Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal for Workers this Labour Day


By CAW President Ken Lewenza

August 30, 2012

Over the last century, trade unions have been a powerful force for change in Canadian workplaces and Canadian society more generally. Millions of workers have placed their faith in their union as a vehicle for improving their lives and those of their family. Today union density is declining and with it our collective standard of living. It’s no coincidence that as fewer workers have access to a union contract, fewer see their incomes keep pace with the cost of living and many are just scraping by.

In a survey published this week just in time for Labour Day, nearly two thirds of respondents said they felt optimistic about their job security for the next year.  (I can’t help but wonder if this optimism comes from comparing ourselves to the bleak situation in Europe and our neighbours to the south).

Of this same poll, conducted for the Bank of Montreal, approximately one fifth of respondents said they felt stuck in dead end jobs. It is this group I’m most concerned about.  If these numbers are representative of the Canadian population overall, then that means millions are stuck in jobs they don’t want, earning less than what they need, without the prospect of anything better on the horizon. 

This is the real challenge for unions – to reach out to precariously employed, low-wage, part-time and temporary workers, including those new to Canada and those who participate in migrant work programs. There are vast legions of workers stuck in the same situation and it is this diverse group that is most in need of help.  When we look back years from now, I believe the worth of unions will be measured against our success in organizing and improving the lives of these precarious workers.

However great, I know we’re up to the task. There is much cause for hope and excitement. The CAW and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) are planning to take the dramatic action of combining forces to take on this and other challenges within today’s economy. Already the CAW has voted to join with the CEP to form a new union.  One final vote is needed - delegates to the CEP Convention will cast their ballot in October.
Part of this new initiative will be unprecedented outreach to unorganized workers – through community-based local unions, with the help of an organizing fund of $50 million. Local unions will be hubs of activity for workers’ rights and awareness, providing services to the membership and affiliated community members. A new membership model will allow for the organization to be a truly inclusive national general workers union – a genuine home for all working people, regardless of their profession, job, or employment status.

As unions, we must innovate. Organizations like unions are living entities, moving and shifting as need be. This shift that we’re now making is a profound one, a dramatic one and a thrilling one.  Workers of any origin or status will soon have the unhindered choice to join a union – I’m confident that thousands will.

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