This Labour Day weekend promises to be an exciting time for the Canadian union movement and perhaps a spark for workers around the world.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) are merging to create Unifor, the largest primarily private sector union in Canada with about 300,000 members.
The new union offers the potential of something great for the future of unions and the Left. Many good things will happen if Unifor fulfills the promise of its new constitution. For example, Article 2 — 10 states: “Our goal is transformative. To reassert common interest over private interest. Our goal is to change our workplaces and our world. Our vision is compelling. It is to fundamentally change the economy, with equality and social justice, restore and strengthen our democracy and achieve an environmentally sustainable future. This is the basis of social unionism — a strong and progressive union culture and a commitment to work in common cause with other progressives in Canada and around the world.”
A union that is militant, outward looking, engaged politically and willing to work with progressive people outside the labour movement is exactly what we need to motivate a new generation of activists. The future of unions depends on harnessing the energy, enthusiasm and political sensibility of young people in and about to enter the workforce. To accomplish that unions must be involved with community struggles, seen to be battling injustice and willing to work with anyone who shares our common causes.
I remember being a student at the University of British Columbia in 1972 and walking my first picket line during a SORWUC (Canada’s first feminist union) strike at a Denny’s on Broadway St. in Vancouver. Walking the line was a way of showing support for women’s rights in general, as well as helping the few dozen people actually on strike. And it set in motion decades of further involvement in the union movement.
Unifor’s new constitution has many progressive features. It requires gender equality on the national executive. It commits 10 per cent of national dues to organizing. It calls for “community chapters” that “can help build strong communities and enhance our collective strength in the struggle for social and economic justice by opening our Union to workers who currently have no access to union membership, because they have no collective agreement, or job, or hold temporary contract or other precarious employment.”
The potential for building community chapters that attract a wide spectrum of activists is immense. Common cause could be made with environmentalists, students, open media supporters and many other potential allies, as well as workers in sectors that have so far proven extremely difficult to organize. Someone first attracted to Unifor through a community chapter could one day become a skilled union organizer. The support of community activists who have worked with one of our community chapters could be key to winning a particular strike.
Enemies of unions like to portray us, and our members, as self-interested, greedy and out to get more than our fair share. Of course this is ridiculous coming from supporters of an economic system that glorifies greed, but unfortunately this is exactly what some people believe about unions.
Unifor, through its political action and community chapters, could demonstrate that unions are an essential element of a progressive democracy. The new union has the potential to help build a better society while at the same time building a stronger union.
Of course, as in all unions that exist in an economic system where we are bombarded with messages glorifying individual rights and individual greed, some delegates to the founding convention of Unifor may resist social unionism. Some may argue against broadening the union’s reach through community chapters. Some may want the union to limit itself to simply looking after existing members. But that road is a dead end. History has proven that is a recipe for shrinking membership and ultimate irrelevancy.
The promise of Unifor is in a rebirth of militant union activism. That’s what this delegate is going to the convention to vote for.
Gary Engler is a vice-president of CEP Local 2000. He is also a co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, a rewriting of the original designed to spark debate about a new direction for the Left and union movement. For more information go to www.newcommuneist.com