The powerful roles women play in the labour movement go too often unreported. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in coverage of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention held in Montreal in May of this year. Although the CLC has previously had a female national president, with the election of Shirley Carr in 1986, and has had gender parity in its executive body well before most non-labour entities, the stereotype of a macho labour movement has persisted. In reality, that image has been changing dramatically as labour reflects the diversity of its members and the workforce overall.
In fact women, from key positions in various affiliated unions, played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of this year's CLC convention, where Hassan Yussuff unseated incumbent Ken Georgetti for President; Marie Clarke Walker was re-elected to her position of Executive Vice-President; Donald Lafleur was elected to the national executive board and Barb Byers was elected to the position of Secretary-Treasurer. This is the story of the women who came together to support Barb Byers' campaign, and who through that alliance, transformed important elements of the union.
No newcomer to labour politics, Byers was first elected to the CLC executive in 2002. What is notable about this year's convention, however, is that she departed from the long-held tradition of running as part of a slate: she chose to run as an independent. Her team, comprised largely of women from a number of affiliates, and working with a tiny budget, employed new ways of campaigning that brought about change that have been described as transformative.
Organized labour can prove to be a competitive arena, and playing hardball is often the name of the game as affiliates make strategic alliances with each other for a desired outcome. For Byers, the key to her campaign was bringing together a powerful team of women leaders, from a cross-section of affiliates that make up the CLC, and seeking substantive changes in the election process itself, which ultimately empowered members.
Byers was a popular candidate in her own right as an independent, partly because she is known for doing things "her own way" -- not running as part of slate is only one example. Byers is known for her grassroots style of activism, and has been known for consistently working alongside many different types of people, particularly equity groups. "Equity groups have a friend in Barb," explains Unifor's Shannon Devine, who, along with others, volunteered doing communications for Byers' campaign.
Linda Silas, President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, Robyn Benson, President of PSAC-AFPC, Julie White, Director of Unifor's Women's Department, Sharleen Stewart, President of SEIU, and Lana Payne, Atlantic Director of Unifor and, of course, Byers herself were at the core of the changes that came about during convention. They worked together to create an environment that would change the way the labour movement makes decisions.
Payne describes how it began with winning a pivotal resolution prior to the convention: "We are all members of the Canadian Council, where we brought forward a resolution that the CLC's voting procedures needed to be modernized," explains Payne. (The Council is the CLC's executive decision-making body and as such sets out key directions for the Congress).
Although the CLC constitution states that ballots for elections are secret, in practice, historically, delegates voted in front of their peers at their tables; not exactly a "polling station," and a practice that can create pressure to vote within a union block. Add some of the wheeling and dealing that often happens in political parties and large organizations, and it is easy to see that so-called "backroom deals" sometime become paramount in deciding the ultimate result of elections.
For the Byers team, the traditional process had to be changed in favour of greater transparency.
The Council resolution that opened up the voting procedures came about a few days before Convention, and was based, according to Silas, on concerns originally expressed by members of the labour movement at the grassroots level. "People were coming to me, mostly equity groups, women, saying they didn't feel comfortable voting," says Silas. She adds that many grassroots members wanted to see a physical polling station, which would allow them to vote their conscience in private: "When you have people who are saying that they are afraid to vote independently, that is not a fair and transparent process," she added.
"We knew that some of the delegates had been instructed by their leaders on how to vote," says Stewart. "They said they wanted to vote for Barb, but didn't feel they could." Stewart says they all knew how vital the secret ballot was to a truly democratic process and pursued it strategically. The women met via conference call almost every night leading up to the decision on the secret ballot, strategizing and planning all with the aim of making a democratic process and the re-election of Byers a reality. "We met every night, sometimes for two minutes, sometimes for two hours," says Silas. "We just did what needed to be done."
Silas and Stewart brought forward the key issue of voting procedures to the Canadian Council of the CLC and advocated for allow polling stations for a fair and transparent process. This resolution was passed.
"We won the day there," explains Payne, "and it was one of the factors leading into the convention, but it was also a factor behind the kind of change we saw."
Byers's decision to run as an independent candidate was, according to Payne, a bold move and empowered women in her leadership team to campaign for reform to the voting procedures. It allowed the team to work beyond their own unions, and rather to campaign as an equity group for key changes. Running without a slate also meant Byers' campaign was forgoing financial resources, and relying on a grassroots membership approach.
The outreach for Byers' leadership, among women of the CLC, was exceptional. The CLC women's committee is among the most active in the House of Labour, and these women, despite the fact that their unions were supporting Georgetti's slate, turned out in huge numbers and brought other women along for Byers, very visibly: "It's very tough to visibly go against your union at these kinds of events," explains Devine. "We encouraged people to vote with their conscience and we saw that they did."
"The thing I'm most proud of," says Byers, "is that after the vote, and before the results came in, people came up to tell me that, regardless of how things turned out, my team ran a principled, clear, energetic and clean campaign. I'm very proud of that." Byers credits her team for her success: "I'm a leader, but I also have mentors. I learn as much from people who are younger than me as I do from people who are older than me."
PSAC National President Robyn Benson was also instrumental in the transformative democratization of the CLC. As a member of the CLC executive she tirelessly advocated for the fair and equal treatment of all labour leaders. As an independent, without the support of a powerful affiliate, Byers was able to count on Benson for staffing and other resources that contributed to her successful election.
A private polling station wasn't the only part of the modernization of the convention's processes: another first was a Wednesday morning leadership debate. The all candidates debate allowed all delegates to hear each candidate's election platform and be fully informed as to where each candidate stood on the future of the CLC. "This will remain a permanent feature of CLC Conventions," says Silas, "and we can give all the credit to the Human Rights caucus for starting the ball rolling by hosting their own all candidates forum." The Human Rights caucus held their own candidates forum on the Sunday evening at the beginning of convention.
While the Human Rights caucus pushed for the debate to take place, the momentum for building greater transparency and inclusion was also a rallying cry from the start of the elections, made by grassroots presidential candidate Hassan Husseini. His campaign is described as striking a chord with many labour activists, and certainly played a role in bringing these issues to the forefront of the election campaign.
For Donna Smith, the CLC's Vice President Equity Solidarity and Pride, the experience at convention was also personally transformative: "Sharing our story is an important part of history and we need to keep pressure on the newly elected officers and ensure that we continue to support each other and keep in touch. This CLC convention was the best one I have ever attended -- so many emotions and feelings and expressions that I will never forget. Women and equity power truly took over and it was amazing to be a part of it. Hopefully the new CLC will be one of respect and inclusion."
Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble.
Photo source: Lana Payne
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