An interview with Basia Sokal, the new Winnipeg Labour Council president

14856035_1157549174300184_1385300600225627046_oBy James Wilt

The Winnipeg Labour Council (WLC) has been stagnating for decades.

The WLC has a storied history of radical union activism, including playing a key role in the legendary Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. But in recent years the WLC settled for a corridor politics approach, opting to hang around City Hall, getting out the vote for WLC-endorsed candidates and working closely with the United Way.

It didn’t help that the provincial NDP, which the WLC has close ties to, were in power for over 16 years.

But in April 2016 the Progressive Conservatives won a majority. In late October, two-term WLC president Dave Sauer announced that he’d got a job with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) and was withdrawing his nomination for a third term.

Somehow, Basia Sokal, a letter carrier and VP of CUPW Winnipeg Local 856, which maintains a very pronounced fight the boss on the shop floor culture ended up running unopposed. She formally started her term on Jananuary 1, 2017.

RankandFile.ca conducted an interview with Sokal about the election, impending provincial budget cuts to public jobs and services, and how to rebuild the labour movement in Winnipeg.

What’s your background in union activism?

I have a crazy background. We were political refugees that came to Canada in the late ‘80s. I was really small, just a little kid. My dad was part of the Solidarity movement back in Poland, so that’s where we came from. Basically my first experience was we’d just been here for like three years, my dad was on the picket line – he was a PSAC member at the Mint – and he always instilled in us the value and importance of organized labour.

So I guess I didn’t really get started, it was kind of in my blood.

My first job I got when I was 15 at the Superstore, I worked in the bakery. That was a UFCW shop. I immediately became a shop steward and started taking all the courses, then went on to be an organizer there. I went away for university, came back and got on with postal workers and become a steward and health and safety chair. I’m still a dues-paying member there. I’ve been there for eight years now.

And at what point did you begin to consider the run for the position of president?

I guess it was just before or around the time that we ended our negotiations for CUPW. I was the vice-president of our local for the last two years there. It was a very busy time. I kind of thought I was up for another challenge and we signed a tentative agreement, and I felt like our local was in a really good place. I felt like I left on a good note, so it was time for somebody else to step up and take on the role of VP. That’s when I decided that I would look at this position, as the previous president’s term was up and later I’d find out that he wasn’t actually reoffering.

How did the actual election go?

Well, I was uncontested, so I was acclaimed. It definitely was a surprise because historically postal workers aren’t the one in this chair: we’re kind of crazy. I thought there’d be some opposition for sure, especially from one of our largest unions here, MGEU. I hadn’t heard anything, even in the week leading up to the elections. I was like: “This is weird, either they’re really trying to stack a room, or there really isn’t anybody running.” And then election night, I found out, because you can run from the floor, that I was acclaimed.

Did you ever figure out why other unions decided not to run candidates?

I think they may have, but I’m not sure. People can back out at the last minute. Whether that happened or not, I don’t know. I don’t know all 45,000 of the members. It could very well be that there were and then people just backed out.

You mentioned that postal workers have a certain style of activism. How might your approach as president and your vision for the Winnipeg Labour Council perhaps differ from your predecessor?

Well I would say that we’re definitely different in the sense that postal workers, and I don’t want to diss any other union, are very community-oriented and we’ve always fought for the community. When we bargain, we collectively bargain but we also bargain with the rest of the country in mind. For example, when we got maternity leave in our collective agreement, we lobbied for that for all Canadians.

I think I’m different in the sense that I have more of a community connection, whereas my predecessor was more about lobbying. I’m not saying I’m not a lobbyist, but I lobby through the community. I like to build more grassroots movements to back me up when I am at City Hall, as opposed to ‘here’s my presentation Mr. Mayor,’ go home and I’ve accomplished nothing because it’s just me, myself and I.

Have you found that locals are fairly receptive to this approach?

Yeah, you know I’m getting a lot of comments that things are different. And those comments are coming with smiles and laughter. There’s no daggers coming out, so I’m assuming that it’s a good thing and just connecting with a lot of organizations and community groups that kind of felt like they were left in the dark by labour for a lot of years. So that’s really nice to hear.

Are there specific issues that are really drawing your attention?

Definitely our city services, we’ve got our CUPE 500 members that represent city workers. We’ve kind of been in an ongoing battle with City Hall. Our snow clearing is contracted out, we’re trying to get it back in house. Most recently, we took part in the anti-Islamophobia rally this weekend. That’s one of the things that people don’t really associate labour with, or with human rights, despite labour always being at the forefront of that.

I’m actually working with Omar Kinnarath, one of the organizers of the anti-Islamophobia rally, to put out a media release and work with his employer because now he’s being targeted on a personal level through work. I’ve connected with him and said “listen, we want to work with you and yes you’re not an affiliated union and not a unionized worker, but Labour Council represents all workers.” We want to partner with the community and say “listen, labour is here for you.”

The provincial budget will be released in the next few weeks. What’s the game plan there?

That’s mostly the MFL, but we are still organizing for that. On March 25, we’re putting on a workshop and we’re opening it to community members. The morning will be a bit of Canadian labour history, for people who aren’t already in the movement. In the afternoon, we’ve got Lynne Fernandez of the CCPA that will talk about attack on the public sector. That will really tie in with our budget here. And the second part, which I’ll be doing, is how to fight back against those public sector cuts.

There’s also a few of us working kind of on the sidelines to have a rally, but that’s still in its infancy. We’re working on that with a bunch of different interested affiliates.

The UMFA strike had some significant success. Were there certain lessons learned from the strike, which you think are valuable for the movement going forward?

It’s really interesting, I consider myself fairly young still, I’m not even 33, and just notice that some of these things we’ve done in the past, we haven’t really adapted in the labour movement. Which is really unfortunate.

I noticed in our last campaign of save door-to-door and restore door-to-door is unions really need to make it about not their members only. We always preach about “save our pension.” Well, I don’t care about your pension, I don’t have one. I feel like we’ve lost relatability. In our last campaign, I feel like we’ve really learned that you have to be relatable and you have to be personal. Even though we already know that, we really have to be conscious of doing that, so that means relating to the public and making it about what they’re lose, not what you’re going to lose.

What does that look like in a really tangible sense? You mentioned opening up some of the workshops for not just affiliates. Are there other things that you think the movement should be looking to as potential mechanisms to help that?

Definitely. Even just getting involved in our community in the sense that it’s not a big media event. Historically, our unions would partner with the United Way, because United Way’s always been a part of labour. So it’s “here we’re doing this event, let’s have a huge media release.”

But why not encourage our members to volunteer in these things. They’re already part of a community. We all go home at the end of each workday, and we are a member of that community. Why aren’t we using that as our bit of sounding board to get involved? Many of us sit on community centre boards or volunteer at our churches. Just spreading the word that we’re all labour, it’s not like a title and you’re organized labour, so labour’s over here and everybody else is over here.

Definitely opening the workshops and being accessible. And really just connecting with a lot of the community. Because we don’t do that. We always let students do what students do, and the Muslim community do what they do, and other communities do this. It’s about reaching out. And I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last few weeks.

One of the trends over the years is a close affiliation with the NDP and certain political candidates. What do you sense the future of that is going forward, is that a valuable way to invest time and resources?

I do believe that because the NDP has historically been the labour party. But I think we really need to take a hard look at what we’re preaching. There are so many issues within the NDP itself: how can we work collectively if we can’t even work collectively? I think it’s going to take some time and a lot of figuring out, and I think there is still value in holding onto that. But I think that we definitely need to take a look at how things are being done. And hopefully with the convention not even two weeks away, we can really answer some of those questions.

Any final thoughts?

We’re just hoping to become more accessible to people and reach out, and be more community-based. That’s really important for us. We’re getting our social media up, so we’re trying to get on top of that. That’s one of our points right now, to be more accessible to people and more relatable.

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