Solidarity Forever

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By Lana Payne, Atlantic Regional Director

Solidarity is what we build!

Most who know me, know of my profound respect for central labour organizations, as a force to build solidarity among unions, and bring about change for working people. This is especially true of federations of labour and labour councils across the country, where grassroots campaigning and mobilizing happens.

As a past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL), I also know how challenging this is.

Solidarity is not automatic, a guaranteed outcome because we are part of the club. It must be built. Every single day. It is built around the work we do together.

I can say this because I am first and foremost an activist, one who also found this week’s decision to leave the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) – a decision I was part of making – heart-wrenchingly tough. Like you I am hurting. But I support the decision and here with a little personal history is why.

I was President of the NLFL in 2010-11 when a decision was made to throw the National Union of Public Government Employees (NUPGE) out of the CLC for not paying its dues.

NUPGE had been withholding its per capita payments because it believed Article 4 of the Constitution needed strengthening.  Article 4 is the part of the CLC Constitution that deals with raiding.

At that time, the CLC came down hard on federations, telling us we had to kick all NUPGE provincial union locals out of our federations because of the stance the union had taken.  Federations were not consulted. We were ordered.

We pushed back.

Indeed, in Newfoundland and Labrador we refused, as did other federations, to expel our NUPGE provincial affiliates who had been paying their per capita to the federations. We pushed for a cooling off period – a time to deal with the issues at hand in the spirit of seeking to find a consensus. Some labour leaders tried to do the same in the past week. They were shut down.

In late 2010, I asked CAW President Ken Lewenza who I knew had great respect for federations and labour councils, to consider pushing for a different path among the national leaders so federations and labour councils were not caught in the middle of this dispute. He and other like-minded leaders forced a different conversation to be had at the national level.

But the dispute at the CLC level highlighted something federations and labour councils had openly been discussing for many years:  The unfairness of how the CLC constitution was applied when it came to affiliation. If you are affiliated at the CLC level you are also required to affiliate at both the federation and labour council level. The problem is - this requirement is never enforced.  The constitution also prevents unions who do not wish to affiliate at the CLC level from supporting provincial and community labour bodies. This has worked well for the CLC, but not so much for everyone else. In addition, at the time of this dispute, NUPGE raised the issue of affiliation.

In early 2011 a high-level committee was struck by the CLC to deal with the issue of raiding, but also and just as importantly to develop a process where union members who expressed and had proven support in their locals could leave their union and find a new home.  This was important to my union, who has long fought for the democratic right to Canadian autonomy and decision-making for Canadian workers.

The leaders of the biggest unions were appointed to that committee and a consensus was eventually worked out.

At the 2011 CLC convention that consensus was passed as an amendment to the Constitution. Article 4 and the justification process - which is at the heart of the discord today - came to pass.

But is this new process working?


Fast forward to 2017, Unifor has raised numerous times that the justification process needs updating, that there are gaps, not unlike what NUPGE argued in 2010-11. Unifor has also raised the concern of heavy-handed tactics of putting local unions into trusteeship.

At the 2017 CLC convention, a motion was passed to form a committee of affiliates to work with the CLC President to find a solution to issues around Article 4, to make recommendations on how the process could be improved and to recommend further constitutional change if needed.

But unlike in 2010 when we faced a similar crisis, Unifor, the largest private sector union and the union raising concerns, has been excluded from the committee.

How can we find consensus when we are not even part of the discussion? This, comrades, is entirely unacceptable. When NUPGE pushed for change in 2011, their leadership played a significant role, as they should have, on the committee that found consensus.

As an elected officer of Unifor and proud member of our National Executive Board what I had to weigh in being part of making this decision is the rights of workers. It is, I believe, at the heart of this debate.

It is as simple and perhaps as complicated as that.

I have profound respect for Unifor members. For all union members. I am inspired by union activists every day. Their courage, determination and fundamental belief that a better world is possible through their activism are like an everyday match to a blasty bough - the fire that builds a workers’ movement.

I have friends and fellow activists who are hurting right now. There are those who do not understand our decision. I have spoken to many of you.

You have said that the dysfunction and disagreements at the CLC level should not impact the very important work and solidarity happening at the provincial and community levels.

I agree. And I don’t believe it should have to. The CLC has too often cherry-picked the parts of the constitution it wishes to enforce on any given day. Let’s be clear, there is a difference between making an interpretation and actually not enforcing entire sections.

In 2010-11, I and others fought back so a decision at the CLC level did not end up hurting federations and labour councils.  But on this very important issue of how unions affiliate to labour centrals, nothing has changed.

This all-in or all-out approach by the CLC when it is convenient is harmful to our movement. It kills activism.

I suggest you also read about the struggle of hotel workers in downtown Toronto with their U.S.-based union, Unite Here, as it is also an important part of this debate.

Friends, it is time that we all ask why union locals can’t affiliate and participate in labour councils and federations without also affiliating to the CLC?

The structure we have now may have worked for 50 years, but our activism is different today. Our movement has grown. How we do our activism has changed. So much of our work is done in coalitions and movements, across movements and rooted in the local community.

I ask that we consider how this structure is damaging not just our grassroots work, but true solidarity.

The structure of the CLC where rules and the constitution are applied to its benefit without a care for federations and labour councils must change.

Many of us have been saying this publicly and behind closed doors for a long time, but the political will has not been there to fix it. At a very minimum, we should come up with a plan to cushion our federations and labour councils when disputes happen at the national level.

Comrades, you know as well as I do that solidarity doesn’t happen just because you pay dues to be part of an organization. This is true of our unions, and it is especially true of our central labour bodies. And when the rights of workers come second to this, we have a very big problem.

While workers are intimidated, thrown out of their elected offices because they dared to demand a more progressive path in bargaining and organizing, I would hope that you would stand with me and say this is unacceptable in our movement. A real solution must be found. The heart of our movement depends on it.