by Haseena Manek
Thirteen labour council presidents from across Canada have signed onto an open letter calling for the theme of Labour Day 2019 to be #UniteAgainstRacism.
The letter was released by the Migrant Rights Network (MRN) as part of their ongoing anti-racism campaign. It calls for the labour movement to endorse the campaign by making #UniteAgainstRacism the theme for their Labour Day events, as well as participating in trainings and webinars about racism and migrant justice made available by MRN, and taking part in a national day of action on June 16.
“The ask is either join an existing mobilization in your community or organize one,” said Preethy Sivakumar of MRN in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “It could look like a workplace action. It doesn’t have to be massive; we’re just asking everyone to publicly demonstrate and show solidarity.”
MRN includes over 50 unions and community organizations across Canada. It was formed in December 2018 and describes itself as “a cross-Canada alliance to combat racism and fight for migrant justice”.
The thirteen signatories on the letter so far include labour council presidents from Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Sivakumar explains that by engaging local labour councils, the campaign will reach workers and union members at different levels of the labour movement.
“Labour councils exist in a really unique place that way,” she says, “because they are active in their own communities, they’re active locally, they’re activated at a grassroots level. They’re connected with not just the labour union but also the community organizations.”
The letter addresses anti-immigrant and anti-migrant rhetoric in workplaces and in Canadian electoral politics and calls on the labour movement to take a leading role in fighting back against the recent resurgence of white supremacy and economic austerity in Canada for the sake of protecting all workers regardless of race or status.
Migrant Rights Network, 2019
The goal of the campaign, says Sivakumar, is “to make sure we are inoculating people against the right wing using racism to divide us and to gain power.”
Divide and conquer
The issue is not just ensuring protections for racialized and non-status workers. It’s also recognizing that there is a relationship between the rise of the racist right-wing and the ‘Blue wave’ of conservative governments at the provincial level pushing austerity measures. They are not two separate but coinciding phenomena, says MRN, but actually go hand in hand as part of a push for increased economic inequality. By sowing dissension amongst the working class they prevent us from resisting cuts to protections and services and higher profits for bosses. Opposition to austerity must therefore include opposition to racism.
“Right now, what’s happening in Canada is we’re seeing a slate of right-wing governments being elected across the country,” says Sivakumar. “And what are all these right wing governments doing? They’re using racism as a weapon to win votes. Once they gain power, what they’re doing is pushing austerity budgets, deepening poverty, and attacking workers’ rights. Unions have an active interest in ensuring that racism doesn’t get used as such a weapon by the right wing to attack workers’ rights.”
“This is a labour issue and it always has been a labour issue,” says Edmonton and Districct Labour Council President Greg Mady, one of the initial signatories of the letter, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “Basically since the advent of worker politics, the ruling class has always tried to divide us. There has always been attempts to put racism in the trades and say ‘Oh this group of people does shoddy work so we don’t want them around’ or ‘we do better work’ and stuff like that. And by dividing us, they can ensure that they continue to exploit us.”
A familiar strategy, the recent rise in racist rhetoric and hate crimes across the country means that working class Canadians are pitted against each other and “distracted” from the real sources of their oppression. These are bosses, CEOs, and, especially, economic austerity measures from recently elected Conservative provincial governments like that in Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec.
“This is something that’s happening, this is something that’s real, and this is something that’s ramping up,” Mady says of the spike in racist incidents in Alberta – currently at the highest rate in the country. “If we thought we had defeated this in the past it’s obvious we haven’t.”
Mady says he signed on to “acknowledge this extremism is on the rise in Canada and as a labour movement we are actively against it.”
“We definitely need to keep in mind that every worker is deserving of a certain level of dignity and respect and we’re all in this together and the more we fight amongst ourselves, the more we continue to be exploited.”
Mady explains that in Edmonton they are already dealing with attacks on workers from Premier Jason Kenney, elected under two months ago. Kenney was a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years before entering provincial politics, and was Minister of Employment and Social Development during the 2014 reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Mady describes him as “one of the godfathers of the [TFWP], which was essentially invented to bring it people from other countries to do work for less money to drive down wages in Alberta and the rest of Canada.”
But, continues Mady, “it really doesn’t matter what your status is. Are you a temporary foreign worker? Are you an undocumented worker? Are you 16? 27? Of any visible race or religion? It’s that you deserve a fundamental, a basic treatment within our current economic system. We need to make sure as a labour movement that we are fighting for that for everybody.”
The Unite Against Racism Campaign
“When we’re saying unite against racism,” explains Sivakumar, “what we mean by that is we want to demonstrate publicly on June 16 and Labour Day, and we want labour unions to have an opportunity to show leadership in coming together and making sure we’re saying no worker will be left behind, workers will not be divided, we’re not going to let the bosses or right-wing politicians split us up and have us fighting each other instead of fighting our actual enemy, the 1%.”
The MRN strategy is twofold: The first part includes popular actions like those on June 16 and Labour Day and the second part is comprehensive and widespread popular education (through trainings and webinars mentioned above), which she describes as internal (within migrant advocacy groups) and external (within other community organizations, unions, etc.). The goal is to provide people with the tools to address and debunk myths about migrant workers and address xenophobic rhetoric.
“So when we say we’re doing popular education, this is movement work,” says Sivakumar. ”It’s to build towards a completely transformed society where all of our needs can be met. And right now that’s not possible as long as a tiny, tiny, tiny group of people have immense wealth and are keeping us distracted.”
So far trainings have had a lot of interest. Many have been fully attended and the response has been positive.
Sivakumar says of the education-based approach: “The interesting thing is workers are getting tools about how to talk to their co-workers about anti-migrant myths and about racist and xenophobic myths that serve the boss and not the workers. And so they’re getting those tools so they can go in, whether it’s a lunchroom discussion or there’s an existing union meeting and they can get 15 minutes on the agenda to talk about this.”
The idea is that between public action and popular education (which can lead to informal learning between workers), myths about immigrant communities and migrant workers can be dispelled and workers across communities can unite to resist oppressive policies and austerity measures.
“It’s those conversations that workers have with other workers,” she says. “And everyone in the union movement knows this, that’s the way to get power. It starts with having those worker to worker conversations and then asking them to join something and then organizing them to have their power, collectively.”
From Edmonton, Mady is challenging other labour council presidents across Alberta to sign on and make it the first province to fully endorse the #UniteAgainstRacism campaign.
Looking forward, Sivakumar explains that ahead of the next federal election, the campaigns education initiatives will be vital. She expects racism, anti-immigrant and anti-migrant language to come up in federal election campaign rhetoric. She explains that the campaign is long-term and one part of broader efforts to support working class Canadians.
“I think that if we get labour councils and unions across the country to unite against racism for Labour Day, it sends the message that we will not be divided as a working class,” says Sivakumar. “That means we can turn the tide against the 1%, and we can actually win power and we can win decent lives for us all.”