As a young worker and a delegate to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) 2014 Convention held last week in Montreal, I heard much about how young workers were taking our place in the CLC. In my experience, however, I would say that young workers are taking our place despite the CLC.
The CLC is a behemoth that is largely run by a combination of the fickle egos of the leadership of Canada’s largest unions and an antiquated the-way-we-have-always-done-things process. Although motions can technically come from a variety of places and any delegate is supposed to be able to have the right to speak on the issues, the reality is quite different. Motions are negotiated and watered down behind closed doors by a council of top union leadership, microphones and comments are largely managed by the union affiliates, and most elections, at least until this convention, are decided beforehand.
For young workers – who are often at the forefront of the anti-worker austerity agenda of today’s governments of all levels – the first day of the CLC convention was disheartening. With levels of unionization in Canada stagnating, union leaders were falling over each other to wax poetic about union renewal and diversity. However, of the initial approximately 3000 convention delegates – the vast majority of which were overwhelming white – only 108 young workers were registered. Moreover, the bulk of union leaders were falling in line to support the election of incumbent CLC President Ken Georgetti – who had held the position for 15 years had a history of anti-mobilization strategies and was even accused of sexism by a fellow executive officer.
However, on the second day of the convention, the attitude of young workers began to change. We began to organize outside of the regular structure and norms of the CLC. We were meeting in the evenings as a group to discuss and strategize, often in contrast to the positions of our respective union affiliates. Many began actively supporting the emergent campaign of grassroots presidential candidate Hassan Husseini and some of the other candidates opposed to the Georgetti-led slate. Several motions were identified, such as those containing language about young worker representation and age-discriminatory two-tiered collective bargaining, which we wanted to speak to collectively and attempt to strengthen.
By the third day, young workers had gained confidence and began taking control of the spaces that we could. Despite objections from CLC staff, we forced an impromptu debate for the candidates running for VP Young Worker. The debate included a lively discussion about the absurdity of holding a “Young Workers election forum” which didn’t include space for questions for the candidates, about the frustrations of being pressured by our respective union affiliates to vote in certain ways (or in the case of one would-be candidate, not getting their required blessing to run for elected positions), as well as young workers’ desire to bring political action to the shop floor and the streets, as opposed to the CLC strategy of waiting for change mainly through the ballot box.
Immediately after the election forum, young workers decided to stay and strategize for the upcoming vote on the convention floor on two-tiered collective bargaining – a practice that is creating two completely different levels of pay and benefits for young workers, immigrants, and other new workers compared to every other worker in the same workplace. This organizing eventually led to an amendment – which is not technically even allowed at the CLC from the convention floor – with much stronger language condemning two-tiered bargaining. The fight for the amendment was one of the most powerful displays of unity on the convention floor as young workers stood as a group behind every young worker speaking at the microphone during the debate.
The third day of the convention also included a presentation at the young workers caucus from Baristas Rise Up – a movement that is successfully unionizing coffee shop employees in Halifax. Shelby Kennedy and Charlie Huntely – who were part of successful union drives at a Second Cup and Just Us! Café – led an engaging discussion about the challenges of unionizing the young and precariously employed. These challenges are compounded by the fact that a majority of young workers have no idea what unions are or why they may benefit from joining one – not to mention the hesitancy from many unions to organize the smaller workplace where young workers are employed. Interestingly, this panel was the only event organized at the convention that discussed tactics and new or ongoing attempt to organize workplaces – either contemporary precarious workplaces or traditional more stable ones.
Within and without the traditional structures and processes of Canadian organized labour, young workers are beginning to reshape the union landscape. With the changing realities of employment, the increasing disparities of educational attainment due to massive tuition fees and lack of apprenticeships, and the rapidly changing demographics of the workplace, young workers face very different realities than the generation currently at the helm of Canada’s union movement did when they entered the workforce. We need our unions to adapt with and for us. They won’t change without a struggle – but in my experience with the young workers at the CLC, with young workers becoming active in our workplaces, on our campuses, and in our communities, I have seen that today’s youth tend not to shy away from a struggle.