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Unions and political positions

Carolyn Egan

November 4, 2017

Trade unions have historically taken up issues outside the economic and working conditions of their members.

Catalan solidarity

We have seen unions in Catalan call a general strike to protest the repression of the Spanish state against people taking part in the referendum on independence. Catalonians were beaten and bloodied as they attempted to cast their ballots. Polling stations were shut down. Activists were arrested. Some unions had positions supporting independence, others did not, but most all of them joined together and participated in a work stoppage taking on the brutality and anti-democratic attacks of the government in Madrid.

This working class solidarity in support of a people’s right to self determination is critical. Recently a meeting took place in Montreal at which unions such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers took part in initiating a campaign in support of self determination of Catalan. Other unions should take this up as well.


Recently members of the United Steelworkers in Toronto took part in a rally protesting an alt-right demonstration that gathered at city hall square intending to march through the city. It drew the Golden Dawn, the Northern Alliance, the Proud Boys and other neo-Nazis. They held placards which said, “No to Globalism, No to Communism, No to Feminism, No to Islamism” and “LGBT Agenda at War with Free Speech.” They were spewing hate and actively provoking counter protesters.

A member of the union was at the event supporting the rightwing demonstration called under the guise of being anti-Trudeau (signs called out “Jihadi Justin” objecting to the compensation given to Omar Khadr). He sent a letter to his local objecting to USW flags being present and arguing that the union should not be taking this type of political stance. The racist and Islamophobic nature of the event was pointed out in a response to him and the union will continue to take an active role in confronting racists and bigots.

It is not lost on the alt-right that unions representing the organized working class bring a lot of social weight to a struggle, and they do not want labour to be an active participant in opposing their right wing ideology.

Building from below

If you look at other struggles the role of labour was very significant. In the anti-war movement it was a step by step process building a consensus against the war. Activists brought resolutions first to local labour councils where the issue was debated, and one council after another took a position against the war. This then moved on to union conventions where once again discussions took place on the floor and motions were passed. The next step was to move on to provincial federations of labour across the country and then the Canadian Labour Congress. All the while groups such as Trade Unionists Against the War were actively engaging rank and file members broadening the understanding of the issues at stake and became actively involved in the debates. These groups built union contingents in the anti-war demonstrations. It was also union locals that put resolutions forward to the federal New Democratic Party along with riding associations which led to the party taking an anti-war position. This process was extremely important in building a broad anti-war movement in this country.

Trade unions must continue to play a role in the political struggles that working class people are dealing with every day of our lives. We must not allow those who are opposed to a just and better world for all to pressure our unions into silence on such critical issues. 

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