What next for Take Back the CLC?

By David Bush

The Peoples’ Social Forum that took place last week had a large labour presence among the thousands who attended. There were numerous – too many to count- workshops, panels and larger assemblies that dealt directly with issues confronting the labour movement.

Hassan Husseini (left) and Hassan Yussuff at the CLC Convention in May 2014
Hassan Husseini (left) and Hassan Yussuff at the CLC Convention in May 2014

The labour movement assembly was organized by the Take Back the CLC campaign that built Hassan Husseini’s presidential bid at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in May. The assembly started by getting participants to write down their names, location, contact information and affiliations and placing it on a giant map in the front of the room. This mapping exercise was useful to visualize the geography of those in the room, and to allow people to connect who live in the same city. Most were from Ontario and Quebec, but there were large contingents from BC, Nova Scotia and a contingent from Winnipeg.

This exercise was followed by five speakers: Hassan Husseini fro Take Back the CLC, Jean-Claude Parrot former president of CUPW, Penny Bertrand an activist who worked on Carol Wall’s 2005 bid for CLC president, Kyle Buott president of the Halifax-Dartmouth District Labour Council, and Janice Folk-Dawson of the Guelph Labour Council.

“A leader who can’t take criticism, doesn’t deserve to be a leader”
All the speakers noted that the Take Back campaign was an important step in rebuilding the labour left, but they all acknowledge it was only a step.  While the assembly didn’t foster a full-on political debate JC Parrot set the tone with his comment, ”a leader who can’t take criticism, doesn’t deserve to be a leader.” Folk-Dawson brought up the critique that the room didn’t reflect the diversity of the labour movement or the working class. She also constructively critiqued the process by which the Take Back campaign made decisions. Buott argued that those in the room need to coordinate their efforts at the affiliate level and get involved in local labour councils.

The meeting then broke out into groups to answer three questions: What unites us, what are the national and global struggles that are key, and what tools do we have to rebuild the labour movement?

The limitations of a three-hour assembly that gathers people from across the country from different unions who have only a sporadic history of working together were readily apparent at this stage of the meeting. Firm conclusions and debates about strategy were not on the table. Rather than seeing this as a failure, it is more useful to understand this a step in a longer process of building a viable leftist trade union network. During the presentation Take Back the CLC circulated a sign-up for those who want to volunteer to help coordinate where the network goes from here.

The fight is at the affiliate level. Focusing efforts on the CLC is to box a shadow.

It is unclear what will happen, but some concrete next steps were revealed during the speeches, breakout groups and discussions. The first thing that is clear is a new communications infrastructure is needed (website social media platform and email listerve). If the Take Back movement is to be useful going forward it needs some basic mechanisms to connect activists locally, nationally, sectorally and within each affiliate.

The fight is at the affiliate level. Focusing efforts on the CLC is to box a shadow. The real power in the CLC structure is within each union. This is where rank and file members can truly fight to empower themselves. The Take Back assembly and campaign was and is a great opportunity to connect activists who are in the same union who might otherwise not have found each other.

Solidarity picket at IKEA Ottawa, July 12. The actions have been endorsed by Take Back the CLC
Solidarity picket at IKEA Ottawa, July 12. The actions have been endorsed by Take Back the CLC

Labour Councils and solidarity actions
Can Take Back utilize some of the existing labour infrastructure to get the labour movement moving on key issues? There was an argument made by some in the room that Take Back should be focusing trying to revitalize the labour councils and turn into hubs of action. This strategy could provide the focus necessary to consolidate the network.

Perhaps the most important next step that Take Back might struggle with is finding a way to focus its efforts on action rather than on statements. If the critique of the existing labour leadership is that they are more talk than action, then Take Back can’t simply push paper from below. It has to find ways to work productively in action, not simply say the right things. There was no firm conclusion on this front, but this summer’s campaign picketing IKEA in solidarity with the locked out Teamsters in Richmond BC points to real potential to build and unite on action. Winning local labour councils across the country to spearhead local Canada Post campaigns is another unifying and productive action Take Back could undertake.

It is an open question what comes next for the labour left, but building such a network of labour activists is not going to come easy. It will require a strategic and patient outlook and an orientation on action. The assembly at the Peoples’ Social Forum was an opening wedge, we can choose to knock it or use it as a stepping-stone to help us build the fighting labour movement we so desperately need.

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2 thoughts on “What next for Take Back the CLC?

  1. The Take Back the Labour Movement assembly, a three-hour Saturday morning forum convened by organizers of the Hassan Husseini campaign for President of the Canadian Labour Congress last Spring, reviewed decades of struggles to reform the CLC, including the heroic efforts of former CUPW President Jean Claude Parrot, who spoke to the crowd. The assembly, consisting of individuals from dozens of unions, bolstered by a large contingent of CUPW members, demonstrated a radical outlook. Kyle Buott, President of the Halifax-Dartmouth Labour Council, put it this way: “It’s not enough to oppose neo-liberalism. We need to talk about capitalism being the fundamental problem, and socialism as the alternative.”
    After small group discussions on a set of distributed questions, including ‘What should be the basis of unity of this movement?’, the Take Back assembly chair reconvened the plenary and called for reports. A group of Socialist Action union members and other workers made the following proposals:
    1. Establish a cross-union, class struggle caucus that is anti-capitalist, anti-concessions, anti-austerity and pro-union democracy.
    2. Our movement or caucus strives for change based on policies, not personalities; seeks to replace current union mis-leaders on political grounds and union democratic principles, from the bottom up.
    3. Instead of giving political support to one or another wing of the labour bureaucracy, we strive to build an independent, class struggle movement from below; we seek to change the overall direction of the unions; we support union activists who battle concessions and anti-democratic practices in the labour movement, and engage with social justice movements.

    Subsequent speakers at the mics endorsed these proposals, and made additional ones, mostly of a programmatic nature, such as by indicating a commitment to aboriginal rights, anti-racism, anti-sexism, for climate justice, etc. When a postal worker asked for support for the current campaign to keep home mail delivery and expand services by adding postal banking, the meeting erupted in loud applause.
    Later, the chair indicated that a steering committee, comprised of some 24 volunteers from across the country, would soon be convened via teleconference or skype to take the next steps to establish an active body of labour radicals and commence its work. This was widely seen as the way to confront and to replace labour officials who condone the spreading cancer of two-tier wages and benefits, a pernicious assault on young workers, and to remove bureaucrats who concede pension, workplace safety and job security losses.
    Unfortunately, at the final gathering of the Social Forum on Sunday morning, which heard reports from over 20 assemblies, the Take Back Labour summary did not mention any of the above points. It called vaguely for rank and file leadership of the unions, and proposed the creation of networks of activists. It ended with the exclamation “See you in the streets!”
    Even more disappointing was the conference-concluding ‘Call to action – Social Movements Convergence’. The unsigned statement, cobbled together by labour officials and PSP organizers, is a broad declaration of disenchantment with the status quo. It condemns “the disparities between the rich and the poor, men and women, whites and people of colour” and called for the defense of “public services and social programs.” “We must propel the social movements’ current convergence towards an active, non-partisan role and lead a combative campaign against the Conservatives.”
    While reasonable to target the Conservatives for defeat in 2015, it is important to remember that Liberals are Tories too. They represent the same ruling business class. In fact, the Liberal federal government under Paul Martin made bigger cuts to social expenditures and corporate taxes than the Harper Conservatives have done. The Liberal provincial government in Ontario suspended the right to strike and imposed austerity cuts on education workers, schools, cities and hospitals. Kathleen Wynne is now known by welfare and social housing advocates as the ‘Poverty Premier’.
    If the People’s Social Forum represents a new political moment, it signified, at least at its inception, that the chief problem facing humanity, the environment and all species is capitalism, not simply capitalist austerity. To that degree, the PSF not only fell short of its projected attendance figures, but more importantly, of its vision for fundamental change.
    At the PSF, significant numbers of people argued for defeat of the capitalist parties and in favour of a working class government that would expropriate Capital and express the power of the vast majority. Many explicitly demanded that the NDP and the unions fight for socialist policies, defend the people of Gaza and Palestine, and oppose colonial occupation and imperial wars of intervention from Mali to Afghanistan, from Libya to Iraq. They called for heavy taxation of big business and the super-rich, conversion from carbon fuel consumption to green energy use, and the funding of human needs, not private profit.
    Socialist organizations joined anti-war coalitions, pension lobbyists, electoral reformers, Jewish opponents of Zionism, anti-mining groups and many others to argue for such a course of action.

  2. This is definitely a first step. But, there always has to be follow up.
    Truly, the start of any new activist group has to be at the local level., we have too many employers’ dictating what the new agreements will be, will lots of concessions. Keep your eyes on the B.C. Teachers’ dispute.
    I also agree that the Local Labour Councils are fundamentally very important if you are to have an active labour movement in any Province, Country etc..but we can see how Labour is NOT reaching its’ goals just by the reaction that Labour groups get when they participate in Pride Parades or any parade, there is very little applause. The apathy is pathetic., also there is no good looks of organization it all looks so ragtag, and gives the impression that, that is how the Labour movement functions.
    There is a lot of work to do. I just wish I was younger and could get back into letting people know about the days when LABOUR was important and very active. I applaud Jean Claude Parrot, truly a :Labour hero. We need to get back to the days when Unions were relevant, right now they are just an arm of the government, a political party. Keep up the work that you have started and remember to “follow Up.”

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