Unions under attack as backbone of progressive causes

The Left should remember what the Right has known for years

How ironic that the Right seems more aware than the Left of the crucial importance of unions to progressive politics. In the past, when conservatives were less aggressive, this didn't matter so much. Now, in the age of Stephen Harper and the Tea Party, the stakes are much higher.

In the USA and here in Canada under Harper (and, of course, under Brad Wall in former social democratic homeland Saskatchewan), new laws are sapping the strength and even the existence of unions, too often with little public outcry.

In Parliament, a bill is due for debate and possibly a vote this fall that could cripple unions of all sizes with expensive and nosy paperwork. National Post columnist John Ivison, no fan of the labour movement, wrote that Bill C-377 (Public Financial Disclosure for Labour Organizations) "could shatter the union business model forever."

More worrisome still are recent threats by Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilevre to punish the Public Service Alliance of Canada for supporting the Parti-Québecois in Quebec's provincial election by ending automatic union membership in federal workplaces under what's known as the "Rand Formula." Although the majority of workplaces are provincially regulated, this could mark the beginning of the end of Rand and drastically weaken federal public service unions.

Regardless of whether we belong to unions or work in organized sectors, these moves threaten all Canadians, yet, to date, public response has been muted. Why are these moves such a threat?

Labour is at the centre of all progressive politics

"Labour is at the centre of all progressive politics," Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan reminded in an interview following SGN's weekend conference on labour's image. "Labour is powerful. That's the reason they've targeted us, they've put the bullseye on us because they recognize we have power at the bargaining table, we have power in our communities, we have political power, and that power can be used against them. They want to undermine that power. They want to take apart civil society so they can change Canada."

Rand has been the National Citizen's Coalition's target since it was formed, under Harper and other CEOs. Conservative activists recognized then as now that unions have a regular source of income through member dues, unlike any other progressive organizations. And unions use their influence and theie money to support and promote a range of progressive causes and activists. SGNews is one of a long list of progressive projects supported very significantly by the labour movement.

Without public services, public service workers, union members, Rand, and dues — and a great many progressive projects, and the advocates who work for them, are at risk.

Since the 1980s under Reagan, US Republicans have worked to "de-fund the Left," going after advocacy groups, university student councils, progressive lawyers and legal clinics, charities, and, of course, unions.

The Harperites understand the importance of this directive better than any conservatives in Canada before them. When they had a minority government, they worked systematically to eliminate funding for any of the issues they don't like, such as feminism, environment, and social justice. Now they have a majority, they are gunning for big game — unions — and only widespread public outrage can stop them.

At SGN's workshop, speakers from the world of advertising discussed the art and science of branding and images and showed how unions could apply their knowledge through careful research and by focussing their creative efforts . The group heard that over the years, the union image has been steadily corroded by attacks that often go unanswered from right-wing interests.

"We're facing a government that's more like the Tea Party Right," said McGowan. They have a political plan, they have a communications plan, and they're targeting us. If we're going to be successful in fighting back, we have to have conversations like we had today... We have an obligation to get our act together, protect the labour movement, and also, in doing so, protect broader civil society," McGowan told us.

Conference participant David Climenhaga, of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), has similar concerns. "We need to respond instantly to the barrage of anti-union propoganda that we're hearing from organizations that have been set up and intelligently run in order to attack not just unions but progressive policies and the rights of working people," he told Straight Goods News. "All the time, we cede the room to them by letting them make powerful statements that are simply based on unsound research, politically motivated research, and that are in many cases outright false. They become the truth because we don't bother speaking back to them."

As a result of the constant barrage, union support has slipped and needs to be bolstered. Janice Peterson, another workshop participant from the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), told Straight Goods News unions need to face some troubling realities. "Not only do we have a problem with public image, but we also have a huge problem with our own members. We not only have to sell ourselves to the public, we have to sell ourselves to our own members."

It's not too late for the labour movement to rebuild its image, was the message of speaker after speaker at SGN's workshop. Doing so, however, will require hard work, open minds, a lot of listening and research, and making key people in every organization responsible for a focus on improving the reputation and image of their union and unions in general.

"I loved Terry O'Reilly's presentation on rebuilding our message and repositioning ourselves," Francine Filion, of the Canadian Teachers' Federation said. "It can be done. There is a solution."

There has to be a solution, because without strong unions, every progressive cause will be hobbled.

Straight Goods News, Monday Sept 24 2012
Byline: Isa Theilheimer

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