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Rebuilding unions to confront "right-to-work"

Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux

April 2, 2013

On March 2 there was a gathering of over 700 trade unionists at a Workers’ Rights Conference held by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. Most were grass roots activists wanting to learn how to fight back against the possibility of “right to work” legislation coming to Ontario.
Tim Hudak, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, has made it clear that if elected he intends to implement anti-union legislation as we have seen in the United States. Workers could choose not to be a member of the union at an organized workplace and opt out of paying union dues. They would become “free riders” having the protection of the union, the benefits of collective bargaining, but not having to support the union through dues or in any other way.
Employers would also not have to collect dues through payroll deduction. That burden would fall to the local union. It would create a bureaucratic nightmare for union representatives and be an extremely time-consuming endeavor, taking stewards away from defending members and organizing on political issues. 
The state of Michigan, which had been viewed as the heart of the trade union movement in the US, recently passed such legislation over the strong objection of workers. It is a northern state just across the border from Canada and the shock wave has hit Canadian unions hard. There is no doubt that unions would be weakened if anything of this sort was passed in Ontario. This is one more assault on working people and has to be fought and defeated.
Anti-union propaganda
Huge sums of money have been spent on public relations campaigns to bring the anti-union message to the public.  We have seen the insidious attempts to divide union from non-union workers, public sector from private sector. There have been successful campaigns to elect conservative governments as in the state of Wisconsin. Scott Walker, a Tea Party stalwart, ran successfully for governor and introduced legislation stripping public sector unions of their most basic rights.
In spite of a massive fight back, including the sustained occupation of the state legislature which inspired workers across North America, Scott Walker was narrowly re-elected in a recall election. Through the “politics of envy” fueled by the millions donated by right wing business leaders, they were able to separate people from their own self-interest. The right demonized public sector workers with their supposed “gold plated pensions”, decent wages and benefits. It is a race to the bottom pitting those who are struggling to survive against unionized workers who have fought for a reasonable standard of living, obscuring the real enemy--the corporations and the governments that they control.
The tactics they use are very slick, talking about “choice” and “freedom in the work place.” “Why should unions grow rich on your dues while you are struggling to provide a decent life for yourself and your family,” they ask. Sadly in right-to-work states in the US, often over 50 per cent of workers make the choice to stop paying their dues. This shows both how wide the impact is of the employer tactics, and how unions have not connected to the rank-and-file, and have not listened to the needs of workers or defended their interests. The statistics would not be very different in Canada for the same reasons.
Rebuilding from the bottom up
The fact that the Toronto and York Region Labour Council has taken the initiative to quick start a campaign to go deep into our unions and connect face to face with every member is an important step forward. Its intent is to inoculate workers against the anti-union message but it also provides an historic opportunity to rebuild our unions from the bottom up. For too long the members have been a stage army to be called out when needed but not expected to take a role in determining the direction of their unions. They have not been involved in building the activist base necessary to fight back against the austerity agenda and the attacks on jobs, wages and working conditions. Unfortunately, concession contracts have been the name of the game.
This campaign is an excellent opportunity for activists to fully engage with their fellow workers. We know the role of the organized working class in winning critical gains for workers and the poor. It has shaped society in so many ways including winning the eight hour day, the weekend, parental leave, health and safety legislation etc. Workers have to remember the incredible working class legacy that exists and how their collective strength outweighs the power of the corporations.
In order to show the lies of the anti-union forces and collectively work through why unions are so important in a workplace, activists have to listen to the concerns being voiced, the criticisms that exist, and take on the arguments of the right. In every workplace we have to understand who are the strong union supporters, who is against the union, and the large grouping in the middle and how it breaks down. We have to win the hearts and minds of our fellow workers.
Where we work we have to, along with others, have meetings in the lunch rooms, do plant gate leafleting and have face-to-face conversations with every worker. We have to tap into their issues, their need for a voice and help to organize along side them a potent force in every workplace.
Our unions have to change from the bottom up and we have to be part of that change. Our role is to help make every worker feel that they are the union, and that there is something very concrete to be won or lost. Workers must feel that they can rebuild a member-controlled union that will make a difference in their lives.

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