Super-union determined to recapture lost ground

Lana Payne
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Labour Day weekend, two of Canada’s biggest private-sector unions joined forces to become Unifor, a new and bold union. In doing so they made Canadian history.

Its formation is already acting as a bright spark of hope and optimism across the country.

The hope is that, collectively, working people can push back in new and profound ways against what has been a decades-long, anti-worker agenda perpetuated by both governments and corporations.

But just as importantly, the hope is that we can build social progress again for all Canadians. That progress has been virtually halted, stymied by the incredible growth and concentration in corporate power here at home and around the world and the subservience of governments to that power.

Corporations have been emboldened by globalization and trade deals that bestow on them staggering investor rights. They rode out the financial crisis (a crisis caused by their greed) and were not forced by governments to learn anything from it. Unfortunately, workers are still paying the price. Those same multinational corporations stockpiled cash and are continuing to rake in obscene profits while demanding that workers take less. The attack on young workers is particularly egregious.

The byproduct is unprecedented inequality.

At the same time, governments, especially the current federal Harper government, have acted in a stealth-like fashion by attacking workers, their unions and the social fabric of the country.

Changes to Employment Insurance and Old Age Security, the exploitative temporary foreign worker program, cuts to key and important social programs and public services have all undermined the income and social security of Canadians.

In addition, the Harper government has launched a direct assault against unions and workers’ rights, including their economic and social rights; the right to fair and free collective bargaining; and their ability to push more generally for social change for all citizens. It is not just an assault on unions, but on our very democracy.

Many of the gains we enjoy in society today were first negotiated at a collective bargaining table. Unions then fought for them for all workers. Maternity leave, same-sex benefits, vacation time and pensions are just a few in a long list of advances made by unions throughout the last number of decades.

More broadly, unions have been the key progressive force behind the building of a strong social fabric, including fighting for health care, unemployment insurance benefits, progressive health and safety laws and equality.

Today, unions spend much time defending these gains, not just for their members, but for all Canadians.

Unifor’s first president, Jerry Dias, has promised that the new union will be proactive, rather than reactive. It will spend $50 million organizing new members over the next five years and will reach out to workers in non-traditional sectors while working to build community chapters.

Glad to be involved

I am proud and extremely honoured to join this new union and to help lead its efforts to push back against what has been a nasty attack against workers and the progress we have all made together in Canada.

I believe that the vast majority of Canadians do not want a fend-for-yourself country. I believe they understand that we have a country rich in resources and talent and there is no reason the citizens of this wealthy nation can’t and shouldn’t benefit from that bounty.

I believe working people deserve better. I believe they can and should demand better.

Canada was built on the idea of shared prosperity; that if you worked hard, that if you obtained an education, that the sky would be the limit. That is no longer the case in our country.

The promise of shared prosperity has been abandoned, little by little, government by government.

I believe unions are under attack because of our success, because we have forced wealth to be shared. We improved wages, built pensions, enhanced working conditions, fought for economic and social security, equality and opportunity.

This is a proud and rich history, one the Harper government and others would like to destroy. The very real challenge for the labour movement and for this new, bold union, Unifor, will be counter the conventional wisdom that somehow we can no longer afford to share prosperity. That Canadians no longer desire fairness.

I reject this. Unifor rejects this.

Canada is a nation built on fairness and working together for the common good. We are a country built on collective action.

Unions have always been part of that and now must wage a battle to win the hearts and minds of Canadians. It starts with fighting for our shared vision of a country that has at it heart — fairness, justice, and equality.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns Sept. 21.

Organizations: Employment Insurance

Geographic location: Canada, Canada.I

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