Shaking up Ottawa’s labour council, Part One

On February 18, the Ottawa & District Labour Council held its biannual election. Sean McKenny was re-elected as president for a seventh consecutive term but a strong challenge was mounted by a campaign group that put forward Joel Harden for president. Harden, chief steward for CUPE Local 4600, received 44 percent of the vote.’s Doug Nesbitt spoke with Joel Harden on March 3 2016. Pulling no punches in this two-part interview, Harden talks about the changing nature of work in Ottawa, the potential power of federal public service workers, the ODLC’s current problems, and the types of organizing that can make the ODLC relevant and effective in building workers struggles.

Part two of the interview will be published next week. Ottawa has a long and impressive working-class history. Early on, you have the Rideau Canal workers, the timber industry, and militant traditions among Irish Catholic, French Canadian, and Protestant workers. But now the city is seen as full of federal public sector workers. What does the working class in Ottawa look like now?

Federal service worker protest at the Prime Minister's Office in early 2015. Source: @GarthMullins
Federal service worker protest at the Prime Minister’s Office in early 2015. Source: @GarthMullins

Joel Harden: There’s no question people working in public services are dominant in this town. The numbers that I’m familiar with from the Public Service Alliance of Canada is that better than half of their members live and work in Ottawa or Gatineau. Seventy thousand people. And then you add on top of that people who are higher up the ranks with respect to salary and job classifications with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), and then people who are members of CAPE. You add those numbers together, you’re approaching 90,000 people working for the federal government in the city of Ottawa alone. And then you add on top of that people working for the government of Ontario, and people working for the city, and you’re well over 105,000. It’s a big chunk when you think about a million people living here.

But what’s also true in Ottawa – and flies under the radar – is the growth of precarious work, the growth of diversity in our workplaces. I grew up an hour’s drive east of here towards Montreal and the Ottawa I remember visiting was very white…there was that kind of culture of a single income being able to float an entire family, most often a male-identified income. I’m talking about the late 70s, early 80s. That era is over.

The growth of really precarious, low-wage jobs in this city is everywhere, and it’s even stretched inside the public service. There are lots of people who used to be working in permanent jobs in public service who now work as consultants or work on short contracts. I know a sociologist who referred to this as the “McDonaldization of work.” It’s not just happening in sectors like the taxi industry, or cleaning. It’s happening at my workplace at Carleton [University] where people I represent who are contract instructors are now teaching a third of all courses on campus even though we have close to zero certain job security, and we get paid 1/8 of what a tenured person makes.

RF: The current unionization struggle of Ottawa janitors is based around jobs that were contracted out in the 80s. Those were permanent, unionized jobs in federal buildings.

JH: Absolutely. But what makes Ottawa unique, and this is what we were trying to say in our campaign at the Ottawa & District Labour Council (ODLC); we still have a huge base of people in permanent, full-time jobs that are unionized in this city. And that’s why the unionization rate sits at 42 percent for the City of Ottawa. That’s one of the highest union density rates in the country.

What we were trying to say in our campaign is that attack on decent work – the McDonaldization of work – is happening here just like it is happening everywhere else. But In Ottawa we have the legacy of a big chunk of workers who are still part of decent jobs, who are still members of the union. What that gives us is resources – if we’re ambitious and if we’re smart – to really tackle this problem in a way that other cities can’t, whether Toronto, or Halifax-Dartmouth or even Vancouver.

RF: Ottawa’s now a city where a quarter of the population is visible minorities, and you’ve got significant immigrant populations from all around the world. These populations are often stuck doing the shit jobs. How did the ODLC election campaign tackle the issues of a large, racialized working poor, and with many of these low-wage jobs being done by women?

"a scrappy union": Ottawa SEIU Local 2 members and their families
“a scrappy union”: some of SEIU Local 2 Ottawa members and their families

JH: SEIU Local 2 was one of the endorsers of our campaign. I’ll never forget the first time we convinced the local to greenlight the idea of the cleaners union, SEIU Local 2, getting involved in the labour council. What was really concerning was the fact that the first experience that SEIU Local 2 delegates had was waiting by the elevator to go to the fifth floor at ODLC building. There’s sergeant-in-arms right there. You have to write your name into a book, and you have to be on their accredited list. If you’re not on the list, there’s no such thing as guests. You have to be approved by the president in order to come in as a guest. Their first experience [SEIU Local 2 delegates] was standing at the elevator for thirty minutes while the labour council started the meeting, read out an equality statement, and talked about all the wonderful rhetoric that often begins labour council meetings. That was their first experience of the Ottawa and District Labour Council. It’s abhorrent.

I know the incumbent will say, “We didn’t agree with this aspect of their paperwork…” Give me a break. The reality is, here is a union with fire in their belly that is actually out there in our city organizing some of the most precarious workers and they express an interest to get involved in labour council and you hold them at the door because you think their paperwork isn’t right? To me it just spoke volumes into who has been going to those labour council meetings and who has been kept out.

The other big group is the taxi drivers. Years ago, given political differences with the incumbent, the current president of the labour council Sean McKenny, they decided to leave the labour council. They have since changed their minds about that decision and wanted to get involved and the labour council says “Well, they left but they never sent in a letter so they were still owing us dues in the months.” Apparently, according to the labour council, its 10,000 or 11,000 dollars in back dues and they won’t let them back in until its paid in full. Paid in full!

Airport taxi drivers march on the Ottawa Airport Parkway, September 16, 2015.
Airport taxi drivers march on the Ottawa Airport Parkway, September 16, 2015.

I moved a motion at a [labour council] meeting in June where I said, “Look, we have our friends in the taxi industry who are seeing a major fight. We are anticipating the lockout that happened in the city.” They wanted to be in the labour council to enjoy the close proximity to other activists and the support. I asked at labour council for the taxi drivers to be present at the meeting to speak to it. That request was denied, and the room voted against it [the motion].

The incumbent had persuaded people that these workers just needed to – I think his precise words were “pay their bill.” They needed to pay their bill if they wanted to be back in the labour council, and people couldn’t pick and choose when to leave and when to obey the rules and when not to obey the rules, and arguments like that had some traction with a majority of people in the room. That was really disappointing.

It hits close to home for me because I come from a family that has Arab members in it. My family is part of the Christian Lebanese community. It’s a big community in the city. A lot of these drivers are from Arab families that have been in Canada for generations or more recently. I would hear from them as this whole [airport taxi drivers] struggle was going on, and I would update them on the success of us trying to get them into the ODLC, [and] the lack of any visible presence of the labour council on their picket lines. They would say: “Would it be different if we were white?” I heard that all the time.

I don’t think it helps us to suggest the labour council is racist. I don’t think the labour council is racist. But I do think the labour council is a little too comfortable. A little too comfortable, and a little too self-congratulatory. There’s a lot of back-patting, and “aren’t we great” and it’s a lot of same faces.

One driver put it bluntly to me when I was talking to him. He actually was one of the few who was allowed to be a guest at one meeting to talk about their lockout. And he looked out into the room and said,  “Joel, I felt like I was in a snow storm.”

He told me something other people had told me: “I don’t want to be part of it because its not my Ottawa.” I looked at him and I said “I understand why you would feel that way, but remember, that institution was built by our grandmothers and grandfathers.” It doesn’t belong to anybody.

It’s not going to be any different if people who want and expect more from it cross their arms and sit on the sidelines. You actually have to get in there and fight for the space.

I was happy and proud to see the cleaners do exactly that. If the leadership thought standing them at the door was going to mean they wouldn’t come again, boy, they had another thing coming because that’s a scrappy union.

I think the Ottawa that I remember as a child is a thing of the past. The Ottawa of 2016 is a more diverse and unfortunately, a more precarious place.

RF: Where does the ODLC stand right now in terms of affiliated membership? How big would it be if it doubled its numbers?

JH: Right now the labour council claims 55,000 workers are affiliated [through 94 separate unions]. There are only two PSAC unions that are members of the labour council. Were they [PSAC] to join en masse it would double the size of the labour council. And I’m not talking about PIPSC yet either who are affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress.

It’s as if there are two labour centrals in the city. There’s the labour council and then there’s the Ottawa Area Council of the PSAC.

They combine a little bit. The racetrack [Rideau-Carleton Ontario Lottery & Gaming] workers struggle has had some collaboration. An ODLC note went out recently talking about there being another solidarity BBQ at the racetrack. They held one on the 21st of December, and leader after leader showed up and said “We’re with you! We’re with you!” and I can count on one hand the amount of those people I’ve seen on the picket lines since.

There was a presence on New Year’s, which was great, because the union called for it, but there’s really been on city-wide strategy to support these workers.

RF: I’ve heard this a few times from Ottawa area labour activists, that there is a negative effect of the presence of the national union headquarters on the local organizing of the labour movement. Do you see that happening?

JH: I actually don’t see that as much. I think a lot of the problem is the left in this town. I say the left with warmth and with pride because I’m part of the left.

Solidarity Against Austerity has spearheaded May Day marches in Ottawa since 2012.
Solidarity Against Austerity has spearheaded May Day marches in Ottawa since 2012.

The left in this town builds really important things like May Day, and there’s fantastic solidarity work that goes on. The left in this town has built a space that the labour council ought to fill, that it does fill in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, London Ontario, Halifax-Dartmouth. If you look at the work of [local Ottawa group] Solidarity Against Austerity, it’s terrific work, and some of those people have been part of the ODLC campaign.

But I actually think to some extent the left really needs to think about priorities in the city…there’s a real focus on what I would call in-group, silo-based left-wing organizing where it’s the same people. It’s analogous to the problem at the labour council. It’s the same people doing work which is often visionary but in my opinion, not ambitious enough.

I am confident that if we run another campaign to transform the labour council in 2018, that campaign will be successful. I’m confident we’ll be successful because in this effort, where we had a real grassroots, modest network of people behind it, we earned 44 percent of the vote. But what would happen if a lot of the activists who are engaged in projects outside the labour council tried to take the energy of that work – not leave that work behind – but take the energy of that work and fight for space at the labour council?

I think what’s happened is the labour council, and the way it’s organized, has alienated so many people that a lot of those people do what that taxi driver told me: they pick up their ball and go home. Unfortunately, that plays right into the hands of the ODLC leadership. That means that they can control who participates. I have never seen one labour council meeting where they announce participation in a committee, a political action committee, where membership has been opened up and they’ve asked people to get involved. It doesn’t happen. It’s an organization run by the executive.

What the taxi drivers’ struggle has done for me, working with the cleaners, working with contract instructors at Carleton, it takes you outside your comfort zone. You have to defend the legitimacy of your ideas in front of people who will challenge you, and I’ve learned so much in the course of doing that, and it’s made me a better activist. It really inspired my contribution to the campaign because I stepped outside my left-wing silo and I looked around and realized that even in the labour council as it is currently constituted, even the ODLC leadership, there’s a lot of decent, decent people. And even the president, at the moment, he does some stuff well and often has his heart in the “right place.”

But the issue for me is not so much do we get involved in the labour council or not, it’s why do we limit ourselves, and retreat to these safe spaces instead of realizing that part of the challenge of history is to actually rise above that and say it’s actually time to think big, raise our expectations, ask for more.

That was part of the great thing about the campaign. After the result, a lot of people came up to me, including people part of the incumbent slate, or part of the incumbent support base saying “You know, a lot of what you guys said made sense to me, just so you know, and I’m glad you guys put your names forward. There’s a reason why you got 44 percent and not 15 percent. What you said inspired me and I hope you guys don’t leave.”

If there’s one message I want to leave, it’s that we’re not going away.


Stay tuned for part two of this interview to be published next week
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One thought on “Shaking up Ottawa’s labour council, Part One

  1. This is exactly the kind of open and ambitious mindframe the labour movement needs to adapt to the ever changing issues we face. Many of our organizations get too comfortable in using familiar formulas to address unfamiliar issues.

    In the instance of the back dues being needed because a letter wasnt sent by the taxi drivers….I understand that bylaws need to be followed and due process is integral to our functions, but we need to always be reflecting on what our objectives really are when we look at this. Anything is possible if there is a will for it!

    If we can put those who are actively struggling in touch with eachother, maybe sometimes we need to forget about the money. Let’s just make sure we’re standing together.

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