It was a bright fall morning in Windsor as Theresa joined her grandfather Roger on the picket line in front of the social services ministry. They were taking part in the daylong protest against the actions of the right wing provincial government. Theresa was a student just starting her second year studies at the local community college. The student association at Theresa’s college had urged students to be part of the protest because of the cuts made to education. Many students were having to go deeply into debt to finish their education. Many were also having to drop out or postpone their schooling because they could not afford the high fees.
Theresa’s grandfather was a retired manufacturing assembly line worker. Roger had always been active in his union and his community. He had continued to be active in his community and union after he had retired from work. Roger was involved with a local coalition of seniors and community activists organizing around changes and cuts to healthcare. He was also involved in electoral politics by being a member of the local riding association for the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP).
Roger had always talked to his grandchildren about the struggles he had been involved in and why he had felt it was important to participate in them. He wanted his grandchildren to understand their opportunities and responsibilities as citizens. He wanted them to understand that they lived in a country that was built by people deeply caring about the kind of society they lived in. Roger wanted his grandchildren to understand their history and to know where their standard of living and many of the rights they enjoyed came from.
As they were walking the picket line, Roger told Theresa how this protest reminded him of another protest many years ago. Theresa always found her grandfather’s stories interesting and asked him to explain. He told her that there had been a big strike in Windsor in 1945. The autoworkers in the Ford plant had gone on strike because the company would not agree to the workers’ demands for an improved contract and most importantly a demand to require all workers to become members of the union. It had been one of the most important strikes in Canada for achieving security and recognition for unions.
Roger told Theresa that there had been many gains in the strike and he had personally benefitted from the strike when the workers in the factory where he worked voted to join a union. He talked about how after years of building on these gains, everything they had worked for was now being attacked and eroded by the government and the corporations. Roger felt it was important for Theresa to understand that people always had to be aware that social progress made could be eroded or lost if not watched over.
Roger told Theresa why he was active in the local healthcare coalition. He grew up in a time before the government brought in Medicare as a national, universal program for everyone. He remembered how his family didn’t have the healthcare benefits we enjoy now and he didn’t want Theresa to lose this right. Roger told Theresa that each generation had to commit itself to valuing and fighting for the kind of society we’ve built in Canada.
Roger and Theresa are concerned about issues like healthcare and education like many families in Canada. Roger had the benefit of being a member of a union that helped fight for better wages and working conditions. His union was also part of the broader struggle for social benefits like Medicare and pensions. Roger learned through his union activism and community work that people working together could create the kind of community and society they wanted. By working in unions and other social groups, people could build a socially just society. By being politically active in electoral politics and broader social movements, people could participate democratically as citizens in their society and build a fairer, more just world.
Unions in Canada have always been active in politics. Achieving improvements I the laws governing working conditions were some of the first political actions taken by unions. The legal right to form unions and bargain collectively also came about because of laws that made these activities legitimate. These laws did not magically appear. They were put in place because workers and their unions and other concerned citizens in society lobbied and fought for them. There were enough people in society that felt that workers should have the right to act collectively for their rights that the politicians could no longer ignore the issue.
Workers in Canada have always known that decisions made in the legislature or parliament affect the bargaining table and the workplace. We live in a country with a democratic system of government. We elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf and to govern our country.
The process of democracy does not end with the ballot box. Citizens have rights and responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is being an active member of society. It is not enough just to vote every time there is an election; governments and politicians must be held accountable for the decisions they make and be given input from citizens regularly.
Unions participate in our political system in two ways. We participate in electoral politics and we are active in social movements and coalitions in the community. Let’s look at how unions participate in electoral politics.
Historically, some unions took part in electoral politics by supporting, endorsing and running individual candidates who were supportive of labour. This had limited success because if the candidates were elected they tended to be a small chorus against the larger established parties.
Some unions did not agree that political action was necessary. This difference in opinion would be a constant source of friction between different unions for many years.
In the 1940’s the CCL, one of the central labour bodies that preceded the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), endorsed the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). This was the first time that unions had publically supported a political party. They organized support and campaigned on behalf of the CCF and its candidates.
This support helped the CCF win government in Saskatchewan for 20 years. This program of political action helped the CCF become opposition and win seats in 3 other provinces across the country. The CCF also won seats in the House of Commons between 1945 and 1957.
In 1961, the now recently formed Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), working with the CCF and other interested groups founded the New Democratic Party (NDP). The CLC, the CCF and other founding members drafted and agreed to policies supporting economic and social justice for all citizens. The CLC did not directly affiliate to the NDP, but many of its member unions did. The CLC now works closely with the NDP developing policy and running and supporting candidates for election. Many trade union activists are party members and have been candidates for the NDP. This support has been critical in the NDP’s success provincially and nationally. The NDP has formed provincial governments in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, the Yukon and Ontario. The NDP is also an important voice nationally in Parliament. It is the only party to consistently support workers’ interests and a vision for Canada promoting social, economic, and political justice for all citizens.
By supporting and working with the NDP, labour ensures that the issues and policies that are important to us are acted on when the NDP form governments, or are voiced in legislatures or parliaments to counter the policies of the right-wing, business interest parties in power. Many gains such as health and safety protection, workers’ compensation, bans on strikebreakers, pay equity and other human rights improvements have been implemented by NDP governments.
Trade unions also work outside electoral politics in coalitions. Coalitions are a collection of social groups coming together to work on a common single issue or set of issues, usually for a specific period of time. Social and community groups are often formed to promote and fight for a particular view on issues affecting their group. Women’s groups advocate for women on how different issues affect them. Environmentalists come together to promote positive action and concern on the environment. International solidarity groups work with people in other countries on common social justice issues. Central labour bodies like the CLC are essentially a permanent coalition of different unions coming to work together on issues affecting working people.
When unions work in coalitions, we seek support for our issues from a larger social movement and we agree to fight for issues that are important to our coalition partners. By working in coalitions, unions have the opportunity to build a broader base of support for workers’ concerns.
When unions participate in a coalition, they need to listen to and learn about the issues of their coalition partners. By giving our support to other social groups, we strengthen the larger social movement that fights for our common goals of social and economic justice. Workers know that they have more strength when they form a union. Unions know that we have more power to fight for our common goals when we join other social groups in solidarity.
Throughout recent history, there are times when a single issue or set of issues concerns many social groups and they come together to form coalitions to work on these common issues that affect them all. The fight against the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, was an example of many different groups forming a coalition to deal with an issue that broadly affected them all. Unions, women’s groups, farmer’s organizations, seniors’ organizations, church groups, student federations, anti-poverty groups, environmental groups, First Nations, peace groups and international development groups all came together to campaign against the Free Trade Agreement. Each group had some specific issues they were concerned about, but the changes proposed by the FTA were so significant that every part of society was affected. Despite all their different concerns, these groups united to fight together on one issue that affected them all.
Unions are involved in many coalitions around many different issues. Unions are part of coalitions formed to preserve universal Medicare in Canada. We work in coalition with environmental groups to fight for decent worldwide standards for environmental protection. Unions work with children’s and youth groups fighting the use of child labour around the world. Unions in Canada are very involved with unions and social groups in other countries fighting for fair labour, social and environmental rights as globalization affects people in all countries.
Unions work both in electoral politics and in broader social movements or coalitions. Both works is essential and each contributes strength and energy to the other. By electing CCF or NDP legislators in either opposition or government, Canada has become a country with better standards of living and social benefits than many other countries in the world. At the same, the momentum and support for this electoral success of the NDP or in winning issues like crating a universal Medicare system comes from a broad range of people participating in social causes and other democratic forms of citizenship. People working in their communities and other social organizations are part of the democratic movement that pushes governments, regardless of their philosophies, to keep their promises and be accountable to the public. Labour’s participation in politics takes both forms, and is absolutely necessary in today’s rapidly changing world if we as citizens are to direct our futures.
Unions in Canada have learned throughout their history that actions in the broad political arena affect our success at the bargaining table and determine what kind of a society we live in. Roger learned these lessons throughout his working life and worked as an activist both in his union and his community. Roger shared these beliefs with his family and his granddaughter Theresa. They both understood that to shape the world they lived in, they had to actively participate as citizens in their workplace, in their community and in politics. Theresa and Roger knew they had to ensure that their voices were heard, so that their vision of social and economic justice would come true for themselves and their community.