Shaking up Ottawa’s labour council, Part Two

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.

Rankandfile.ca’s Doug Nesbitt spoke with Joel Harden on March 3 2016. In part two of this interview, Harden talks about the sorts of public events that are needed to build the local labour movement, and how strike support has been and can be organized through the labour council.

Read Part One of this interview.

Rankandfile.ca: There’s a common problem with election campaigns where you put up an opposition candidate or slate with a new platform. You don’t win the election, then the network that is built up around that campaign collapses and nothing happens after. I’m guessing that the campaign there has committed itself to keep going.

Ottawa's airport taxi drivers protesting and blockading Airport Parkway, September 2015.
Ottawa’s airport taxi drivers protesting, September 2015.

Joel Harden: We’re going to do a community forum on Uber and we’re going to do a community forum on sick leave. Those are two issues we kept hearing on the campaign trail and we’re going to invite the labour council to help organize them. We’re not going to wait for them. We’re not going to ask for their permission to do it, but we are going to ask for their support. Their election slate was called “Ottawa Labour United.” If they’re really is an interest in making us more united, then I look forward to working with them. If they don’t, then I think that will speak volumes to people who came up to us in the election saying “We really liked what you guys put forward, we hope you don’t retreat.”

We had a huge, successful all-candidates meeting on January 20 that 95 people turned out for at 5:30pm. We had fought for months to get the ODLC and the Canadian Labour Congress to convene that meeting. And we heard excuse after excuse. Deflection after deflection. Nine unions in the city of Ottawa, including the National Capital Region of the PSAC, a bunch of unions at Carleton, SEIU Local 2, the Ottawa-Carleton elementary teachers, Unifor locals in the city – we decided we’re going to do this and we’re going to invite any candidate running for any position to come and talk to people why they’re doing what we’re doing and those people will have to take questions.

And 95 people turned out. So we’re going to use the same model, but let’s not make it a talking heads thing. Let’s do these things so we can get inspired about why an issue matters, and think about the issue, too. Take Uber: Uber’s fucking complex! The meeting will have to be in part led by our friends in the taxi industry but then there’s action: what are we asking the mayor to do? Are we asking people to boycott Uber? Are we actually going to develop a strategy to support Uber drivers? Are we going to work with people with disabilities community in Ottawa who are systematically ignored by Uber? Are we going to raise any of the issues that people have raised elsewhere about Uber? Uber has walked away from the province of Alberta. They decided to walk away because they don’t want to be beholden to any rules whatsoever, so if the mayor was serious in his rhetoric then he would insist that would actually be some rules handed down.

Ottawa area PSAC workers protesting to defend sick leave provisions.
Ottawa area PSAC workers protesting to defend sick leave provisions.

We also want to support some Fight fo $15 stuff in April that’s coming up. And then we want to have a huge meeting on sick leave that is analogous to the pension campaign which isn’t about “Union members should have their sick leave benefits!” The argument is more about why sick leave is important, why everybody should have sick leave, and how can we fight for better employment standards. How can we get the City of Ottawa to agree that a minimum of two weeks paid sick leave should be a right for every worker in the province of Ontario, union and non-union. I think that would send a message out to the community where they would say “Holy shit, these guys are using their heft, using their resources to actually help get things that are going to benefit everyone.” That’s how we can show everybody what a labour council can do.

RF: How did the all-candidates meeting go?

JH: We were deadly serious in our outreach for the all candidates forum. We were frustrated that the labour council and the Canadian Labour Congress, to be honest, both basically were dragging their heels on the idea. But you remember with the Take Back CLC campaign, we fought for an all-candidates debate in that meeting and we felt like we had a precedent in our pocket. If we could fight for that space at the CLC, we could have it at the local level, too. We got it, and not because somebody gave it to us but we got it because we did it.

And it was hilarious. We put on this thing. I showed up as well as someone else I was supporting. It wasn’t a slate thing but a union colleague of mine at Carleton was running for recording secretary. So we stand up there and we’re told by the moderator, Larry Rousseau, president of the PSAC National Capital Region, that we should have five minutes. At 5:30 we start. No sign of the incumbent or the twelve people on the incumbent slate. But at six o’clock on the dot, when I’m in the middle of my remarks, all twelve of them walk into the room sit up at the front of the room, and collectively chew up most of the rest of the time before the labour council meeting was to start at seven.

You shake your head when you see this sort of stuff, but you realize that there are some good people that are involved in that tactic and they felt like they were under attack. It’s unfortunate they felt like they were under attack because all we were trying to do was say: look, we’re not asking for your permission to do this stuff.

RF: Where does democracy fit with the labour movement? It is not always practiced very well. Sometimes not at all.

JH: Democracy is not an entitlement. It is part of our movement. The unfortunate thing is the labour movement is shitty at democracy. The next time I hear any union in this country complaining about the lack of democracy under the federal Liberals or the provincial Liberals I am going to laugh my ass off, because what we were given in our campaign for labour council was a two page piece of paper. A spreadsheet with the name of the union, a general office phone number, and maybe a general voicemail. And that’s what we had to campaign from. The incumbent, who had been there for thirteen years, had knowledge of all the delegates because people submit papers for their credentials all to the labour council directly, all those personal relationships, and they were resisting an all-candidates debate. And they were resisted a Q&A on the day of the vote, too.

But in the labour movement we talk a lot about the things we deserve from employers and governments, but we do a really shitty job to be honest in actually practicing democracy.

I look around the country and we have a phenomenon of very conservative local leadership, but look at other labour councils and all the great work they do but the same person has been in the presidency for ten, fifteen fucking years. Really? We’ve gotta think about a way to include new voices, new faces, new diversities.

I don’t want readers to think that is just an Ottawa problem. It means people have to share power, and that’s what it’s all about. At what point do we live up to our own rhetoric about leaders we don’t like but we say we’re happy with leaders we do like? It’s completely hypocritical. The issue is, how do we actually hold ourselves accountable. I had so much grief on that issue and, especially amongst older folks, and I would patiently say “term limits are important.” Either we renew the leadership or we don’t.

That’s why that all-candidates meeting was a real watershed moment for a lot of people. We realized we could fight for these things and it didn’t matter if local or pan-Canadian leadership dragged their heels. No, we can do it anyway and people would turn out for it. People wanted it.

RF: What sort of steps would need to be taken to bolster support for workers on strike or lockouts in the Ottawa area? How can they be done differently? What can be done that isn’t being done?

Rideau-Carleton OLG workers lockout BBQ rally, this Wednesday March 16
Rideau-Carleton OLG workers lockout BBQ rally, this Wednesday March 16

JH: The good thing is that Ottawa, and I said this during the campaign, Ottawa has a history of very good strike and lockout support. A lot of people involved in the campaign were veterans of labour council activism in the 1980s and they told me about a strike support committee that existed then that was active. It wasn’t just about a ceremonial BBQ or speeches for an hour and a half, say we’re with you and then go away. It was systematic, weekly support for people on strike or lockout.

In the City of Ottawa, we’ve had three major labour disputes since last April. The armoured car group from Unifor 4266. They were out for seven months. The taxi drivers: they still don’t have an actual resolution to the dispute. They’re still working in a lockout situation and their matter is before the labour board. And you have the racetrack workers. These are protracted disputes where employers are pushing the limits. They’re actually saying to the city’s labour movement, what are you willing to do? What are you prepared to do if we push the needle this far?

In the eighties, friends of mine tell me what would happen is the labour council would be involved in regular strike support, regular flying squads that went to the line, but also regular public events in the community to explain the perspective of the strikers. It wasn’t just on the president of labour council to do this. There was a group of people that would work with the leadership of the ODLC to do it. They got their issues into the press. They mobilized community people to support them. It was systematic. Systematic. It’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s been done.

But we just need a labour council that just doesn’t function around the executive. We need a labour council with strong grassroots committees who have resources, who can get out there, and not do whatever the hell they please. There has to be a relationship to what the elected leadership of labour council also wants. We have to remember, they got elected. But eight executives can’t pretend to be 55,000 people. To be more candid, one person can’t pretend to be 55,000 people. It’s just not going to work. We can’t win with that sort of leadership.

For strikes and lockouts, there are very tangible material things you can do for people that make a big difference. I’ve been on strike. I know what it feels like. Beyond that, there’s the political piece. There’s the organizing piece of what you do in the community to raise the strikers’ perspective so people can understand. You tell the story from the perspective of the workers that aren’t getting told in the media.

The labour council should be doing that, and at the moment, to a great extent, they’re not. We usually get a long report from the president at each meeting about all the great work that’s done and then we’re told to go home.

On a positive note, our Labour Day is big and a lot of people participate in it. It’s open to the community and anybody can come and get free food. The April 28 Day of Mourning ceremony for workers killed on the job is actually a terrific event. Last year, the spouses of people who had died on the job were speakers. It wasn’t predominantly the leaders of unions.

The labour council runs good events but my problem with the labour is that its happy staying there. But we’re not just event organizers. We have to have aspirations to run this city. We’re 42 percent of the workforce. For fuck sake, we should actually calling the shots in this city. Instead, its developers, its people who have access to the mayor. Its Uber’s lobbyists who are just saying “screw you, your laws don’t apply to us.”

It’s a real moment where we can actually decide: what is our level of ambition? Are we happy in this same comfortable space, or are we going to get uncomfortable, take a few risks, and actually demand more of ourselves and the labour council?

What I was really happy about when I made that speech [as candidate for labour council president], when I had all those one-on-one conversations with people, and people in the campaign did the same, we got 44 percent of the existing structure agreeing with that message. That’s fantastic. Did we want to win? Of course we wanted to win but 44 percent of the existing membership, before we get the PSAC in, before we get PIPSC in, before we get the taxi drivers in. We had people come up after saying “I love your message but you have no idea how hard my union was being on me to vote for the incumbent. It was brutal. And I don’t like being told how to vote. I don’t want you guys to go away.”

My message for those people at labour council for Rankandfile.ca readers is we are not going away.

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