By Cindy McCallum Miller http://newsocialist.org
This year’s Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention might be worth attending after all. With a presidential challenge in the air, labour leaders will have to trade in their silk shirts for a pair of overalls to show they still are connected to the working class in order to seek the support of delegates. But it will take more than a fashion change to rebuild the dormant and disillusioned labour movement. That is what activists hope challenger Hassan Husseini will bring to the House of Labour.
Since Ken Georgetti took over as the president of the CLC in 1999, unions have taken a virtual ass-kicking without much response except stern finger-wagging and empty threats from the top of labour’s hierarchy. Other than video contests and warm and fuzzy pro-labour TV ads, rank and file workers who wear boot prints of the government-business tag team have seen very little from our “movement.” In fact, the movement is stalled, virtually paralyzed and rapidly dissolving as a new generation of workers wonders “why bother?” and an older generation loses its stamina and militancy in the march towards retirement insecurity.
One by one, many unions have faced the Harper government’s vitriolic abuse alone. The top leadership remains relatively unscathed as workers see their collective agreements shredded and the employer’s grip get stronger around our throats. The silence from the CLC is deafening. Their press releases are ignored by corporate media and their hollow speeches dissipate as workers wonder what will happen next. Labour councils struggle and in most communities, become irrelevant from neglect. The movement is dying to be rekindled but it will not happen under the current leadership’s inertia
Brother Husseini comes from a labour background and has immersed himself in defending working people’s rights as a national negotiator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He is no stranger to the inner workings of the CLC, having been appointed as a national representative in the Political Action department. Maybe, just maybe, because he is not holding a national union executive position, he might have the ability to see outside our current limitations and envision a way to rebuild our crumpled spirit.
Husseini says he wants to build a grassroots movement to stop the corporate agenda and return control of the CLC to workers. That has often been a rallying cry, but in reality the CLC has never been controlled by workers. It is a bureaucratic monolith neatly crafted by high-level union officials. Elections are usually won or lost in back-room solicitations between candidates’ campaigners and national leaders, who then sell their delegations on the candidate of choice.
However, once in a while, slates are broken by the heart and passion of workers demanding their democratic voice. Jean-Claude Parrot was an example of slate shattering when grassroots activists joined the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in a call for action and propelled him into an Executive Vice President’s position two decades ago. If Husseini can ignite hearts and inspire possibilities in disillusioned activists, and if battle-weary union leaders want to inject life into a comatose movement, then Brother Husseini might well be the next President. The status quo is killing us. Even a renewed labour movement is incapable of waging and winning battles against the combined force of business and government if it tries to do so alone. No progressive organization has been left unscathed by Harper’s cronies and the tactic of multilayered attacks has left many groups flailing for survival. Husseini’s challenge for the top CLC position may prove to be an opportunity for activists inside and outside the labour movement to join forces and start a convulsion at the community level. We can be a substantial threat if we combine determination with resources and political will.
Will Husseini use this challenge to mobilize a coalition of First Nations, women, environmentalists, food sovereigntists, students and human rights activists along with labour hopefuls to rekindle the belief that people can take back not just our CLC, but our democracy? A grassroots movement will require the full participation of social partners in order to stem the Conservative mud slide that threatens to irrevocably change the landscape currently redefining our future. Perhaps this challenge will poke a sleepy giant into action. Perhaps the spark of hope will galvanize activists in every corner to renew their vigour. Win or lose, if the challenge creates momentum, we will move toward reclamation. Spring has arrived. It’s time to emerge from hibernation.
Cindy McCallum Miller is a rank and file postal worker holding a history littered with union positions and political activism. She is currently the Vice President of CUPW’s Castlegar Local and a delegate to the West Kootenay and District Labour Council in BC.