Tag Archives: Sid Ryan

The Labor Leader’s Last Shout of the Swan Song

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.

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Hard Ball Politics and Hidden Cameras in the House of Labor

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.

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