by Chris Schenk

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the many challenges and problems facing the world we live in today. Such challenges confront many of us on a daily basis. They point to the dire need for a better workplace and a better world.

Change seems impossible. A multitude of huge problems appear to overwhelm any possible solutions. Yet there also exist a number of factors that assist change. At their most fundamental these factors are not monetary or technical resources, institutions or even progressive labour legislation, as important as these are. Rather, the basis of the labour movement’s power is its ability to involve, mobilize and give voice to the concerns, interests, fears and hopes of millions of working people. For those of us without big money or holding high positions of political power, it is large numbers of people acting collectively – in solidarity – for their own needs and aspirations, that can make a difference. This collectivety is the base of our political power and if activated, educated and developed, has the potential strength to lead the process of social change.

It is for this reason – the building of solidarity, of power – that it is important for unions to build a new organizational culture: one focused on more inclusive and participatory democracy, on membership involvement and  empowerment, on traditions of struggle for change in the workplace and society at large.

In addition to increased membership engagement other factors facilitating progressive change include: effective union leadership; strategic planning; proper resource allocation; improved communication with members and the broader community; equality of gender and sexual orientation and successes at the bargaining table and in union/community campaigns. The latter will serve to both improve worker’s quality of life, income security and to inspire and further activate union members and community allies.

It is also important to redouble union efforts to critically educate ourselves so that all our members are aware of the issues involved. Developing a critical perspective on events in our workplaces and the world around us is vitally important to revitalizing our unions and promote change. At the same time we need to offer alternatives. The problems we see need positive solutions if we are to build and attract allies to our cause.

Our specific reforms need to be wrapped in a broad alternative vision of a better world. A world dominated by social equality not the massive inequality we see today, of social justice not injustice, of the prosperity of all not the poverty of millions, of production for the social needs of everyone rather than the profits of an already rich minority and a world without the rampant environmental degradation we find around us. Such a vision can inspire hope for the future and breathe new action in labour’s ranks.

Although these factors are not always optimal in the Canadian union movement, they are far from absent. To the extent they exist they can be built on and constitute factors facilitating union growth and renewal, increased power and influence for progressive social change. Although the percentage of unionized workers has declined over recent years, unionized workers have not experienced the dramatic drop in numbers of some jurisdictions. Indeed, the actual number of union members across Canada has continued to grow. Today there are over four million union members constituting a tremendous collectivity of resources, experience and talent.

The last decade or so has seen many battles just to hold on to gains made previously and fight off concessions. There is naturally some “battle fatigue” from these struggles. But there is also some lessons learned and a new determination gained from experience. The future holds new possibilities.

Given the challenges and difficulties in our world, building union power for change in the twenty first century is not only necessary, it is achievable.

Chris Schenk was Research Director of the Ontario Federation of Labour (1991-2007) and co-editor (with Pradeep Kumar) of Paths to Union Renewal.

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