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CLC election: vote left, but keep building at the base

Michelle Robidoux

April 30, 2014

Hassan Husseini's decision to run for president of the Canadian Labour Congress has produced a lot of positive debate and discussion about the direction the labour movement needs to go, and the kind of leadership required to achieve that. These discussions could not be more urgent.
Workers face a concerted assault from employers and governments. At every turn, employers are demanding massive concessions. Scabs are being used to break strikes. Companies are spending millions on security companies like AFI to spy on workers and weaken their ability to fight back. Right across the spectrum, from Harper and Hudak to Wynne and McNeil, politicians are attacking workers' right to organize.
Why does leadership matter?
Leadership matters, and the fight between leaders who see these problems and want to fight, versus leaders who want business as usual, can open up space for activists to organize.
But no matter who wins at the CLC, the most critical question remains, how to strengthen organization in the workplace? How do we organize to involve greater numbers of union members in the fight for their future? A victory for a left voice will give confidence to activists across this country who are working tirelessly to raise the alarm about—and to fight against—the onslaught workers face. But the patient and often difficult work of
rebuilding the union at the base will still need to be a priority. Only a mobilized and confident rank and file can challenge conservative leaders to fight.
This is clear when we look at past examples of battles between the left and right at the CLC. In 1992, CAW president Bob White was elected president of the CLC, alongside Jean-Claude Parrot, Nancy Riche and Dick Martin. This team challenged the old guard and galvanized energy and hopes of building a fighting labour movement.
When Bob White announced he was running for president in November 1991, he was denounced for not having “consulted” the existing small closed circle of leaders who for years had orchestrated CLC elections. Jean-Claude Parrot, who was president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, had lead several militant and groundbreaking strikes and had been jailed. At that time, he was publicly denounced by then-president of the CLC, Dennis McDermott, for giving labour a "bad image." They represented a left leadership with deep roots in their unions, prepared to fight to take things in a more militant direction.
But even this "dream team" of 1992 had a difficult time fighting the conservatism and inertia at the top. By the nature of its structure, the CLC tends to remove these leaders further and further from the day to day concerns of workers on the ground, no matter how left they may be.
Rebuilding a fighting labour movement
This isn't inevitable. A good example is what the Ontario Federation of Labour is doing with the "Our Rights at Work" tour. In every city and town where rallies have been organized, there have been hundreds of grassroots activists from every union coming together to strategize about how to defeat the threat of Hudak's anti-union policies. The willingness of leaders like OFL president Sid Ryan to take initiatives is helping activists at the base to push their own leaders to take the fight further.
These initiatives can assist in rebuilding a fighting labour movement—for example, calling inter-union solidarity actions and marches for striking workers—but they can only have an impact if activists do the heavy-lifting, workplace by workplace and local by local, rebuilding the networks of union militants who can form the rank and file networks we need to meet the challenges ahead.
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include “Taking on the anti-union threat in Ontario and Quebec,” “The NDP and the crisis of social democracy,” “The birth of industrial unionism in Canada 1937-46,” “Fighting Hudak’s attack on worker’s rights,” and “Rosa Luxemburg and the mass strike.”

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