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.
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.
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.