Prairie Regional Council focuses on building worker power

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Large crowd of delegates posing for a photo with their fists in the air

Unifor’s 2023 Prairie Regional Council (PRC) focused on the union’s work to build worker power through political fightback, social activism, and tough collective bargaining.

Approximately 150 delegates from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta participated in the three-day council during March 8-10 in Calgary. 

Council opened with a welcome from Prairie Regional Chairperson Guy Desforge followed by a blessing from Elder Bruce Starlight and a dance performance by Brown Bear Woman Events. 

Western Regional Director Gavin McGarrigle delivered a comprehensive report to delegates, highlighting the work that Unifor has undertaken since the last PRC and what’s possible in the year ahead. 

“We’ve been pushing governments at all levels on many important issues and calling out the Bank of Canada for their attacks on working people while turning a blind to corporate greed. We’ve been demanding EI reform, anti-scab legislation and continued our organizing efforts. The work never stops. We are firing on all cylinders, busier than ever,” said McGarrigle. 

McGarrigle outlined key challenges including the health care crisis, growing retirement concerns, and wage growth in a time of record inflation and warned about the need to mobilize in upcoming provincial elections in Alberta and Manitoba.

“Conservative politicians are meeting and plotting to use the uncertainty faced by workers as a recruiting tool to club and cow vulnerable workers to make them sign up for what is ultimately a hate-filled and divisive agenda where the rich always get richer,” McGarrigle said. 

Right-wing populism was also a theme expanded on by Unifor National President Lana Payne during her address to delegates. 

“We must organize so that it becomes politically toxic for governments to attack workers and our union rights,” said Payne. “We are going to expose politicians who pretend to support workers when their policies will make things worse for working Canadians.” 

Payne called for a coordinated economic plan with strong industrial policies and public investments, stressing that workers must be involved in planning Canada’s future. 

“We plan. We fight. We organize and we imagine a world that puts workers at the heart of public policy and industrial strategies.” 

Just prior to PRC Payne travelled with McGarrigle, Len Poirier and others to Fort McMurray, Alberta to meet with Unifor Local 707-A members at Suncor and SMS Equipment at their workplaces. 

At PRC Payne pledged to support energy jobs in the province, telling delegates there will be workers and production in Fort McMurray for a long time to come. 

“We must be the union that imagines, that proposes, that defends, that stands up for the kind of world we know is possible. It starts with good energy jobs, in Fort McMurray and all across the Prairies. 

We can recognize their work, fight for their fair share of the economic pie, and call for national industrial strategies that benefit workers at the same time…because our members need us to do both – represent them with everything we have right now and fight for a future that has good jobs at the core.”

Delegates were introduced to Unifor’s Bargaining Worker Power tour, which will be held at locals across the country in the coming months. Members will engage directly in developing the union’s bargaining priorities and strategies. 

Payne spoke of the need for a national high speed rail and blasted Bank of Canada interest rate hikes and corporate profiteering in a time of record inflation. 

Unifor National Secretary-Treasurer Len Poirier also condemned excessive corporate profits in his report. 

“It should come as no surprise the sectors with the strongest increase in profits were also the source of the fastest price increases. Products like gasoline, groceries, mortgage interest, and building materials,” Poirier said. 

Delegates marked International Women’s Day at Council with messages of empowerment and demands for inclusivity and equality. The day closed with an event that provided women delegates the opportunity to connect before welcoming the entire delegation to participate. Between raffles and donations, more than $15,000 was raised for Elizabeth House, a life skills program and family-oriented home which welcomes at-risk pregnant and parenting women who need a safe place to live.

The theme of political fightback continued on day two when delegates heard from NDP Leaders from all three prairie provinces. 

“We are here to look at how we can again work together to stand up and fight back and win,” said Carla Beck, Saskatchewan NDP Leader. 

“I see too much in my province and the provinces on either side of us that are going in the wrong direction. We need to stop conservative governments that are causing so much pain and elect governments that believe in working people.”

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew told delegates that his party is actively preparing to go to the polls. 

“I know that Unifor is one of those unions that stands up and fights for their rights. Let people know that you think our party is the one fighting for working people,” said Kinew.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley also urged delegates to get involved in the upcoming provincial election. 

“This is probably the most important election that we have ever seen in the province of Alberta,” Notley cautioned. “There are two stark choices and the best choice for the working people of Alberta is to get behind the NDP.” 

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan told delegates that the labour movement has tools in place to magnify worker power but activists are needed in order to elect a progressive government. 

“You can’t have an economy that functions if you don’t support workers. We have a government that has shown repeatedly over the past four years that they are not on the side of working people,” said McGowan. 

Delegates led the discussion on recommendation and resolutions, passing motions on mobilizing for the Alberta and Manitoba elections, fighting the privatization of SaskTel and initiatives supporting members in media and aerospace among others. 

During powerful and emotional discussions, delegates unanimously supported a recommendation to support MMIWG2S families and to defend reproductive rights. 

Delegates participated in two successful mental health matters courses in conjunction with PRC and were motivated to pass a resolution encouraging locals to schedule more mental health courses. 

On Wednesday, two nurses from the area were invited onsite to train members on how to administer Naloxone to someone they suspect might be experiencing an overdose. Delegates were encouraged to pressure the employer to help add Naloxone to jobsites and first aid emergency kits.

Young worker Teddy Hudye, a member of Unifor Local 1-S, shared his experience after an accident left him paralyzed. Delegates heard how Hudye continues to do everything he did before, including hunting, hockey and track and field, just in a different way. 

Delegates had the privilege of a presentation by historian and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo who shared stories of the Black Canadian experience in Alberta, with many migrating from the American south, and the lasting effects of racism and slavery. 

During the council elections, Local 445 member Guy Desforges was re-elected chairperson.

Council ended with a call to stay engaged in an exciting year of union activism. 

View the PRC photo gallery here