Melissa Moroz, a union activist in Unifor local 467, interviewed Aaron Ekman, the northern regional coordinator with the BC Government and Service Employees Union, about his candidacy for Secretary-Treasurer of the British Columbia Federation of Labour. The BCFed’s convention will take place in Vancouver from November 24 to 28.
Melissa Moroz: Why did you decide to run for the position of Secretary-Treasurer of the BCFed?
Aaron Ekman: In a collective movement like ours, decisions like these are never made in isolation. Friends and comrades have been urging me, (admittedly, over beers in dark pubs) to consider this option since the lead up to the 2010 convention, but prospective candidates should always be wary of advice offered by their closest friends in dark pubs.
Timing is the most important consideration. For instance, is labour ready for significant generational change in leadership? Are we ready for the conversations that go along with generational change?
MM: Why did you decide to run with Amber Hockin? Why did you decide to run for Secretary Treasurer and not president?
AE: First, it’s time the president of our provincial labour federation was a woman. I’ve worked with Amber extensively over the years, and she’s an amazing force. I chose to join her team because she’s progressive, she’s blazed trails, and she’s a strong and principled leader who won’t ever back down from a fight. She’s also brilliant at working with people of different viewpoints and achieving consensus, which is why such a broad base of unions have endorsed her bid for leadership. There’s no question in my mind that she’s our best choice for president.
MM: Many workers don’t know and don’t care about what goes on with the BCFed. How are you going to change that?
AE: As I’ve been meeting with workers in all sectors across the province during this campaign, I’ve been in a couple rooms where I quickly realized no one actually knew what the federation was, or what purpose it served. But if I asked folks if they’d ever heard of Jim Sinclair, invariably they had.
To me, that speaks volumes, and we can analyze it two ways. We can say that brother Sinclair has done a great job as an advocate for working people over the 15 years he’s served as president of the Federation, and I do draw that conclusion. Additionally, we could conclude more must be done to engage rank and file union members in the work of the BCFed if they’re to see value in it.
I’ve never been one to blame declining participation rates on the apathy of workers. I believe barriers need to be removed, and additional space created in order for workers to see value in making time to participate.
Polling consistently tells us that a majority of young workers in BC want to be in unions, but aren’t sure where to begin. We have to begin asking ourselves tough questions about leadership going forward. For instance, does the new generation of workers respond well to the singular-individual style of leadership that characterized previous generations, or must we find new ways to strengthen the capacity of workers to speak for themselves?
I think the new generation of workers want the latter. This is a positive. The question then becomes: how must we adapt the work of the BCFed to meet with this new reality? Having an opportunity to pull new voices together to tackle questions like this is really exciting. If I’m successful, I hope to walk back into those same rooms in two-years time. Whether those member know my name or not, is inconsequential. I’ll gauge success by how well they know and feel ownership over the BCFed.
MM: How are you going to create spaces within the BCFed for voices that have been marginalized or silenced? What concrete steps do you propose taking so that the BCFed is more inclusive of the voices of marginalized workers such as women, racialized people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ workers and Aboriginal people?
AE: Firstly, by always striving to recognize and check my own privilege as a straight white male. Secondly, by endeavouring to create space for others who face barriers I’ve never fully experienced, to identify new ways to tear down barriers within our movement.
This is vital, not only to enable marginalized voices within our movement to participate on equal footing, but also to enable marginalized voices outside labour to view organizing a union in their workplace as a mechanism to eliminate barriers, and tackle prejudices that have historically been exploited by bosses to divide workers.
The most unique feature of labour is our potential to be a movement in which marginalized voices have greater agency than anywhere else in society, with an aim to extend that agency to society at large. This requires advancement on multiple simultaneous fronts: organizing to include workers who need unions most, but experience greatest barrier to entry; achieving legislative change which rolls back increasingly restrictive forms of labour control; and the political change, both electoral and otherwise, to make all this happen.
MM: The post-war compromise between capital and labour is over. Capitalists understand this and act accordingly with increasingly harsh attacks on workers, yet labour continues to act moderately and come to the table as if it’s business as usual. How can we as workers and unions turn this around?
AE: Some would say that this was never really a compromise, that capital never intended to hold up its end of the bargain. Regardless, hard-won labour rights have morphed into increasingly restrictive modes of labour control. B.C. tops the list of Canadian provinces with a staggering 39 anti-labour laws passed since 1982 restricting collective bargaining and trade-union rights.
I firmly believe that every worker is an economist by nature. Despite how mystifying right-wing economists attempt to make the discipline appear, you hardly need a PhD to understand something’s wrong with an economy that enables the boss to make more money comparative to everyone else than at any other time in the history of humankind. And this, at a time when the average personal debt ratio of Canadians is 166%, and no one can remember the last time their wages kept pace with prices.
We must overcome our reluctance to discuss alternatives to capitalism, and in so doing, join other progressive forces in Canada to discuss ways we can advance and innovate democracy at a time when corporations are consolidating power at such rapid pace that democratically elected governments are helpless against their interests. We must be active participants in this debate, lest it proceed without us.
MM: Why aren’t people voting for the NDP?
AE: I’d suggest the real question is, why aren’t people voting, period? We know that there’s a correlation between declining voter turnout-rates and the declining success of progress political parties.
OECD data also show that countries with higher union density have higher rates of voter turnout. Union density in British Columbia has declined by the highest rate in Canada since 1982. I strongly recommend workers vote for the NDP, and I reject the flawed concept of “strategic voting” as the latest ploy to trick workers into voting against their own interests. I don’t believe workers need to be told who to vote for. I think the evidence shows clearly that as more workers are empowered to organize their workplaces into unions, voter turnout increases, as does the demand for progressive change. In this respect, a key focus of the BCFed must be to shift the climate in B.C. towards one that empowers workers to organize unions.
However, it’s a mistake to conclude that political action must cease between elections. Access to the ballot box alone, once every four years is a poor definition of democracy.
MM: What does labour militancy mean to you?
AE: It means never forgetting that despite all the innovative tools Unions have in our toolbox, negotiating, grievance administration, campaigns, boycotts, etc. we’ve only ever had one hammer: the strike.
Previous generations of labour leaders categorized themselves into social-unionists vs. business-unionists, (however, I’ve yet to meet anyone who ever self-identified as a business-unionist). Regardless, this paradigm is outdated and meaningless to a new generation of workers who may not see the same value in unions their parents did.
This hardly means the hammer is the right tool for every job, but it’s striking to note, (pun totally intended) that Samuel Gompers, regarded by social-unionists as the most conservative labour leader in memory, had absolutely no respect for court-ordered injunctions, actively encouraging AFL-CIO affiliated unions of the day to ignore them outright.
Social justice campaigns form a key component of the work of the BCFed and the reason I say the old dividing lines between social vs. business unionists are dead is that social unionists won the debate decades ago. Today, only bosses and Conservatives argue that unions must restrict our activities to so-called core functions such as bargaining, and grievance administration. Today, even the Christian Labour Association of Canada engages in its own form of social justice.
Where we’ve gradually erred is in defining militancy by the number of social justice campaigns we’ve initiated, and in so doing, allowed our hammer to gather rust. This has directly affected our leverage at the bargaining table, and increasingly confines us to the legal realm, in which old systems of legislative labour control become more and more restrictive. This approach is not sustainable over the long term for labour.
MM: There are some rank and file activists and community based activists that have had negative experiences with the BCFed. Some would say that the BCFed has at times acted as an obstacle to organizing militant responses to attacks on workers. Do you have any thoughts about this?
AE: I’ve seen on occasion, activists at the BCFed conventions speaking passionately at the mic for militant action, while members of their own union snicker behind them because they haven’t yet done so in their home local.
The labour movement is afflicted with an abundance of democracy, and it cuts both ways. It requires rigorous debate, but also compromise. There’s no shortage of issues that divide affiliates. In a movement that depends on unity for strength, we must rely on democracy at all levels to chart our course.
This means that failure to achieve a militant position at a BCFed convention should not be seen as the final word. It just means there’s more work to be done to achieve the position – and it must come from below. It means having the discussions in the workplace, and encouraging new activists to become stewards, or join their local executives. It means encouraging those members to attend convention, and organizing to ensure they’ve got the support needed to become delegates. It means reaching out beyond your local in between conventions, and building support for the issue. Nothing is lost by workers spending more time talking to each other about the future of our movement. Victory requires hard work.
MM: Talk to me about climate change and the role of the BCFed in fighting for climate justice.
AE: First Nations and environmental groups do a great job of forcing us to consider the future. Labour can reach similar conclusions from our traditional economics based perspective, particularly when we consider the opportunity cost lost in replacing value-added industries with raw-exports. There’s more at stake here for workers than irreversible damage to the environment. Raw export of finite resources is not how the foundation of B.C.’s economy was built, and the shift in this direction explains much of how our economy has suffered since the 1980s.
The good news is that enormous job creation potential exists for communities able to transition towards more sustainable energy and tech related industries. The bad news is, our provincial government has no strategic plan to move us there, and have doubled down on short-term profit for bosses, generating the fewest possible jobs for British Columbians, doing the maximum amount of damage to our environment, while leaving behind an enormous mess for future generations to deal with. If we continue this way, our grandkids quite literally, will not remember us fondly.
What divides some unions on this issue is the belief that a progressive position on climate change prevents unions from representing workers who build pipelines, etc. I fundamentally reject this idea. Just as it’s possible to support working class Canadians in the armed forces while simultaneously opposing where our federal government sends them, it’s possible to oppose misguided, outdated resource export at the same time we defend the rights of workers in those industries, because all workers deserve to be treated fairly, irrespective of the decisions made by the boss.