Unifor holds founding convention: Five things you need to know about the new union

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Everything about the new union Unifor is big. This weekend, when the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) officially merge into the new super union, it will be the biggest industrial union in Canada with over 300,000 members. They're pledging $50 million over five years to organizing new members. And they're creating an all-encompassing vision of a new union that will act as a catalyst for social change.

This weekend's convention provides our first chance to see how Unifor will function and will set the tone for the labour organization going forward. Here are five things to watch this weekend and going forward with Unifor: 

1. New look leadership

It is likely Jerry Dias will be elected president of Unifor this weekend. Endorsed by both outgoing CAW and CEP presidents, Dias comes with a wealth of bargaining experience and a commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive union. However, he'll be leading a union that has created an ambitious list of objectives to achieve. Checking them all off will take a monumental effort for all of the new Unifor leadership.

2. Community building

One of the most talked about aspects of the new Unifor constitution is the inclusion of community chapters. Recognizing that many workers are now employed in non-traditional situations like contract work, precarious work or internships, community chapters aim to offer a chance for "non-standard" workers to organize their workplaces, as long as they have some common workplace or interest and an idea of how they plan to benefit from the collective organizing Unifor brings with it. Sunday afternoon delegates will have a chance to find out how exactly Unifor plans to roll out this program when it is presented by Roxanne Dubois.

3. The rebirth of militant activism

In Gary Engler's excellent piece on Unifor's potential to drive militant activism, he writes, "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." Everything that Unifor officials have released prior to the convention support their intention to expand their scope beyond the traditional roles of labour organizations. With a protest planned on Friday against the possible entry of Verizon Wireless into the Canadian market billed as one of the main events of the weekend, Unifor is quickly establishing itself as a major activist player.

4. Organizing younger workers 

Of all the things you might expect from a union convention, free performances from Stars and Sloan's Chris Murphy were probably not one of them. However, both are scheduled this weekend, with Murphy playing at a Saturday night event at the Sheraton Hotel and Stars headlining a free concert at Nathan Phillips Square. Is Unifor trying to score points with the Pitchfork crowd? Probably not, but they are trying to reach out to a younger generation of activists and workers, many of whom are suffering through precarious working situations and a lack of entry level jobs. Free concerts are just one way to reach out to a demographic that may not have any contact with the labour movement otherwise. It'll be interesting to track what other strategies Unifor leaders employ to attract younger members.

5. The balancing act

One of labour's biggest challenges is the collision of various interests. Unions want to protect good jobs in the fields they have traditionally organized in, but everything from global economic policy to environmental concerns makes this challenging. Unifor's new union vision includes campaigns for equality and sustainability, and outgoing and potential incoming leadership have reiterated that they want to bring in new allies from across the social justice spectrum. But David Coles, outgoing president of CEP, acknowledged that this balancing will not always be easy. "We're going to have to build coalition relationships. That will be difficult but they are necessary," he said in an interview with rabble.ca yesterday. It's just one of the many tightropes Unifor will have to walk as it gets started this weekend.

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