Union dues: The U.S. labour movement split up this week. What’s unclear is why it matters. Maybe that’s because all sides seem to use the prevailing lingo of hype, advertising and PR. Here’s rebel union head Andy Stern: “Our world has changed, our economy has changed, employers have changed. . . . We are in the midst of the most rapid transformative moment in economic history.” He sounds like any motivational speaker telling laid-off workers they must go along with whatever happens.

Change is the weasel word used to justify all the exploitive, dehumanizing crap of the globalization era. It gets trowelled on as if it were just invented. Here’s a rule: Presence of buzzword equals absence of content plus concealment of true motive.

Compare that to a labour split that happened here 20 years ago and was celebrated at this month’s Canadian Auto Workers convention, when the CAW split from its U.S. parent. It was over a clear democratic principle: The U.S. head tried to bargain a deal for Canadian workers behind their back, against their will. It was gutsy: Everyone said Canadians couldn’t survive alone, recalled then leader Bob White, and they had their doubts, too. It led to radical reform. They decided to elect just two full-time officials, so that an isolated leadership wouldn’t dominate. All other elected leaders would stay in their plants and workplaces. They’d meet every three months and hold the feet of those at the top to the fire.

Bob White recalled coming here from Ireland at 12 and taking a factory job soon after. Through the union, he discovered his leadership bent, and met people such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. He doesn’t pretend to be blasé about this, or overimpressed. He retains the qualities of an ordinary person, called on to lead. He said he pondered what to tell Bill Clinton, and decided to mention that he met Eleanor Roosevelt as a “young kid” at his first union convention in Atlantic City. Legendary labour firebrand Walter Reuther introduced them. It could happen to any of you, he seemed to say, not just meeting the famous, but taking on the powerful. And if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy of it.

The CAW has always gone first class, since workers deserve no less than their bosses, so, at the convention banquet, Rick Mercer hosted and Bruce Cockburn sang. But Bob White was the show. End of review.

The Blair-praisers: As far as I can tell, when The Times of London and countless others call Tony Blair a “master of rhetoric,” they mean he finishes his sentences. When they call his rhetoric Churchillian, at least on this side of the Atlantic, they mean he finishes his sentences and has an English accent. Sentence-finishing can be impressive in the current context. George W. Bush never finishes one. He tends to pause, when he completes a coherent phrase, and repeat it in a teacherly tone, which he may have learned from wife Laura. (. . . because they want to destroy us — want-to-destroy-us . . .)

No one knows whether our leader, Paul Martin, has ever finished a sentence, since he hems and haws so much along the way. The Blair gem this week was, we’re told, “We are not going to deal with this problem, with the roots as deep as they are, until we confront these people at every single level — and not just their methods but their ideas.” But what does that mean? Is he going to debate jihad on BBC Panorama with Osama bin Laden? Anyway, sentence completion is no sign of smart. Listen to any intelligent conversation. There’s rarely a full sentence in it.

The Ignatieff boom: I feel a flutter of doubt about the push to position Michael Ignatieff as our next Liberal PM. It’s because of his latest book, The Lesser Evil. In it, he explains the kind of thing he often calls a “difficult concept.” But as Mary the bartender moaned, before an election: “It always comes down to the same choice. Who’s the least worst candidate?” So why write the book, Michael? Everybody already gets that point. The problem isn’t his arrogance, it’s his error. Underestimating other people’s intelligence, while overestimating your own, may not be a good start point for a politician.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.