Unifor comes from a spirit of resistance and change: An interview with Dave Coles

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Dave Coles understands survival. When he was elected President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) in 2006, he was immediately thrust into emergency mode when the Canadian paper industry collapsed just days after his election, threatening the livelihood of many of the workers represented by CEP. Rather than panic, Coles had a moment of clarity. "In times of great danger it actually gets easier because the path is so clear," he said. "We just must resist."

This spirit of resistance and change informed the creation of Unifor, the new union born out of the combination of CEP and the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW). rabble.ca spoke to Coles about the history that has led up to Unifor's creation, and what it means for a new class of workers and community members.

H.G. Watson: When I interviewed Ken [Lewenza, president of the CAW] earlier today he told me the idea for Unifor came out of a casual conversation at a Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) meeting.

 Dave Coles: Yeah that's true. Ken and I have always been friendly and close, and we always sat together at the CLC meetings. One of the occasions when we were listening to all the woes that were going on in the labour movement … we said 'look, we have to find a better way.' That's sort of how it started -- then I gave Ken a call and we went for a cup of tea.

HW: What issues were you encountering in your union at that point that made you think a merger would be a good idea?

DC: Well we never talked about merger. We both suffer from institutional arrogance -- you know, 'we're the best, they're the best' -- and we know that. [But] If it was going to work, we have to do something different … It was the result of not just both organizations, but the labour movement in general suffering from the great recession and the response by government and big capital to that recession.

HW: I'm a member of the media -- one of the industries really impacted by the recession -- and it's a concern for other young people in our industry whether there is actually enough jobs for all of us.

DC: Well, there will be lots of jobs, they just won't pay. They [media corporations] want you to work for free or they want you to be a freelancer and maybe get $50 for a story … the whole degrading and downgrading of the whole skill set around journalism has been just brutal on the industry.

HW: How is Unifor then going to better organize these young workers in media and communications?

DC: Organizing is one issue. But it's really about gaining power and strength and a voice. So first off the organization has to be inherently democratic and emerging voices have to be heard. We have to develop instruments of power and the only way that working class people have ever been able to do that is by having a united voice.

This is not the first time in history that workers that are in precarious employment have had to unite together to find ways to increase their lot in life to be able to make a decent living. [It goes] right back to the longshoremen, the printing press men … they were able to unite to assert their rights to have a decent living.

HW: The new Unifor constitution calls for community chapters that open membership to people who traditionally might not have been able to access a union. Why do you think that's an important change?

DC: We're going through a period of history right now where there is more precarious work being created then there are good stable jobs. That's where the work is. For the labour movement to be relevant again you need to be able to represent all kind of workers, not just those who work in big factories or big offices with big employers.

HW: Ken mentioned these points as well. He said unions have had to become more political and militant. It seems like it is part of a trend with Unifor to be focused on social justice as well.

 DC: I think we have to be smart at all levels. We have to build a relationship with communities, corporations and governments and if they refuse to listen there has to be a price paid for that. That price I believe is civil unrest -- civil disobedience if necessary.

I do not think working people should play by one set of rules when the big governments and [corporations] play by another. This is not a fair fight …we have to stop playing by their rules that they impose on us and have our voices heard.

I'm personally disgusted by the conduct of the Conservative government … around a number of things, but in particular the treatment of telephone workers in this country.

The fall out from [Verizon potentially entering the Canadian market] is a real threat, not a perceived threat -- a threat of massive job cuts and losses, a decrease in service and a real risk to our privacy and national security.

HW: Critics say that unions need to be more open to competition and this is part of the evolution of the labour movement.

DC: Competition from what? We've got [up to seven] carriers competing for your cell phone business. We're not defending the practices of cell phone companies, [but] there is absolutely zero evidence that there will be any reduction in rates. Chances are that you are going to end with almost a monopoly, remembering companies like Verizon … are four and five times than the whole industry in Canada.

I'm one that just thinks it is absolute nonsense to talk about competition being good for society. How about a fair price for the service and fair wages and safety? That's a hell of a lot more important about talking about whether there is competition in society.

HW: You're talking about Verizon's place in the big picture, and the impact it will have even outside the labour movement. Can we expect more of this from Unifor?

DC: Absolutely -- to what's going on in the smallest area in the community to the total globalization of our campaigns. For example, if you look at what some of the Canadian mining companies are doing abroad -- we're going to chase them around the world.

There are no bounds to capitalism right now … so why should we have to play by our little Canadian rules when they [corporations and government] play by these big international rules?

HW: So Unifor is part of a larger movement of community building?

DC: It's about creating a country that we are proud of and want to live in. We're hoping that we're going to be a catalyst of change for the labour movement in line with what's happening around the world.

HW: Anything else you want to add about Unifor going forward?

DC: I think if I was going to add one issue that we haven't talked about yet is that there is a potential -- and I think it's starting to manifest itself now -- that we're going to have to build coalition relationships. That will be difficult but they are necessary -- with the environmentalists, First Nations, retired groups, students -- whole cross sections of society who believe in a fair and just society. We won't agree on every issue, but we'll work on other issues and some will be in a complete accordance with each other. But for us to make society a gentle, kind place to live we're going to have to be tolerant and learn to work with some very diverse groups 


H.G. Watson is the labour beat reporter for rabble.caShe's also the editor-in-chief of the Cord Community Edition in Waterloo, Ontario and has contributed to The Grid, Hamilton Magazine, Worn Fashion Journal Blog and the Story Board. 

Photo: John Maclennan

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