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Windsor Panhandlers Want to Unionize

They want 'rights everyone else has,' like sitting down in peace. Fair enough.

Photo via Flickr user Mistermuckle

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Even in a year that's seen labour actions at some of Canada's largest universities and the unprecedented unionization of several new media organizations, what's happening in Windsor is unusual. A group of panhandlers and street performers there have decided to unite, calling themselves Street Labourers of Windsor (SLOW).

Andrew Nellis, one of the organizers, told Postmedia they "are members of the public just like anybody else. We don't want extra rights. We just want the same rights that everybody else has." Nellis organized and represented a similar effort in Ottawa, the Ottawa Panhandlers' Union (OPU), when he lived there, but relocated to Windsor in 2011.

Among the group's complaints is that the Downtown Windsor Business Association (DWBIA) has paid for iron spikes to be installed on the cement planters many panhandlers use as seats while asking for money. There have also been attempts to put time limits on panhandling downtown, according to panhandler and organizer Richard Dalkeith.

SLOW intends to join the International Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union that doesn't require its members to be employed; the OPU is also an IWW shop. Panhandlers and other people on the streets of Windsor are being asked to sign membership cards right now. Nellis wouldn't tell Postmedia how many had already signed up.

Perhaps surprisingly, both Windsor's mayor and the chairman of the DWBIA have come out in support of the move. Mayor Drew Dilkens said he hopes buskers and panhandlers get "on the same page where they agree to something reasonable to behave accordingly," while Larry Horwitz said street performers "can be a strong addition to the city core" and that "you can see where people feel they are disenfranchised."

Horwitz also said he is "sympathetic" to what he called Windsor's "mental health problem," and acknowledged that just hoping panhandlers and other people on the street disappear is not going to do anything, either to move people off city streets or to deal with the underlying issues that bring people to the streets in the first place.

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