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Labour against racism

Carolyn Egan

March 24, 2014

Unions across Canada are bringing trade unionists together to link workers struggles to the ongoing fight against racism. The Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called by the United Nations has been used to mobilize members for many years. This year unions and community groups in Europe are using it to build and highlight campaigns against the rise of fascist and right wing organizations such as the Golden Dawn in Greece and the English Defence League in Britain.
With the ongoing economic instability and the harsh austerity measures being imposed on the poor and the working class, there has been a rise in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism. This has been fostered by cuts in government programs, so called “immigration reforms” and in this country stepped up attacks on indigenous communities.
Idle No More brought the issues of Indigenous peoples to the fore. Chief Therese Spence’s hunger strike focused national attention on the unmet needs of so many and government neglect of their communities. The recent refusal to call an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women has caused outrage throughout Canada and Quebec. The arrogance of the Harper government is not going unnoticed as many groups outside the affected communities are adding their voices to the call for an inquiry.
Unions have joined the fight against racism because of the diligent work of racialized members who fought to have their issues taken up. Racism is clearly an ongoing struggle, as is the fight against oppression in all of its forms. Trade unions have taken real steps to take on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and to fight for disability rights.
Bromley Armstrong
It is critical for the workers movement to be in the forefront of these struggles. Figures such as Bromley Armstrong paved the way, first coming to Canada from Jamaica in 1947. He worked at Massey Ferguson in Toronto and became an activist in the United Auto Workers, which later became the Canadian Auto Workers and more recently Unifor. Amongst many other activities he was prominently involved in a sit-in demanding service at a café in Dresden, Ontario which refused to serve Black people. In then end the government was forced to charge the owner and finally it was forced to open its doors to all. 
Bromley Armstrong was supported by his union and other labour, and community organizations which put pressure on the government at the time. This was critical to the success of the actions, supporting the courage of the individuals involved, and bringing everyday manifestations of racism to public scrutiny. Ontario was an overwhelmingly white province at the time and this was a huge step forward in combating racism.
There are many examples of unions taking up the issue. CUPE local 1 at Toronto Hydro was one of the first to negotiate precedent setting policies on race and racism. Unions such as the United Steelworkers have negotiated prayer spaces for Muslim workers. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario offers a workshop “The Teaching Circle: Aboriginal Perspectives for Canadian Classrooms.” All of these are small but important steps in the ongoing struggle against racism.
Every year the Toronto and York Region Labour Council holds an Aboriginal and Workers of Colour Conference where hundreds of workers come together to discuss policies and perspectives on how to further the struggle. The majority are racialized workers but many white workers attend as well, building the solidarity that is so necessary. The fight against racism is everyone’s fight.
We have seen how governments and corporations try to use the “divide and rule” tactic to weaken all of us and implement their anti- worker agenda. It is critical that workers see through this and build a united movement prioritizing the fight against the oppressions that divide us.
In Toronto the Steelworkers Hall was packed with workers from many different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the day for the elimination of racial discrimination. Solidarity messages came from the front linking the gathering to the rallies and demonstrations that took place throughout Europe against anti-immigrant racism and Islamaphobia.
Global capital is attacking the 99% and using racism to divide us. The workers movement is a global movement and international solidarity is critical. We must fight racism in every way it manifests itself and build a united movement that truly represents the needs of all.

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