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Unions, political action, and fairness for everyone

in Holding the Line by

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own.
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a Union
– Billy Bragg

Seeing folksinger and political activist Billy Bragg at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s is a real energy boost. Attending a union convention—where people are openly engage in discussion on issues affecting the lives of workers, the well-being of communities and the need for fairness for everyone—is an even better energizer.

There is a popular misconception that unions only worry about protecting themselves, that they care little for the concerns of the larger society. The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. To those who feel unions are only self-serving: check your history. Who brought you the eight-hour work day, vacations, maternity and parental leave, employment insurance and more? Who is out front in the fight to turn minimum wage into a living wage? Who has been leading the fight for improved retirement security for all?

Attend a union convention and you will find issues being debated from fracking to affordable child-care, to housing for seniors, and much more. Unions are very much social unions. We have a responsibility to our members through the collective bargaining process to improve workplace issues including wages and benefits, health and safety, pensions, etc. But union members and their families live in communities, and what happens in those communities is as important to unions as what happens at work. It is important that programs and laws also protect and enhance workers’ lives outside of their workplaces. Unions know only too well that the best collective agreement language in the world can be eradicated with the swipe of a legislative pen.

The reality for union members today

Today, unions are under attack. They are facing the biggest challenge of their existence. Current legislation before the federal government like bills C-377 and C-525 are designed to crush unions and their ability to organize and engage in political action. Provincial bills like B-24—swiftly passed in our House of Assembly recently—makes it harder for workers to exercise their right to join a union. Motions to increase the minimum wage, or enact anti-scab legislation have been defeated by the majority Progressive Conservative government with Liberal support.

It is in this context that the affiliates of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL) will gather on Nov. 23- 25 for their mid-term “issues”-based convention. The theme of the convention is Standing Together for Fairness for All and will be a call to political action in preparation for both a provincial and federal election in 2015.

More than 200 delegates from across the province will attend, representing some 25 unions and 65,000 workers. Panels and workshops will focus on how we democratically engage in the upcoming elections. We want to ensure issues like jobs, our economy, health and child care, and retirement security are ballot box issues. Academics will present research which will help solidify labour’s positions on these topics. In short, we plan to be active in the upcoming provincial and federal elections.

Our adversaries declare that unions have no place in politics. The labour movement maintains that unions have no choice. Being involved in political action is a necessity! History shows us that nothing happens without a struggle. Unless we are political, real change cannot happen.

A busy agenda

One of the keynote speakers at the NLFL convention will be Hassan Yussuff, the recently elected president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the federal umbrella organization for the country’s 3.3 million union members. Hassan will set the tone for the convention and outline the issues that will form the “Better Choice” campaign heading into next year’s federal election.

A panel of union leaders will highlight some of the legislative changes that have had a profound impact on working women and men. Changes to the Employment Insurance program, for example, means over 60 per cent of unemployed workers are denied access to benefits they paid into. The attack on private and public pensions is bringing despair to workers who should be able to retire with dignity after a lifetime of work. Unions are fighting hard to maintain these pensions for their members.

 History shows us that nothing happens without a struggle. Unless we are political, real change cannot happen.

Strong economies depend on consumer spending. Workers spend their money in the local economy. Fair wages and decent pensions are integral to this. The temporary foreign worker program, even as amended, is not a substitute for a sound immigration policy and a jobs and skills training strategy.

There will be a forum on childcare where discussion will focus on demands for the federal and provincial governments to move toward a quality, universal, accessible and affordable public early learning and child care program. Young workers will come together to discuss their role in shaping the labour movement, and challenge older workers about how to make room for them.

Delegates will look at some of the challenges that specific unions are dealing with such as the recently announced cuts to Canada Post’s door-to-door mail delivery, and federal public sector bargaining. Coalition partners—the Canadian Federation of Students and the Health Coalition—will highlight the importance of building allies and working together.

Workshops will help union activists learn skills to better engage and empower their union members in broader political action. We will be reminding the delegates that workers make up 80 per cent of the population. As Billy Bragg reminds us:

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand.
There is power in a Union

Tommy Douglas said it very eloquently in the 1960s in his famous speech about the mice who kept electing cats to represent them: sometimes white cats, sometimes black cats, sometimes a combination of cats — but always cats! If we want to make sure our world is a fairer and more equal place for all then it’s time we reconsidered who we vote for. Sound revolutionary?


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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