Hard Ball Politics and Hidden Cameras in the House of Labor

ACORN ACORN International Canada International Labor Organizing

photoBuckhorn Lake,    Ontario Unions wear politics like a second shirt, always in the closet ready to grab off the hanger and put on. Because they are membership organizations, labor leaders in their normal world representing workers who are their members are also always running for office as politicians in their own right. Most of the politics is not the public campaigning, glad handing, here-is-my-platform-type, but the behind the scenes, closed door kind of thing where everything looks cool and calm to the members, because the hardball was hidden behind the screen. Every blue moon it bursts into the open as it did when John Sweeney challenged Tom Donahue for the presidency of the AFL-CIO in the 1995. Hitting the ground in Toronto, talking to the organizers at ACORN Canada, and reading the local papers, it turns out that twenty years later there is knockdown drag out public fight in the house of labor at the Ontario Federation of Labour that is a doozey.

The current president is Sid Ryan. We have a soft spot in our hearts for Brother Ryan because in 2013 he spoke at the ACORN Convention banquet in Toronto and told the members after watching them hit the doors in the neighborhoods as part of the campaign, that he had never seen a more effective group of canvassers in his long career.

Something like that sticks with you, but what do we know about what goes on behind the closed doors? Too much, now that headlines are plastered all over the Toronto Star. This has obviously been a fight brewing among many of the big unions, since a number of them disaffiliated to try to starve him out of office, including the giant Ontario Public Services Union (OPSU), the nurses, and Service Employees, hitting his budget for almost a one-million dollar a year loss. The financial problems are bad enough that the Canadian Labour Congress, the national federation, sent in financial monitors to the OFL office to see what was going on and ostensibly to help get it all together.

Next thing you know one of the monitors, Chris Buckley, has declared to run against the incumbent, and the fight is on. Publicly, now that everyone is watching, everyone praises everyone else, but it’s hardball. Buckley comes from the largest private sector union in Canada, Unifor, a merged entity formerly the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ union. The head of the CLC also comes from Unifor. Obviously, the unions that have pulled out don’t get to vote, but in a rarity Jerry Dias, the head of Unifor, is leading the charge against Ryan, so they are trying to send out a message that he is dead man walking in the brotherhood.

The spice in this stew that gets the headlines though has to do with spying. The office workers union filed grievances against Ryan and the OFL because they found a hidden camera in the exit sign outside their offices in the OFL controlled and partially owned building. Some are alleging that they are working in a toxic environment. They are demanding that there be a scan of the whole building, their telephones, and computers for surveillance. Ryan has said, sure there are security cameras in the building, like in almost every office building. Me thinks they probably protesth too much, since this is hardly a story of Edward Snowden and the NSA, but this is hard ball union politics, so anything goes.

Who says the labor movement is dying? Their blood is red hot and boiling in Canada of all places, and in Toronto and Ontario where there is still significant union density, these are fights that still matter and in the case of the presidency of the Ontario Federation of Labour, a job that is worth fighting for, as we now all can see.