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Labour Council President John Cartwright believes that 2016 can be a year of important victories for Canada’s labour movement. In this interview he speaks to four key goals for the New Year: workplace justice, climate action, equity, and union renewal. 

Q: Canadians seem to be feeling optimistic about the overall direction of the country as the New Year begins. What do you see happening this year?

A:  I think this is a year with huge potential if our movement decides to act boldly and seize the opportunities in front of us. The most important is the once-in-a-generation chance to make serious reforms to the laws that govern work — the Employment Standards Act and Ontario Labour Relations Act. There is a big conversation happening about income inequality and increase in precarious work. We need to fix the laws to turn that around. People’s incomes and working conditions are tied to how strong unions are in each sector, and in union density in society as a whole.

Q: Most union members never “joined a union”; they got a job at a unionized workplace. How can union density become important to rank and file members?

A: This calls for an immense effort on our part to educate union members about the source of their workplace standards. It’s more than just repeating the fact that the advantage is more than $5 per hour over non-union workers. There is a deeper narrative required about where bargaining power comes from. It is possible to do — the building trades took this on 25 years ago and I saw a huge change in outlook of activists, leaders, and staff as a result.

Q: So the main focus is on making it easier to organize with card-check certification?

A: That is certainly a major goal. After the Harris government stripped away card-check, organizing rates fell dramatically. Workers were overwhelmed with a climate of fear in the days leading up to a workplace vote. A union card is a legal document that should be respected, but that is only one part of the solution. Successor rights for contract workers would put an end to contract flipping in the service sector where people lost their jobs and have to start at the bottom again. Employment standards should be significantly updated and enforced to tackle the exploitation that is so prevalent in the jobs young people get today. There are many problems and a wide variety of remedies available.

Q: You attended the COP21 Climate Change summit in Paris in December, in a delegation led by CLC President Hassan Yussuff. What can we expect to come out of that?

A: The world’s leaders came together and reached a remarkable consensus on the urgency of climate change — 195 countries signed the final agreement. Canada played an important role, and our political leaders all pledged to come home and bring in aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Labour has a huge role to play in building a sustainable green economy with good jobs for all. We can look at every sector of the economy and lay out a plan. We will be partnering with environmental and social justice groups to frame our vision that includes equity and just transition. I am proud of the work Labour Council has done through the Toronto Community Benefits Agreement for the Eglinton Crosstown transit project. Early this year, Labour Council will work to develop a “Greenprint for Greater Toronto” to build a more environmentally sustainable city.

Q: What else will you be focusing on?

A: Two things that are very closely related. Labour Council adopted a strong equity agenda many years ago and our work has been guided by that ever since. But across the movement there is much to be done. In the fall of 2014 we published a Leaders Guide to Equity to help affiliates undertake deep work on equity. I will be meeting with every union leader this year and asking them to engage in the hard work necessary to see more diversity in our ranks at every level.

The second part is union renewal. The fight we undertook to stop Tim Hudak from bringing so-called “right to work” laws to Ontario was crucial. It revealed the gap that existed between organizations and their members, and started a process to re-engage members on why their union is important both in the workplace and society. We need a consistent effort to engage in a two-way conversation with members, to be more strategic in our campaigns, and train leaders and staff to operate differently.

We must remember the fact that half of Toronto’s working class was born outside of Canada. For many, English is not their first language, and they don’t always feel welcome in the settings we have created. So we have to create new ways of outreaching. One approach has been the creation of Diverse Workers Networks led by union activists from different communities — Chinese, Filipino, Tamil, Somali and Ethiopian/Eritrean. Another is the interest of young workers in creating a space to engage their peers. These things give me great hope for the future.

Q: Union renewal has been a subject of many studies in recent years. How realistic is it?

A: It may not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary. New challenges will throw up unique solutions to organizing and collective representation. But workers need to be in motion in order to discover new forms of power. Every leader needs to feel the sense of urgency to rebuild the power of Canada’s labour movement. Seven generations ago — in 1871 — workers came together to create a collective voice in Toronto to bargain a better deal with those who ruled society. I am confident that we can continue that legacy of building labour power in Canada’s largest urban centre in the years to come.  

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Photo of John Cartwright

John Cartwright

John Cartwright is the Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. Cartwright is the Past President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, representing 200,000 union members who work in every...