What the phrase 'big labour' really means

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $5 per month!

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

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.