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CITY » Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy
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CITY > Projects > Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy

Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy

Principal Investigator:
Ian MacDonald (York University, Cornell ILR)

Steven Tufts (York University), Lois Gray (Cornell ILR)

Team Members:
Mildred Warner (Cornell), Thorben Wieditz (York University), KC Wagner (Cornell ILR), Simon
Black (York University), James Nugent (University of Toronto), Maria Figueroa (Cornell
ILR), Susanna Schaller (City College, CUNY).

Trade unions remain forceful, if embattled, labour market actors in major urban centres in North America. Increasingly under pressure, unions are assuming a more innovative role in the promotion and re-regulation of their respective sectors. This role often entails the promotion of ‘high road’ employment practices that overlap with the shared concerns of local governments and locally-dependent firms in workforce development and increased inward investment, and the interests local communities have in the expansion of employment opportunities and the provision of public services. As a part of this strategic shift, unions have increased their political capacities as urban actors, forging coalitions with communities and obliging them to reckon with the interests of their members both as producers and as residents of the city.

Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy is a comparative case study of urban organizing and bargaining strategies across five industry clusters (film, hospitality, green building, child care, mass transit) in Toronto and New York City. The project will:

1) identify the transformations in industry structure, industrial relations practices, firm location and settlement patterns that challenge unions to develop entrepreneurial urban strategies;

2) model these strategies and the economic paradigms to which they are associated;

3) evaluate the effectiveness of labour’s strategies in terms of promoting unionization, defending wages and benefits, establishing wage and benefit floors in unorganized sectors;

4) understand how steering investment towards high road trajectories meets broader social policy objectives such as decent employment, quality public services, skills and career development, and socially inclusive cities;

5) evaluate the limitations and explore the contradictions of these strategies, both from the perspective of trade unionists as they construe their interests variously not only as workers and union members but also as urban residents, and from the perspective of the above mentioned social policy goals; and,

6) seek, as a result of the comparative nature of the study, to establish a basis for learning and strategy/policy adoption across sectors and places.

Based at the CITY Institute, York University, the project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, is a collaboration between labour and urban studies scholars, labour geographers and political scientists based at Toronto and New York City area universities. The results will be reported in a book, articles in peer-reviewed journals, papers delivered at scholarly conferences, and published in popular web and print journals.

In speaking to a broader audience, we hope to encourage a better informed and more nuanced understanding among an urban public concerned with the positive social outcomes of labour-management and labour-state relations. In addition, our findings will enable trade unionists and labour leaders to rethink local political and bargaining strategies in light of comparable cases, and foster more enlightened policy making at the sub-national and municipal levels of government.


  •  Ian MacDonald, Unions and the City: Negotiating Urban Change, Cornell ILR Press.
  •  Ian MacDonald, “Beyond the Labour of Sysyphus: Unions and the City” Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class
  •  Ian MacDonald, “Labor and Community in Land Use Planning: The New York Hotel Trades’ Council ‘Special Permit’ Campaign,” Progressive Planning no. 197 (Fall, 2013): pp. 29-31.
  • Steven Tufts, “The Particular Politics of Casino Development in Toronto”, The Bullet, no. 724, 2012

Conference Papers:

  • Ian MacDonald, “Urban Organizing Strategies in the New York Hospitality Sector,” paper presented to the Labor and Employment Relations Association Annual Conference, St. Louis, June 8, 2013.
  • KC Wagner and Mildred Warner, Susanna Schaller, “Linking Child Care and Union Strategy in NYC” paper presented to the Labor and Employment Relations Association Annual Conference, St. Louis, June 8, 2013.
  • Lois Gray, “Film Industry Unions in Local Politics” paper presented to the Labor and Employment Relations Association Annual Conference, St. Louis, June 8, 2013.
  • Ian MacDonald, “Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy: Project Overview”, paper presented to the United Association of Labor Educators Annual Conference, Toronto, April 19, 2013.
  • Simon Black, “Old-Style Social Democracy or Progressive Competitiveness? Toronto’s Child Care Unions in the Entrepreneurial City,” paper presented to the United Association of Labor Educators Annual Conference, Toronto, April 19, 2013.
  • Steven Tufts, “The Particular Politics of Casino Development in Toronto,” paper presented to the United Association of Labor Educators Annual Conference, Toronto, April 19, 2013.
  • James Nugent and Thorben Wieditz, “Fighting to Protect Employment: Recent Labour-Community Struggles in the City of Toronto”, paper presented to the United Association of Labor Educators Annual Conference, Toronto, April 19, 2013.
  • Ian MacDonald, “Placing Labour in the New Urban Economy: A Research Agenda” paper presented to the Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la mondialisation et le travail (CRIMT) conference on Union Futures: Innovations, Transformations, Strategies, HEC Montréal, October 25, 2012.

Public Events:

  • Steven Tufts, “The Particular Politics of Casino Development in Toronto: Organized Labour and the Great Casino Debate,” paper presented at CRIMT 2014 International Conference: New Frontiers for Citizenship at Work. May 14, Montreal
  • Maria Figueroa, “Green Jobs/Green New York Campaign: A Labor-Community Alliance for Job Creation and Workforce Development for Laborers in New York”, paper presented to the Labor and Employment Relations Association Conference, May 29, 2014, Portland.
  • Ian MacDonald, Steven Tufts, Thorben Wieditz and James Nugent, “Negotiating Employment and Land Use Transitions in the De-industrializing City”, roundtable presentation at the Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies, May 29, 2014, St. Catharines.
  • Steven Tufts, presentation to CITY Seminar “Casino City?” February 1, 2013, York University
  • Simon Black, KC Wagner, Mildred Warner and Susanna Schaller, “Unions and Child Care: Expanding Access, Raising Standards”, December 18, Cornell Worker Institute.

This project has been made possible through a financial contribution from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Government of Canada.