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November 30, 2008

Toronto ‘Good Jobs for All Summit’ Builds Unity of Working People

By Robert Johnson. The “Good Jobs For All Summit” in Toronto on November 22 was good news for labour – an important advance in building the unity of all working people. Of the approximately 900 who took part in the one-day conference, about half were workers who are not union members, and many were from oppressed minorities.

The initiative for the conference came from the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, which brought together more than 30 local unions and community-based advocacy groups in the Good Jobs Coalition. Meetings were held in various communities to prepare for the event. These efforts proved fruitful; attendance was more than twice what organizers had expected.

The gathering continued the spirit of the Ontario Federation of Labour initiative last year when the OFL combined with community groups and the New Democratic Party (NDP) in a powerful campaign for an immediate increase in the minimum wage from $8 to $10. The pressure forced the provincial government to legislate an increase to $10.25 by the end of 2010.

A fighting, multinational working class

Toronto is one of the most nationally diverse cities in the world, and this was strongly reflected in the conference. At least a third of the participants were people of colour. The conference opened with a First Nations welcome. The proceedings were translated into Tamil, Chinese, and Somali, and a dozen different languages were used when the final declaration was read to the conference.

The three hours devoted to workshops marked the high point of the day. Women and members of oppressed nationalities played prominent roles in these discussions. Participants, some members of a union, others not, described the many ways that they are abused in their work, living conditions, and legal status.

But the presentations and discussions did more than describe such exploitation. In most cases, the same workers described how they have been fighting back, often with the support of local unions and/or community advocacy groups. I was particularly moved by three presentations – one by a immigrant farm worker from Trinidad, one by a live-in caregiver from the Philippines, and another by an Asian-Canadian auto parts factory worker.

Organizing among the most oppressed

Participants in the workshops were able to learn more about union organizing efforts, for example by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which is organizing farm workers, and by UNITE-HERE, which is organizing hotel staff. Rank and file workers involved in these struggles participated actively in the workshops that I attended.

The design of the workshops and above all the active participation of these workers in them reinforced a strong sense of solidarity between workers who are in unions and those who are not, with a particular stress on solidarity with the most oppressed and exploited members of our class.

Another common theme was the need for union members to support the struggles of other unions.

Overall, the attendees were not particularly young, but the leaders of the workshops that I observed appeared to me to be approximately 25 to 35 years old. They spoke and acted with the confidence of people seasoned in struggles. A good number were women.

The Good Jobs Coalition supports a number of community and labour campaigns for social justice. These were promoted throughout the conference by participants, aided by about a dozen different literature tables.

For example, “Equal Pay For Equal Work” is a campaign of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) that demands fair treatment for part-time and temporary workers. “Justice for Janitors,” a division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), fights against the abusive wages and working conditions of cleaning staff, many of whom service the offices of Canada’s richest corporations. The Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care has been promoting universally accessible, quality, non-profit regulated child care since 1981.

Limitations and uneven participation

The conference also reflected the limitations of the prevailing union leadership. The leadership’s orientation of class collaborationism was most apparent in the tone and content of the opening plenary session, which resembled that of many routine union gatherings, and in the presentations of Dave Foster and Maria Elena Durazo, two of the keynote speakers.

Deena Ladd, the other keynote speaker, took a different approach. She gave a hard-hitting talk that introduced many of the themes that were taken up in the workshops. Ladd is the coordinator of the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, which defends such groups as low-wage immigrant workers, women, racial minorities, and people in precarious jobs.

The same limitations were expressed in the final declaration of the conference.

Judging by the contributions that I heard during the workshop sessions, union attendance at the conference was uneven. The strongest participation came from unions and locals that have been involved in the struggles that were being discussed, notably some locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, UNITE HERE, the UFCW, and the SEIU. I heard no contributions from production workers in the big auto or steel plants, although they may have been present.

Both NDP federal leader Jack Layton, and Olivia Chow, the Member of Parliament for Trinity-Spadina, attended; Chow participated in the workshop on immigration policy and labour, but these were the only signs of an NDP presence that I observed.

The meeting adjourned without deciding on any concrete steps to advance the campaign for good jobs. I understand that the organizers will meet soon to consider how to follow up on their success.

A glimpse of labour’s future

Taken as a whole, the Good Jobs For All Summit registered an important advance toward the goal of uniting all workers. It also provided a glimpse of what the labour movement can and must become as the class struggle deepens – the spearhead of a broad social movement fighting on behalf of all toilers for social justice and for a better world.

The Summit was the product of months of organizing by labour and community activists. Other labour councils and federations can learn from their example.

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