When Trudeau shows up at the workers’ convention

By Wael Afifi, Unifor Local 2025 Vice-President, Human Rights and Senior Analyst at the Public Service Alliance of Canada

With more than 310,000 members, Unifor isn’t just Canada’s largest private sector union, but it is also one of 15 bargaining agents that represent federal employees in their negotiations with the Treasury Board. Air traffic controllers, radio operators and workers in non-supervisory printing services are trudeau at uniforproud members of Unifor and are also part and parcel of the federal public service.

Thus it was surprising – at least for those of us with close ties to federal workers – to see that Justin Trudeau, the big boss of the Federal Public Service, was scheduled to appear as a keynote speaker at the second Unifor Convention held August 22-26 in Ottawa.

It is true that we sit across our bosses when we negotiate our working conditions. We may invite them to a particular forum to address a specific topic, or to hear directly from workers about an emerging or immediate concern.

It is also true that our conventions have traditionally been a “safe space” where trade unionists see one another, conduct important union business, dream big, and plan concrete actions for better work places and safer, more prosperous communities at large.

The above begs the question: is there a place for the government’s CEO at our convention?

In his opening remarks to convention delegates, Unifor President Jerry Dias spoke about the challenges that the labour movement faced under Harper’s Conservatives and their anti-worker legislation, adding that, “Welcoming Trudeau is the best way to say goodbye to Harper.”

While recognizing that Harper and his crew waged a war on working families, minorities, this country’s Indigenous population and certainly on organized labour, I, for one, can’t grasp the notion that inviting the new, supposedly friendlier boss is the best way to wave adieu to the old nasty and mean boss!

Dias also cautioned delegates against Conservative Party leadership contenders such as Tony Clement who, in his tenure as president of the Treasury Board, demanded harsh concessions from federal employees. And on the topic of bargaining, Dias took a few minutes to highlight Unifor’s bargaining successes in over 1,000 bargaining rounds over the last three years, noting that members’ ratification votes are a clear indication of their trust in their union.

Dias is absolutely right on both counts – in warning all of us that we shouldn’t expect that future Conservatives will fall far from the Harper tree, and emphasizing bargaining as an effective tool to engage in our unions and make gains at our work places.

However, piecing together these opening remarks leads us to an obvious question: why has the Harper/Clement federal bargaining mandate continued under the Trudeau government during his ten months in office?

Why are proposals such as the unjust and unreasonable sick leave provisions still on the table? Are the air traffic controllers or the radio operators or any other federal employees getting any closer today to a fair deal after saying goodbye to the old boss?

In his 13 minute address to the convention, Trudeau didn’t answer any of these questions, opting instead to talk about a new era of labour relations where “labour is a solution, not a problem.” Since delegates didn’t get a chance to ask any questions or provide any comments, and setting aside the obvious contradiction between the old bargaining mandate and this “new era,” none of us will ever know why postal workers, for example, continue to be vilified as a problem and their voice is never heard or perceived as a solution!

I have consistently disagreed with an analysis – at one end of the spectrum – that doesn’t distinguish between Trudeau and Harper. However, I full-heartedly disagree with the opposite end of this spectrum that holds the naive view that Trudeau will be a working class hero and savior.

Unfortunately, it seems that some labour leaders hold unrealistic views of Trudeau and might be thinking that a rapprochement with his government will pave the way for social and economic justice, thus offering an easier alternative to costly labour fights and struggles.

Yet, rather than trying to situate where Trudeau is with respect to Harper or with respect to how close or how far he is to the labour movement, let’s engage in a dialogue around my earlier question: is there a place for the government’s CEO at our convention?

What do such invitations achieve? Is a format where delegates aren’t allowed questions the only way to proceed? But perhaps most importantly, what does inviting the bosses to our conventions mean for the future of these conventions and for our movement in general?

I hope to read your comments and feedback.


Also from RankandFile.ca:

Why Trudeau is no friend of labour

Charting corporate connections in the new Liberal cabinet

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12 thoughts on “When Trudeau shows up at the workers’ convention

  1. I find myself asking the same questions, since the bargaining stance does not seem to have changed since Mr. Trudeau took office, and we continue to retain many of the Harper appointees. We should hold our applause until he actually does something.

  2. Why would Unifor invite Trudeau during CUPW negotiations? Seems strange to me – especially when Trudeau has a majority government – or perhaps this is why? Unclear.

  3. NDP is the traditional party of Labour not the Liberals. The Liberals are Bay Street Smurfs!!! Why hasn’t Trudeau done anything about the Harper Hack Deepak? He probably has a golden plated parachute!!! Well if he doesn’t want to leave when asked then why make life easy for him? Can he clean toilets? There is still some Harper Hacks on the Canadian Industrial Relations Board as well who’s decisions effect Canadian workers every day! Jerry Dias minions say ohhh at least Justin is listening!!! NOW WE WILL SEE IF HE WILL ACT??? What would a BAY STREET SMURF DO?

  4. His address could have been appropriate if he took questions from the crowd. Without those, this just appears as another opportunity to photo-op with the Labour crowd. He reaped the benefits of appearing in solidarity without having to work too hard for them.

  5. I do not believe any union should invite a boss at convention even if he is the PM, popular and well…. charismatic. I agree with you Wael, conventions are meant to be a safe space for delegates to discuss and be heard. As for the Liberal party of Canada…our collective memory is selective and forgetful. There are many great activists that should be invited to union conventions and are not just think of the Quebec student movement, les carrés rouges. Last but not least, conventions should allow more time for delegates to debate and less time for guests. Let those with voice and vote be heard… it is a question of democracy.

  6. Great piece! I was also shocked to learn about the mugging for selfies w Trudeau that occurred on he convention floor, at one point while Cindy Blackstock was speaking (!). Celebration of “sunny ways” needn’t extend to insulting our allies.

  7. This invitation to Justin should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the CAW i.e. Unifor since the days under Buzz H. Anyone recall Buzz putting a CAW jacket on Paul Martin? Organized labour should stop supporting any particular political party and direct all the resources being wasted on elections and instead spend it on organizing the unorganized. Much better return on investment.

  8. When will Canada’s labour unions wake up and realize that Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government are the Tweedledum to Harper’s Tweedledee? They both get their funding from corporations and the wealthy. Union members should be voting NDP. Check the record of the Liberal governments-they are not pro-labour!!

    1. The NDP exposed itself during the last election.The NDP can be of service to workers,but workers need to put together the ability to win pension reform, to support those fighting for climate change policy, to support the drop fee strugge by students, to support the courage of the Green party despite the leader, to support the $15 wage fight. We are in a crisis.

  9. Really great article. I think the reality of the situation is that Union members voted Liberal in the last election. A huge chunk of members in Unifor, CUPW and I am sure all other unions in Canada because the NDP failed to inspire Canadians with their balanced budget platform. So it’s not surprising that the Liberal leader shows up to convention. I am with the opinion that it shouldn’t have happened, being a Unifor member myself. I am not sure if the majority of Unifor members would agree with my view however.

  10. Jean-Sébastien Schetagne


    Entièrement en accord avec le fonds !

    De plus, j’ajouterai ceci, lors du congrès du CTC (CLC) à Montréal, ils ont invité le maire Denis Coderre. Pourtant, ce dernier est en pleine négociation avec les fonctionnaires municipaux…

    Au Québec, je n’ai jamais vu un politicien (au pouvoir – donc aussi employeur), être invité à un congrès syndical.

    Je pense qu’il y a le moment pour appuyer un parti politique, mais il y a aussi le moment de prendre ses distances… Un boss, c’est un boss… Et si on invite un boss, il faut qu’il soit prêt à prendre son rôle de boss, soit de répondre aux questions et préoccupations des travailleurs.

    Merci d’avoir soulevé cet enjeu M Afifi.

    Jean-Sébastien Schetagne
    Membre Unifor

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