Good Jobs or Bad Strategy?

A Report Back from the Good Jobs Summit in Toronto 

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addressing the Good Jobs Summit
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addressing the Good Jobs Summit

By Alex Hunsberger

From Oct. 3 to 5, approximately 1000 participants gathered at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto to engage in a discussion about what is happening in the job market – what are good jobs, why are they disappearing, and how can labour and its allies turn the tide?

The summit, organized by Unifor, included a large number of Unifor members from locals across the country as well as other labour and social movement allies. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a co-sponsor, also had a large and vibrant contingent of participants and speakers.

Discussions revealed a clear message from participants: the labour movement needs to fight back with renewed vigour

Throughout the weekend, rank-and-file participants were both sober about the challenges facing unionized and non-unionized workers alike and optimistic about the possibilities for resistance. Discussions around topics like the fight to raise the minimum wage and the challenges facing young workers revealed a clear message from participants: the labour movement needs to fight back with renewed vigour.

Corporatism: Labour-Business Cooperation
While attempting at times to capture both the frustration and hope of ordinary members present, Unifor’s leadership had a clear and obvious strategic agenda of trying to convince participants that the path forward for workers lies in cooperating with employers through corporatist arrangements and electorally supporting “strategic” voting for the Liberal party in ridings not held by the NDP at the federal and provincial levels.

The moment participants stepped through the door on Friday night, remarks abounded about who had displays set up and who did not. The CFS and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, both co-sponsors of the event, unsurprisingly had tables. More remarkable were the large booths from Bell Canada, CN and the New Brunswick-based conglomerate J.D. Irving. Notably absent were Canada’s other major public and private sector unions. There were no tables from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the United Steelworkers (USW), the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the United Food and Commerical Workers (UFCW), or any of their affiliates. The Ontario NDP had a small table featuring two young staffers, who were quickly overshadowed by the entrance of a much more famous politico, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

The Big Names
Trudeau wandered around the hall surrounded by the expected throng of cameras and onlookers before being seated in the front of the room next to Unifor President Jerry Dias. Though Trudeau did not speak from the front of the room, he presented a short speech from the floor under the pretense of asking a question following a panel discussion by several economic commentators.

Dias, for his part, began his introductory remarks on Friday with a rhetorical turn to the left, earning hearty applause from the audience with a restatement of the labour theory of value: without the labour of workers, companies would make not a dime in profit.

The goal of the weekend, asserted Dias, was to reach across the table and invite business leaders and politicians to work with labour to create a good jobs strategy.

He quickly shifted, however, to defending the profits of these same companies, arguing that labour needs to work with business and government to further the interests they all share in common. The goal of the weekend, asserted Dias, was to reach across the table and invite business leaders and politicians to work with labour to create a good jobs strategy.

The key theme of corporatism continued on Saturday, beginning with a panel discussion that included General Electric Canada CEO Elyse Allan – purportedly to offer the “business” perspective to counter the “student/young worker” and “labour” perspectives that were also present. The panel was followed by a speech from Van Jones, a former advisor to the Obama administration. While acknowledging that capitalism in its current form is creating problems for workers, Jones stressed that we should not begrudge all rich people, just those who cheat. After all, Jones argued, Beyoncé is part of the 1%.

Wynne emphasized her own corporatist vision, arguing that “adversarial” labour relations must end in favour of “cooperation” among all parties.

After lunch, participants heard a keynote speech from Ontario Premier and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne. In his introduction to Wynne, Dias praised her “progressive” budget and willingness to work with labour. Wynne emphasized her own corporatist vision, arguing that “adversarial” labour relations must end in favour of “cooperation” among all parties.

Senior members of the NDP were present at various points throughout the weekend, including Toronto Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns and federal Deputy Leader Libby Davies. The crowd seemed much more receptive to Davies, as she garnered enthusiastic applause when she went to the microphone to ask a question following Trudeau. Unifor’s leadership did not give the NDP the full official welcome that they gave to the Liberals. The complete lack of applause when Dias announced Friday that Wynne would be arriving the next day was a sign of the strategic divide between the front of the room and the audience.

The most useful and engaging part of the weekend occurred not in the plenary sessions but during the small group discussions, where participants had a chance to talk to one another in more depth

Small discussions, big ideas
The most useful and engaging part of the weekend occurred not in the plenary sessions but during the small group discussions on Saturday, where participants had a chance to talk to one another in more depth about questions related to labour’s strategy to improve conditions for workers. It is here that unease with Unifor’s corporatist strategy was most thoroughly expressed. Participants asked questions such as: Why bribe companies with tax cuts to create jobs when the public sector can directly employ people in unionized positions and improve social services at the same time? Why rely on begging employers to adopt living wage policies when we can push for a higher legislated minimum wage? How is telling workers about available jobs and how to apply for them going to improve their lives if we do not also have a strategy to create good jobs to apply for in the first place? Is this jobs crisis really a product of a skills shortage?

There is a clear consensus across organized labour about the problems facing workers – high unemployment, falling earnings, job precariousness, worsening public services – but clear strategic divides about how to proceed to tackle these problems. With a federal election approaching next year, different sections of labour and the left are beginning to indicate where they are headed during this crucial moment. The question is not whether we want Harper gone. Rather it is what kinds of actions can start to lead us towards a genuine alternative that gets rid of not only the Conservatives but also the disastrous social, economic, and environmental agenda they have sustained.

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