UP! Young workers take the helm in Nova Scotia's labour movement

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Photo: flickr/ahblair

I first started attending union meetings, rallies and pickets in Nova Scotia when I was a student organizer. I worked among folks who thought I, at the age of 28, was ancient.

But when it came to organized labour, I was one of the few under 35s in the room. When we would enter, I swear I could hear a collective sigh of relief "oh good, the youth are here."

While the majority of those involved in our unions are still a good decade (or three) older than me, my peers have recently taken on leadership roles. Three of five labour council presidents in Nova Scotia are under 35. What led to this surge in youth leadership has barely been explored.

The devastating collapse of several key industries has had the most obvious impact on labour. The last of Cape Breton's underground coal mines closed in November 2001 ending 280 years of mining on the island; and after 100 years of steel production, the Sydney steel plant closed for good in 2001. Bowater Mersey, another major employer (this time on the South Shore) ceased operations in 2012. 

These closures were both profound losses for the province, but also extremely demoralizing for an older generation of labour activists. Union locals that once took the lead in the labour movement, specifically in Cape Breton, simply no longer exist. My generation doesn't have the same memories of thriving steel and coal industries, or the scars from the fight to keep them alive. "I think [young] folks have some hope and optimism that maybe folks who had the shit kicked out of them have buried way deep somewhere," says Tony Tracy, Atlantic Regional Representative at Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

There has also been a demographic shift. South Shore Labour Council President and homecare worker, Lisa Mason (31), describes her region as a retirement community. Nova Scotia has an out-migration problem and surplus of aging baby boomers. According to Statistics Canada, those aged 50+ accounted for 14 per cent of the labour force in 1992. This rose to a third in 2012. Stalwart union activists from the boomer generation are starting to retire en masse.

Thirty-year-old Suzanne MacNeil has been the President of the Cape Breton District Labour Council for two years. Recently named "Glace Bay's Union Daughter" by Our Times, MacNeil thinks that this rapid deindustrialisation "means that folks probably see the writing on the wall more clearly than they do in other areas of the country and they see the need very sharply and clearly for getting the next generation on board."

There's also the Kyle factor. Kyle Buott is the charismatic 26-year-old President of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council (HDDLC), a position he has held since 2008. Tracy first met 15-year-old Buott on a SEIU picket line in Dartmouth. A year later, Tracy was put in touch with Buott, who at 16 was trying to organize his workplace in Mic Mac Mall "and nobody really wanted to take it seriously." Buott was elected as the CAW Vice-President on the Nova Scotia Federation Labour (NSFL) on his 18th birthday and as President of the HDDLC at 20. He is currently Secretary-Treasurer of the he Nova Scotia Federation of Labour (NSFL).

Before Buott's election, Tracy says that the labour council was in crisis. There was a vacuum of leadership and they had trouble meeting quorum. Now, there are many other young workers, packed monthly meetings are the norm and the council likely has the most radical labour council slogan in Canada: "Capitalism isn't working for workers."

Kelly Murphy, Executive Vice-President of the HDDLC has also seen this generational shift. “I was generally the youngest person. Often it was like, you’re so cute, [you’re] so young, way to go, pat on the back. [That] isn’t the most the most motivating reception to get,” said Murphy, who’s now 32. When she started attending labour council meetings, (which she learned about when Buott spoke at an event she was attending for the NSGEU), she didn’t feel out of place. There were young workers and even young women in the room. 

Young workers outside of Halifax took notice of the young socialist president and the flurry of activity in Halifax. Mason was taken aback by the young faces and young speakers at her first Halifax Labour Day. Back then, the South Shore labour council stuck to the standard Day of Mourning and December 6 candlelit vigils, and a bowling tournament. Since her election four months ago, the labour council has held four rallies, plus a re-jigged Day of Mourning. Mason, a CUPE member, calls Buott an inspiration and a mentor. Mason's interaction with Buott wasn't a happy accident; the HDDLC aims to support young workers regardless of their geographic location, says Murphy. 

Murphy attributes much of the HDDLC's success to having the courage to try new things. "This is the way we always have done it is not the answer for the times that we're in," she says. The HDDLC gives profile (and significant portfolios such as May and Labour days and the Mayworks Festival) to executive members who aren't Buott, and who are also mostly young workers. The council took on corporate energy giant Emera in their Power to the People campaign, launched the Solidariglee choir and recently, members occupied the office of Nova Scotia's Health Minister to oppose the essential services legislation that followed the nurses' strike.

The emergence of several youth-led movements in recent years has also helped. In 2011, 2,000 Nova Scotia students marched in a blizzard to call for reduced tuition fees. It was the largest provincial student demo in a decade. Occupy, the Québec student strike and Idle No More have also all left their marks. Halifax's Baristas Rise Up (BRU), a campaign of SEIU Local 2, is showing the labour movement how to organize low-waged café jobs.

"The [Québec] student strike showed us that when that discontent is organized in a really thoughtful and concerted way over the medium and long term, it's going to win us victories," says MacNeil. An important lesson for a generation who has been starved of political victories.  

"Once you become involved in the labour movement you realize this is why we have weekends, this is why we have paid holidays. This is why we have parental leave," says Mason. "If you're not told about how these things came into place then you just think, 'oh the government gave us those.'" Young workers must be involved before the old-school union activists (and their memories of the strikes, occupations, blockades, what worked and what didn't) are gone. 

These young labour leaders get it, but the labour movement (still one of our parents' and grandparents' generations) needs to catch up. "I think if our movement is serious we're going to start pouring tons of resources into… really getting us into the forefront of organizing our peers and giving us the creative freedom to figure out how to do that," says MacNeil. "And it's something that we shouldn't be just tinkering with along the margins of our unions and our organizations. It absolutely needs to be central or else we won't have a movement in 15 years."

The newest of the three young Presidents, Mason is still the youngest member on the South Shore labour council, "but that'll change soon" she says, an unshakable confidence in her voice. 

Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.

Photo: flickr/ahblair

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