May 27, 2011
At the recent Canadian Labour Congress Convention in Vancouver I was pleased to hear words of solidarity and urging by delegates for union activists to rally around the recent Federal election success of the NDP and ride the orange wave and re-establish the significance of unions and labour in the lives of all Canadians and Canadian society in general.
It was recognized by CLC delegates that the influence of labour and union membership over the last twenty five years has waned and is in need of a healthy shot of resurgance.
Much has changed and much has to be done if labour and unions in general are to once again to be a positive force as they were in the last century.
Ken Georgetti, President of the CLC in his opening remarks to the Convention said, “We have to move much more quickly to use the tools that are available to us now and recognize the demographic shift if we’re going to be successful and more influential”.
While that is true, the CLC Executive Board, made up of the major Canadian Union leaders, seemed to have embraced diplomacy and forgotten the early beginnings of the labour movement in Canada by being less militant, and hesitant to get their hands dirty.
To be more blunt: our union leadership have gone from being the strong, vocal, wearing dirty work clothes, lunch room militantism, to diplomatic, boardroom, three-piece suits, lobbying and being polite and coming up with “spin”, then banging the table and striking fear in their opponent.
There needs to be a renaissance of that ole’ time union spirit, a visit from the ghost of union past to remind all unions and union members of those early struggles and sacrifices that were made; that have made the lives of all Canadians, union and non-union, better than it would have been without the influence of labour and unions.
Is it just me? I think not.
Fred Wilson of Rabble.ca, in his article titled, “How the NDP gave Canada’s unions a new opportunity to organize” on May 26 says and I quote:
The election has potentially changed the ground game for labour by moving the centre to the left. After decades of a political centre somewhere between pro-corporate Liberals and hard right social Conservatives, there is now an official social democratic opposition that redefines social consensus. This can have profound implications for industrial policy, social policy and labour law — as well as for public attitudes about unions and collective rights.
The opportunity, however, is not by any means automatic. It will require the party to be firm in support of its labour base and to take a page from right-wing and Republican strategies of using values and principles to shift politics towards its base.
As important, it will require labour to demand recognition and rights in politics and in the workplace and economy. Trade unions have powerful new supporters in Parliament, but without a much more visible, militant and forceful movement making demands on politicians and employers alike, that political support won’t mean very much.
The new NDP opposition has a very strong labour group within it, including many who have served as staff or elected leaders in the trade union movement. In addition to re-elected MPs like Yvon Godin (USW), Carol Hughes (CLC), Wayne Marston (CEP), Don Davies (Teamsters), Pat Martin (Carpenters), Libby Davies (HEU), the new caucus includes Peggy Nash (CAW), Nicole Turmel (PSAC), Jenny Sims (BCTF), Tyrone Benskin (ACTRA), Robert Chisholm and Alexandre Boulerice (CUPE), and Guy Caron and Mike Sullivan (CEP). Others like Joe Comartin and Jack Harris are labour lawyers, closely associated with the trade union movement.
Preaching to the choir at a labour convention, to those that are supposedly converted in the ways of union activism is one thing. Motivating the membership as a whole and getting them inspired and energized is another thing altogether and one of the big challenges. Another big challenge, is to increase union density which has been hit hard over the last twenty-five years and get more Canadians organized as union members.
Days of action and general strikes seem to be nothing but a concept that has gathered dust in Canadian labour history and union folklore. Sung about in song and passed down over the ages.
Has the union movement forgotten where it came from, in spirit and action.?
I am not the leader of the Canadian Labour Congress; or the President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees or the President of the Canadian Auto Workers. They can lead as we have elected them to do, but are union members willing to follow?
I am not talking about the union activists “that get it”. I am talking about the union membership that is oblivious to the forces that are threatening to risk their future, their retirement, their security, their livelihood.
Will union members stand up and help their union leadership help them keep their union job, protect their pension, allow them to get to retirement, enable them to contribute to their communities and society and protect what they and others have taken for granted through the hard work, sweat and sacrifices of others in the union movement, past and present?
In this day and age with the social media and internet along with television, tv, radio, newspapers, and so forth, has this all just become “noise” and union members across all sectors just have not got the message that their way of life and future is at risk?
The 2011 CLC Convention in Vancouver represented an opportunity for labour in Canada to begin a so-called “rebirth” of unionism, echoing what occurred 100 years ago. Did that resonant to those listening to many of the 2500 delegates in attendance?
I am not sure. But from where I sat, I did hear the word solidarity used, and sometimes practiced, but also I witnessed the lack of solidarity amongst my Sisters and Brothers.
“Needless to say, these elected labour activists and the 103 social democrats in Parliament cannot by themselves stop the Conservative majority from further weakening what remains of trade union power. That reality explained the mix of sentiment at this month’s Canadian Labour Congress convention where 2,500 delegates cheered and cried for Jack Layton in an hour-long emotional outburst, but spent the rest of convention at microphones with foreboding of great danger to come.
It is difficult to avoid comparing the Harper majority to the Republican sweep in the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections. After the political defeat, the new right wing legislators quickly launched a massive assault on the last bastion of U.S. unionism — American public sector unions. Anti-labour legislation was introduced in 20 U.S. states after the U.S. mid-term elections — although most attention was focused on the massive fightback in Wisconsin.”, Wilson commented.
Leadership should be strong at the top of the CLC and filter it way down to its affiliate Unions, Locals and the membership. Labour should be endeavoring to reach a consensus gathering itself together in a room; locking the door, and not leaving until there is an accord that clearly includes militanism of a type that stands up for social justice, human rights, proper working conditions, just to mention a few and is demonstrated in such activities as days of action and general strikes.
Instead what happened at the recent CLC Convention was no debate or adoption of an Action Plan to deal with the Harper majority government in Ottawa, and the detriment to labour that the majority government will have; and the difficulties it will present to working people from coast to coast to coast, union and non-union, and to Canadians in general, with such things as CETA for example, and which I have opined on in my blog if you care to search for and read up on.
As stated by Wilson, Canada’s trade unions suddenly have more political support than they could have imagined only months ago. It’s now up to trade unionists to give the politicians something to talk about.