Delegates reject undemocratic constitutional amendment, demand united action to stop falling wages and living standards
By Liz Rowley
The 30th convention of the Canadian Labour Congress opened May 8 in Montreal with more than 2500 delegates in attendance from across Canada. Unlike the last convention, whose main theme was “We’re all in this together,” this convention has been filled with demands for united action against employers and right-wing governments for their attacks on wages, living standards, the environment, Indigenous rights and universal social programs like healthcare and education.
CLC President Bea Bruske recognized the changed situation when she opened the convention by asking delegates if they were “ready to kick ass for the working class,” a refrain she repeated throughout her 30-minute remarks. She referenced the just-ended PSAC strike of 155,000 workers – one of the biggest strikes in Canadian history and the first PSAC strike in 30 years. Bruske also spoke about the strike by CUPE education workers in Ontario last October which the Ford government tried to break using the constitution’s notwithstanding clause. Citing the unity of the labour movement which successfully threatened a Canada-wide general strike if the Tories didn’t back off, Bruske implied the CLC was ready to lead a militant struggle of workers across Canada.
But the policy papers on social, economic, environmental and Indigenous rights issues were consistently criticized by delegates for proposing lobbying governments and employers as the way to compel change over the next three years. Composite resolutions prepared by CLC committees took the bite out of many resolutions local unions and labour councils had submitted on key economic and social issues.
As the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union thundered, “We’ve got to fight, or we lose. We’ve never got anything we didn’t fight for. We fight, or we lose.”
The first speaker after Bruske was NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who told delegates that the NDP was the only party workers could trust on the issues and warned that the Tories’ sweet talk for workers hid an iron fist for labour. His comments on the Tories are true enough, but his claims that the NDP had expanded Medicare to include dental care, and that pharmacare was not far behind, didn’t ring true with delegates.
Speaker after speaker warned that Medicare was in grave danger as a result of years of deliberate funding cuts, by the staffing crisis created by wage restraints imposed on nurses and healthcare workers, by impossible working conditions and by opening the doors to private, for-profit hospitals and healthcare. “People are going to die,” said a nurse who told the convention that nurses’ poor working conditions would lead to patient deaths.
A delegate from Victoria took on Singh’s boasts about expanding Medicare by pointing out that the dental care provided is only for children under 12, tops out at $620 per year per child and won’t cover basics like braces. While this is better than nothing, it’s clear this isn’t an expansion of Medicare and isn’t sufficient.
Things came to a head quickly on the constitutional amendments proposed by the CLC leadership. These would have given the biggest unions more votes and more power over decision making than the smaller unions and labour councils, making the CLC much more oriented to the kind of business unionism in the US labour movement.
Perversely, NUPGE and CUPE leaders led the fight for the constitutional amendments by arguing that the reduction of democratic participation was actually about strengthening democracy. They cited the thoroughly undemocratic practice of bussing delegates into conventions for the sole purpose of voting for particular slates in union elections. But Hamilton District Labour Council President Anthony Marco pointed out that the amendment on the table had nothing to do with bussing delegates, and everything to do with reducing union democracy. “And for that reason, I am going to vote against it,” he said.
OSSTF delegate Domenic Bellissimo said that the voices of smaller unions were important. “They may be small, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” he said to applause. “There is already a weighted vote with the number of delegates unions are able to send to conventions,” he added, noting that after attending union conventions over the last 25 years at which all voices could be heard, the amendment had him worried.
Labour council youth delegate Jack Copple, a first-time delegate, also spoke against the move. He pointed out that his union, UNITE HERE, had only two delegates at the convention because of the high costs of sending delegates, but their voice was important on the Canadian Council and, like other smaller unions, mustn’t be lost.
A big struggle opened up on the floor, resulting in several standing votes, two challenges to the chair and the amendment’s eventual defeat by a mere 20 votes. This was the second convention to defeat this amendment, sending a clear message to the CLC leadership that democracy and membership control is important to union members in Canada.
Climate change, the environment and jobs
The debate on the environment was also sharp, with some delegates calling for nationalization of energy. It was pointed out that while the oil and gas companies are in business to make profits, not to address the climate crisis, the public interest was to address the climate crisis – and the corporations responsible for it – while also guaranteeing protections to the workers affected in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
One young Alberta delegate, a third-generation oil worker, said he and others were fully aware of the problems of climate change, having seen their homes and communities burned to a crisp by wildfires which were a product of oil and gas exploration and exploitation. “We know, and we care about the environment,” he said, adding that workers needed protections during the transition to renewables and to new jobs as the old ones disappeared. How to do this – and who should do this – was a focus of the discussion, while the threat of irreparable changes to the environment loomed large in the background.
Indigenous rights and genocide
Former MP Romeo Saganash spoke movingly of the genocide against Indigenous peoples which continues today, noting that the deaths and assaults of thousands of children in residential schools was not “misguided” but a crime. Likewise, he referenced the continuing killings of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “People say to me ‘this is so complex,’ but it’s not complicated, it’s not complex.” The way forward is in the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Calls to Action of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Saganash said the labour movement was the closest friend and ally of Indigenous peoples, and he called on labour to take up the struggle to implement the TRC and MMIWG. He called for the federal government to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian government, while sharply criticizing the billions of dollars governments have spent fighting Indigenous peoples and their rights in court.
Economics and social policy and general resolutions
Discussion about resolutions on pensions and on the wage gap between women and men, including between white women and women of colour, were also pointed, with delegates demanding action by the CLC to move the fight forward and well beyond lobbying, pressing, asking, etc.
At this convention, it’s clear that delegates are not prepared to sit back while employers and governments undermine their wages and living standards. The mood is elevated and expectant, as the debate on the CLC’s action plan gets closer. This is a convention demanding both stronger policies and stronger action by a united and fighting labour movement.
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