Putting organizing at the top of the agenda in the Canadian labour movement
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.
Desmond Cole case reignites age-old debate
Can journalists also be activists and try to influence the news they cover? This age-old debate has been thrust into the limelight in recent weeks. For many years, Desmond Cole has written a column for the Toronto Star and reported on issues of anti-black racism in the city of the Toronto. His reporting of Black Lives Matter actions was, for a long time, the only reporting happening on their demands.
On April 20, Cole interrupted the City of Toronto Police Services Board meeting to protest the fact that the data collected from carding practices had not been destroyed. This prompted the Toronto Star to end Cole’s column, which in turn caused much outcry. The Star published an editorial condemning his actions, and the Beaverton, with a clever parody, exposed the Star’s own anti-black racism.
Socialists know that so-called journalistic neutrality is a concept that protects and serves the corporate elite who own and run the media, and that many issues of social justice never get covered because of it. Cole’s activism is one of principle and justice, and his work will be important to follow outside of the pages of the Toronto Star.
Canadian media proves ignorance on cultural appropriation
A little known literary magazine published by the Writers' Union of Canada came under fire this week. Its editor, Hal Niedzviecki, called for “more cultural appropriation” and the start of an “appropriation prize”, which sparked outrage. He resigned shortly after.
As shown by the links below, cultural appropriation in art can be a complex issue. The facets around how art, creation, fiction and an author’s life experience from which they build their work interact and are expressed is at the core of this issue.
What’s clear is that Canadians are demanding more support, money and public space for indigenous and racialized authors. Making a mockery out of cultural appropriation by having prominent authors make bids for money contributions for a prize to encourage cultural appropriation denies the real barriers that prevent other voices from being shared and heard. To make such comments without acknowledging that history, colonization, and oppression all play a role in what literature we read today is ignorant and exposes the problems Canadian media still face when representing a diversity of voices.
We have compiled a list of articles that show the depth of this debate, and the harm made by Niedzviecki’s comments last week.
Middlemarch: a study of provincial life through the ages
For a Franco-Ontarian who has mostly read in French her entire life, certain English classics have always felt out of reach. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, which spans the imposing length of just under 900 pages, is not a book I would have picked up just for the sake of it. Its length should not put anyone off, though, since Eliot’s writing has the ability to take the reader on a long, excursionary journey well worth travelling.
Middlemarch and its author may not need much in way of introduction, but I confess to knowing very little about either before this book became the spring selection for the book club I attend. George Eliot is a pseudonym used by Marian Evans, born in 1819 in Warwickshire, England. Evans was a journalist who concentrated her work in publishing, philosophical essays and other writings. Later in life, she began to write works of fiction under the name George Eliot, the pen name for which she is most known.
Middlemarch is one of her many novels. It tells the story of the inhabitants of Middlemarch, a fictitious provincial town, between the years of 1829 and 1832. The novel is divided into 8 volumes and recounts the stories of a large number of characters: men, women, young lovers, older politicians, long-time married couples, etc. The connections between the characters evolve throughout the novel to create an intricate web of relationships and stories that make up life as it is experienced in Middlemarch.
The main cast can be summed up with a few introductions. Dorothea Brooke is a young, intellectually ambitious woman who sees marriage as her way of contributing to someone’s lifelong academic pursuits. She sees her own advancement as one that is tied to her husband, a scholar, and chooses, despite her family and friend’s best efforts, to marry Edward Casaubon, hence becoming Dorothea Casaubon early on.
Tertius Lydgate is a fresh, new doctor who arrives in Middlemarch with specific objectives. He intentionally establishes himself in a smaller town with the hopes of settling into a modest medical practice while having time for personal scientific study. He will come to court Rosamund Vincy and will make the judgement call that a woman who is intellectually uninterested in his work will be able to support him throughout his life and career.
Finally, we meet Fred Vincy (Rosamund’s brother), who faces two major struggles: the first in which his upper-class family expects his career to take a certain path, and the second: his undying love of Mary Garth. The challenges and choices he will face to try and win her heart will define his life and path. Dorothea, Tertius and Fred are only three of many more characters that compose the choir of this novel, but their stories are pivotal to so many others.
In the backdrop of this tale is the 1832 Reform Act which aimed to modernize the democratic representation system of the United Kingdom. This context provides space for the novel’s plot to evolve in a political sphere as well: we meet public officials, or hopefuls, we encounter gossip and manipulation, we get a sense that there is a clash between the old and the new and that the world is changing in the face of the characters we follow.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the themes of Middlemarch are timeless: love, ambition, the role and hope of women, marriage, and community. Middlemarch as a “provincial town” represents the cruel mediocrity often present in many small towns, or institutions, but also makes way for the hopes and dreams of countless individuals that come through. Author Zadie Smith wrote an essay called “Middlemarch and everybody” which is a great review of George Eliot’s strength in presenting characters that are complex, driven and entirely relatable.
Despite being an ambitious read, Middlemarch is a quest in understanding relationships, social interactions, and is simply a beautifully-written masterpiece. For someone who hasn’t made it through a Victorian classic since reluctantly completing Wuthering Heights in high school, reading (and loving) Middlemarch felt like a worthwhile accomplishment.
On writing in hard times
Regular What’s Left readers might have noticed that our frequency in sending out our newsletter has been spotty in recent months. We can’t deny that writing in a time of Trump has put us off our normal rhythm. We try hard to make What’s Left This Week a publication of hope and resistance, a place where readers can learn, think, and be open to what building the Left in Canada really means. We will admit, that’s not always easy.
We’re not done though, and perhaps as seasons go by you’ll see another change in rhythm. We always appreciate hearing from our readers. If you have thoughts, comments, subjects you would like to read about, content you prefer to receive regularly: we would love to hear from you.
The What’s Left Team