The Labor Leader’s Last Shout of the Swan Song

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Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.57.27 AMWarsaw    Once the mess was out in the open and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan spilled the beans on his Facebook page about all of the sharp elbowed, behind the scenes jostling that makes up 95% of all of labor’s internal politics, virtually any and all union members knew it was all over except for the shouting. The smell of death was in the air. I shared a note with a colleague in Toronto that clearly Ryan was drowning. This morning I woke up to a message in reply from the same comrade saying, “No, he’s dead” including a web link to an op-ed piece written by Ryan as an announcement that he was no longer standing for reelection.

Union politics can be hard to follow because a lot of people make the mistake of thinking there’s some kind of democracy at work, and that’s accurate but only at the most local level and usually less so the higher one goes up the ranks. This is a “representative” system where delegates, so named or elected by their unions, go to central, state or provincial, or national and international bodies to represent their unions. Their votes are often “instructed” by boards and executive committees and bigger dogs with louder barks than their own. They do not vote as individuals.

When Ryan in recent days was bandying about words like “blackmail” and the questions of whether or not federations like the OFL were “independent” or autonomous labor bodies, and seeming to appeal to individual delegates and other union activists to rise up and oppose the larger unions, any observer with a modicum of knowledge about how unions worked knew he was in a desperate situation and likely was just taking a last “Hail, Mary!” shot at re-election. The bigger the union, particularly national unions with discipline as opposed to public employee unions that sometimes allow locals some autonomy, the more numerous the delegates and the greater weight their voting strength, therefore the narrower their odds that any unlikely coalition of the little unions could prevail. In the case of the OFL with disaffiliations and what Ryan termed “dues’ strikes,” they were starving the federation and Ryan into submission. He was already toast, so it was just a matter of time before he stepped away.

The Toronto Star gave him a last hurrah, and by my lights, he handled it with some grace even as he patted himself heartily on the back:

It is no mystery that, along the way, I have accumulated some critics (you may have heard from a few in the pages of the Toronto Star), but union members are unmistakably united. I have been elected unanimously three times as OFL president and union members have repeatedly given me a mandate to put equity, community and action at the heart of everything we do. Together, we put 10,000 people on the streets of Hamilton in support of steelworkers, 15,000 in London in support of autoworkers, 30,000 in Toronto in support of school teachers and support staff and we rallied for workplace rights in every region of Ontario. We have built an unprecedented labour-community alliance of over 90 groups that began the pushback against Rob Ford’s privatization agenda, challenged McGuinty’s austerity cuts, and catapulted inequality into the media.

The enthusiastic response that I have received from union members, precarious workers and equity seekers across the province has been a powerful validation of the unity and solidarity at the core of our movement. It gives me hope that the labour movement is as vibrant and relevant as ever and, with the rise of precarious work, migrant labour and governments who put corporate interests ahead of the public interest, the need has never been greater.

However, any movement is bigger than any one person.

Some of the labour leaders who have opposed me have said that they share my working class values but they can’t unite behind my leadership.

There’s an old union negotiator’s saying that I’ve had to use many times at the bargaining table myself to a company at bad points which is that “you may beat me, but you’re going to have to whip me first.” Ryan didn’t go out with a whine, but a roar. I’m not sure that helped the unity of the labor movement, but he proved he could still count the votes and went stage left before any more damage could be done, and the challenge he left with the labor movement is the same one that is almost always on all of our lips, so it seems a fair enough way to say farewell.