by Doug Nesbitt
An angry, boisterous crowd of hundreds marched through Brockville, descending upon the downtown constituency office of Bob Runciman, Ontario’s Solicitor General and MPP for Leeds-Grenville. The protesters, most of them OPSEU members on strike against the Harris government, wanted words with Runciman but found his office doors locked. Between speeches and chants, OPSEU members mockingly re-created the grim events of a few days earlier when the Ontario Provincial Police riot squad attacked and beat OPSEU pickets at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
Twenty years have passed since the march on Runciman’s office during the bitter five-week province-wide OPSEU strike of 1996. Three dozen union activists are packed into an OPSEU office in downtown Brockville, a small town on Lake Ontario about an hour drive south of Ottawa.
A few supporters are also there from the neighbouring Kingston and District Labour Council as well as a representative from the Canadian Labour Congress.
The union activists are launching the Leeds-Grenville Labour Council. For about six years, the region has been without a functioning labour council.
“All our factories – they’re all gone”
One of the people in the room widely credited with pulling together the new labour council is Alex Lane. Lane is 25, a part-time casual nursing home worker, and OPSEU activist. He is the youngest person in the room. The average age is about 40.
The need for a new labour council is driven by the region’s deindustrialization and growth of low-wage work. Brockville and the surrounding area has changed a lot since 1996. Lane explains: “All our factories – if you look on California Avenue – they’re all gone.”
Shorewood Packaging, Philips Cables, Proctor & Gamble, 3M and the DuPont plant in Maitland are only a few of the area’s major industrial employers that have witnessed large layoffs or closure. Shorewood once employed nearly 400 people in 2007 and was shuttered two years later. In one blow, 60 percent of the unionized DuPont workforce was slashed in 2009. The job losses have extended into the public sector. The Brockville Psychiatric Hospital once employed over a thousand people during the 1996 OPSEU strike. Today, only about 200 work there now. Brockville General Hospital has also faced dozens of job cuts in recent years under the province’s four-year hospital funding freeze. The job losses are huge. Leeds-Grenville only has 67,000 residents, a third of them living in Brockville.
The economic future isn’t bright. Lane says you either get out of town after high school or you are “sentenced to poverty.” Just a stone’s throw from the OPSEU office, the storefronts for Manpower, Adecco, and Drake are all found on a single downtown block of the main drag, King Street. Some new businesses setting up in town are even hiring exclusively through these temp agencies.
Back in the OPSEU office, whispered conversations and an occasional joke break up the dry, technical work of vetting the proposed bylaws. There is impressive union representation in the room. Eleven different unions are present, including eighteen locals. CUPE and OPSEU locals are out in force. SEIU Healthcare members are wearing their purple tshirts. Bell and DuPont workers with Unifor are on hand. Grocery store workers with UFCW Local 1000A sit beside members of the Ontario Nurses Association, and two teachers unions. Eric Davis, an OPSEU staff member and former liquor store worker sends regrets from the LCBO workers’ union: tonight is stock night and everyone is busy.
Bringing different unions together and developing a common labour voice is exactly what’s needed in Leeds-Grenville, explains Lane. Ian Stables, a grocery store night crew worker, agrees. He would have preferred to have had a labour council the previous summer when UFCW Local 1000A edged towards a strike against Loblaws.
Taking on employers isn’t the only challenge facing labour in the area. Leeds-Grenville is a Tory heartland. Lane spells it out:
“Provincially it’s been Tory Blue for nearly a hundred years. Everything is structured around that. When I look at municipal councils and chambers of commerce, sixty percent of those people have donated to the Progressive Conservative Party, sat on the riding association, or were involved with the Conservative Party federally. They run it,” explains Lane. “They run the show.”
Lane adds that the Tories in the region are big on regressive labour changes.
“Every year the local mayors in Leeds-Grenville come out with talking points drafted up by their respective chamber of commerce. Labour council, for me, is the tool that can really change this paradigm.” He singles out their advocacy of changing interest arbitration by a third-party to favour employers. Labour needs to “start challenging the fact that we have mayors that say interest arbitration needs to be changed to benefit employers so they can always say we’re broke, we’re broke, we’re broke.”
The necessity of organizing unions is another reason why the efforts to build the labour council are succeeding.
“If we know of a workplace that needs help,” says Lane, “whoever the union is that represents that field of work, help them out, organize those people.”
“We have a generation gap where we have a lot of activists who have been involved for a long time that have tons of knowledge and we’re not passing that off to young people. And young people are the best organizers. Any time I try to get a young person involved, I don’t get them involved in the steward or grievance stuff because that’s boring as fuck. If you wanna get someone addicted to this, you get them doing organizing.”
With deindustrialization, Brockville has become a senior’s destination, with retirement and nursing homes and a demand for a range of healthcare services. Andy Elliott is one of those doing the work. He’s a personal support worker and one of the people involved in forging the new labour council. He’s also a local chief steward and SEIU member.
In the labour council’s local reports, Elliott announces the recent organizing of 23 workers at a local CarePartners office. CarePartners is one of the for-profit corporations contracted by the Ontario government to deliver long-term care.
Elliott later explains to me that he had been trying to organize these co-workers for about six years. Despite the erratic and hectic schedule of personal support workers, he and other union members kept up the conversations with these non-union workers, often on their smoke breaks when they had a chance to connect, and always running the risk of getting chased off by management. “They finally had enough of mismanagement and abuse,” he explains.
Dave Lundy, an OPSEU organizer, gets up to announce developments in the organizing drive of part-time college support workers at the Brockville campus of St. Lawrence College. The effort is part of a province-wide drive aimed at unionizing upwards of 20,000 workers. This is OPSEU’s second attempt at organizing this workforce. The first drive in 2008 was derailed by the Ontario Liberals who conspired with college administrators to successfully prevent the counting of ballots through a series of expensive legal maneouvres.
In this second drive, Lundy tells us that OPSEU signed up enough cards to win a certification vote, but college administrators then submitted a new list of employees to the Ontario Labour Relations Board which has six thousand more employees than the lists they had prior to the union drive. The Ontario Liberals are once again giving their Tory opposition a run for their money in anti-unionism.
Mourn for the dead, fight for the living
The meeting is winding up. Bylaws are ready to be signed off on by the Canadian Labour Congress. People are happy with plans to allow retirees to affiliated, an accommodation inspired by the Sudbury and District Labour Council. The hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in Manitoba is observed. The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Fight for $15 promotion is announced and a few people get out of their seats to grab the leaflets off the literature table.
After confirming that labour council elections will take place April 26, the meeting is adjourned. The work has already begun in this Tory heartland. The Leeds and Grenville Labour Council is already planning its April 28 Day of Mourning ceremony in downtown Brockville. Together with thousands of workers across the country, the new labour council will mark this important day and launch itself into action.
The Leeds-Grenville Labour Council is meeting Tuesday April 26 at 7pm at the OPSEU office in Brockville, 133 King Street West Unit 2.