When crisis becomes opportunity: Progressive organizing after Bill C-377

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Photo: The Canadian Progressive

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Yesterday morning, I happened upon a Toronto Star article that woke me quicker than my morning coffee. The article featured a Conservative MP and Senator taking turns insulting Attiwapiskat Chief Teresa Spence after her six week hunger strike.  

In the world of public low blows, these were among the dirtiest I've seen.  

 Senator Patrick Brazeau, the outspoken Algonquin Tory, solicits ridicule for Chief Spence's weight and appearance. Royal Galipeau, an Ottawa-area MP, then adds insult to injury by remarking on Chief Spence’s fingernails: "I noticed that manicure of hers. I tell you Anne [Galipeau's spouse] can't afford it."

Most people, likely Chief Spence herself, will laugh these comments off for what they were: angry, petty, and shameless barbs from a government reeling given wide public support for Idle No More

More interesting, however, were comments Galipeau made later. These were about the role of Bill C-377, federal legislation that aims to require mandatory reporting for union spending over $5000: 

"Whether it's Idle No More or Occupy or the pots and pans in Quebec, the labour movement can't finance those things anymore because we've passed legislation to shine the light of day on that." 

Aha. So if anyone doubts what Bill C-377 is for, Galipeau makes it clear. The feds think union members won't support funding protest movements, and that's why they've fought to publicize the details of union spending. They're assuming union members will be outraged, and bring their leftist leaders to heel. 

This is likely the first part of a two-stage strategy. First, get union members to identify the spending they don't like. Then encourage them (given legislation to come later) to "opt-out" of union membership once existing union security laws (aka, the "Rand Formula") are abolished. This is a textbook case of "divide and rule", and the Tory machine must be creating a network conservative union members to back it up. 

With the right strategy, however, unions can flip this script. In fact, Bill C-377 may offer the context we need to rejuvenate progressive organizing against Harper and his well-heeled supporters. It is often said that in crisis there is opportunity, and that is certainly true here. 

First off, as Lori Waller reported for rabble.ca readers, Bill C-377 is no imminent threat. It has yet to pass the Senate and come into force as federal law. Even then, experts suggest the reporting requirements may take up to three years to implement.  

So, instead of waiting for the 2015 election (or the next Harper attack), unions could go on the offensive. They could commit to an all-out effort to educate union members (and wider society) about how to take our democracy back from Bay Street barons and tar sands tycoons. They could remind us that stone building in Ottawa is called the "House of Commons," not the "House of Corporations."  

For that to happen, though, unions must mobilize their members and community allies from St. John's to Victoria and all points in between. They must explain why only a bottom-up mobilization of everyday folks can stop Harper and his bitumen-boiled dreams. They must also acknowledge that unions can't fight this battle on their own, and expect positive results.  

There are signs that suggest this is the strategy unions want. As Idle No More (and its settler allies) assembled earlier this week, we saw the emergence of Common Causes, a new social justice coalition (with strong union support) intent on defeating the Harper government in 2015.  

The previous weekend, over 120 influential movement organizers (representing an array of groups) gathered in Ottawa for a "Indigenous-Canada-Quebec Social Forum," one that participants believed, despite some hiccups, witnessed important conversations, and a new potential era of progressive collaboration. A large delegation of indigenous organizers attended, along with veterans from Quebec's recent student strike and union leaders from a variety of sectors.  

Less publicized is a Working in Progress network initiated by the Canadian Autoworkers Union in November 2012. The network began with a large conference of over 80 movement organizers. That conference gave rise to initiatives that aim to share resources between progressive groups, and facilitate effective organizing.  

These developments are exciting, and offer hope we may see the emergence of progressive organizing that can make real gains. But now more than ever, particularly given life after Bill C-377, unions must defend their central role as a lynchpin for social justice work. That is the challenge for organized labour in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.  


Joel Davison Harden is the founder of Bottom-Up-Politics, a social justice consultancy based in Ottawa, and an Advisory Board member for Our Times Magazine. He is currently writing a book on progressive, bottom-up activism to be released in Fall 2013. Joel can be reached by email at joel[dot]d[dot]harden[at]gmail[dot]com

Photo: The Canadian Progressive 

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