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Interview: Sid Ryan speaks out

September 30, 2016

Carolyn Egan spoke with Sid Ryan, long-time labour activist and former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, about the state of the labour movement.

Sid, I wonder if you could comment: you had made a number of statements about the appearance of Kevin Flynn, the Minister of Labour for the Liberal government, at Labour Day this year.

Yes, I was quite frankly shocked to see that the labour movement had invited a Minister from the Liberal government to march in the Labour Day parade. Now, I have nothing against the Minister—I’ve worked very closely with him on a number of issues down through the years. But the idea of inviting a Minister of Labour who is from the Liberal government, when the labour movement official policy is that we support the NDP—and we had the leaders of the NDP both federal and provincial marching at the back of our parade, or in the middle of it at least, and the place of honour was given to a Minister of the Crown?

I just couldn’t understand that. Why, this is the first time in the 150 or 160 year history of the Labour Day parade that we invited in a Liberal to march. I just don’t get it. I think it’s wrong, I think it sends the wrong signal to our members that somehow this is the party that we support, when we don’t. We’ve had nothing but trouble with this government, in terms of the selling off of Hydro, with respect to school teachers and 115 and rolling back their wages and their benefits. We’ve had trouble with them over labour law reforms which they’ve yet to deliver. They’ve been in office for 12 years, they never gave us anti-scab legislation, they’ve not given us card-check.

There’s a million issues we’re at war with this government over, and yet here we are marching arm in arm, having the president of the CLC, the president of the Labour Council, the president of the OFL, all laughing and joking and arms around this guy, walking at the front of the parade. That was just simply wrong, and it sent the wrong message. And I hope to God that the membership at the CLC, the OFL and at the labour council call these leaders to task and say “Don’t ever do that again.”

Do you feel that this is a bit of a contradiction, since October 1 is going to be a Day of Action for decent work, the fight for $15, labour reform and improvements to the Employment Standards Act?

Well, it makes a mockery of it because here we are walking arm in arm and slapping each other on the back and laughing and joking, and then we’re going to go up on a Saturday to shout at the building, and all this mock anger at the government—when in actual fact, here we are buddy-buddy with them. We’re sending the wrong signal again. I think we’re undermining the seriousness of our campaigns when we’re out there, because they’re all laughing and joking back at the Legislature saying, “Don’t worry it, the CLC, OFL and Labour Council, they’re all onside, they’re not giving us a hard time, they even invited me into the Labour Day parade.”

What do you think would be necessary to bring back the militancy to labour in this province?

Well, it’s going to take leaders that understand who elected them and why they got elected. So, to bring back the militancy, for example we used to have negotiations at General Motors where the leader of that particular union just gave up a concession, just sold out all the young workers, when he had a 96% strike mandate in his back pocket. He had an opportunity to actually exercise that mandate and put some pressure on the employer. And instead, he caved in. And I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he went and got some taxpayers’ dollars from the provincial government and from the federal government. At a time when our healthcare system is in serious trouble, there are people waiting for cancer treatments, we know that tuition in the university sector is absolutely beyond of the average working class person to send their kids to university, and here we are giving taxpayers’ dollars to the most profitable corporation in the world. It’s sick.

So we have to start challenging the capitalist system, we have to start to challenge these employers, and you can’t have union leaders that are basically selling out the next generation and then lobbying for taxpayers’ dollars to go into profitable corporations. That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be exposed and that needs to stop if you’re going to build a militant movement.

There have been major demonstrations at Standing Rock in the United States, of Indigenous peoples around pipelines. The Chippewas of the Thames in Ontario are doing a court challenge to Line 9 here, and I’m just wondering what you feel about how the labour movement should relate to these pipelines and the protests that are developing.

The labour movement is so far out in left field when it comes to pipelines and the fossil fuel industry. The world is moving away from fossil fuels, and here we are fighting with ourselves, destroying internally the labour movement over should we be building pipelines and saving some jobs in the pipeline industry and the fossil fuel industries, when in fact what we really need to be doing is taking a look at the Leap Manifesto, embracing the principles of the Leap Manifesto, moving away into a new green energy economy that’s based on solar and wind power and thermal power. These are the jobs of the future—it’s not pipelines. And we have to stop saying that somehow we have to take the dirtiest oil in the world, which is the Alberta tar sands, and taking that bitumen and then pumping it across Canada. It’s simply wrong. And the labour movement, we’re like Luddites when it comes to new economies and a new green economy. And so I think we have to stop and look ten, 15 years down the road and not look the next three or four or five years.

I mean, the deal—if you want to go back to it for a moment, at General Motors—they had 20,000 members 15 or twenty 20 ago. They were giving concession after concession after concession to try and save jobs, and now they’re down to 2,500. Well, it hasn’t worked. And the same thing is going on with this industry. This is a dying industry, whether we like it or not. And it’s not because of something that we did here in Canada, it’s just that people around the world are moving away from these old industries and it’s time that the labour movement started to get its act together and began to look at these new technologies.

Let me just give you one quick example. If you take a look at a windmill, there’s 200 tons of steel alone in the base of a windmill, in the towers. That’s put steelworkers to work. There’s 10,000 moving parts in the turbines. They all have to be manufactured here in Canada. And they all have to be serviced here in Canada. There’s a massive amount of employment involved in the green energy fields, and these are jobs you can’t ship to China. The pylon and these towers are here, the windmill is here, so it needs to be serviced here. That’s a tremendous amount of jobs—high skilled jobs, good paying jobs, and hopefully unionized jobs.

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