Canadian Labour Congress – Keith Hampe

27th Convention, May 5-9 in Montreal

Flight out of Prince George left at 6am on Sunday May 4th, getting me to the hotel around 5pm local time. After checking in I walked over to the convention centre (1.5km walk) to get signed in and collect my convention materials.

Monday morning started with current CLC president Ken Georgetti’s keynote address to roughly 1700 delegates. He covered a number of topics but the main one, and the theme for the convention and the CLC’s current advertising campaign is “Together fairness works.”

There was also a presentation from Frank Graves, the president of EKOS research. He talked about how, under the Conservative Party of Canada, the idea of freedom 55 has become freedom 75 and that Canadians believe a better life is slipping away.

Graves added that in his years of public opinion research he has seen a wholesale change in Canadian attitudes. “During the 1990s most Canadians thought our country was moving in the right direction. Now Canadians think we are going in the wrong direction.” He said that the middle class is a collective state of mind among people who thought that things could get better. This optimism has now been eroded, particularly among young people.

Graves, however, provided hope that opinions may be turning around. He said that the popularity of notions such as minimal government and tax cuts is declining. Canadians are looking for more effective and activist governments.

He emphasized that future policies need to focus on fairness and that labour needs to rebuild its trust in the public eye. “We need a new blueprint for government that includes labour.”

Sharan Burrow, the first woman to hold the office of General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), gave a rousing speech. She spoke passionately about workers and unions being on the front lines in the war to tame corporate power, which has gone too far.

A policy paper titled An Economy for a Fairer Tomorrow was passed, as well as resolutions around fighting against Trade Agreements/CETA and post secondary education and training. A policy resolution regarding anti-privatization was referred back to committee with instructions.

Tuesday morning was a delegate’s only session and it dealt with creating a better tomorrow: sustainable growth and development. Panelists Laure Waridel of Equiterre, Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzi of Ryerson University and Diane Gibson of Canadians for Tax Fairness, painted a picture of a skewed economy based on consumption and waste. Economic gains flow to the one per cent and that has disempowered the middle class. Dr. Galabuzi described it as an economy that is upside down. “The economy is a human institution that should serve the people,” he said, “but we have an economy that the people serve.”

The three panelists spoke of a post-depression era of progress that saw the rise of a middle class. That has been replaced by a neo-liberal economic system that has built exclusion instead of community. The panelists pointed to recent movements such as Occupy and the Québec students as challenging that system. They encouraged labour and other progressive movements to continue to flex their muscle to create space on policy and economic debates, and to not be afraid to talk about bold ideas that push back hard against an unjust system.

On Tuesday delegates to the CLC overwhelmingly approved expenditures to support the labour movement’s together Fairness Works initiative. Prior to the vote we received a detailed presentation on the initiative from its inception through to a look at what is still to come

A policy paper on the changing demographics in the workplace was presented. The advantages these changing demographics present to the labour movement was also discussed. The rest of the afternoon was spent on constitution and structure resolutions, as well as economic and social policy resolutions. All were passed.

There was a short CUPE BC caucus at lunch on Tuesday where we talked about the vote for CLC executive that was happening on Thursday and how CUPE BC would like things to proceed. The concept of mic muffins was explained. We were also invited to a CUPE BC hosted dinner Wednesday evening at an Argentinian Restaurant.

Wednesday morning started with a panel that explored the labour movement’s contribution to building a better life for everyone, whether or not they belong to a union. Moderator Gabrielle Scrimshaw set the stage by talking of labour’s serving the public good by negotiating and advocating for health and safety in the workplace, fair pensions and the accountability of global corporations

How do we rekindle conditions that would turn the tide on slipping union density and bring the union advantage to more than just one in three Canadian workers? This was the subject of a wide-ranging discussion paper also presented on Wednesday.

More resolutions and policy papers presented. Too many to name.

Thursday was the big day. Tuesday and Wednesday there were roughly 2500 delegates to the convention. On Thursday, the number of delegates ballooned to more than 4800 as bus loads of union members from all over southern Ontario and Quebec were brought in to vote on the new president. The build up to the vote had been intensifying all week, as supporters of each of the two candidates (incumbent Georgetti and Secretary Treasurer Yussuff) campaigned hard outside the convention hall. Thursday morning the convention hall was alive with flags and cheering and chanting. It was electric. After more than 2 hours counting and recounting votes, Yussuff won the election garnering 50.1% of the vote to Georgetti’s 49.7% (.4% spoiled). As soon as the vote was announced, half the hall erupted while the other half sat stunned, including CUPE BC.

While we were waiting for the votes to be counted we were treated to a rousing speech by federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair. He began by saying that “a stronger labour movement means a stronger Canada” and that the principles of fairness, equality and justice are the cornerstones of both the labour movement and the NDP.

Mulcair said that this is a pivotal moment for labour and all Canadians. There has been a systematic attack on unions and collective agreements over the past 35 years by successive Liberal and Conservative governments. This has resulted in an income drop for average Canadians and a growing gap between the rich and the rest of society. He said that only the NDP puts public interest ahead of well connected interests.

Mulcair said that, if elected to government in 2015, the first thing an NDP government would do is restore the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security (OAS) to 65. The Conservatives had raised it from age 65 to 67. An NDP government would also begin the process of increasing the Canada Pension Plan benefit.

Mulcair accused both the Conservatives and Liberals of telling Canadians that their standard of living is too high and that people need to expect less. He said the NDP would do better because Canadians deserve better. “The NDP and the CLC must work together to build a Canada that works,” Mulcair concluded.. “This is our moment. Canadians can vote for change and actually get change.”

At lunch there was a rally at nearby Victoria square to march against government austerity measures. Hundreds of union flags of all sizes and colours were on display. I wish I had ours to show off, would have put many to shame. Next time.

Thursday afternoon saw a return to normalcy as many of the bussed in delegates left at lunch, having completed their sole purpose for being at the convention. We voted in new Secretary Treasurer Barbara Byers, as well as Marie Clarke Walker and Donald Lafleur as executive Vice-Presidents. The number of votes cast for these positions were more than 2000 less than the number cast for President.

The convention concluded Friday morning with a together fairness works “workshop.” Kevin Millsip and Next-UP shared stories and insights into the community organizing models that worked to propel Barack Obama toward his presidential victory in 2008.

Building on the successful together FAIRNESS WORKS member-engagement initiative, Millsip introduced delegates to the next steps in the member-engagement initiative – how to connect and build relationships.

Friday afternoon was a long flight home, especially with flights from Toronto and Calgary being delayed. Returned home close to midnight, or 3am Montreal time. It was a fantastic week; we should definitely send delegates to Toronto in 2017.

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