By Hassan Husseini
At a time when the right is escalating its attacks on workers’ rights across the country, labour leaders seem to be a lot more interested in parochial turf wars than the deteriorating conditions of the working class.
There is no place where this turf war is more pronounced than at the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), Canada’s largest labour federation. Let’s be clear, this war is not over financial misconduct or bad management at the OFL but about politicking and the drive to protect the status quo within our movement.
Withholding membership dues
The latest conflict emerged a few weeks back when on October 7 the United Steelworkers (USW) announced that it was withholding membership dues from the OFL, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Machinists (IAM) revealed their plans to do the same. These plans were promptly leaked to the Toronto Sun newspaper, which, as per their mandate, used the story to advance its explicitly anti-union agenda.
Such drastic measures by the USW and the threats to do the same by IAM and UFCW were allegedly made because they are worried about the state of the OFL’s finances under the leadership of Sid Ryan. So, the leaders of these unions are starving the OFL of much needed resources in order to make it financially accountable?
“At a time when workers in Ontario need a united, courageous labour movement, it is unfortunate that conflict has re-emerged.”
These tactics are part of a long standing campaign by a small group of labour leaders who opposed the activist left-leaning leadership of Sid Ryan from the beginning, and who were quite content with an invisible, inactive and marginal OFL for years. I can acknowledge that no leader is perfect and there may certainly be legitimate criticisms of Sid Ryan’s leadership. I would wager, however, that the actions of this group of leaders has more to do with maintaining the status quo and their power than it does the state of finances of the OFL.
The campaign to undermine and attack the OFL began as soon as Sid Ryan was elected in the fall of 2009. OPSEU, SEIU and Ontario Nurses were the first to withdraw from the OFL long before they could claim that finances were an issue. The situation stabilized and the OFL actually expanded with more affiliations during Sid’s term. The OFL has been more visible than ever before and has engaged in successful political actions including the #stophudak campaign of last year.
At a time when workers in Ontario need a united, courageous labour movement, it is unfortunate that conflict has re-emerged. So, why withdraw now?
There are 3 main reasons:
- Structural: the OFL, as with all labour federations and the CLC for that matter, rely on affiliates who carry the “freight” so to speak: those who pay for these organizations to be able to operate. As no affiliate wants to see central labour bodies become more prominent or powerful than their own, the preference for many labour leaders is for non-active federations.
- Political: The OFL leadership correctly identified defeating Tim Hudak and his Conservative Party as the main task during the 2014 Ontario elections. In the lead up to the Ontario elections, the OFL successfully organized a campaign that engaged members across the province and mobilized them with this goal in mind. The fact that Sid Ryan and the OFL did not blindly endorse Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP was taken as a slight to those affiliates who unquestioningly follow the ONDP. This despite the fact that the ONDP’s election campaign platform was shifting to the right. While the OFL did not provide a blanket support for the ONDP, it is a fact that no OFL resources where given to the Liberal election machine….and rightly so!
- Personal: The defeat of Ken Georgetti as President of the CLC has created a rift amongst affiliates, and the OFL leadership is being penalized for their support of Hassan Yussuff who won the presidency of the CLC. Yussuff’s move toward a progressive program and a promise of building a militant, active labour movement is a threat to many labour leaders whose interests are self-serving.
It is abundantly clear that certain labour leaders in Ontario are incapable of defeating Sid Ryan democratically on the Convention Floor. They have shamefully opted to employ the same strategy that the right wing would like to impose on trade unions in Canada and are trying to force him out by starving the OFL of its much needed resources.
“…challenges that I am becoming more convinced can only be resolved through a bottom up, rank and file revolt to turn our house of labour into a labour movement, something we urgently need…”
If anything, such actions speak volumes about the democratic deficit we have in our movement. It also exposes the deep seated political, ideological and structural challenges we face: challenges that I am becoming more convinced can only be resolved through a bottom up, rank and file revolt to turn our house of labour into a labour movement, something we urgently need to do if we ever hope to present an alternative to the neoliberal agenda of Harper and company.
Hassan Husseini is a negotiator with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a member of Unifor. He recently ran for president of the Canadian Labour Congress.