By Carmel Smyth, National President, CMG
An enthusiastic crowd of about 1,500 delegates gathered in Pittsburgh for the bi-annual CWA convention. (Our parent union, representing half a million workers in the U.S .and Canada).
In a departure from the usual low-key introductions, we were treated to Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World” blaring from the speakers and something I never thought I’d see, CWA President Larry Cohen rapping into a handheld mic. ”Whazzup CWA”. The message? Get with the times, get moving, get organized. And as we soon heard, with thousands of boomers expected to retire soon, if unions are to remain relevant, we all have to be connecting with young and diverse new members.
Over the next two days we heard about the many troubles facing unions, from declining membership and revenue, to increasingly harsh legal and political environments, a retiring generation and the shortage of younger members to replace them, the continuing lack of diversity, and our inability to improve the image of labour. Cohen was blunt, “Our bargaining rights are being crushed, and we are doomed to fail unless we join forces with like-minded groups and become part of a (social) movement,” he concluded.
Cohen was talking about the U.S., but it’s the same in Canada where Ottawa seems determined to keep delivering bad news for labour, at a time when political decisions seem more focused on advancing the rights of unfettered capitalism and striking down laws that protect working people.
Cohen spent the convention convincing us unions have to expand our narrow focus, and start working with other advocates, activists and community groups to build a more tolerant society. In short, a return to our roots, when union was synonymous with progressive causes; like fighting racism, supporting gay rights, lobbying for political reform, and protesting the exploitation of domestic and agricultural workers. In Canada, I would also add supporting Indigineous communities, the student rebellion in Québec and the Occupy movement.
In a moving moment, a young Latino American worker shared his pride that CWA (his union) is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform. That’s what Cohen wants to hear. Our problem, the global decline of decent jobs and middle class opportunities is too big to solve alone, and a renewed focus on social justice issues, in addition to bargaining, could strengthen the causes we are all fighting for, while restoring the pride a previous union generation grew up with.
In his address, U.S. Steel President Leo Gerard quipped, “Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela didn’t sit down and write letters of protest to the Queen, …..they got up, and marched.” Peaceful protests of course, but a physical commitment is required at this juncture. Both leaders stressed unions are being forced to become more political, Gerard ended with a proverb, “If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re heading”.
And in both Canada and the U.S. it’s clear we are headed in a bad direction, particularly for media unions dealing with a double crisis: declining union density, and an industry in transition. To finance the new “old” direction, we are being urged to focus less on servicing, and more on movement building (and organizing). To hear Cohen tell it, it’s not a choice, “if we don’t embrace growth, we will be irrelevant (or worse) in ten years.”
The good news? We are already running in the new direction, reaching out, actively looking for other related workplaces, communications, ezines, and digital workplaces with staff who need the help of a good union. As JFK mused “a rising tide raises all boats” and that is our mantra going forward.
In other good news, and while we hope we never have to use it, delegates voted to increase weekly strike pay from $300 to $400 after the eighth week of a strike.