Activism not quietism

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Effective union activity begins with shared understanding of what is required in order to bring about sustainable change. The world is complex place, and it is not always easy to make out what is going on around us. When trying to understand the economy and politics we need help from others. Meeting in Vancouver last week, delegates to the convention of the National Union of Provincial and General Employees (NUPGE) were fortunate in this respect: they could learn from each other.

With over 400 people in attendance over three days, delegates lined up at the microphones to address resolutions on tax fairness, equality, human rights, anti-poverty measures or government funding cutbacks. Being comfortable in such a situation is not easy for many people; fear of public speaking is a common phobia. George Heymans, former President of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (a NUPGE component) put it this way to me: "While unions encourage their members to express their views, most organizations take the opposite approach."

I have been attending union conventions since the early 1980s, and continue to be impressed by the commitment of delegates to learn more about the issues that affect workers. Delegates do not just come to union conventions to vote organizational budgets, elect officers, or approve reports: they want sustenance to sustain their activism. Knowing this, NUPGE convention organizers set aside significant time for discussion, and debate about how the world works, and what needs to be done next.

Speakers help feed debate, and promote ideas activists can take home. On Friday, British novelist and noted financial critic John Lancashire talked to NUPGE delegates about IOU, his new book on the financial crisis. Saturday morning food activist Raj Patel spoke about his New York Times bestseller The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy.

Many trade union activists want to transform society, not just assist in economic "recovery." In accessible language, Patel offered a root and branch critique of capitalism as a form of social organization. Market prices do not capture social, and environmental costs Patel explains. When the various components that go into making a hamburger that sells in the U.S. for one dollar are added up, the real cost to society is more like $200 Patel pointed to the audience. Capitalism requires the enormous subsidy of unpaid domestic work by women, he stated, citing a study that calculated put the value of this subsidy, worldwide, at $17 trillion. In southern Florida 7,000 people work in an environment where conditions of modern slavery prevail, he told the assembled worker who gave his radical message a warm welcome.

In an interview after his speech, Patel explained that he is inspired by the analysis of Karl Polanyi, referring to "market society" in the subtitle to the Value of Nothing. Patel is an activist, and he brings activist experience into his own analysis. For example the agricultural workers that make up La Via Campesina are an important source of knowledge for Patel: understanding that is hard gained in the struggle for a better world is respectfully treated in his work.

This week Vancouver is hosting the second convention of the new umbrella trade union organization, the International Trade Union Confederation which regroups 312 trade union bodies from 156 countries and territories. Given the current economic crisis, the ITUC which brings together unions representing 176 million workers, should be mobilizing support for a coherent alternative to the broken world order. However, pressures on an international trade union confederation to conform to international norms set by upholders of the status quo are enormous. Delegates engaging in fiery debates, such as those at the NUPGE convention, remain the best antidote to quietism.

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