“The sky is falling,” said the Opposition Liberals.

That was the metaphor used by Diana Gibson in her keynote speech to more than 300 delegates at the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL) convention this past Monday. Gibson’s speech provided a foundation of economic argument to the convention—themed “Standing Up For Fairness For All”—which aimed to galvanize political activism among the members of our province’s labour unions.

Last Sunday through Tuesday, representatives from Newfoundland and Labrador’s unions gathered at the Sheraton Hotel in St. John’s to listen to keynote speeches, discuss common challenges and strategies, and participate in workshops on issues such as youth engagement, childcare for workers and occupational health and safety.

Gibson, a political economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, used her keynote speech to share the most important ideas from her new report, Newfoundland and Labrador:
Options for a Strong Economy.

A key message she delivered to union delegates: as the price of oil falls, and politicians and employers argue for the need to cut spending to save our economy from falling like Chicken Little’s proverbial sky, unions and other economic justice activists need to take political action against spending cuts and for tax fairness.

“Certainly it’s important for unions to take action to ensure that there’s a balanced debate around spending deficits and tax cuts in the province,” Gibson said in an interview Tuesday. “To date that’s been a fairly one-sided conversation focusing on spending cuts and cuts to the public sector.”

The other side of the conversation is made clear in her report: “Personal income tax rates have been cut, disproportionately for those with higher incomes. At the same time, the government has been unwilling to adequately tax the extraordinary profits going to large corporations in the extractive sector, particularly those in the oil industry. Together, these decisions have contributed to two successive deficits.”

Taking the social and political action needed to transform this conversation into one that prioritizes social justice and economic equality is what unions will be aiming to do in the coming year. Delegates and leaders from many unions spoke to the need for action in 2015, a year that will bring both a provincial and federal election to Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It’s highly important that unions now become politically engaged, we’re in the fight for our lives,” said Allison Garrison, a resident of Mount Pearl and a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Fabian Benoit of Labrador West, a member of the United Steelworkers, identified how this fight has to be both provincial and federal. “The people that are running this country and this province right now don’t have…the worker in mind,” he said. “We need to make sure we stand up for what’s important to all of us.”

Unifor Atlantic Director Lana Payne summarized the need for political action in the context of the current political direction of the province. In the closing keynote speech of the convention, Payne told delegates: “Lopsided majority governments are never in the best interests of citizens, nor are they in the best interests of democracy. Both provincially and nationally ask yourselves what kind of world you want, and then organize to get it.”

Payne also identified the possibility of another federal Conservative government as a major threat to the best interests of Canadian citizens and the state of our democracy. In an interview after her speech, she noted that challenging these threats in 2015 will be only half the fight: “The first step is defeating Harper, the second step is building a fairer more equal Canada.”

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