Struggles greater than ourselves

Strength is found in community as the AFL reflects on 100 years of organizing

This month the Alberta Federation of Labour is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Celebratory activities to date have included the publication of a book, unveiling of monuments and plaques, displays in galleries, museums and libraries around the province, a concert tour by Maria Dunn, a labour history conference, a homecoming dinner for current and former staff and elected members, and many more.

But the event that most stands out for me is the full day celebration that took place at Fort Edmonton Park last Saturday. The celebration included music, videos, speeches, retrospectives, games for the kids, a tea for seniors, a beer garden and a terrific meal.

None of those is what made the event stand out, however. What did were the people and the energy they shared. Front-line union members, executives, and staff were expected, but the presence of activists from around the province, community leaders, city councillors, MLAs, artists and musicians, reps from various non-profit organizations, and people from across generations made it more than just another labour event. It was a community coming together and a celebration in the truest sense of the word, and it was fun. Perhaps none of that should have come as a surprise, but it did.

Across Alberta and Canada unions are under attack by governments determined to undo progress made over the last 100 years, and reverse the benefits that workers have fought for and won not just for themselves, but for our entire society.

At the same time, non-profits, community organizations, seniors, environmental organizations and advocacy groups are also under attack. Programming is being de-funded, activists of all types are being demonized and dissent is being squashed.

To hear conservative politicians and the mainstream media tell it, unions are obsolete and irrelevant, but the atmosphere and attitudes of people attending Saturday's events revealed a different perception.

Bringing together all of these groups as a community for a genuine day of celebration in the midst of these challenging times is no small feat. It was impressive, and the AFL is to be commended for the accomplishment. Beyond being impressive, however, Saturday's event was important.

It was important because it highlighted the power of community and celebration to folks engaged in the difficult task of bringing progressive change to our province and country. It's too easy to focus on the challenges and the losses, and get caught up in the immediate imperative of our particular issues and our particular organizations.

Coming together to celebrate reminds that we are not alone in our struggles and that we have achieved great things. Coming together as a broad community, with our children, elders and friends, reminds us of why we are engaged in the struggle in the first place and gives us the strength and motivation to keep going.

It was also important because it showed the way forward. The challenges we face today are significant, and in many ways too large and daunting for any one individual or organization to take on alone. Events like Saturday's remind us that we are not alone—that there are many others around us who share a big picture vision of the society we want. The challenge is for all of us to move beyond our egos and our singular focus on our particular issues and organizations, and to strategize together on how we make progress on the goals that unite us.

The Alberta Federation of Labour was born when Alberta's farmers, urban workers and rural workers came to the realization that in many ways their struggles were one and the same. One hundred years later we need to come to the realization that the struggles of environmentalists, seniors, first nations, the poor and community activists also have much in common with the struggles of unions and workers. Let's honour the example of those AFL pioneers, and the lessons of last Saturday, and begin moving forward together in ways that will ensure that in a 100 years those who come next will also have something to celebrate. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

Vue Weekly, June 20, 2012

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