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Last November, during the last Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention, delegates marched in the streets of Toronto calling for a $14 minimum wage. During this rally, while I was walking with a fellow young worker, a reporter approached us. Seeing all the union flags, he asked us what we thought about the lack of young workers or typical minimum wage earners at the protest.
Part of me was outraged at the question. I wanted to explain to the journalist that minimum wage is a labour issue whether it affects me directly or not, and that yes, unionized minimum wage workers do exist. Instead, I reflected on my participation within labour. Is it enough for labour to endorse these rallies and send their leadership? How can we progress as a movement if it’s just the same old crowd coming out?
Expanding beyond the “usual suspects” is at the crux of the success and survival of all progressive movements and many labour activists struggle with finding ways to do this. Which are the strategies that we can employ to unite and broaden the reach of the labour movement?
The Ontario Common Front, a project of the OFL might be part of the answer to this question. When I first attended a Common Front meeting, I was inspired. I saw that people understood the need to redefine “labour” beyond the existing structures of organized labour, and expand it to reflect the demands of all of the working class — organized or not. We need a labour movement that encompasses, unites and organizes everyone under attack.
I sat at a table with a diverse group of people, which was only possible because the meeting was open to anyone who wanted to participate. This made me proud to be a member of the OFL — an organization that understands the need for working class people to be united and strong in the face of increasingly powerful elites.
In recent months, young workers in Ontario have held two strategy meetings to discuss the future of Ontario for young people. Our focus went beyond unemployment and into underemployment. We invited all kinds of community partners; from faith groups to student groups to youth support groups in the Greater Toronto Area. We discussed what kind of change was needed to ensure opportunities for youth in Ontario and put forward recommendations for the provincial government in this document. Young workers continue to organize to ensure politicians hear our call for change.
We have embraced the idea of taking these issues to the street, so that we can be heard. We teamed up with the Workers’ Action Centre, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, affiliates of the Ontario Federation of Labour, and the rest of the Raise the Minimum Wage campaigners to hold the May 14 Day of Action focused on demanding decent wages, accessible education and good jobs for young people.
This is truly exciting. Rather than expanding the labour movement in terms of dues-paying members, we are creating a broader movement; rather than just coalition building, we are building campaigns that actively and intrinsically work to involve everyone affected.
The OFL’s latest move to mobilize members has been to hold strategy meetings organized by local labour councils. These meetings focused mainly around the election and the importance of defeating Hudak’s Conservatives. However, it’s important to recognize the power of organized labour. With help and support from labour councils, these meetings were organized fairly quickly.
Packing the house for these meetings also did not seem to be a difficult task. People are aware of the harsh realities faced by Ontarians, as union leaders live this reality daily. They see it through the upsurges in grievances, management’s increased defiance at bargaining tables and many from personal experience. We don’t need to be told times are hard. We are the ones that deal with the fallouts when times are hard. What we are looking for is a way to organize the struggle and fight the austerity agenda promoted by politicians in their ridings.
The launch of the Stop Hudak campaign focusing on his attack on workers, not organized labour, is an important step for labour. Rather than focusing on organized labour alone, we are organizing around what a Hudak government would mean for Ontarians. We are talking about whose interest Hudak represents. But most importantly, we are talking about what Ontario should look like.
The OFL has consistently pushed for this to be a top priority item for unions. It’s called on leaders to set everything else aside and devote 75 per cent of resources to the campaign. If these efforts to move beyond business trade unionism and into a broader fight against austerity, we’d be unstoppable.
We need to manifest the understanding that trade unionism goes beyond being on the executive of a particular union; being a young worker means more than training to one day take over; and that building the labour movement goes beyond balancing grievances and lobbying. Too often, labour activists see themselves as a lobby group: we meet with politicians, try to apply political pressure and engage in campaigns in the mainstream media.
However, the truth is that we are not a lobby group. We are the collective voice of workers across the province with the democratic structures that reach into workplaces and communities in every part of Canada, and we must be ready to take it to the streets.
The interest in participating in the Ontario Common Front is an indication that labour activists are hungry for organizing in a way that cuts across unions, sector or employment status. If the Common Front model continues to be a success, it may offer a new approach for unions everywhere to unite and fight the forces that attack us.
I hope that as labour grows, we see more and more initiatives that work to involve the entire working class. Rather than simply working not to schedule protests on the same day, I hope that we work to bridge gaps so that we all come out in mass numbers with common goals. We need to break through the silos and learn to work together.
Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.