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Quality public services provided by union members drive our country’s economy. Yet far too often, discussions about our economy are only framed from the point-of-view of banks and corporations, neglecting the interests of workers.
Finding ways CUPE can open up the public debate on our economy was the topic at a plenary session at CUPE's first ever National Bargaining Conference, now underway in Ottawa.
The panel discussion -- moderated by Anne Lagacé Dowson, president and general director of ENSEMBLE -- explored the current economic climate, what the labour movement can do to reframe the public discussion, and what can be done to start building an economy that works for all Canadians.
Panelist Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) kicked off the discussion by clearly laying out what’s at stake if the labour movement isn't part of public economic discourse.
"Unions are being targeted, not because they are unions, but because they are middle class," said Yalnizyan. "You smash unions, you are clearing the terrain for corporations to do whatever they want."
Letting corporations have free rein, Yalnizyan pointed out, not only hurts workers directly. Corporate backed policies -- like so-called "right-to-work" legislation and two-tier workplaces -- hurt the entire economy.
"If everybody gets less, capitalism doesn't work. So what is sometimes best for a corporation in the short term, cutting what workers make, effects the whole economy because they have no money to fuel the economy," said Yalnizyan.
Panelist Deena Ladd, coordinator of the Worker’s Action Centre, an organization that works with migrant workers in Toronto, agreed that too much is at stake to let corporate interests dominate the Canadian understanding of the economy, and that unions must take a leading role in broadening perspectives.
Ladd stressed the need to work beyond the labour movement in standing up to right-wing attacks.
"We need to build strong alliances, that back us up when times are tough," said Ladd. "If we don't do that, when the attacks come down, it's much easier for governments to turn the conversation to 'they are fat cats, they have pensions but you don't.' We need to build alliances so the discussion is 'Yes they have a pension, I want one too.'"
To tackle these misconceptions, both panelists agreed on the need to work with, and advocate for, non-union workers.
"It means standing up for migrant workers. It means fighting for a minimum wage. It means getting involved in campaigns that are maintaining our floor," said Ladd. "If we don't stand up on these attacks, what do we think will happen to us at the next round of bargaining?"
Ladd stressed the importance of on-going organizing and political action in making sure the voice of workers is heard. "We need a political base of power, so that regardless of who gets elected, they have to listen to us and follow through with our interests."
Yalnizyan, added, "while public policy is trying to push down the floor, unions must fight to push up the floor. When you do that, you raise your credibility with people in the community ... If you want to raise the floor, you have to raise the roof. We need to hear your voice everywhere."
Greg Taylor is a Senior Communications Officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees.