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Day Three of the

Canadian Labour Congress Convention

Toronto, Ontario

By Roger Annis, delegate of IAM Local 11

Tuesday, May 27 – Day three of the CLC convention opened with a special address by Phil Fontaine. He is the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. His speech was a forceful and moving condemnation of the poverty and social distress among Canada's app. 1½ million Aboriginal people.

Indigenous Rights

His speech paid particular attention to the situation of Indigenous children. One in four lives in poverty; less than half graduates from high school. Fontaine said that more children – 27,000 – live in the custody of social services agencies today than were in residential schools at the height of that program.

He cited the report by the Auditor General of British Columbia earlier this month that exposed scandalous treatment of Indigenous children at the hands of the province's social services department. Eight percent of children in the province are Indigenous; they make up 51% of those in custody.

The CLC distributed a statement to delegates calling for support for the second National Day of Action to end poverty of First Nations. This year, the action will take place on May 29. A motion to support the Day of Action was approved in a unanimous standing vote.

Fontaine concluded his speech by calling for participation in the May 29 action and announcing a soon-to-be published seven-point plan of action to confront poverty. Included is a call to abolish the federal Indian Act.

There was no mention in Fontaine's speech, nor in the CLC statement, of the current confrontations between Indigenous communities and the federal and provincial governments, notably the struggle of the Six Nations Mohawk people in Ontario and the three other communities in Ontario mentioned in my report yesterday whose struggles for sovereignty have been criminalized.

Economic situation in Canada

Mike McCracken, an economist and president of Infometrica, gave a special address on “Jobs and the Economy.” This was followed by the introduction of a CLC policy paper, “Labour's Agenda for Good Jobs,” and discussion from delegates.

I found the policy paper and discussion entirely lacking. There is a growing awareness in the world that the greed and profit-driven economic system that dominates the world – capitalism – is leading us to an economic and environmental abyss. Poverty and economic insecurity is on the rise. And we are learning increasingly of the consequences of the unlimited trashing of the world's environment. The mortgage debt crisis in the United States is likely just the beginning of a more profound financial crisis.

Faced with this, the labour movement needs to place on its agenda a vision for a society and economy based on social justice and that begins to repair and undo all the destruction of the environment of the past 200 years of industrial capitalism, in other words, socialism. And to get that, we need to discuss how we win a government that would begin such a societal transformation.

It so happens that we already have a few governments in the world, in South America and the Caribbean, from which we can learn important lessons in this regard – Cuba, the success, all proportions guarded, of whose society is widely recognized in the world, and the other countries of the ALBA economic and social alliance in Latin America, including Venezuela, whose economies are still at the beginning stage of a transformation toward social justice.

The policy paper was debated. I appreciated the contribution of Bruce Allen of the CAW in St. Catharines. He spoke in opposition to the policy paper, saying it was entirely lacking in presenting a vision for an alternative society and for a struggle to get there. Willie Lambert also said “no” and added more valuable comments.

International Resolutions

The first report of the World Committee of the convention was presented this morning. The committee has approved or condensed the resolutions submitted by affiliates into 27, including excellent resolutions opposing the war in Afghanistan and demanding withdrawal of Canadian troops and expressing solidarity with the embattled peoples of Colombia, Haiti, Somalia, Burma and the Philippines. Unfortunately, the resolution on Palestine, as amended by the Resolutions Committee, presents a mixed message of timid support to the embattled Palestinian people, saying that their political representatives share an equal blame with Israel for the violence and chaos in historic Palestine.

The convention discussed only one resolution in this session. It opposes the recently-approved Security and Prosperity Partnership between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. During the discussion, one delegate described the significance of the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela.

More discussion of women’s rights

The afternoon session began with a talk by Armine Yalnizyan, an economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. She spoke on “Women's Economic Equality” and gave a review of the increasing poverty that women in the workforce are facing (eg. in privatized hospital services) and the stalling of efforts to reduce the income gap between men and women which sees women earning, on average, 70% of the salary of men in equivalent occupations in non-unionized employment. In unionized employment, women earn 93% of the salary of men, on average.

Following discussion, the convention approved a document entitled, “The Growing Gap: Inequality, Poverty and the Fight for Women's Economic Equality.” Further discussion was held on poverty and pay inequality affecting women and several resolutions on this were approved. Labour councils across the country will focus this year's Labour Day events on these issues.

Constitution and structure of the CLC

A lengthy discussion was held at the end of the day on a proposal by the Executive Council of the CLC and Constitution Committee of the convention to establish a commission to review the constitution and structure of the Congress. What follows is a short summary of an issue that, admittedly, I understand only partially.

Two issues concern the initiators of the proposal – stronger measures within the CLC are needed to prohibit raiding of affiliates of the CLC against one another; and stronger powers are needed for the CLC to deal with “rogue” unions, that is, unions acting in violation of basic union principles such as respecting the right to strike. The second-largest affiliate of the CLC – the National Union of Government and General Employees – is not attending the convention out of protest against the inability of the CLC to discipline another affiliate that raided one of its components. So the issue is of some urgency.

This was easily the issue that had the sharpest disagreements among affiliates. But the debate was respectful and genuine. There were strong pro and con opinions of the proposal. Smaller unions and labour councils feel they will have too little voice in a review process. They also want important issues such as funding of smaller labour councils to be addressed, and the CLC leadership is perceived as insensitive, if not opposed, to this concern. Many delegates are also concerned that the right of workers to democratically choose to change their union affiliation be respected.

Forums on antiwar, challenges before labour movement

Immediately following the end of the convention session at 5:30 pm, two important forums took place. These were “parallel” forums, meaning they were not part of the official agenda but very much in the spirit of the convention. One was “Labour Against War,” featuring a leader of the dockworkers in California. Their union, the ILWU, staged a one-day strike and shutdown of west coast ports in the U.S. on May 1 to protest the war in Iraq. Close to 100 people attended that forum.

The other forum drew some 50 people and was titled, “Putting the Movement Back in Labour: Crisis and Challenges for Workers Struggles and Organizations” (video of the forum). This is the one that I attended. It featured four very informative presentations that, sadly, time and space do not permit a summary in this report. The presenters were Stephanie Gude (Indigenous rights struggles and defence), Iliam Burbano (building international solidarity), Marco Luciano (organizing unorganized workers and workers outside of unions), and Herman Rosenfeld (the fight against concessions and defending the right to strike). The forum was sponsored by Migrante Ontario, No One Is Illegal Toronto, CUPE Socialist Caucus, Socialist Project Labour Committee, and Labour for Palestine. A lively and informed discussion followed the presentations.