The Fredericton Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts celebrated May Day, the International Workers’ Day, by hosting a panel of activists and union leaders to discuss the mixed track record of unions in supporting progressive social movements.
UNB History professor Jeff Brown chaired the panel and reflected on the lessons learned from the past, especially the past segregation of different groups (including race, class, gender, ideology, etc.). He outlined some examples from “the poor track record” of unions but emphasized times when unions took meaningful action, including the 2008 strike against the U.S. war against Iraq and Afghanistan by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Ten years ago, the ILWU shut down all the ports along the Canadian to the Mexican border to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from both imperialist wars.
For Brown, “the seeds of hope for solidarity” can be found in the movement from which Mayday was founded on May 1, 1886, in the fight for an 8-hour work day, which brought together groups of workers from different sectors. These had been segregated groups in the past. Brown reminded attendees that May Day became significant after what happened in the days following May 1st in Chicago. After confronting scabs, striking workers were killed by the police on May 3 in an event known as the Haymarket Massacre. The next day people rallied against this tragic incident. International Workers’ Day was created in 1887 to mark the anniversary of these events.
The first panelist, Michel Boudreau, past president New Brunswick Federation of Labour, spoke about labour’s role in rallying public support against the proposed sale of NB Power. Boudreau said unions worked with various activist groups, including employees of Hydro Quebec, to gain support for the movement against the sale of the public utility. Despite the Premier’s assurances that no one would lose their job if the utility was sold, the unions were certain that this would not be the case. According to Boudreau, “the government knows how to attack” different groups, but through organizing, it is possible to win. Boudreau acknowledged first contract legislation as one of the recent positive outcomes for the union movement; newly unionized groups in New Brunswick will not have to strike for their first contract from their employer.
Fredericton activist Tracy Glynn spoke about the #metoo movement, that she deemed “one of most timely and hopeful movements today.” Advanced in social media, it provides a forum for people who have suffered harassment to share their stories. Glynn mentioned various Fredericton-based groups that have been at the forefront of denouncing gendered violence and systemic structures that allow for these behaviours to continue. Glynn drew inspiration from former British academic Sara Ahmed, who resigned from her university following inaction on a sexual assault complaint. Glynn called upon “the sledgehammer of unions to smash the patriarchy into oblivion” in order to find real solutions that go beyond “the whisper networks, and the naming and shaming.”
Glynn also drew on Jane McAlevey’s 2016 book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, that argues that shallow mobilizing and advocacy is not replacement for deep organizing. For Glynn, “the struggle is both structural and ideological” and inspiration can be found in the struggles of migrant workers as well as teachers, nurses and fast food workers who are currently striking in cities across the world for decent wages and working conditions.
Abram Lutes, a student organizer with the Canadian Federation of Students and the Fight for $15, spoke about the need for young people in the labour movement. Lutes reminded those attending that young people today are often entering employment that is not typically unionized, such as fast food chains. For Lutes, who has had this type of work, it is possible to unionize theses spaces but “the labour unions have to go on the offensive.” Lutes encouraged unions to “hold political parties hostage” to progressive ideas.
Providing an important Indigenous perspective, Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay described the Wolastoq flag that was draped behind the panelists. The Wolastoqey peoples’ roots in the land require that the land remain healthy for everyone, but it is being attacked by various extraction projects such as the Sisson Mine project, according to Tremblay. Tremblay added that he speaks for all of the aspects of nature –the trees, the animals, etc.- because “once upon a time we all spoke the same language.”
Tremblay also outlined the process of being chosen as Grand Chief, in which the Grandmothers –the matriarchal decision-making voice of Indigenous society- physically lifted him up. They made him understand that “they could pick [him] up and they could take [him] down” if he did not do the job,” underlining the importance of his work as a community representative.
The panelists’ respondents were Linda Kealey, Ruth Breen, Greg Kealey and Serge Landry, who commented some of the problems brought up by the panelists.
Women’s labour researcher Linda Kealey mentioned the fight for daycares in Ontario and the importance of coalition-building in general because “working on women’s issues also helps with other issues.” Canadian Union of Postal Workers member, Ruth Breen declared that unions had “to move past” simply making donations to social movements, because unions “have adopted the structure of the oppressors (…) we’re playing their game and we’re using their tools.” For Breen, unions “have to radically look inward” and seek guidance from Indigenous allies to find other ways of organizing and decision-making.
Historian Greg Kealey is currently studying state repression of social movements, including Bill C-59 (a Liberal reworking of Stephen Harper’s Bill C-51) and Bill C-58, which outlines minor reforms to the access to personal information legislation. Referencing the latter, Kealey pointed out: “if we don’t know what they [the government] are doing, it’s very hard to oppose it.”
The May Day panel was organized by the Mayworks Fredericton 2018 committee with support from the NB Media Co-op.