

Image of Alejandra Bravo in action via Toronto Community Benefits Network's Instagram.