By Chris Grawey, CUPE 4207 member and Vice-President Niagara Regional Labour Council for Niagara South
I attended my first Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Convention in Toronto last week as a young worker delegate representing the Niagara Regional Labour Council. The convention was an eye-opening experience that revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly of the labour movement and the OFL. On one hand, there were opportunities to collaborate with young workers, experienced trade unionists, and activists from numerous organizations and movements. However, the Convention also exposed the undemocratic and bureaucratic tendencies within the labour movement and the OFL that must be actively challenged.
Prior to the Convention, there was a two day Young Workers’ Assembly which emphasized collaboration with community groups and social movements to empower working class people and marginalized groups. There were inspiring presentations by grassroots activists organizing precarious workers at the Trump Hotel, as well as presentations that focused on fighting for better collective agreements at the Rogers Centre and Metro grocery stores in Toronto.
Leaders from Black Lives Matter, the Canadian Federation of Students, and No One Is Illegal outlined how organized labour can support and work with these movements. In addition, various activists involved in the $15 and Fairness Campaign shared their experiences, tactics, and strategies that have been utilized to move the campaign forward. Overall, this Assembly was a stunning success insofar as young workers were able to build relationships with one another and understand that all of our struggles, inside and outside of the workplace, are interconnected.
Take Back Labour organized a panel discussion on Tuesday evening that included: journalist Desmond Cole who discussed racist policing and carding; London and District Labour Council President Patti Dalton who discussed the successful Save Canada Post door-to-door delivery campaign in London; SEIU organizer Aminah Sheikh who discussed Islamophobia, its prevalence in Canada, and why it needs to be eliminated; and Chris Ramsaroop from Justice for Migrant Workers who discussed the continuing plight and hyper-exploitation of migrant workers and ways to combat employers’ awful practices towards them.
There were also two successful rallies organized with hundreds in attendance from the Convention. First, there was a rally at Queen’s Park to support the $15 and Fairness Campaign. Second, there was a rally at WSIB headquarters to demand justice for injured workers. I also attended a rally organized by SEIU Local 2 that aimed to shed some light on DREAM Office REIT. This corporation has contracted out cleaning services to businesses that have been accused of not paying workers the minimum wage and/or vacation pay, and not retaining cleaners after a contract expired due to the workers attempt to form a union.
Controversy emerged during the first day of the Convention when a delegate attempted to amend the agenda. The intent of the delegate’s amendment was twofold: 1. That the candidates for the three executive officer positions speak to delegates on the convention floor; 2. That the candidates answer questions provided by delegates on the convention floor. There was confusion and an extensive debate pertaining to the intent of the amendment ensued.
Ultimately, candidates were provided five-minute periods to speak to delegates following nominations; however, there was not to be a Q&A period. The absence of a Q&A period for candidates vying for leadership positions within the OFL was extremely troublesome considering the federstion represent 54 unions and over 1 million workers. How can the OFL claim to be a champion of democracy and labour rights when there is not a Q&A period and/or debate among candidates for the most important elected positions in the organization?
From my perspective, the campaign and election process for the three executive officer positions were flawed from the outset. Those in the position of organizing the cvonvention should have allocated an hour in the agenda for a Q&A period. There was clearly plenty of time given that the convention spanned over five days. Furthermore, the element of surprise associated with questions from delegates would also have forced candidates to move away from their rehearsed talking points and script. This would have made the process more legitimate and democratic, and allowed delegates to make a more informed decision.
It was also problematic that the elections were scheduled on the second day of the Convention. This meant that many delegates did not have an opportunity to interact and engage with the candidates as many caucuses were scheduled simultaneously. Elections on the second day also dissuaded others from putting their names forward from the floor, as 24 hours was not sufficient time to run a proper campaign.
The way the convention was set up ultimately benefitted the FedForward slate that was put together by sections of the trade union establishment. It was to the slate’s advantage that the process be tightly controlled from the top to discourage dissent and dissuade others from running for the three executive positions.
Elements from the trade union establishment also attempted to whip their caucuses to support the FedForward slate. This strategy is inherently undemocratic and needs to be removed from the labour movement to ensure fair elections.
When the voting finally took place, it was long and drawn-out, lasting over an hour for one round of voting for just one position. Had there been numerous elections or another round of voting, the process could have lasted a number of hours. To solve this problem, electronic voting should be utilized in order to make the process less time-consuming and tedious.
In the end, the FedForward slate was successful in all three contests, meaning that Chris Buckley from Unifor was now President-elect, Ahmad Gaied from UFCW was now the Executive Vice-President-elect, and Patty Coates from OSSTF was now the Secretary-Treasurer-elect. The only contested election was for the position of Executive Vice-President.
Another issue of contention during the Convention was the composite constitutional amendment which proposed the creation of a new Executive Committee. The composite constitutional amendment was supported by the trade unions (OSSTF, Unifor, and UFCW) that ran candidates in the slate, along with some of the other unions that supported the slate (ETFO, IAMAW, OECTA, and USW).
This Committee is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons: 1. The Executive Committee is undemocratic, as the representatives are not elected at the Convention. This means that the Action
Plan approved by delegates could be cast aside without consequence by the unelected Executive Committee; 2. The already convoluted decision-making structure would become more cumbersome with another layer of bureaucracy; 3. The Executive Board already possesses the powers it needs; 4. The voices of women, young workers, workers of colour, Aboriginal workers, LGBTQ workers, workers with disabilities, and labour councils would be reduced.
This is hypocritical, as throughout the Convention the issue of inclusivity and equity was discussed frequently, yet the same people and unions demanding inclusivity and equity sought to reduce the number of equity-seeking members on the proposed Executive Committee. It would be great if these union leaders would practice what they preach.
Like the elections, many delegates were whipped to vote in favour of the constitutional amendment. One significant difference is that you cast a vote in the elections by secret ballot, while for resolutions and constitutional amendments you indicate your support by raising your hand or by standing (if required). Therefore, with resolutions and constitutional amendments, union leaders are aware of those who are not supporting their demands. I became aware of delegates who were forced by their union leaders to vote in favour of the constitutional amendment or face reprisals (sounds like something a boss would do). As already stated, this was profoundly undemocratic.
It was quite hypocritical that some union leaders were curtailing their delegates’ most basic rights at the Convention, considering we had just heard a moving presentation from Omar Khadr’s lawyer where he emphasized the importance of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Ironically, some of the same union leaders that were forcing delegates to vote a certain way gave Khadr’s lawyer a standing ovation.
Moreover, the labour movement just fought the Conservatives in an election where it was denouncing Harper for criminalizing dissent and muzzling public sector workers, especially scientists. Meanwhile, at the OFL Convention, some union leaders were attempting to silence dissent within their own caucuses.
Eventually, the amendment passed by a two vote margin. In most circumstances, a vote differential of two for an amendment with far-reaching implications would have led to a recount. Nonetheless, it was clear that sections within the trade union establishment were opposed to any recount that could jeopardize the initial result.
There are no provisions in the OFL Constitution for a secret ballot vote during resolutions and constitutional amendments. Had there been a secret ballot vote, the amendment would definitely have failed. The results from this vote were clearly tainted and left a foul taste in my mouth. An option for secret ballot votes during resolutions and constitutional amendments should exist at future conventions to ensure that delegates can freely exercise their voices.
On another note, it is widely known that the OFL has been confronted with financial difficulties in recent years due to several unions going on a dues strike and withdrawing from the federation. Despite this being a pressing issue, the Secretary-Treasurer did not provide a report on the financial status of the OFL to delegates, nor was there a debate about the budget or any other financial matters. While there was a report included in our package, accountability and transparency can only exist if a report and budget are presented to delegates on the convention floor. In two years, the newly elected Secretary-Treasurer must provide a presentation to the convention floor on the financial status of the OFL, a budget should be presented and debated, and delegates must have the opportunity to ask pertinent questions.
Now that the convention is over, the newly elected FedForward team must continue to expand the activism that began under the leadership of Sid Ryan, while at the same time, the new executive officers must unite the divided Ontario labour movement that has been confronted with seemingly endless austerity. Most importantly, the new leadership should also ensure that democracy is enhanced at the next convention by guaranteeing a candidates Q&A period in the agenda, permitting electronic voting, and by bringing the OFL’s finances before delegates for a healthy and constructive debate.
The convention was great in many ways as I was able to collaborate with other young workers and trade unionists, as well as individuals involved in numerous movements, organizations, and campaigns. Building coalitions with these groups is integral in the fight for authentic political and economic change.
However, some of the aforementioned problems at the convention such as the democratic deficit must be challenged over the next two years. In order to fight the undemocratic and bureaucratic tendencies within the OFL, rank-and-file trade unionists must organize ongoing meetings, events, etc. to develop short and long term strategies to better prepare for the next convention. This should also include regular collaboration and communication with labour councils and social movements so that the work is not limited to preparation for convention.
In addition, pressure from below must be constant and leaders must be pushed to the left to prevent the OFL from becoming a glorified lobby group. On issues of great importance such as the privatization of Hydro One and the TPP deal, nothing short of calls for militant direct action from the leadership is acceptable. The rank-and-file must force the leadership to put their fiery words into action.