Sixteen hundred stewards and staff from every union in the Toronto area packed a 1400-seat downtown hotel ballroom to standing room only capacity on Thursday evening. They came together to build solidarity and to resist the pressure to accept concessions on wages, benefits and pensions as the economic crisis deepens. The event was organized by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.
A ‘Who’s Who’ of well-known politicians and labour leaders were present. NDP leader Jack Layton and MP Olivia Chow were there, as were the presidents of many unions and labour groups, including CAW President Ken Lewenza, CLC President Ken Georgetti and Toronto and York Region Labour Council President John Cartwright. Toronto Mayor David Miller showed up as a surprise guest later in the evening, addressing the people about the importance of creating made in Canada jobs, and publicly signing a petition demanding that the Employment Insurance system be fixed now.
The crowd was cheerfully defiant from the moment they arrived. Hundreds of unionists spilled down the escalator of the Sheraton Centre into the foyer outside the ballroom, many chanting, “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? Union power!” There were also several parades into the ballroom of drumming, trumpeting, chanting and dancing stewards.
It was a festive beginning to an evening of serious discussion about an increasingly worrisome situation for workers in the region.
The opening address was given by economist Jim Stanford of the CAW. Stanford fired up the crowd by making the case that it was the financial sector that caused this crisis, not the workers who produce goods and provide services.
“The red-suspendered traders in the paper markets created this problem,” Stanford told the room. “These are people who buy and sell paper assets. For every dollar that’s actually raised in useful finance for the real economy, they spend a hundred dollars just churning financial assets, buying and selling paper that’s already out there.”
“We are the ones who produce. They are not the ones who produce. They buy and sell pieces of paper; we produce actual stuff. We didn’t cause this crisis. Hands up in this room: who issued a mortgage to someone who had no income and no job?” Stanford asked, to laughter from the crowd.
“Who [here] securitized that mortgage into a mortgage bond that they sold to speculators in Iceland? Who [here] leveraged their bets on mortgage bonds with a 50 to 1 borrowing ratio? Nobody! That’s right! I think it’s settled -- we didn’t create this problem.”
The spotlight was then turned over to the floor, and people told their stories from the front lines of union activism. A couple of workers shared their personal stories of financial and employment loss due to the economic crisis. Several others encouraged the crowd by sharing stories of successful labour actions in response to demands for concessions by their employers.
The room full of shop stewards, staff and front-line union activists were riveted by their stories, which mirrored their own observations and concerns from their workplaces. Uncertainty and concern about concessions were common denominators among participants.
Yvonne Abrahams, from CEP Local 6007 and a self-described “newbie” steward, came to the meeting to learn more. “I am here to get more information about the crisis that we’re all facing at this time. I’m concerned about my pension, about other people’s pensions.”
Her co-workers are also worried. “They just want to know what’s going to happen. Everyone comes to work and they want to know what’s going to be the next thing. Because every time they turn around, there’s something else happening. They’re concerned. In my work group, there’s nothing happening as yet, but we don’t know. We really don’t know.”
John Hull, Director of Organizing for Teamsters Local 938, says he has seen 10 per cent of the 12,000 people in his local laid off. “Because we’re in the auto sector, we haul the cars, we do the parts, quite a few of our members were affected.”
Hull describes the pressure his local is facing to give up ground in bargaining. “The companies are trying to get concessions from some of the people here because of the recession -- they’re using the recession as an excuse, we’re finding. We have no problem in our local with giving concessions if they open their books and show us that they need help. But we find that a lot of them don’t need help and they’re coming for concessions anyway.”
After speeches by Ken Georgetti and John Cartwright, all 1600 unionists engaged in roundtable discussions with people at their tables of ten about the solidarity checklist drafted by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. “The solidarity checklist is a starting point for people to start designing a plan of action,” explained Cartwright, one of the key organizers of the event. “It was that discussion that will provide us with some of the answers of how people see the next steps, how they can make it their reality.” Each table had someone recording the discussion on paper, and those forms were collected by the organizers for review.
The program ended with a call for solidarity among all the union activists present. Leaders from every single union from every sector of the workforce stood up and pledged to stand together in this time of economic crisis. Then the entire room rose and sang “Solidarity Forever” together in closing.
Cartwright considers the evening a resounding success. “What we were trying to do was to reach deeply down into the labour movement and engage the true front-line activists that are our stewards, first in a common understanding of the economic crisis, and secondly, hoping to secure a commitment to building a common response and collective defence of our achievements.”
“I’m hearing from people who are very, very enthusiastic about it. We brought a lot of folks into that room that haven’t gotten together before.”
Michelle Langlois, a babble moderator, writes from Toronto and is a proud member of OPSEU Local 596.