Saturday, September 21, 2013

Conference Summary, Niagara Fights Right-to-Work (June 15, 2013)

Niagara Regional Labour Council President, Daniel Peat, began the conference by focusing the sixty-three registered participants on "Right to Work" as a phrase that means the opposite of what the words should mean, representing a piece of propaganda for a collection of laws which make it difficult for workers to organize effective unions and thereby improve the lives of all working people.

Conference Chair, Bruce Allen of CAW 199 reminded the participants of the link between racism in the American south and the laws which took hold there after WW II.  He pointed out that such laws do the greatest harm to the workers that were most vulnerable - women and recent immigrants in our Canada today.

Professor Tami Friedman of Brock University's Labour Studies program provided an overview of the waves of implementation of anti-union laws in the south-east and in the south-west USA beginning in 1947.  She drew parallels with the current situation in Ontario and highlighted the key advantages unions must maintain to overcome the current threats to implement laws which weaken unions.

Brother Mike Kolhoff of the Lansing Workers' Center in Michigan highlighted the lessons that the labour movement in Ontario must learn from the way in which big business outspent labour by ten to one in a political fight that preceded the passage of laws which were recently passed in that state, cautioning against relying on political tactics.

Professor Brian Palmer drew parallels between the real estate collapse of 1926 in the USA and the beginning of the great depression and the real estate collapse of 2008.  He emphasized how the left needed to be rebuilt throughout society, not just within unions.  He recognized the need for unions to organize workers in emerging work sectors in order to remain a powerful social force, leading a movement of the entire working class, including marginalized workers and the unemployed, sharing an affinity with movements such as students in Quebec and aboriginal peoples throughout Canada.

Sam Gindin, former Director, CAW Research Department, stepped back from the specific threats of the RTW agenda and explored how unions can decrease their isolation from the rest of the working class through a process of union renewal.  He stressed that unions must organize to build capacity at the community level by offering individual memberships for workers in fragmented employment, providing services to them and to the unemployed, who would otherwise be easy pickings for the right.  He gave examples of the potential of the new CAW/CEP union, Unifor, of outreach centres in Toronto and Halifax, and the potential of workers assemblies.

Matt Wayland, National Political Action Rep for Canada for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also addressed the conference, stressing the need for union leadership to facilitate member-to-member conversations to frame the message from labour's point of view, not the right's.  He gave some alarming examples of the tactics that Merit Canada, an organization of non-union contractors, had employed through hiring a former Conservative staffer (Terrance Oakey) to work with Harper's CPC to repeal the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act through a single line in the 425-page federal omnibus budget bill, and to bring in Bill C-377 and Bill C-525.

Later in the conference, Brother Wayland also gave an example of how the IBEW in Manitoba had organized a successful Next Gen conference to engage younger Manitoba Hydro workers, educating them in labour history, and would be doing so in Ontario in November.

Malcolm Allen, NDP MP for Welland riding, talked about the need to take back the language that was being used around union issues, with the right framing unions as anti-democratic and taking away workers' rights.  He stressed that it was our duty to engage our members so that they understand what we do.  "If engaged," he said, "they will fight."

John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) spoke about the Rand formula representing a compromise between Labour and Capital that allowed workers' standard of living to rise but left the capitalist system alone.  He emphasized that we need a broader working-class common front against the austerity agenda, saying "We must organize a movement that defends its gains but leaves no-one behind."

Brynne Sinclair-Waters, a researcher from the OFL, gave an overview of where Ontario PCs and Harper CPCs were in their push toward implementing RTW in Canada.  She emphasized that there was nothing new in these policies, saying "These are tired old policies that have had a negative impact in the United States for decades." She provided the personal perspective of a "Gen Y" member, young people now between the ages of 18 and 25 whose unemployment rate is twice the average, and included a visual component by way of the Prezi that can be viewed here.

The conference then broke into small groups which considered three questions and shared their ideas with the whole conference.  These questions were as follows:

  • Who are our potential allies?
  • What are the obstacles?
  • What are the next steps?

Two next steps came directly out of the conference:

  • Conference attendees were invited to begin to formulate a plan of action based on the answers to the questions posed, in a meeting on Thursday, June 20th 2013 in the Niagara Regional Labour Council offices, 124 Bunting Road, St. Catharines.
  • The conference organizers undertook to set up an e-mail listserv for conference attendees to facilitate the development and sharing of plans.

At the meeting of June 20th, the attendees undertook to develop a website where members of the Common Front could engage in dialogue about how to build capacity to overcome the problems identified in the conference.

Daniel Peat
President, Niagara Regional Labour Council