Putting organizing at the top of the agenda in the Canadian labour movement | What's Left

Labour activists have a clear qutestion to build the labour movement: whether you are active in a local or national union, what can that union do to reach out to workers who are not members?

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The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Convention took place last week, from May 8 to 16 in Toronto. National conventions are not always the best places for activists to advance their normal objectives for progressive change.

CLC conventions are large, with 3,000 people in a single room, physically tiresome and filled with often destructive inter-union politics. Many labour activists involved in any part of the work at the CLC Convention usually breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to an end, allowing us to move on to our regular work of organizing and building the labour movement from the ground up.

This Convention had a notable change of tone from the previous one three years ago. Coming out of the 2014 CLC Convention, the main message to national and local unions was that the movement needed to put money into advertisements that talk positively about unions. Many in leadership positions had argued that this would help unions gain credibility they felt they had lost with most Canadians. The infamous “Popsicle” campaign was rolled out at this Convention.

At the time, the push for advertisement was strongly criticized by labour activists. Believing that a union or any form of collective power could come from spending millions of dollars into paid television and radio ads is a fundamental misunderstanding of how to build worker power and what the role of unions should be in that effort.

While ads are still part of the program, this year’s convention saw a more direct effort to talk about grassroots organizing, the need to reach out beyond our traditional base, and the tactics used to organize workers on the shop floor. “No amount of paid advertisement can replace direct face-to-face conversations with workers”, said Jennifer Huang of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council on the final Convention panel dedicated to organizing.

While the labour movement may not change itself drastically following a CLC Convention even with this kind of relative improvement on tone, it opens up space to continue the conversation about building our collective organizing capacity. Most of the unions have been dedicating staff and resources to developing robust organizing departments and strategies, but more can be done. In fact, it could be argued that this work is on fragile ground when unions fail to respect rules of solidarity or focus only on soft organizing targets.

Labour activists have a clear program to build the labour movement: whether you are active in a local or national union, what can that union to reach out to workers who are not members? Are there temporary workers that would benefit from a collective voice directly within our union-represented workplaces? Which groups can be organized in spite of certification laws in effect in our province?

These questions are as relevant as ever, and there is still much work to be done to make sure that the program to organize more workers in Canada is moving forwards.