Image: Canadian Labour Congress

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the Canada Council of the Canadian Labour Congress today. It was the first time a prime minister addressed the CLC since 1958, when John Diefenbaker addressed the convention floor.

According to the CLC’s press release, Trudeau committed to repeal bills C-377 and C-525. While unsurprising, this move signals an important departure from the Harper Conservatives’ approach to the labour movement.

But what does a fundamental change mean when the old boss and the new boss effectively occupy the same space?

Harper hated unions, ideologically. A guy hell-bent on crushing any formal organizing in Canada, he saw unions as a well-financed and well-resourced site of opposition that needed to be crushed.

Trudeau represents a return to normal for Western capitalism: a relationship with labour that sees the leadership as representing the interests of millions of workers who along with government, can help capital function more humanely. Rather than seeking to eliminate the labour movement, Trudeau just has to figure out how to keep workers at bay and labour leaders are key in that strategy.

The speech wasn’t live streamed, but the tweets from representatives in the room gushed over Trudeau’s soundbites: “The labour movement is not a problem, it is the solution;” “I don’t understand why a government would gratuitously attack [public service] and then expect them to work constructively;” “we need to prepare for a fossil [fuel?] free future…and create good strong jobs now,” all attributed to him.

Impressive, really. It’s the same rhetoric that helped launch Trudeau into office. People are ready for #RealChange and this is about as far away from Harper as anyone could have imagined being possible.

But labour leaders must welcome this era with extreme caution. Workers’ rights have been fundamentally undone over the past 30 years. Precarious jobs and low wages plague generations of young workers. Liberals have ushered in some of the worst austerity policies in Canada.

There didn’t seem to be any promises made on some of the most pressing labour issues: public sector bargaining, restoring door-to-door delivery for Canada Post, dealing with the Trans-Pacific Partnership or climate change. It’s still the honeymoon period; it’s still early.

But the Liberals have stacked the cards against progressives already: with the appointment of two Ministers with ties to the right-wing C.D. Howe institute, and with budget numbers that show that the Harper Conservatives left a bigger deficit than was first projected, the Liberals will increasingly rely on external factors to justify breaking promises, or implementing new right-wing policies.

Labour needs to seize the opportunity and fight for all the changes it believes workers need. The leadership can’t meet the Liberals behind closed doors, lobby quietly and expect to force enough policy change. Labour leaders need to leverage the strength of the grassroots membership and use the progressive optimism that launched Trudeau into power, to make real gains for workers.

Trudeau presents a tremendous opportunity for progressive movements: he’s exactly the kind of politician you want to have if you’re going to occupy their office. He might even join in. At the very least, you probably won’t get shot, which, after the Harper years, is a serious relief.

Four million more Canadians voted in this election for the Liberals, and nearly all likely didn’t vote in 2011. There’s an excitement there that the NDP and labour failed to capitalize on during the election. While fleeting, it remains, and should be leveraged to inspire people to stay involved in democracy.

Especially since Liberals react to external pressure. Where the Harper government was able to hide inside Fortress Centre Block, the Liberals’ hope of re-election in four years hinges on Trudeau maintaining his brand, and meeting many of the expectations they set out for themselves.

Already we’ve seen this pressure in action: within a matter of hours of the story first breaking, junior cabinet ministers, mostly women, were given full cabinet posts. Was this a story of a simple oversight rooted in the former government’s policies, or would it have remained that way had there been no public outcry?

This will be labour’s biggest test in decades: they must harness the spirit of the honeymoon phase to advocate for workers. Indeed, the very existence of the labour movement, good jobs and public services is at stake.

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Image: Canadian Labour Congress

Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...