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CEP and CAW new union project: The vote has passed. Now what?

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Contrary to the introduction I wrote yesterday, there was no pain, there were no tears.

Standing ovations and applause rang through the Québec City Congress Centre on Tuesday at around noon. It signalled the support of more than a thousand delegates to cease their existence as the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers and create a new union with the Canadian Auto Workers.

Delegates received the final report of the joint merger committee of CEP and CAW. The committee’s co-chairs, Gaétan Ménard and Peter Kennedy addressed delegates after a video explaining the contents of the report, a presentation by CEP president Dave Coles and a fiery speech made by CAW president Ken Lewenza.

Lewenza’s off-the-cuff remarks ignited the crowd and locked up support for the merger.

Much of his speech centred on the need to engage young, precarious or non-unionized workers and unemployed Canadians. He argued that this will be critical to the success of the labour movement’s campaigns.

Until now, he said, no national union has been able to effectively take on their fight.

"We need more tools in the toolbox in 2012. The toolbox of the past is not going to lead us into the future," said Lewenza.

Many of the 30-plus delegates who made interventions from the floor made similar arguments.

The new union will represent more than 300,000 workers across Canada and will be the largest private sector union. In Québec, it will also be the largest private sector union.

Only one speaker spoke explicitly against the merger from the floor. The Saskatchewan delegate was concerned about the potential loss of regional power, despite the proposal to create regional councils. He also expressed concern that conventions would go from every two years, as is current CEP practice, to every three years.

Many of the delegates who spoke in favour of the merger talked about experiencing local labour strife like strikes or lockouts, and the importance of having the support of the broader labour community behind them, especially from workers in different sectors.

Nearly every delegate spoke to the need to build a movement that could advance the needs of workers to combat the policies of the current Harper government and other regressive municipal and provincial governments.

The successful vote was marked by a sea of cell phone cameras capturing video and photo of the convention floor chanting and cheering in support.

It’s clear that the labour movement has failed to lead the fight against neoliberal policies. The attacks on workers, just like the attacks on women, refugees, Indigenous people, veterans, religious organizations and too many ethnic organizations to name, are continuing and changing the social fabric and cohesion of Canada for the worse.

The big question is whether or not the new union will be able to fulfil the promises made in Québec City or if it will become a larger version of what already exists.

Indeed the details, and time, will hold the answers. Between the end of this convention and the founding convention of the new union, sometime in 2013, there will be a lot to determine.

Progressive organizations across Canada are contending with the same question: how can a movement be built that will stop Canada’s slide to the right? Will part of the solution be a more flexible union membership where unemployed or non-unionized workers can be organized?

I think this is an important step toward increasing union density Canada, though I remain unconvinced that this alone will build the kind of movement that many of us sense we desperately need.

On Wednesday, delegates will hear from representatives from Québec student organizations about their successful campaign to stop a tuition fee hike and create the conditions necessary to build a broad-based, progressive social movement.

My hope is that delegates realize that our collective strength lies in the creativity and organizing capacity of young people; that the labour movement will come to see young people as who should be leading our collective fight back now, not later.

There exists an amazing opportunity to put this into action through the creation of the new union, but the leadership of both unions will need a lot of help.

With the energy on plenary floor, it should be clear to the leadership that there are hundreds who are ready to become in involved from among the ranks of CEP (and I assume CAW) membership.

But both organizations will have to extend their reach beyond their current members and forge partnerships if the new is to become the catalyst necessary to bring about the progressive, political change Canada so desperately needs.

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