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Embracing the Equity Agenda

Labour

Illustration by Ben Clarkson

Movement for equity is disappearing from the labour agenda. Fewer women are in union leadership positions. Acknowledging the issues facing women, lesbian, gay, and trans people, workers of colour, differently abled workers, and Indigenous workers is increasingly becoming lip service. Our issues are not being integrated into labours agenda, and often appear as add-ons in our communications and action strategies.

When we talk about how the economic crisis is affecting workers, we must recognize that it has a different impact on members of equity-seeking groups. If we don’t recognize that fundamental fact we will be developing strategies that are doomed.

The need for the labour movement to fully embrace the equity agenda is based on more than notions of fairness. It is rooted in current demographic changes. If the labour movement does not take on equity in meaningful ways then obituaries will be written.

As a public sector worker, the threat of privatization, deregulation, and contracting out continues to loom large. The state and large corporations have stolen much of our language and are arguing that privatization means “choice.” Many unions are carrying out brilliant anti-privatization campaigns. There is a need to collectively discuss these campaigns and share the lessons from them so we can all be stronger.

Many unions are reluctant to criticize Israel for its occupation on the West Bank and for its actions in Operation Lead Cast. This comes from many sources, but needs to be challenged. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions was one over 170 civil society organizations that endorsed the non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Unions need to begin the process of addressing this instead of ignoring it.

All this said, rigor mortis has not befallen the labour movement. Announcements regarding the death of the trade union movement are greatly exaggerated. The trade union movement has suffered some serious setbacks and has lost density, but it is not dead yet. There are some wonderful signs of life. This can be seen at union education seminars and on the work floor where shop stewards are courageously and smartly taking on the boss.

So my approach to the trade union movement is complicated. On the one hand I am excited by commitment and tenacity of many activists and on the other hand I think change is needed to move the struggle forward.

This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Mayworks).

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