The right to the city as a foundation for social justice

A view from the streets of Winnipeg
January 1, 2019

The right to the city comes out of critical theory, a branch of intellectual thought originating in the early 20th century at the University of Frankfurt. The Frankfurt School consisted of a group of radical scholars who theorized about the rise of mass popular culture and its effect on society. A December 2016 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump was Coming,” points out how relevant their ideas are today: “The combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario [Theodor] Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination.”

Critical theory provided a base for the emergence of critical urban theory later on in the 20th century. Within this group, Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells and David Harvey were key in advancing the idea that there is such a thing as the right to the city (RTC). In the introduction to their 2009 book, Cities for People, Not for Profit, Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer explain how RTC scholars see cities as “major basing points for the production, circulation and consumption of commodities,” and believe every aspect of urban organization, governance and sociopolitical conflict stems from this role. An RTC framework, in other words, allows us to peer under the hood and observe the motor and transmission of urban life.

The fundamental role that urban centres play in capitalism has only intensified under neoliberalism. We see it in what Brenner et al. refer to as the hyper-commodification of urban land, housing, transportation, utilities and public space. Housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto are driven sky high by speculation (see Michal Rozworski’s article in the November-December 2018 Monitor); public transportation has declined in many cities while single-use vehicles and app-based ride-sharing services choke our deteriorating roadways; developers exercise almost total control over urban spaces like True North Square in Winnipeg. These are all examples of how cities are built to meet the needs of profit rather than people.

The right to the city is valuable not only for helping us understand urbanization: as a theoretical framework, it is also extremely useful in helping us build resistance to mass consumerism and corporate control of our cities. The right to the city provides the impetus for those who are socially and economically excluded to take back the direction of their lives—to “expose, propose and politicize,” as Marcuse puts it. Groups working on single-issue campaigns including social housing, job creation, environmental issues, workers’ rights and poverty reduction, as well as anyone working within more transformative campaigns to disrupt neoliberalism and colonization, can mobilize under the RTC banner.

As Harvey notes in his 2012 book, Rebel Cities, “[h]ow such disparate groups may become self-organized into a revolutionary force is the big political problem.” Nationally this worthy project feels like a non-starter, at least at this political moment in Canada’s history. The RTC framework is appealing locally for its flexibility in accommodating any number of causes and groups in their pursuit of social and economic justice. It may be especially useful in a city like Winnipeg, with its many overlapping social realities.

Exposing, proposing and politicizing in Winnipeg

Whereas a city like Winnipeg displays all the usual characteristics of neoliberal urban development—the dominance of developers, ever expanding suburbs and car-friendly infrastructure—its large Indigenous population means the way groups might collectively respond to this type of urbanization will differ from, say, Toronto or Vancouver. Decolonization must play a part in any RTC movement in Canadian Prairie cities like Winnipeg.

There are a number of initiatives in Winnipeg that align with a RTC philosophy even though they have not been expressly framed that way. We propose that more consciously framing our efforts under the RTC banner would draw out how much they share in common, with the potential to strengthen a co-operative power base from which we are more likely to achieve our social justice goals.

Harvey witnessed this dynamic in action at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. He writes in Rebel Cities that after years of fighting on their own for a variety of social justice causes, U.S. groups saw the benefit of unifying under a common RTC framework. Political geographer Elvin Wyly also notes in a 2010 article that diverse groups, without being aware of it, are already “doing work that constitutes a collective project of critical urbanism.”

We have been involved in several movements that forced change at the political level through the strength of collective organizing and mobilization, and that fit well under a RTC framework. Those groups include Winnipeg’s Alternative Municipal Budget (AMB), the city’s Right to Housing (R2H) campaign, Make Poverty History Manitoba (MPHB), and the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN).

In what follows, we examine the nature of each of these four causes or movements, how research was used to mobilize the community and what changes were achieved. We look at how such groups have begun to consolidate their efforts, then propose how they might become even more united and effective under the “right to the city” banner.

Alternative Municipal Budget

Economist John Loxley introduced the idea of alternative budgets to the grassroots activist coalition Cho!ces in the 1990s. Cho!ces produced the first alternative budgets in Canada for both Manitoba and Winnipeg, but the practice eventually spread to the CCPA’s national office, where an Alternative Federal Budget is released every year. CCPA-Manitoba brought back the Winnipeg Alternative Municipal Budget (AMB) in 2008 and has put one out every four years since then.

AMBs are developed and published in election years as a way to educate, inspire and challenge candidates and voters. Unlike municipal government documents, which can be overwhelmingly complex, the AMB describes important elements of the actual budget in simple terms and proposes how the city’s wealth could be distributed differently based on different (not neoliberal) values.

Alternative Municipal Budget 2018

Importantly, Winnipeg’s AMB is an exercise in local participatory democracy. Various community groups discuss what the focus should be for the year and strategize around the financial framework. AMB partners include community-based organizations working with marginalized women, newcomers and the Indigenous community, groups such as Bike Winnipeg, the Green Action Centre, the Manitoba Library Association and Food Matters Manitoba, as well as unions and academics. Economists place the participants’ spending priorities in a fiscal framework that is then contrasted with the city’s actual budget.

The exercise clearly shows how the community’s priorities differ from the city’s. In the 2018 AMB, Imagine a Winnipeg, we applied sustainable budgeting principles to accommodate environmental issues and income inequality. When you raise and spend money differently, you begin to imagine a different city. The AMB increased taxes—including business taxes—more than the city, implemented fees to discourage car use and urban sprawl, and spent that money on electric buses, a low-income bus pass and the remunicipalization of Handi-Transit, a privatized parallel service for physically challenged persons that is frequently criticized for poor service.

The 2018 AMB lowered the ever-ballooning police budget by 2%, arguing that it is starving the departments that could better deal with the root causes of crime. Using an equity lens, the AMB found that increases in policing have been “disproportionately targeted in Winnipeg’s Black and Indigenous communities under the guise of outreach to those communities.” So, we introduced policies to educate officers about the social conditions, including colonization, that force people into crime.

The AMB also incorporated policies from the municipal poverty reduction report released around the same time by Make Poverty History Manitoba. And it allocated funds for increasing transparency and democracy at city hall while implementing electoral reform to encourage more Winnipeggers to get involved in city politics.

The AMB has proven to be a valuable tool in mobilizing the community around a common cause, educating the public and pushing politicians to implement progressive policies. We believe that past AMBs helped the city understand it needed to raise property taxes (after a 14-year tax freeze) and bring in developer fees to discourage urban sprawl.

The 2018 AMB was used as a basis for a mayoral candidate debate, an op-ed in the Winnipeg Sun, media interviews and newspaper stories, and various classroom and public presentations. The mayoral incumbent in the October elections, Brian Bowman, even promised to bring in a low-income bus pass if re-elected, which he was.

Right to Housing

Right to Housing (R2H) is a Winnipeg-based advocacy coalition made up of 58 organizations with several hundred individual supporters. The coalition’s strength has been its belief that researchers and activists can work side by side to change public policy.

Since forming in 2006, R2H has been disciplined in its call for an increase in social housing for low-income individuals and families. Although a single-issue coalition, R2H also recognizes that some people are more vulnerable than others, and it works in collaboration with groups representing Indigenous communities, women and newcomers who are calling on governments to build more social housing for their constituencies. In recognition of the need to connect with other social justice campaigns, an R2H member participated in the development of last year’s AMB.

Long before the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission issued its calls to action in 2015, R2H was an active ally of First Nations claims for space previously occupied by the Department of National Defence. When the government of Canada relocated the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Division to Camp Shilo near Brandon, Manitoba, several housing units were left vacant. R2H aligned with Pequis First Nation to advocate for this now “surplus land” on Treaty 1 territory to be repatriated by the First Nation as part of its land entitlement.

R2H had considerable success in exposing the need for social housing, proposing targets and timelines for government intervention, and politicizing its members and the broader public to call upon their government to take action. And after years of strategic political advocacy between 2011 and 2016, the R2H demand was met with the addition of a record number of new social housing units as well as the retrofitting of hundreds of units in disrepair.

R2H has entered a new era with a provincial Conservative government that is now privatizing public housing rather than building new units. However, the coalition remains strong and focused, while also working alongside other groups who increasingly recognize that the issues they are passionate about are part of a collective struggle for social and economic justice in the city of Winnipeg and beyond.

MPHM Rally Oct 11 2018Photo by Andrew Tod, Manitoba Federation of Labour

Make Poverty History Manitoba

Advocacy efforts in the early 2000s to convince the government of Manitoba to establish a comprehensive plan to address poverty were unsuccessful. In 2008, organizations including CCPA-Manitoba pooled their collective resources under the banner of Make Poverty History Manitoba (MPHM) to develop their own poverty-fighting plan the community could really get behind.

The Manitoba government responded to this pressure by releasing a poverty-reduction strategy a few weeks ahead of the scheduled release date of the MPHM vision document, The View From Here. The coalition welcomed the government’s initiative, but continued to advocate its own grassroots plan, which included specific timelines and targets.

In 2015, MPHM updated the View From Here and demonstrated that some progress had been made. The coalition continues to use the living document as its rallying cry for action on poverty aimed at all three levels of government. In 2017, MPHM developed a municipally focused plan, Winnipeg Without Poverty: Calling on the City to Lead, which also figures prominently in the Alternative Municipal Budget.

Migrant Workers Solidarity Network

As in much of Canada, Manitoba’s vegetable farms have come to rely on migrant labour during the growing season. Each year, up to 400 workers, most of them from Mexico, are received in the province under the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program (SAWP). From spring to fall, these workers, mostly men, do physically demanding labour that most Canadians will not do.

In 2009, a group called the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN) undertook a campaign of public education so consumers would understand who was harvesting their produce and how they were being treated. The network, made up of members of the Latino community, faith-based groups, labour advocates and academics, also met with relevant provincial ministers to push the province to enforce employment standards and grant the workers access to provincial health care. MWSN adopted the strategy used by Right to Housing and Make Poverty History Manitoba to determine issues of concern; as in both earlier joint efforts, CCPA-Manitoba helped by producing research and policy recommendations that could be disseminated publicly.

The conditions under which migrant agricultural workers operate made it impossible to do extensive consultations. But MWSN members were able to talk to some workers and knew that the private health care coverage they had was not working well. As was the case with R2H and MPHM, the group homed in on one simple, clear ask and undertook a campaign to pressure the government to grant the workers access to provincial health care.

Although the network wasn’t part of a community coalition per se, it did have the support of the labour community. Local 832 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) was happy to work with MWSN, for example, by pledging resources to translate an information pamphlet about the workers’ rights and how they could access information about employment standards and workplace health and safety.

MWSN launched its health care campaign with a series of CCPA-Manitoba fact-sheets called “Fast Facts,” which explained how and why the farm workers were here, the conditions under which they worked, and a plea to grant the workers access to the provincial health care system. MWSN members were invited to speak at local conferences and university classes about their advocacy.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour was also applying pressure on the government to open the health care system to migrant workers. UFCW pledged more money to the MWSN so it could print postcards urging the government to grant the workers access to health care benefits. Hundreds of these postcards were signed and sent to the premier’s office.

In 2013, MWSN produced a larger report that included interviews with migrant workers, a literature review and policy recommendations. At the launch of the latter report, the provincial minister of immigration and multiculturalism announced that the NDP government would grant health care coverage to migrant workers. The combined efforts of the labour movement and the research and public advocacy work of MWSN had paid off.

Beyond the lack of health care, workers had complained to us about being paid less than minimum wage through the piece-rate system, and of having wages held back. MWSN met with the head of the province’s special investigations unit for employers of temporary foreign workers. The information the group provided alerted the unit to specific problems that, when investigated, were fixed.

MWSN still meets and interacts with the workers today and is connected to a national group that advocates on behalf of temporary workers everywhere. The Manitoba network is currently working with farms to offer English classes to the workers—a need that was identified through interviews and the MWSN policy development process.

The multi-dimensional right to the city

Winnipeg’s many grassroots organizations are mobilized and can be highly effective. But there are limits to the ability of single-issue campaigns to achieve major public policy change. Sanford Schram, the American political scientist, rightly states that “getting beyond neoliberalism will take political mobilization on multiple levels inside and outside the conventional public policy system.

Thankfully, the successes of the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network, Make Poverty History Manitoba, Right to Housing and the Alternative Municipal Budget process offer a signpost for what more could be accomplished if groups rallied together, and in particular if that happened under the “right to the city” banner.

Migrant workers naturally tend to live outside city limits, close to the vegetable farms that employ them. But the distinction between the rural and urban in this context merely hides the ways these workers’ rights are being violated. By giving voice to migrants’ pleas for permanent residency, health care and fair pay, MWSN recognized their claim to share in the benefits of urbanization—their right to the city.

The MWSN example also shows the power of uniting grassroots campaigns with local labour unions. However, the labour movement could be better at responding to what Lefebvre describes in his RTC writing as the “cry and demand out of the streets and neighbourhods.”

Of course labour has the right to direct its members resources as it sees fit. However, we propose that current practice is shortsighted. Unionized workers and the organizations that represent them must join with others to challenge neoliberal capitalism. Our collective interests are best served by providing sustained support for broad-based organizing efforts such as the coalitions mentioned here. A RTC framework could make these efforts more attractive to union and non-union organizations alike.

The Alternative Municipal Budget itself offers a foundation on which a right to the city could be built in Winnipeg, as it already combines efforts by R2H, MPHM and the labour community. But the AMB brings these and other groups together only on a temporary basis and there is no mechanism to sustain collective advocacy efforts once the final report is published. By necessity, participants all too often return to their important issue-based work, with little time and energy to put toward a truly transformative, or as Harvey would say, revolutionary effort.

The social justice groups described above share the view that broader societal transformation is required and that focusing on one issue at a time will not get us there. Building our efforts on a “right to the city” framework, and funding that effort appropriately, could consolidate the aspirations of a larger group of equity seekers, including those most deeply affected by regressive public policies. 

Fundamentally, we are all working to expose the corrosive effects neoliberalism on democracy and our urban spaces, propose new ways forward that are beneficial to everyone, and politicize and mobilize those who seek a more equitable world. The right to the city can get us closer to this justice we seek.

Lynne Fernandez holds the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at CCPA Manitoba. Shauna MacKinnon is Associate Professor in the Urban and Inner City Program at the University of Winnipeg.