Remembering Nancy Riche: Inspirational labour leaders build a better Canada

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The first reaction by the Conservative hit team when Peggy Nash announced for the NDP leadership was to issue a press release lumping her together with candidate Brian Topp, and dismissing them as union "bosses."

This would be laughable, but for the attack on unions orchestrated by the Harper government, and the unwillingness of even the Stéphane Dion-led Liberals to support ant-scab legislation when a Bloc private members bill was brought to parliament for third reading in 2007.

The NDP has to take the anti-union rhetoric seriously. With the downgrading of the Bloc, which lost party status in the last election, only New Democrats have ready access to a parliamentary tribune to explain the economic and social benefits of unions.

Fortunately the positive case for unions is an easy one for the NDP as the Official Opposition to make, even in the face of active hostility from specific media outlets, such as Sun media, and front organizations such as the National Citizens Coalition (once headed by Stephen Harper), which pretend to speak for regular people.

Bosses are people who give orders. You obey the boss or you lose your job, or get demoted, or suspended from work, with your pay docked. Unions exist precisely so that no such caricature-like boss figure ever has the power in the workplace to strike fear into real people with rent or mortgages to pay, families to feed, children to educate, or aged parents who depend upon them.

Unlike the corporate set-up where the odd real "boss" can be found, it is the workers who hire union leaders by voting for them in elections. In the union world, the leaders have to come back to the membership for a promotion, or to be re-elected. Union leaders work for the workers who elect them, and are accountable to those workers for what is done by elected officers in the name of the union membership.

Everybody wins when unions manage to secure a fair share of the productivity gains in an industry: the workers, the communities where they live, pay taxes, and spend their earnings; and the company that keeps its workforce intact, and prepared to do what is required, secure in the knowledge their work is appreciated.

One way to understand what it means to be a labour leader is to remember one. The Canadian Labour Congress sponsored a memorial breakfast Tuesday, Nov. 15 in honour of its former vice-president and secretary-general, Nancy Riche, a giant of a leader, greatly loved, and a trusted associate of so many. News of her death at age 66 had triggered great emotions, and many reminiscences. I have dozens of stories myself, and I did not get to see her often, since she travelled constantly.

At the inaugural meeting of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) in 1992, Nancy Riche gave a speech for which no one who was present will ever forget. In a room of maybe a thousand souls, mostly men, after putting everyone to ease with some great barbs, and wonderful greetings to old friends in the room, she introduced her theme: spousal abuse: domestic violence against women.

She laid out the facts, explained the CLC campaign to create awareness of the problem, and talked about how Margaret Mitchell, the NDP MP from Vancouver East, was doing such marvellous work around the question.

Then the smiling, jocular, up-beat Nancy Riche, paused for effect. The tone changed. She addressed the crowd: "We know you are in here. The statistics tell us, men in this room are beating their wives, using violence against the mothers of their children, their lovers."

The quiet that descended over that crowd, that day, at that moment, was something to behold. Rapt attention does not even begin to describe it.

Everyone left the room a little wiser about the ways of the world. I would expect her words had a lasting impact on the lives of at least some of the people who heard her that day. She had a way, Nancy did, of finding the right words.

The Vancouver Sun gave prominent attention to a letter a B.C. mom on social assistance had written to premier Bill Vander Zalm, asking the premier for advice: what should the letter writer do? Following his cuts to welfare, three weeks into the month, after the mom had paid the rent, there was only enough money left for her to eat, or for her daughter to eat, not for both to eat. When pressed by journalists to respond to the question of what she should do, the B.C. premier said: "She should invite Jesus into her life."

Nancy was reached by the CBC. She responded by phone to the reporter: "Vander Zalm is right, she should bring Jesus in... as a paying boarder."

Nancy could deliver a message about justice for women, or justice for workers, or justice for Canadians, or justice for citizens around the world, that is for sure, in a speech, or at a meeting, or through the media. That is what labour people do, they work to promote justice.

The B.C. Federation of Labour proclaims proudly "what we want for ourselves, we seek for others." Think what a better country Canada would be if the trade union idea of justice prevailed in the corporate world. Bosses, indeed.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column about politics and current affairs.

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