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Day Five of the

Canadian Labour Congress Convention

Toronto, Ontario

By Roger Annis, delegate of IAM Local 11

Thursday May 30, 2008 – Day number five opened with the presentation and discussion of a ten-point political action policy paper. The paper reaffirms the CLC's support to the New Democratic Party and it speaks of other forms of political action to achieve legislative change for improved labour legislation, women's rights, and Indigenous peoples' rights. It reads:

“In this time of increased corporate power, hostile media, anti-labour politicians and governments, our affiliates must continue to build labour's political activism and heighten efforts to influence the broader community. The Congress and affiliates must increase the desire of union members and their families to be part of something that engages them and ultimately creates a more equitable and just Canada.”

The profound attacks on peoples' rights that mark the new (read, same old) world of globalization, the “war on terrorism” and environmental calamity require new and far more activist strategies to not only hold onto the accomplishments of the past but move forward to a radically new vision of government and society. I believe that the submitted policy paper falls short of this challenge.

In the debate on the paper, a delegate from the CUPW spoke to the political divisions within the labour movement today. The CAW, one of the largest affiliates of the CLC, supports “strategic voting” in support of the Liberal Party. In Quebec, the CLC's affiliate, the Quebec Federation of Labour, supports the Bloc Quebecois federally.

The delegate also spoke to failings of the New Democratic Party to defend trade union rights. For example two New Democratic Party provincial governments, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, refuse to implement anti-scab legislation.

Rolf Gerstenberger of Steelworkers local 1005 in Hamilton spoke to the same problem. He said he was in favour of the policy paper but faces a problem. His local union holds weekly discussion meetings on “how can workers and trade unions gain more power” in society. Participation at the meetings varies from 50 members to several hundred. But a dilemma has been introduced into these discussions – a “crime against workers” was committed during the recent strike of transit workers in Toronto when they were ordered by a unanimous vote in the Ontario legislature to end the strike. The NDP voted for the legislation. He said the vote shows that workers and unions have no reliable representatives in the Ontario legislature.

A significant new political party of the left was founded in Quebec in 2006, Quebec solidaire, but it has no presence at the convention. No delegate from Quebec spoke in the debate on the political action policy paper.

Address from Australia

The convention heard an address via video link from the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow. She is also the president of the newly-created unitary international labour federation, the International Trade Union Confederation. She gave a summary of the campaign that Australian unions waged last year to defeat the ultra-reactionary government of John Howard and elect the Labour Party back into office.

I was in Australia during that election campaign and wrote a comprehensive article on it. You can read that at www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=220.

Speech by NDP Leader Jack Layton

Following a vote in favour of the paper on political action, Jack Layton, federal leader of the New Democratic Party, addressed the convention. His speech outlined the key social rights that he said the NDP supports and fights for – public health care, radically-improved employment insurance, universal, quality day care.

His speech spent some time on Indigenous people's rights. Like Phil Fontaine earlier in the week, he spoke movingly in favour of necessary improvements to social rights but made no mention of current confrontations over political sovereignty and criminalization of political rights struggles between Indigenous activists and supporters and provincial and federal governments.

Layton spoke of the growing job losses in manufacturing in Canada. He said the answer to this crisis is for the federal government to devise industry-specific plans that use public money to support companies in financial difficulty.

Layton touched on environmental challenges. He called for “slowing down” Alberta Tar Sands projects and said that private investment in new alternative energy industries was a big part of the solution to job losses.

Apart from a brief reference to human rights violations in Colombia, there was no mention in Layton's speech of international affairs.

Afghanistan resolution

Prior to lunch, the World Committee presented its second and final report. A composite resolution on Afghanistan was presented that reads as follows:

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) will demand of all political parties in our Parliament to take steps immediately to end the military occupation in Afghanistan and to implement the disengagement of Canadian forces and to bring home our Canadian soldiers from the illegal war in Afghanistan.

The CLC will assist affiliates to educate and mobilize their membership to oppose the Canadian military intervention in Afghanistan.

The CLC will continue to work with partners in the Canadian Peace Alliance to educate Canadians about the war.

The CLC will build solidarity with Afghani workers, social justice and women's organizations.

Because Canadians have a proud history of committing our Armed Forces to the role of peacekeepers dating back to the end of World War 2.

Because there are no clear objectives, accomplishments or benefits for Canadians in this war in which dozens of young Canadians and hundreds of innocent Afghan citizens are being killed.

Because our young soldiers are dying in a war in Afghanistan in the role of invading army with no mandate from Canadian citizens.

Because the Harper government's military intervention in Afghanistan is not contributing to establishing peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Because the Canadian government's military campaign is based on supporting American political, economic and military interests rather than on contributing to establishing peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Because the Canadian government's military campaign is based on supporting American political, economic and military interests rather than on contributing to peace in the region.

Because the actions of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization occupation is increasing the violence in Afghanistan.

Because the massive amounts of money spent on the military in Afghanistan would best be used for funding health care, education, job creation and social services.

Because the labour movement has always been at the center of any struggle for peace and justice.

The first speaker was a leader of the Union of National Defence Employees, an affiliate of the PSAC. The union's delegates would support the resolution; it became clear, which is a significant and welcome shift in position from this union. He expressed the union's concern that a withdrawal from Afghanistan be carried out in a manner that protects the safety and security of its Canadian troops and civilian personnel.

A young delegate of the Steelworkers in Toronto made a hard-hitting contribution condemning the predatory character of Canadian foreign policy. She spoke in defence of the Palestinian people and against the oppressor Israeli government.

Dave Coles of the CEP (paperworkers) union condemned what he called an illegal occupation of Afghanistan by Canada and other big powers.

Another UNDE member spoke in support of the resolution but made a vigorous defence of the Canadian military role in Afghanistan. Her daughter is presently engaged in Afghanistan. “I encourage you to support the military, support my daughter,” she concluded, to considerable applause.

Dave Bleakney of CUPW detailed the “war crimes” and destruction of Afghanistan being perpetrated by Canada and the rest of the foreign occupation. He also spoke of the degrading of democratic rights in the countries of the occupying forces in the name of the “war of terrorism.” The resolution was adopted overwhelmingly.

Next, a resolution was presented calling on Canada to increase its contribution to foreign aid to .7% of Gross National Product. I spoke and summarized the record of failure and betrayal of Canadian “aid” and intervention towards the peoples of Afghanistan, Haiti and Palestine. I said that international solidarity in the unions should be focused on supporting the capacity of trade unions and other popular organizations of oppressed peoples to struggle for political power and sovereignty.

National Day of Indigenous Protest

During the lunch break, several hundred delegates joined a march of approximately 1000 people through the streets of Toronto to mark the National Day of Indigenous Protest and affirm Indigenous political sovereignty. Among the many banners and contingents on the march was one from the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium in eastern Ontario. They are united with the Ardoch-Algonquin people in opposing a proposed uranium mine project.

Expanding union membership

In the afternoon, Robert Hickey of Queen's University gave a special presentation on the fight to expand trade union membership. He reported that union membership in Canada has grown by 660,000 in the last ten years. But during that same time, union density has dropped from 33.7% to 31.5% of the salaried work force.

Hickey sounded a warning that the worsening of labour laws and deterioration of the economic situation would cause declining union membership if we do not make a sharp and fundamental turn in organizing efforts. For example, union density in manufacturing and forestry has fallen to 23% of the workforce. Since the 1980's, the average number of new, union certifications per year has fallen by almost 50%.

Hickey reported that his research has found three elements that are common to successful organizing drives:

Providing the necessary resources to organizers, including experienced staff who share experiences with targeted workers, eg women, youth and workers of minority nationalities.

Having a committee inside of the targeted workplace.

Establishing benchmarks by which to measure success and failure.

Three other features that Hickey identified were – bringing new leaders into the unions; providing real and meaningful support to organizing drives; and integrate organizing work into all of our activity.

A policy paper was introduced and approved following a lengthy and informed discussion, entitled “Organizing: Growth and Strength.” One delegate spoke against the paper, saying it was not bold enough.

One of the successful union organizing drives in recent times has been the creation and growth of the UNITE union in New Zealand. I wrote an article on this inspiring story in October 2007 that you can read at www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=228.

Lengthy discussion continued on resolutions for the right of unions to organize and strike. Sid Ryan of CUPE Ontario made an impassioned speech saying that bold action was needed to defend the right to strike. It was reported to the convention that unions in Saskatchewan are facing threats by the new Saskatchewan Party government to severely limit the right to strike. Ryan argued that unions in that province should begin to prepare strike action to oppose the legislation.