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 proud 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.
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