“Our new union, from the beginning, recognizes that the labour movement must innovate constantly: developing new ways of organizing, representing, inspiring, and empowering working people to demand more in life,” says Unifor’s vision and plan, one of at least twelve of its founding convention documents.

It is rare these days to hear a union call so boldly for workers to raise their expectations and demand more, and it is gratifying that Unifor is setting a high standard for what it will deliver.

Two other convention papers expand on Unifor’s ambitious plan to organize the unorganized, including the growing number of non-union workers who can’t get union rights under labour law that was drafted for a different time.

Unions have always been first and foremost about workers organizing to win the highest possible price on the sale of their labour, just as employers have always worked to undermine collective bargaining power in search of cheaper labour. Unions organize (and bargain, fight grievances, campaign, and take political action) to stop that from happening. But lately we have been failing miserably on the organizing front, in part because we rely so heavily on labour relations laws and organizing strategies that don’t work when it comes to the growing army of workers in non-standard employment, or in small and fragmented workplaces. Think of the hundreds of thousands of casuals, contractors, students, interns, domestic workers and the self-employed who are not deemed employees by law, or who fall out of the reach of traditional workplace organizing because they have no workplace.

Unifor is proposing to open the doors to these workers through Community Chapters. This idea of building unions by extending individual membership to workers who can’t get formally organized is not new. Several unions have done it in the United States. In Canada, the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ union offered special associate membership to child care workers as a way to build a more cohesive force to press for better working conditions. I have been eagerly waiting to learn more about Unifor’s own take on the idea and at least some of my questions are answered in the convention paper, Broadening Union Citizenship.

Unifor is inviting non-union workers to approach a Unifor local union willing to open its membership. A local must seek permission from Unifor’s national officers (or the Quebec Director, if the local is in Quebec) to set up a Community Chapter for these workers. Once authorized, the local decides the precise form of the chapter, which is reviewed and approved by Unifor’s National Executive Board. Members who join must commit to membership for at least one full calendar year and pay at least four quarterly dues payments. Community Chapters are part of an existing local but Chapter members elect their own executive and hold their own meetings.

Unifor says it will provide members of Community Chapters information on their legal rights, offer them union education, and arrange access to benefits, such as group insurance and consumer discounts. But, the convention paper also states, “it is explicitly recognized that working people will not be able to enjoy the full benefits of traditional union membership (including protection of an enforceable collective agreement, representation, grievance systems, union-quality wages and benefits, etc.) unless they succeed in organizing a bargaining unit and negotiating a binding proposal.”

But why not go further and instead put energy into building chapters, or locals, that bring together workers from the same occupation or industry to exert collective pressure for some new form of collective agreement—one that can be enforced even in the absence of a legally recognized bargaining unit? In this way, rather than being a stepping-stone to formal unionization under law, community chapters would become full-fledged structures that engage in collective bargaining outside of the formal legal labour relations framework that does not address the realities of organizing in today’s workplaces.

For example, what if Unifor was to take on the challenge of organizing home-based child care providers, who in the past have been denied the legal right to organize into bargaining units. Unifor could organize them into a Community Chapter, provide them education and information, and give them group benefits, as suggested. But it could also help them, as a Community Chapter, to push for a different kind of union recognition from employers (or government) and a new and different kind of collective bargaining process—one that does not rely on organizing bargaining units, getting a formal certificate from the labour board and winning the legal right to bargain.

It would be difficult work, for sure. It is tough enough to force employers to recognize unions and negotiate fairly when the law requires it. Forcing a new kind of unionism will be met with formidable resistance from employers. Yet, unions have done this successfully in times past under much worse circumstances. Today, polls show that the vast majority of Canadians support collective bargaining. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is a constitutional right. And workers are not indiscriminately killed for organizing.

Even in the US where the labour movement is numerically weak, unions have been organizing in different ways and forcing recognition where the labour laws are either non-existent or woefully inadequate. Some US unions have made huge breakthroughs for groups of low-wage workers, many of them female workers of colour. In some cases they have forced standard collective working conditions on employers through municipal ordinances covering specific groups of workers, such as child care and homecare workers in both the public and private sectors. These “collective agreements” have raised income levels significantly and made it impossible for employers to force wages down by pitting worker against worker.

Nothing in Unifor’s convention document on Community Chapters precludes what I am suggesting, but neither does it explicitly say that the Chapters themselves would have as their central purpose winning collective bargaining rights outside the existing legal labour relations framework if necessary. To fulfil such a purpose would require that Unifor rely less on opening the door to workers who want to join, and more on going out and getting workers in chosen sectors to walk through. If 70 per cent of the workforce is outside of unions it isn’t because there hasn’t been a standing invitation to unionize. It is because we haven’t deliberately organized in a new way.

Organizing drives often start because one or more workers decide to unionize. But very few workers organize themselves. Organizing happens, especially in hostile times, when a union targets a group of workers or a sector and signs them up and then fights like hell for recognition and then a contract. It’s the only way to broaden union citizenship and that’s what Unifor needs to do for all those workers in non-standard employment. It can’t be left to chance. And so far, Unifor is the only chance these workers have.

The ground shifted for the Canadian labour movement this week. Monday night 4,000 thousand Air Canada workers walked off the job, joining 50,000 CUPW workers already on rotating strikes. CAW and CUPW–two unions that have made breakthrough gains in past struggles–are blocking further stripping of their pension and benefit plans, and are refusing to agree to lower living standards for new workers.

Of course there have been other important confrontations over contract concessions in recent years, like the strikes against Vale Inco, the City of Windsor and the City of Toronto. But what is happening at Air Canada and Canada Post is different. For one thing, the disputes impact every part of the country. Second, both the CAW and CUPW bargaining units fall under federal jurisdiction and have forced Harper’s Conservative government to openly reveal its contempt of workers’ rights and collective bargaining.

But what is most important about the CAW and CUPW disputes is they demonstrate that union members are willing and able to take on a fight. Workers at US Steel in Hamilton, represented by USWA 1005, were locked out last November because they refused to agree to a new contract without a good pension plan. Many in and out of the labour movement saw their struggle, now in its eighth month, as a losing battle. Shamefully, it has fallen off the radar. But now two other powerful unions with militant histories are also taking a stand giving impetus for others to do the same. The Conservative government will use its majority in Parliament to force Air Canada and postal workers back to work. No doubt the legislation will be brutally anti-worker and anti-union. But the strikes, short as they will likely be, have raised the bar for the rest of us. Unions should be about raising expectations and that is what CAW and CUPW have done. It will be much more difficult from now on for any union to give into employer concessions without a fight. As the fights multiply, so too will the victories

Moveon.org‘s Eli Pariser gives a great Ted Talk on the hidden filters applications like Facebook and Google use to decide what information they send our way.  If I do a search on Google for union stuff, I will get different results than my mother would get for the same search because she is older, lives in another country, and has a different cyber profile.  My Facebook feed edits out updates based on what I like, and what links I follow.  The problem, says Pariser, is that we can end up interacting with only like-minded people in a comfortable information bubble created for us by robots without our knowledge or consent.

Pariser’s talk started me thinking about other unconscious filters that work to keep people and organizations insulated from new and different ideas.  For unions, sticking together and acting as one are fundamental operating principles when it comes to confronting the boss.  But when these principles are applied to internal union process, might they also serve as unconscious filters that keep challenging points of view at bay? Do we sometimes operate too much as a closed shop? Do we avoid invite new ideas or people into our circle for fear they may make us uncomfortable? Do we connect often enough with our union critics?  Do we expose ourselves to information that may contradict our prevailing wisdom?

Pariser suggests that the algorithms that serve as information gatekeepers on the Internet should be made visible.  Also, he appeals to programmers to make sure they are constructed in a way that opens doors to other points of view, and to information that is important, relevant, and challenging. Those of us interested in union renewal and growth might want to think about adopting similar building principles.

My son just landed a full-time job with a Canadian municipality.  What good fortune to find work in his field so soon after graduating with an MA in public policy and an undergraduate degree in urban studies.  His pay is good. The work is interesting.  He has a terrific supervisor.  The employer is promising to invest in his professional development through off-site training.  Best of all, it is a union job.

The only hitch:  it is a term position. Turns out the only article of his collective agreement that applies to him is one that guarantees the same minimum employment standards already prescribed by law. My son belongs to a union, pays union dues, but gets no benefits, no pension, no job security.  He gets vacation pay but no vacation leave.  How is this possible? Is it right for a union to collect dues from members and then negotiate only minimum employment standards?

The recent Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention passed resolutions and policy papers vowing to advance the rights of precarious workers.  How about putting this pledge into action by obliging CLC affiliates to meet a minimum standard when it comes to collective agreements, or dues collection?  How about putting in place a system to monitor the performance of unions so that those facing particular challenges can be helped (and pressured if necessary) to meet those standards?  One of the reasons unions give to justify raids on others is that workers are looking for better representation.  Why not address member dissatisfaction by putting our collective efforts into helping each other win better contracts?

A recent CLC poll revealed that for the first time the majority of unorganized workers would rather not join a union. It is a shocking finding.  Yet the disinterest  will likely get worse, especially among young workers, if we do not do better than negotiate minimum standards for the growing number of young temps and terms.  There could be many reasons my son’s collective agreement falls short.  An important reason might be that unions are not working together to set the bar higher.

This week I pack my bags and head off to my fourth union convention in three weeks. By mid-June I will have attended four more. This is a big convention year for my union with each region and component holding their triennial meetings. My friends at CUPE are in the middle of their provincial division conventions, held annually. A few weeks ago, more than two thousand people assembled in Vancouver for the Canadian Labour Congress convention, now held every three years. I bet every union in Canada has either just finished a convention, or is preparing for the next one. Conventions consume a lot of organizational resources, money and carbon. Unions take them seriously. Organizational charts show them as the primary decision-making body: they are where members get a say on everything the union does. Yet, so often delegates leave conventions grumpy: they complain there is too much grandstanding, not enough time for debate of resolutions, boring, irrelevant. Yesterday, I said to a friend of mine setting off for his own provincial convention, “have a good one.” But what is a good convention?

I asked friends and other delegates attending the last CLC convention that very question. My informal survey suggests that people want to play a decisive role in setting direction, but no one expects this can happen at a convention these days. Those I spoke to say union conventions as carefully choreographed events. Delegates don’t control the agenda. More time is given for speeches from the front of the room than from the floor microphones. A lot of time is spent considering policy papers that cover so much ground that they cease to be much more than a general canvass of all issues rather than a strategic analysis. The requirement to speak only to resolutions written months in advance makes it difficult for delegates to debate developments of the moment. For example, delegates at the last CLC convention were not able to debate an emergency action plan drafted by the leadership in response to the election of the Harper majority government. Even the evening forums, which traditionally have offered a smaller venue for discussion, were turned into stages for cultural performances.

What delegates told me they liked the most about the last CLC convention was the chance to dialogue with others. This was done almost exclusively outside of the convention hours. Other convention highlights included the self-organized meetings, like the meeting of delegates to hear about a new green economy coalition, or the after-hours session convened by the York and Toronto District Labour Council to organize delegates against Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to privatize garbage collection (and every other service he can sell off). People left that meeting charged up, ready to take action. I know I did.

All of this makes me wonder, should we not re-think how we do union conventions? Might it be possible to find a way to organize debate around key questions rather than resolutions? Could some of the time now devoted to speeches from the front (some now reorganized as panel presentations) be used for smaller group discussions of challenges, strategy and action? Delegates at the CLC convention spoke passionately about privatization of services, the de-industrialization of Canada, two-tier wages and benefits, pensions, erosion of health and safety regulation. Could we not have taken the opportunity of so many people being in the same room to have meaningful conversations and learn from each other about how to address these problems? Could we find a way to debate the direction of the labour movement that does not force people to speak for three minutes at either a pro or con microphone?

Given the amount of time, money and effort each and every union and labour central expends on conventions, how about coming together (perhaps in a virtual meeting to limit costs and carbon) to talk about how to do them differently?

Last Sunday night, I wrote a blog post expressing dismay that not one union had yet spoken out against the mass police arrests during the G20 meetings in Toronto last weekend.  Tonight, I am so pleased to see that several unions and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) have issued statements that recognize the abuse of police authority and join the call for an inquiry into police actions.

The CLC had originally posted a statement on its web site denouncing the individuals who vandalized store windows and set fire to a police cruiser.  That statement was taken down today, and a new one posted. The PSAC issued a media release condemning police brutality, and CUPE also added its voice to the call for an inquiry.

The widespread and growing outcry about events during the G20 is heartening and unions can play an important role in keeping up the pressure on the federal, Ontario and Toronto governments to launch a full and impartial investigation into how hundreds of people ended up being arrested, held for hours in impossible conditions, for apparently no reason since almost all were released without charges.  Unions can also work to make sure that those charged in the mass arrests are able to defend themselves in court.  Most important of all, unions can help ensure that the story of the G20 debacle does not get buried when other events take over the front pages of the newspapers. This is the only way to ensure that there is never a repeat of what happened last weekend.

Of course if Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter is right, the Toronto G20 script will be replayed again and again.  In an article published before the mass arrests last Saturday night and Sunday, she wrote of the Miami Model, referring to police tactics used during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in 2003 and every global summit since.  As described, this security model has several key elements including:

  • information warfare a few weeks before the event (often police announce the discovery of a cache of items they describe as “weapons”)
  • Intimidation, including random searches or interviews of activists
  • Clamp down on civil liberties, including the passing of regulations or emergency measures
  • Some violent acts by a few followed by excessive police force against many, and mass arrests.

In Miami, 270 people were arrested, according to Porter.  In the end, no convictions.

We can put an end to the Miami model by keeping the issue of the Toronto G20 burning. More unions and other organizations have to speak out.  It took a few days, but the momentum is building.

Police detained more than 900 people during the G20 summit in Toronto this past weekend. The vast majority of those taken into custody were protesting peacefully, or happened to be passing by at the moment police encircled people. By their accounts, those arrested were held in deplorable conditions. It is thought that 90 per cent of the detainees were then released without charges after waiting hours in overcrowded cells, with little water and almost no food.

Like thousands of Canadians, I am in shock. I am obsessed with finding out as much as I can about what happened. I can’t tear myself away from the computer and the growing number of video and eyewitness accounts of police brutality.

In my search for information, I have visited many union web sites. I am stunned that so far I haven’t found a single condemnation of the actions by the police forces. The Canadian Labour Congress has a front page post critical of the small group of violent thugs who broke away from the labour demonstration to smash windows and damage properly. The CLC says nothing of the police’s failure to stop the vandalism even though these self-proclaimed Black Bloc members acted within reach of the riot police, and easy riding distance of hundreds of cops on bikes.

I suspect union leaders have been silent to distance themselves as much as possible from the Black Block. But the mass arrests took place when hundreds of citizens came together in spontaneous peaceful gatherings long after the windows were smashed, and long after the labour march ended. Citizens went into the streets to show that they would not be intimidated by either the excessive show of security in Toronto or the violent actions of a few. The union silence about these arrests reflects a growing unease with street action, and it creates distance between unions and an activist citizenry.

It is wrong for unions not to speak out, and a mistake. Public opinion will start shifting very soon to the side of those who tried to protest peacefully only to be arrested for their efforts. Videos are being circulated showing that police fired into crowds without provocation. Mainstream journalists are starting to tell the true story of what police did to innocent people. Thousands of people have joined the call for a public inquiry into the events.

The G20 leaders agreed on a plan to slash government deficits over the next three years. We know it is the poor and workers who wills suffer the brunt of the spending cuts. Trade unions will have to step up the resistance to defend jobs and services. They will have to rebuild the vibrant coalitions of people’s movements that existed in the past.

A good start would be to speak out agains the gross violations of democratic rights and to express solidarity with those who had the courage to protest without police permission.

I just spent three days in meetings of the Council of Canadians’ Board of Directors.  Each year at this time we meet at a lovely but modest retreat location to take stock of where we are as an organization and to make plans for the year ahead.

As always, it was a great Board meeting.  We looked back and to the future.  We reviewed the finances and approved next year’s budget.  We debated and amended the operational plans.  We arrived at consensus, after good discussion, on some key organizational questions.

The substance of our Board deliberations always fascinates me.  But as a student of organizations,  I am equally interested in the Board itself: how it functions, how it makes decisions, what role it plays in directing the organization, what it discusses (and what it doesn’t).

As we all know, boards of activist organizations (whether unions or social justice groups)  take all kinds of different forms.  Regardless of shape and size, they often suffer from one of two tendencies:  (a) too much focus on the detail of the organization’s operations and plans at the expense of setting broader strategies and direction, or  (b) too much distance from the day-to-day work of the organization, resulting in big picture discussions that fail to provide meaningful direction (and often lead to Board members feeling disengaged).

One way  to avoid giving into one tendency or the other is to pay greater attention to the meeting agenda.   Every time a Board meets all members should be clear about the purpose of the meeting and the agenda should be crafted to serve that purpose.

Too many meetings in too many organizations take place simply because it is time to meet again.  Too many groups follow the same agenda each time they meet.  The agenda usually consists of a listing of topics allowing participants to take the discussion pretty much any place.  They can dive into the operational detail or fly into the blue sky, or go back and forth between the two, which they often do.

Through the Art of Hosting, I learned that the best to plan a meeting is to ask the question: what is the purpose of this meeting?  Don’t be put off by such a simple device.  Figuring out the purpose of a meeting involves deep and important thinking.

The next question is: what questions do we need to answer in this meeting to best serve its purpose? These are the questions that should make up the agenda.

Other questions of course follow logically:  Who needs to be at this meeting, given the questions that need to be answered?  What information or documentation will those attending need to answer the questions before them?

Next time you plan a meeting, give it a try.

At a recent symposium organized by Straight Goods, George Lakoff shared his oft-repeated chilling account of how well organized the conservative forces are in spreading their gospel.  Think tanks, media columnists, book tours, booking agents, breakfast briefings, luncheons, foundations and leadership institutes are just some of the vehicles they use to deliver a well crafted and consistent message on the key issues of the day.  The message penetrates, says Lakoff, because conservatives choose words that connect to our hard-wired beliefs and emotions and trigger a conservative response.

Lakoff speaks and writes of the US experience, but  Canadian conservatives are following the same winning formula.  Take the issue of public service pensions, for example.  In the last six months there has been a deluge of conservative commentary through talk show guests, op-ed articles, and think tank reports  decrying the gold-plated pension plans of public employees. Whoever the messenger, the message is always the same.  It plays to the notions of fairness and justice: it’s just not right that public employees should get pensions when so many victims of the economic crisis have lost their savings.  It plays to Canadians’ fear and insecurity: governments should stop contributing as much to their own employees’ old age security and instead get its financial house in order.

In contrast, the message that unions and other progressive forces deliver on pensions is…well…not so organized.  It isn’t that we aren’t trying to respond effectively.  I bet every union communications department scrambles each time Catherine Swift is published.  Occasionally we get a letter to the editor published, or a mention in the media, but we aren’t registering on the public radar.  We don’t have a booking agency getting our spokespeople on talk shows.  We haven’t pulled together a significant coalition of anti-poverty groups, churches, seniors, people on disability pensions, women, young people, students and others and organized each group to same message.

And what about the content of our message?  George Lakoff says one of the problems with progressives is we can’t let go of our belief that people respond to logical arguments even though research reveals that human brains don’t work that way.  Lakoff says that

Conservatives get this; they choose their words carefully invoking images and emotions that both trigger and reinforce a conservative view point.  Progressives tend to dish out facts and figures assuming that people will reach the right conclusions.

Recently, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty proposed to the provinces that CPP premiums be increased, presumably to fund better pension coverage and more generous benefits.  At the same time he called for incentives to encourage more private retirement savings by individuals or through defined contribution employer pension plans.

These two very different reform proposals will bring conservatives and progressives into battle for public opinion (unless progressives decide not to oppose further government expenditures on enhancing private savings).  The CPP proposal opens the door to the expansion of one of the most important public programs in Canada but success will require a much greater effort than the current Canadian Labour Congress pension campaign.  This is an opportunity to take up Lakoff’s challenge and develop a well-organized broad-based push with all participating groups organized to deliver a common message using language that sets off the rusty progressive synapses in people’s brains.

Click here to see video of Lakoff’s presentation to the symposium.