Canada’s New Supergroup, Unifor, and Community Chapters

phillipmurrayaveOshawa   I was actually excited about the senior ACORN Canada organizer’s meeting in Oshawa, Ontario, an hour supposedly but much more in steady traffic from Toronto.   This town of more than 100,000 now was the site of the famous auto strike by the UAW with General Motors that was so critical almost 75 years ago in organizing industrial unions in Canada.   ACORN Canada is working on a joint project with the Durham Region Labor Council to build community organizations with sufficient power to act on their issues aggressively and serve as a partner to the more established, but beleaguered labor movement in the area.   Where Oshawa had been ground zero in Ontario for a different deal breeding Ed Broadbent, the federal leader of the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) and industrial unions, meeting with Graham Mitchell from the Institute and Jim Freeman, head of the labor council, it was clear that there was recognition we were looking up at a harder road now, rather than looking down from those mountaintops.

            Jim mentioned having gone to work at the plant 30 years before when 22,000 workers were under the roof.  Three years ago there were still more than 12,000, now there were 3500 with 800 jobs on the Camaro line moving within the year to the US.  We drove by the plant along Philip Murray Road, named after the legendary CIO aide to John Lewis, and first president of the Steelworkers’ Union.  Windsheilding various neighborhoods in this working class city with the affluence of past pay packets competing with the uncertainty of current unemployment was fascinating.   We would turn a corner past trimly kept bungalows and find ourselves gawking at a beautiful, but empty palace of a plant with a Pittsburgh, Plate, & Glass sign still gleaming over empty parking lots and abandoned buildings.

            The talk everywhere was the recent merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP) only weeks ago forming the newly  named 300,000 member supergroup, Unifor, which would be Canada’s largest private sector labor union.  There was a new leader, Jerry Dias, and a new program.  There was talk of going on the offensive with an organizing budget of $10 million that Dias was saying was 10% of its annual budget.  That’s encouraging news, though it is worth remembering that SEIU in facing organizing challenges in the US had led the way first with a 30% organizing budget under John Sweeney and then a 50% organizing budget under Andy Stern. 

            Interestingly, Dias had also called for an additional part of his program, similar to the AFL-CIO’s recent advocacy by Rich Trumka, of reaching out to amalgamate somehow with community groups.   According to Unifor official Fred Wilson heading the membership expansion committee in remarks he made to the Globe and Mail:

“We will have three categories of membership in the new union, one category will be members in bargaining units, the second are retired members and a third category will be members without collective units,” said Wilson. According to Wilson, the organization of groups of people without collective units will be done by new community chapters.

The notion of “community chapters” of unorganized workers is interesting and speaks to a lot of work we have done around labor/community partnerships and geographical unionism.  Other reports and discussions though indicate that Unifor is moving very tentatively in this area.   They don’t seek to really organize such chapters from what they have said, but are more treating the project like phone calls from “hot shops” and waiting for community chapters to self-organize and then call for help and affiliation.   Clearly this is still a work in progress, since that’s certainly not the way workers are organized, and it is absolutely not the way community organizations are built.

But, Unifor and others like the project with ACORN Canada and the Durham Region Labour Council, are on the ground and trying to move in the right direction, and that’s good news for Oshawa, Canada, and low-and-moderate income working families everywhere.

Jim Freeman

Jim Freeman

 

GM Plant

GM Plant

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ACORN Love Feast Lies in Critical Political and Labor Partnerships

 

Andrea Horwath, the Ontario NDP leader

Andrea Horwath, the Ontario NDP leader

Toronto  An organization’s convention is of course going to bring forward its supporters to speak to its faithful, so it was not a surprise to find a love feast in the remarks made by speakers at various events of the ACORN Canada bi-annual convention in Toronto, but the “why” behind the remarks were as clear as “who” was making them about the strength of the partnerships that ACORN has forged after almost 9 years of organizing in Canada between labor, as ACORN’s staunchest ally and particularly the New Democratic Party (NDP) and its leadership as its frequent political partner.   Speeches by Andrea Horwath, the Ontario NDP leader to the main convention and Sid Ryan, president of the million member Ontario Federation of Labor, made the point obvious, as did other remarks from city councilors and members of the Ontario parliament like Jagmeet Singh, Olivia Chow, and Ed Sullivan. 

            An underlying theme running throughout all of their remarks was the mutual interests that had been forged increasingly through hard fought campaigns where ACORN had been a key component and in some cases a central link.  The fight to increase the minimum wage in Ontario initially to $10 per hour several years ago and currently the campaign to move it on past that to $14 per hour was raised repeatedly.  Singh, who has introduced ACORN’s bill to cap the costs of remittances at 5%, couldn’t have been clearer that this was a hugely important issue but that it was also an idea born solely from ACORN and its extensive immigrant membership, and that he was delighted to carry the water.  

           

Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labor

Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labor

ACORN’s partners clearly rely on ACORN’s ability to move its low-to-moderate income base.  Sullivan understood fully that ACORN members in Toronto overwhelmingly lived in the high rises where the organization’s ability to increase traditionally low voter turnout of around 40% holds the future for him and other progressive politicians in the area.  Horwath was more measured, giving a standard recitation of the NDP platform, but her smile was radiant and her voice vibrant when she asked the members if any of them lived in key legislative district ridings coming up in elections soon and heard the cheers from the crowd when she mentioned south Ottawa.  She was also pointed in her praise for ACORN’s work in the turnaround in Kitchener-Waterloo in a special election there.  Sid Ryan talked about the importance of a joint project being done in a partnership between ACORN and the OFL in another critical area of Ontario where ACORN is building a membership and the OFL hopes to see huge change.   He was ecstatic about ACORN’s 650 signatures in a couple of hours of doorknocking at the convention for an increase of minimum wage and how it trumped anything that even their paid professional canvassers had been able to produce. 

Mutual interests have now clearly become mutual need making these real partnerships.  These alliances recognize real success and struggle in recent years, but also signal much, much more as these partnerships mature in the coming years.  No one anywhere near this convention could miss the messages here.

Olivia Chow, MP

Olivia Chow, MP

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