What the phrase 'big labour' really means

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Image: frankie cordoba/Unsplash

Last month, the new owners of Torstar published a letter to their readers in which they declared that, despite their own political entanglements with Canada's conservative establishment, the Toronto Star and its sister papers will stay true to its progressive Atkinson principles and continue to be "the voice of those without power."

However, the voices that Jordan Bitove, Paul Rivett and David Peterson deemed to have power were more revealing. 

The Toronto Star, they wrote, "is not the voice of big-business or big-labour. The powerful voices have power enough."

At first read, "big-labour" could be taken as a reference to the big union players in Canada's labour movement; the ones with national reach, perhaps. But this was more than a simple distinction between grassroots labour movements and established unions.

This was a careful placement of the labour movement in the same basket as "big-business," implying a similarity between corporatism and the labour forces that propel it.

Big-business; big-pharma; big oil; big-tech: each of these has certain connotations of being entities or entire sectors with self-serving agendas and undue political influence. Uttering big-business and big-labour in the same breath works to associate unions with the corporate greed and general feelings of distrust these players evoke.

To lump "big-labour" in with big-business suggests both sit in opposition to the interests, needs and voices of workers.

Covering workers' issues, centring their voices and citing their experiences is absolutely the most critical part of covering work and labour, whether it is unionized or not.

Workers certainly have the most compelling insight into their conditions, and their stories should be prioritized above the comments of union leadership where possible. The Star's work and wealth reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh does this well.

The perspective of unions themselves, however, is not without merit. Often, workers are silenced by the corporations they work for, unable to openly speak to the media without the permission of their employer, or else face repercussions. They can speak to their union, though, who can, in turn, become their voice and bring their concerns to the attention of the public.

Dismissing the work of unions as "big-labour" in this way, then, as outside or even counter to the interests of workers, also dismisses the fact that workers do in fact find power in solidarity. In a union, it is possible for workers to express the very voices this letter deems in need of hearing.

Joshua Mandryk, a Toronto-based labour lawyer, called out Torstar's ownership's use of the phrase on Twitter, describing it as "a right wing frame intended to alienate working people from their unions."

It's true that those in media who use the phrase the most tend to hail from right-leaning outlets.

A simple Google search of the phrase in Canadian media reveals that it's popular with Toronto Sun columnists like Brian Lilley and Lorrie Goldstein. The former attributed the Liberal party's 2019 federal election success to an "assist from Big Labour."

The latter pointed out that in 2018, both the Ontario NDP and Liberal party have close ties with unions, describing them both as "in bed with Big Labour."

This relationship between unions and political parties known for their support of unions should raise eyebrows, according to the two columnists, much in the same way that Conservatives' and Liberals' relationships with big-oil do on the left.

The political affiliations of two of Torstar's new owners are not unrelated to their description of  the labour movement. Bitove and Rivett have strong ties to current and past Conservative politicians, and have made maximum financial donations to the campaigns of Doug Ford and Maxime Bernier and to Erin O'Toole's recent leadership run.

Canadaland's reporting on this speculates that it's these political ties that spurred Bitove and Rivett to bring on the Liberal David Peterson, a former Ontario premier.

It's likely also what motivated the writing and publication of this letter in the first place, to reassure readers that the Star's signature progressive stance will not be threatened by the philosophies of its new owners. Whether that will actually be the case remains to be seen.

Unions themselves are of course not powerless, and they do not always put that power to its most effective use. Union leadership must recognize its role in representing and amplifying the voices of its membership, and the voices of all workers. They should be held accountable when they misstep and criticized when they fall short.

However, the phrase "big-labour," when framed in this way, negates the collective power of workers by shifting focus to the struggle of individuals. Union busting 101: divide and conquer.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: frankie cordoba/Unsplash

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