The Ontario Federation of Labour’s biennial convention starts on Monday. In addition to the hundreds of resolutions that will be voted on and the action plan that will be hotly debated, this convention will see an open election for the position of OFL President as outgoing president, Chris Buckley, will not be seeking another term.
There are two slates running for the OFL’s top executive positions. There’s “Vision Forward,” comprised of current OFL Executives Patty Coates (OSSFT) and Ahmed Gaied (UFCW) running for President and Secretary-Treasurer, respectively, and joined by Janice Folk-Dawson (CUPE) who is running for the position of Executive Vice-President.
Running against Vision Forward is the “Workers’ Action Movement,” which consists of Barry Conway (CUPE) running for the position of President and Kurt Young (SMWU) running for the position of Executive Vice-President. They are not running a candidate for the position of Secretary-Treasurer.
I caught up with Barry to chat about his history and his team, why he’s running for President of the OFL, and his vision for the labour movement.
EJ: First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What local are you from, how did you first get involved, and what has your journey been so far as a trade union activist?
BC: My name is Barry Conway and I’m with CUPE local 5167, as well as the Hamilton branch of the IWW [International Workers of the World].
I’ve always been involved in politics. I listened to a lot of punk music growing up, which was always very political. I started reading the jacket of the CD and it led me to literature on things that were happening in the wider world. So I’ve always been the type of person who tries to see the bigger picture and how things are connected.
When I became permanent full-time with City of Hamilton about 12 years ago, I worked in a dual classification (which means I had two job classifications: one for the parks department, and one for recreation department at a hockey arena). And one day we had just returned from the arena and our first pay was coming up. One of our workers went online and realized, “I don’t have any pay coming in for this Friday.” We all checked and realized there was no pay coming in for any of us, either. So I took the lead in trying to get ahold of the supervisor but he wasn’t available. I started calling payroll, and like any large corporation, it’s call this person, call that person — you end up going in circles.
I was young, so could I go a day or two without full pay? For sure. But I worked with two gentlemen that were on a fixed income, and one of them was a single income earner for a large family. This is money that they had pre-planed to make sure certain bills were paid, that rent was paid. It had to be there at a certain time.
So I said, “guys, stay here. I’m going to go get our paychecks.” I drove downtown to the payroll department and worked my way in, found the person’s office who I was on the phone with, sat down, introduced myself, and all I said was: “I’m not leaving without 3 paychecks for all permanent full-time people. I’m not sure who made the mistake, but there’s only two ways I’m leaving: one, with the paycheques, or two, the police can have me escorted out.”
He made one phone call and said payroll is cutting you all checks, they’ll be ready in an hour. I returned with everybody’s paycheck and a gentleman who I worked with, Bobby Brown, said: “How come you’re not our union steward?”
I said, “What’s a union steward?” [laughs]
“Exactly what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s someone who stands up for workers.”
And that was it. I put in to become a union steward and I never looked back. I started going to every single union meeting, became sergeant at arms, ran for office unsuccessfully, ran again and lost by under 10 votes, and eventually got in. And now I’m serving my 3rd time as Outside unit Vice President for CUPE 5167. It’s been a journey ever since.
EJ: In your local’s statement endorsing your campaign, they wrote: “Folks have shared stories of Barry at our membership meetings of how they went to another locals picket lines and everyone knew who Barry was, that he was well respected amongst the labour community. That respect didn’t come overnight.”
Can you reflect on those comments for a moment and talk about what solidarity means to you in practice?
BC: Actually that comment was made by a co-worker of mine named Larry. He’s one of our members that has gotten involved toward the end of his career. I think him and a few others came out to a meeting we held on the new contract negotiations to yell at us, but then realized there were people doing this work and he wanted to get involved. I brought him out to a picket line in Mississauga for CUPW when they were legislated back to work and that was his comments because folks knew who I was.
But that’s right, it wasn’t built overnight. If you generally care about workers and community, then you care about struggle. To care about struggle is to participate in that struggle. For me, that’s joining picket lines.
I just have such an admiration for workers who have identified their worth and won’t take anything less. And to me, that’s what a strike is. We’re worth this, and we’re going to fight for it. And once that’s identified, everybody needs to get behind it, because we’re all worth more than what we actually get.
Solidarity to me in practice is a multitude of things. It’s being the voice on the shop floor, or standing side by side with someone when they stand up for something so that they don’t have to go through it alone. Sometimes that brings harm to you as well — it puts a target on you. The employer can bully one person, but can they bully 10 of us? 50 of us? No.
That’s why I’m so proud that this past February, we had a work refusal in our waste collections department where every worker put in a refusal for unsafe conditions due to the ice.
The Ministry of Labour came in and said ‘we’d have to look at it individually at every house and every stop.’ Workers said, “no, this is our job, we know it. And we know it’s not safe to go out.”
Being down there with those workers, holding the caucus meeting with the health and safety reps, and being there to help disseminate information and give folks a clear understanding of the process — that was important to me.
I wasn’t the leader there. The leader there was the workers. I was merely there as a resource to ensure they had the facts and to use my role in the capacity that I could, which was going down to City Hall. I went down to yell at City Councillors, but then I saw the acting General Manager and just lost it on him.
When those folks said, “If we’re ordered to go back to work, we’re not.” I said, “That’s a wildcat. And I’m whole heartledly in support of it. And if I have to be the one on paper that leads it to take the hit, so be it.”
It was honestly the one moment in my career here when I actually had a tear in my eye. When folks said, “We’re all not going out, I don’t fucking care.” I actually had to wipe tears away. It was a magnificent thing to experience. And knowing it was coming from rank and file workers is the most powerful thing out there.
EJ: Building on your comments about showing solidarity in struggle, I think it’s fair to say that you see a larger social role for unions and labour organizers beyond the workplace. You’ve been active in Hamilton fighting for housing justice and shutting down hate and fascism, among others. Why is it important for the labour movement as a whole to take on these issues?
BC: They go hand in hand. The people facing those issues are workers, even if we don’t always recognize certain folks as workers and certain kinds of work as work. But every struggle is a shared struggle. I may have a bit more today, but that’s not to say I’ll have that tomorrow.
And even if it is that I have it tomorrow, it doesn’t mean it’s still not my fight. It’s still our collective responsibility to lift everybody up from the bottom. And that’s why it’s so important to connect with different groups organizing in our community.
As labour, we don’t have the answers to everything. We have to be working with each other because you learn so much when you’re working with folks who are doing a rent strike, when you’re working with folks who are shutting down hate and fascism, because they bring something else to the table that I could never bring. And it’s about sharing those ideas, tactics, and lived experiences.
I have a lot of privilege as a white, cis male. I need to participate in these things to learn more about other types of struggles, because it’s quite different out there for a lot of folks. And when we start listening to what other people are going through, then you can begin to understand how to be an actually ally.
But when we start dealing with issues around high rent — it was just reported in Hamilton that we had the highest rent increases over the last one or two years — that affects workers. We have a lot of precarious workers even within our own unions. You could get a job with the City of Hamilton, permanent full-time at the age of 20, and you’re not going out and buying a house in this city. That’s something that used to be able to happen, but it doesn’t exist anymore.
More and more of our members are renting and facing these struggles. And the reality for a lot of workers is that they are one or two paycheques away from being on the street. There’s so much to learn from each other and so much room to grow from each other. To not participate with one another is just losing out.
EJ: This is your second time running to be the OFL President. You first ran in 2017, and at that time you campaigned on the OFL having a bigger role to play in fighting the rise of fascism and on stopping the practice of raiding in the labour movement. This time, you are running under the banner of the ‘Workers Action Movement’. Can you tell us about your team and what the issues are motivating you to run again?
BC: The current team is myself running for President and Kurt Young from Sheetmetal Workers local 30. He is running for Executive Vice President. He’s a young worker of colour who has an amazing grasp of left politics both local and globally. He’s very passionate about wanting to make change in this movement, and is someone who is bold enough to say, ‘I don’t have to hold previous positions. I am somebody who can bring change and I’m going to run.”
Kurt is a member of the Workers’ Action Movement, and those folks reached out to me knowing I’d be running again and asked if we could work as a team.
We have a shared belief in bottom-up unionism and empowering frontline workers. And we have a shared politics of connecting with community and grassroots organizations, so it was a natural fit. I think it’s a reflection on the both of us that we can come together to work together on shared issues, and that’s something we would bring to the OFL.
I’m motivated to run again this year for the fact that I just haven’t seen much from the OFL. There’s been genuine discussions inside my own local like, ‘why are we affiliated? What are we getting out of the OFL?’ And I think that’s true in other unions, too.
I think we need to have more democratic structures in place, where the OFL can take direction from rank and file members and better understand the issues that workers are facing. We need to build something that’s actually empowering people. We need to be building up the confidence of folks and help them to understand that, collectively, we can make change, and that we don’t have to rely on electoral systems. That we are the people of this province that make it run and have the ability to be a strong voice.
EJ: In his first speech as OFL President in 2015, Chris Buckeley stated that the OFL has an important role to play in providing stronger, coordinated support for striking or locked-out workers. He proposed creating local flying squads to work with labour councils to ensure that workers “will never be defeated.” What is your impression of the federation’s progress on this promise over the last four years?
BC: I don’t think there has been any progress on that, and why I say that is a few months ago the OFL was doing a tour of labour councils in order to talk with folks about their action plan for taking on the Ford government.
Buckley came to Hamilton and have a speech and said that ‘to stop Ford our game plan is to talk to workers to ensure he gets unelected in the next election.’ If they had been working genuinely in the last 4 years on building flying squads for locked-out and striking workers then there’d be a network in place that would have allowed us to build toward a general strike in this province and to actually shut Ford down in his current term.
When you’re coming around and telling folks that our game plan is to go start talking to workers, to me that means you haven’t already been talking to workers and you haven’t build that infrastructure.
He comes to Hamilton where we’ve shut down numerous Canada Post sorting plants in support of CUPW when they called for solidarity. We shut down major intersections in solidarity with indigenous people. We’ve been doing things beyond talking to workers, and when I asked him about that, he got mad and said, “Well, had you been elected president…” and turned the whole room against him.
So I don’t see the work that’s been done in the last four years. If it has, then it certainly hasn’t been done in Hamilton by the OFL.
EJ: Connected to the question of fighting Doug Ford, shortly after the last provincial election the OFL put a countdown clock on their website to June 2, 2022, which is the next provincial election. Presumably, that will be when a progressive government can come to Ontario, and as of today, we’ve only got to wait 921 days! What does that tell you about the OFL’s approach to engaging workers in political struggle?
BC: It says to me what it says to everyone: they’re not.
We need to be building toward a more militant strategy and figuring out how can we shut down things in such a way that it will do economic harm to the current government and to the bosses.
We should be sending a message now — we shouldn’t be waiting in four year cycles to hopefully get in a more progressive government. And even then, when June 2022 comes, we’ll just be in arguments about what a progressive government really means — does it mean strategic voting? Endorsing other parties?
If we start genuinely building coalitions and building the empowerment of rank and file workers now, towards more militant actions that build their skill-set up — then it doesn’t matter who is elected, because we will have the power.
EJ: In WAM’s statement, “WAM is to the Bosses,” your team talks about the labour movement having “withered” after decades of concessions, increasing precarity, and ineffective strategy from existing labour leadership.
The statement points to a number of positive examples of working people fighting back — from students protests in Quebec to teachers revolting in the U.S. to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendency as Labour Party leader in the UK — but I wanted to ask you about your views on the grassroots organizing that has taken place in Ontario over the last several years as part of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Could you comment on the importance of that campaign and on the lessons you think it offers the labour movement moving forward in our fight against the Doug Ford government?
BC: When we look at the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, it’s achieved more than the OFL has. When we double-back and look at the Wynne government, they didn’t make changes to the ESA or decide to raise the minimum wage because there was pressure from organized labour to do so (although they like to sometimes take credit).
The reality is the pressure was put on by the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. They were the ones who were going out, doing the doorknocking, having conversations on street corners, and connecting with real working class people who have had enough. That was the pressure that was put on: ‘this system isn’t good enough for me’. And Kathleen Wynne was a smart politician who said, ‘Shit, people are getting angry. What’s the least we can do?”
Because the reality is, $15 is achievable but it’s not enough. Why aren’t we fighting for $24 and so much more? Well, it’s because we don’t yet have a labour movement that is militant enough to win it.
But $15 and Fairness is creating something very special, and it does reflect on what’s happening with the rent strikes here and the teachers’ strikes in the United States; it’s connecting workers around tangible issues that connect us all, and it breaks through so many lines of difference that the right-wing try to stoke and maintain.
When we talk about an increase in wages and the ability to have paid sick time, that affects everyone. They hit on something that connects people as people, and that you can’t divide us on. No matter who you are, this affects you and helps to make your life better.
The sad part is that the folks who most need $15 and Fairness are the most marginalized workers in our society, and those are the folks who are getting left behind by the OFL. And these are the folks who have the fight in them. Why aren’t we working more closely with these groups and learning from them?
I don’t think the OFL needs to be there to take over campaigns like $15 and Fairness and try to sideline it. We need to be there to be inspired by it, learn from it, and take these great tools that they have created and apply them within our own unions.
EJ: I have one last question, and it’s about what happens next.
There have been a number of “left” challenges to existing labour leadership over the last decade — be they at the CLC, in provincial federations or affiliates, and at local labour councils — but not a lot of activist infrastructure seems to survive beyond the conventions.
Regardless of the outcome of the OFL elections, WAM is arguing that we need “to build an independent, class struggle movement from below that is inclusive, transparent and accountable.” For those of us who share that vision, what steps do you think should be taken to make that a reality?
BC: If successfully elected as President of the OFL, our responsibility is to create the space for that to happen. Whether it be one large, separate type of convention, or we start doing more regional meetings, we need to be connecting folks together and creating that infrastructure. Who’s taking leads? Where are we seeing people that are doing the work and how can we pull them into the process and build them up as leaders?
I think if Kurt and I aren’t successful in our bid for top office, even if we’re close, it will send a message to the other team that they need to be working on building an infrastructure that actually connects rank and file members to the OFL. And we’ll continue to push to set-up things through our own locals and labour councils (which I’m proud to say is happening in Hamilton with the Hamilton and District Labour Council). We’re bulding these processes where there are fantastic debates on the labour council floor from all different affiliates, where we go out and have meaningful conversations with community groups.
For the OFL, maybe that means creating a side structure where we have these democratic processes and where folks who are non-union can participate and have a vote as well, because it’s very important that we do not leave out the voices of non-unionized workers.
This is collectively all our struggle, and to think that just because we’re unionized we have this privilege to move forward in the best interest of everybody is foolish. Because when we do, we leave so many potential leaders behind, we leave so many potential amazing rank and file people behind that have so many beautiful visions, ideas and skills that can be nurtured through new structures. But that won’t happen unless there is a will and a vision to build it.