2003 February Speech TWU Convention

Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, February 2003

We need to change - to take advantage of new opportunities and meet new challenges

As trade unionists we are currently living through a period that can best be described as schizophrenic.

It's a time of big challenges - some of the most serious we've ever faced. But, on the other hand, it's also a time of new hope and new opportunities.

On the positive side - I'm convinced that we're starting to see the first tell-tale signs that the long winter of knee-jerk, business-first thinking that has dominated our country since the days of Brian Mulroney may finally be coming to an end.

This may seem like a surprising claim to make - especially here in B.C., right in the middle of Gordon Campbell's first term.

But on the ground - in communities, in homes, in coffee shops - attitudes are changing.

After Enron and Worldcom and all the other corporate scandals that have come to light over the past year, people are no longer so willing to put blind faith in the business community.

Ordinary Canadians are also becoming more and more skeptical of the corporate agenda that our governments have been pursuing for the past fifteen years or more years.

Yes, our leaders are still talking about budget cuts. And, yes, they're still pushing for privatization, wage roll-backs, down-sizing, more international trade deals and tax cuts for the well-off.

But poll after poll tells us that ordinary Canadians are on a different page.

Joe and Jane Canadian no longer agree with the National Post and the Fraser Institute that cutting the debt and cutting taxes are the big issues.

What they're really concerned about are things that effect their pocketbook, their communities and their families.

In fact, Canadians are now starting to focus on many of the things that we in the labour movement have been talking about for years: things like health care; education; jobs and job security; the environment.

Recent polls have also shown some interesting shifts in the political landscape.

A few years ago the Reform party and then the Canadian Alliance were driving the agenda in this country. They weren't in government, but for most of the 90s they succeeded in moving the political centre of gravity in this country far to the right.

But today, according to the latest EKOS poll, the Alliance has slipped to 10 percent of popular support - down from more than 25 percent less than a year ago.

At the same time, the NDP has jumped to nearly 18 percent - from just nine percent during the last election.

Even in Alberta - home of rock steady, one-party rule - support for the Conservative party has notched down slightly.

By themselves, none of these signs can be described as a revolution. And I certainly don't think that Canadians are going to be flocking to the NDP any time soon.

But taken together, the signs suggest that something is going on, something is changing under the surface.

It's like the first warm day after a long winter. The snow still covers everything - but there is a steady 'drip, drip, drip' that tells us that things are going to change - that the snow will be gone soon - and that the cold winds will soon be replaced by something more hospitable.

For those of us in the labour movement who have endured nearly twenty years of anti-union, neo-conservative winter - a spring thaw would certainly be welcome.

And that's exactly what seems to be happening. The pendulum is swinging. And this time it looks like it's swinging with us - not into us.

That's the good news. But as I said off the top, the world we in live today is not all roses.

On the negative side of the ledger, we face a number of serious challenges - some more daunting and potentially dangerous for our members than anything we've ever faced before.

How bad is it? To be honest, there's a whole shopping list of concerns.

Starting at the level of individual unions, we all have battles with employers.

Your union, for example, is currently dealing with major layoffs at Telus. The CEO and his managers made bad business decisions and they want to make your members pay the price.

It's the same story in hundreds of other workplaces.

Managers talk about bad investments; a declining market; weak demand - and they deal with the problem by discarding workers like post-it notes or by going after things like our pensions and other benefits.

But, unfortunately, the bad news doesn't stop at the plant gate.

At the provincial level here in B.C., you've got a government that has declared open season on public services and public sector workers.

It's a familiar song to all of us in Alberta. We went through the same meat grinder eight years ago.

The big irony is that, just as the public seems to be getting tired of the right-wing crowd, they seem to be getting bolder and meaner.

Maybe Ralph can blame it on not getting enough to drink these days - and maybe Campbell is cranky because he gets too much. But either way the result is the same - they're both in a nasty mood and they both seem to really love taking it out on working people and the unions that represent them.

I wish I could say that we're just dealing with two bad apples. But the truth is that our challenges don't stop at the provincial border either - or even at the Canadian border.

At the national level, we've got a government that tries to portray itself as socially responsible - but has slashed spending on core services to levels we haven't seen since the 50s.

And at the international level, we've got a looming war in the Middle East - a war that almost no one supports - and which is already wreaking havoc on energy prices and the economy in general.

That's the list of challenges we're facing. And I could add more: like the threat posed to working people by poorly thought out international trade agreements. Or the looming crisis as employers water down our pension funds. Or the long-term implications of low unionization rates among young workers.

The list goes on - but the point is: we have our work cut out for us.

The big question now is how do we respond to the challenges I've just talked about - and how do we capitalize on the opportunities that come with a more progressive shift in public opinion?

One option would be to do nothing - or to do the same things we've always done.

Maybe if we simply sit tight and wait, the pendulum will swing back our way.

But then again - if all we do is wait, the pendulum may not swing at all; or it might not swing as far as we'd like it to; or might swing right past us.

As you might have guessed, we at the Alberta Fed have come to the conclusion that the labour movement has to take a more active approach.

That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to speak at conventions like this one. We want to spread the gospel of activism - and we want to share our ideas and experiences about what we think will work to make the labour movement stronger.

For us, it all starts with a clear vision of the role of unions.

We firmly believe that the labour movement is more than a collection of service groups. We are one of the few institutions in society that is big enough and strong enough to stand up to the corporate and political powers-that-be.

We also believe that the labour movement has an obligation to use its size, its power and its resources to not only help our own members - but also to go to bat for families, for the unorganized and for the broader communities in which we all live.

When it comes specific solutions and strategies, we don't pretend to have all the answers. But over the past seven or eight years we've been kicked around a lot. In the process, we've suffered a few defeats; we've enjoyed a few victories - and we've learned quite a few lessons.

This morning, I just want to touch on the three of the most important lessons we've learned - lessons that we think all unions can benefit from.

First - we've learned that we can't do it alone.

Whether we're talking about an individual strike or a province-wide campaign against cutbacks, we've learned that we get better results when we have partners - especially partners from outside the labour movement.

About a year ago, Ipso-Reid releases a poll that helped illustrate why building coalitions is so important.

Basically, the survey asked Canadians to rate different groups in terms of trust. Not surprisingly, politicians were at the bottom of the barrel. But union spokespeople and union leaders weren't far behind.

We may not like to admit it - but unions have a serious image problem - and a serious credibility problem. Too often we're dismissed as self-interested and out to feather our own nests.

That's why, in Alberta, we've made a point of partnering with organizations outside the labour movement that share our priorities.

Community groups, seniors groups, student groups, religious groups, women's groups, environmental groups, health care advocacy groups, immigrant groups, anti-poverty advocates, progressive academics.

You name it - we need to forge ties and build bridge with all these groups.

And it's not just a crass attempt to steal their credibility. It's about sharing resources, sharing people power, sharing networks, sharing ideas - and working together for change.

The strength of coalitions was really brought home for us in the battle against Bill 11, the Klein government's private health care law.

The protests against that law were historic in their size and scope. Literally thousands and thousands of people who had never protested before came out and joined us.

Another example of the strength of coalitions was our experience organizing protests against the G-8 last summer in Calgary. Thanks to the work of a very broad coalition of groups, we were able to organize a major counter summit and sustain major protests for nearly a week - all in Canada's most conservative city.

But, as was the case with Bill 11, the coalition was what made the difference.

So, for us, in many ways it's the oldest lesson of the labour movement: that we're stronger if we stand together. And we're stronger yet if we reach beyond our own unions and our own labour circles into the broader community.

The second lesson we've learned is that we have to do a better job of cooperating within the labour movement itself. Too often, we get trapped in silos. We keep our heads down and do our work with our own members. But the result is that we end up not seeing the forest for the trees. We also often end up recreating the wheel.

Once again, our experience with Bill 11 proved this point. The Fed could have gone off and organized it's own campaign. The nurses' and CUPE and the health sciences association could each have gone off in their own directions. But instead, we worked together as part of a broader coalition.

The result was that, by pooling our money and our people, we were able to run a bigger, smarter and more effective campaign than we ever would have been able to pull off individually.

Over the past year, we've even started to apply this logic to organizing the unorganized. In partnership with the two other prairie provinces, we're talking about establishing a central organizing school similar to the one set-up by the Fed here in B.C. We're even talking about joint organizing drives. So instead of competing with each other, instead of working against each other - we're working together.

That's what we mean when we talk about cooperation between unions. We think solidarity should be more than a word we sing in a song every few years at conventions.

The third and final lesson that I'd like to highlight today is that we need to get over the fear of trying new things.

When the Alberta government first started slashing in 1993, we did all the usual things. We wrote a leaflet that almost no one read. We organized rallies that only a few hundred people attended. We sent out a few harshly worded press releases. We even circulated a petition and started a postcard campaign.

The problem was that we did exactly what Ralph Klein expected us to do - and he didn't give a crap. As long it was just the usual suspects on the Legislature steps he knew he could get away with ignoring us.

For two years, we were like Bart Simpson in that episode where he keeps touching the hot burner and saying 'ow'. We didn't learn. We kept doing the same things over and over again even though they didn't work.

The good news is that we finally snapped out of it thanks to a wildcat health care strike in Calgary. Several thousand people walked off the job spontaneously to protest cuts and contracting out. We mobilized the community. We mobilized the churches. People started honking their horns. They started bringing coffee and donuts to the picket lines. Right in Ralph Klein's home base.

And you know what? As a result of that strike - and all the support we mobilized in the community - the Klein government stopped cutting: at least in health care. They said they would never blink - but they canceled more than half a billion dollars in planned cuts.

Since then, we've done other things that have helped us win victories.

We borrowed from the corporate world by using TV ads, polling and direct mail campaigns. We borrowed from Hollywood by rounding up real life stories of people whose health had been compromised because they couldn't afford private MRIs. And just last month, we went back to old-style person-to-person organizing.

Through the Friends of Medicare coalition, we canvassed more than 20,000 people in Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan's Edmonton riding - and we got more than five thousand of them to sign a card saying they might not vote for her in the next election if she doesn't do something to stop for-profit delivery of health services.

The point of all this is not to illustrate how brilliant we are in Alberta. If we were really that brilliant, we wouldn't still be dealing with Ralph as Premier three elections later.

What I am trying to say is that unions can make change - even in the most inhospitable climates. We can make gains for our members and we can defend and even advance our broader social agenda. We can do it by building bridges to other groups. We can do it by working together within the labour movement. And we can do it by trying new things, by working better and working smarter.

In the end, I'm convinced that we can benefit from the spring thaw that is driving Canadians away from the business-first crowd. I'm convinced that unions like yours can make Gordon Campbell blink here in B.C. just like we made Ralph blink in Alberta. And I'm convinced that you can take Telus on and win a better deal for your members.

The pendulum is swinging our way. If we're prepared, if we're smart, if we're creative I know we can grab on make some real headway on the issues that matter most to all of us.

Thank you.


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