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Toronto Labour Council Organizes Stewards’ Assembly

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Historic Toronto Labour Council’s Steward Assembly, May 7, 2009. Photo by John Maclennan.

In an environment where working people in Ontario have suffered major setbacks, organized labour’s response has so far been disappointing. Until the current round of public sector strikes, aside from a few workplace occupations demanding severance and demonstrations calling for pension protection and EI changes – there has been little resistance.

The May 7th coming together of over 1,600 stewards, workplace representatives, staff, and other union reps in Toronto around the necessity of fighting against attacks by employers and governments was an unprecedented and impressive exception that brought some hope for forward motion. It was organized by the Toronto Labour Council led by President John Cartwright. The meeting brought together a mix of workplace representatives from public and private sector unions from across all of the different factions within the labour movement. It was the first such meeting in living memory and was the result of an impressive organizing effort.

This was the latest in a series of projects by the Cartwright leadership of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. Previous efforts included the electoral project to tilt the balance of the Toronto Board of Education in favour of those who wanted to challenge the Conservative Provincial government; a movement to raise the minimum wage – and engage different communities as well as unions in the process; fighting against water privatization; arguing for local sourcing rules for the city government; the more recent Good Jobs Coalition project and the ongoing support of labour struggles.

The meeting aimed, as Cartwright noted, to “reach deeply down into the labour movement and engage the true-front-line activists that are our stewards.” It’s important to note that rank and file leaders aren’t necessarily politically engaged. Efforts to involve them in larger struggles are extremely difficult but absolutely essential to building a response to the crisis. As an introduction to the crisis and the necessity of fighting back, this meeting was very important.

While most of those who attended the meeting felt extremely good about the experience (including me), the jury is still out on whether or not the assembly will actually contribute to developing the mobilizational capacity of the union movement, stimulating a larger movement to resist attacks by business and governments, building support for the current round of public sector struggles and challenging the ideological assault being waged against the rights of unions and working people.

The Meeting

The actual assembly covered a number of areas: a presentation on the origins and causes of the crisis; a series of testimonials from the floor by participants from different key union struggles in Toronto over the past few years and from individuals victimized by outsourcing, workplace closures, racism, and concession demands; speeches by CLC President Ken Georgetti, John Cartwright, Winnie Ng (a leader in the Good Jobs Coalition) among others; a short period set aside for small group discussions; speeches by leaders of major union affiliates pledging their collective resistance to the crisis measure of governments and employers; and a “surprise” visit by Toronto Mayor David Miller.

The assembly came away with a commitment to build support for EI reforms and pensions associated with the Canadian Labour Congress campaigns. It ended with a request that the stewards go back to their workplaces, circulate, and discuss the EI petition and mobilize for upcoming political actions demanding reforms.

Historic Toronto Labour Council’s Steward Assembly, May 7, 2009. Photo by John Maclennan.

What Did it Accomplish – and What Will it Contribute?

Walking out of the session, I couldn’t help but feel good about the potential there and hoped that it would be the beginning of an ongoing movement. But events that have unfolded in the three months since the assembly – raise a number of further issues and questions.

There were important limitations of the meeting:

  • Rather than being an actual assembly, with open discussion, debate, and space for the stewards to initiate points and ideas, it felt more like a process of conveying information. In order to encourage the creation of an ongoing Stewards’ Movement, a living, more participatory process is necessary.

  • The close ties to Mayor Miller, and the constant references to NDP politicians, showed that the politics of the assembly was confined within the “legitimate” institutional parameters of the labour movement. While some NDP politicians did play a positive role in the Minimum Wage Campaign, the party as a whole has notably failed to lead on even such basic campaigns as EI reform and has been absent from any discussions on alternatives during the crisis. Miller’s address to the assembly reflected the wide “popular front” like platform that has dominated labour politics in Toronto in the current period. This alliance has meant a modest political program that rests on lower business taxes and co-operation between labour and private investors. There was little mention of any vision of a different way of creating jobs and shaping investment, or the need for a political movement that might articulate such a vision.

  • Even the critique of the financial sector was limited to complaints about speculation and excess profits – rather than a real explanation about the way finance affects jobs, investment, and communities. We need to avoid one-dimensional populism that poses the problem as being “monopolies or financial speculators against the people,” pulling the movement into an alliance with industrial capitalists. The problem of that type of approach is all too evident in the auto sector. There was no mention of demands to control and shape investment through reforms such as nationalizing the banks.

Even more, the assembly begs another set of questions, based upon its success:

  • If the Toronto Labour Council was able to organize a Stewards’ Assembly, is this happening in other cities across Canada? If not, why isn’t it?

  • The CLC campaigns remains tied to uninspired and relatively ineffective forms of action. Since the assembly in May, there has been one demonstration in Toronto demanding action on EI reform and pension protection. The turnout was disappointing and wasn’t followed up (or preceded) by more militant actions, such as occupations of EI offices. Where will this campaign go?

  • Will there be any follow-up with this first effort to bring stewards together from across the city or was this a one-off activity? If there are plans to do it again and build on this initial assembly, what forms might that take?

  • Will there be efforts to build networks of resistance and solidarity between groups of stewards across the city? Are there plans to produce materials to help stewards explain the crisis to their co-workers and argue for new forms of collective resistance, led by stewards within workplaces?

  • Are there plans to discuss ways of uniting workplace representative with workers in communities and those not unionized who are also looking for ways to extend and deepen their struggles?

The Toronto Labour Council has taken the lead in a number of areas over the past few years. Once again, in the current context, the Stewards’ Assembly can represent an important counterweight to the defensiveness of Ontario’s labour movement. But the Council operates within the constraints of the official union structures, limited to a certain extent by the conservatism of the leadership of the affiliates and the political and economic structures of the city – even as it works to stretch the boundaries of those limitations.

In this instance, the Stewards’ Assembly needs to become a springboard towards a larger and broader effort to educate and mobilize workers across Toronto in resisting current attacks and developing political approaches independent of business-dominated projects that currently dominate the agenda.

Herman Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based socialist activist, educator, organizer and writer. He is a retired national staffperson with the Canadian Auto Workers (now UNIFOR), and worked in their Education Department.

This article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension .

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