The Citizenship of Labour
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 4 Oct 1990, p. 60-70


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Gerard, Leo, Speaker
Media Type:
Text
Item Type:
Speeches
Description:
Some personal background. Some thoughts on the role of the labour movement as we enter a new decade. The Internal Task Force on Future Directions of the United Steelworkers of America: some changes made as a result of that task force. Two very different examples of change occurring within the Steelworkers. Details about the union. The union's appreciation of the complex interconnectedness of Canada's political economy. Earning social legitimacy (labour's citizenship). The right to influence economic policy. The social-democratic approach to political life. Some remarks following the recent election in Ontario of the New Democratic Party to govern provincially. What the new government might mean for the labour movement. A realistic approach to legislative change. Some expectations in a shift in the style of government. Another dramatic change in conventional union practice: the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. What the Fund does and what it means as an example of labour's re-thinking and re-orientation to the world around us. The Human Fund as an example of effective labour citizenship married to the most basic union activity. Winning support for Humanity fund proposals. A deepened awareness of the interconnected fates of the world's people. Trade unionism as an instrument of social and economic justice. The Canadian Steel Trade and Employment Congress (CSTEC): mandate and function. Initiatives that depend on the active recognition of labour's social legitimacy. The practice of democratic trade unionism as an investment in a democratic society.
Date of Original:
4 Oct 1990
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Leo Gerard, Director, United Steelworkers of America
THE CITIZENSHIP OF LABOUR
Chairman: Harold Roberts President

Introduction:

Just when many people have felt that the Union Movement has fulfilled its course and ought to disband for a great many reasons, along comes a "Redirack" and dispels the hopes of owners and managers. The sudden closing of Redirack, a manufacturer in light steel, last Saturday, without any warning to their employees is a clear indication that indeed unions have not outlived their usefulness. Again, the negotiations, or lack of same, between Stelco and the United Steelworkers of America have clearly illustrated to both sides, that Government actions in free trade and fiscal policy have profound effects for both business and labour.

Our speaker today is a man who is on the front line in both of these negotiations. In fact, it seems that on almost any given day, the name Leo Gerard can be found in the media. He is a worker who leads workers, is concerned for workers, and inspires workers.

It is one thing for a Lech Walesa to stir up labour unrest in Communist Poland. It is quite another thing when a labour leader questions conditions in a great free country like Canada. Labour leaders do not always endear themselves. They are people in the middle.

But Leo Gerard is a populist leader who has endeared himself to both his Union and society in general. He has a reputation of being a dynamic speaker and leader who has grown up in the union. He started to work in the smelter at Inco at the age of 18. While filling various union positions at Inco he continued his formal education at Laurentian University.

He helped draft legislation to protect workers and joined the staff of the Steelworkers in 1977. As a member of the staff he inspired leadership, not only in educational fields, but also bilingualism, health and safety, and social welfare. The creation of the "Humanity Fund" by which all members of the union in Ontario donate a penny an hour for work in the Third World and in Canada, is a piece of work that Leo has spearheaded. They have, through the fund, supported UNICEF, the International Red Cross, OXFAM and other non-governmental organizations.

Leo Gerard has led the 80,000 member union since his election by an overwhelming margin in November 1985 and he is a member of the Premier's Council.

We welcome Mr. Gerard and invite him to address us now.

Leo Gerard:

Ladies and gentlemen--Until very recently, if anyone had told me I would be invited one day to address The Empire Club of Canada, I would have suspected a joke. And even now I confess it is still a little hard to believe that I am here.

Despite the office to which the members of the United Steelworkers elected me five years ago, I am still a hard-rock miner's son from Sudbury's nickel basin. I am still the same man who spent the first 14 full-time years of his own working life in Inco's surface transportation gangs. I am still just a trifle suspicious that someone's idea of humour lurks behind the invitation to address you today.

But since we are in the same room with each other for a little while, I will tell you how I feel and what I think about a few things. In fact, the somewhat humbling honour of an Empire Club invitation, not to mention the daunting list of distinguished speakers at luncheons past, has made me reflect a little more carefully on the message I want to leave here. I want to depart from the kind of address I am accustomed to give; the kind of speech that's appropriate from the floor of a union convention; or as part of a delegation before government; or in front of a moody membership meeting in the midst of difficult collective bargaining.

Mind you, that kind of speech, the union leader's traditional call-to-arms can be very entertaining. But it can also be wildly inappropriate, especially here, so I'm afraid I will have to deny you that side of Leo Gerard today.

Instead, I want to return the honour of The Empire Club's invitation by sharing some general and, I hope, provocative, thoughts on the role of the labour movement as we enter this new decade. And maybe even a few thoughts about Ontario, post-September sixth.

And if in my address I sound more philosophical or speculative than you might expect from an industrial union leader, it is not because I am in any way unusual. Rather, it is because the organizations of working people in this country, and indeed throughout the world, are engaged in an unprecedented degree of reflection and rethinking--about our social roles, about our strategic positioning with employers and governments, even about the essential ethical values that animate trade unionism.

My union, for example, has maintained an on-going Internal Task Force on Future Directions since 1984. And while it is impossible to summarize the range of its work succinctly, it has been accompanied by genuine reorientations of our daily practice as worker representatives; in the way we seek out and determine organizing targets; in the way we deliver the union's services to the membership; and in the very way we exercise our citizenship in the world around us.

Let me cite two very different examples of change occurring within the Steelworkers. There are many such examples, but these will serve to demonstrate that my organization, often regarded in the past as the quintessential smoke-stack industrial union, is no longer what it appears.

The first example is the membership composition of the United Steelworkers of America. In Canada, we number some 160,000 men and women, making us arguably the largest private-sector-based labour organization in the country. And while our name understandably conjures up images of immense portside steel complexes, such as those in the Sault or Hamilton, the reality is quite different.

We have always represented tens of thousands of people involved in basic steel-making. But we also represent, especially in areas like Metropolitan Toronto, thousands of men and women in smaller manufacturing of all kinds--from packaging to diaper-making--often quite unrelated to steel processing. And of course, we remain Canada's largest union of workers involved in mining. Over 90 percent of Canada's organized miners belong to the Steelworkers.

In other words, we have been, since our founding in the late 1930s, a Union that very much reflected the overall structure of the Canadian economy: strong roots in the natural resource extraction sector, equally strong roots in manufacturing, large and small.

But unlike some organizations, in both labour and business, that carve out a space for operation within which they grow comfortable, our Union has refused to stay put.

As we enter the nineties, the United Steelworkers is becoming one of Canada's foremost representatives of workers in the so-called "tertiary" or service sector. We now represent thousands of security guards, bank employees, nursing home workers, hotel and restaurant staff, legal secretaries, laboratory technicians, RNAs, workers in tourist resorts, and countless others. Needless to say, such an expansion also means dramatic changes in the gender and national-origin composition of our membership.

But the point I want to stress about our Union's "demographics," if you will, about our responsibilities to workers in all three sectors of the so-called "labour market," is a point about citizenship. That is, simply, that we take our positioning within the nation's economy and political structure very seriously. Naturally, we strive daily to represent, to protect, and to bargain for our members as effectively as possible. That is the primary responsibility of any trade union worthy of the name. But we are much more than a service agency. Being based in both urban centres and resource hinterlands, and again, carrying a pluralistic membership base in all sectors of the economy, our Union lives and breathes the economic reality of Canada.

We see daily how a dislocation in one industry, in one sector, spreads and impacts like waves on a pond through other industries and sectors. We experience first-hand in our offices and meeting halls the human despair generated by impersonal economic changes. We see the immediate and the ripple effects of a runaway plant, a shut-down, the exhaustion of an ore body. We see the human, as well as the economic impact of such disastrous policies as the Free Trade Agreement.

In other words, our Union, with its particular social makeup, has a unique appreciation of the complex interconnectedness of Canada's political economy. It is an appreciation borne of our very structure. And those that still doubt the right of the labour movement to participate, jointly with business and government, in fashioning economic policy would deny all of us the benefit of the irreplaceable lived experience of working people.

We have earned our social legitimacy, what I like to call labour's citizenship. We have earned the hard way our right to influence economic policy.

We are not driven by ideological hang-ups; we are not driven by nostalgia for the good old days of industrial warfare (in spite of the best current efforts of some corporate leaders to prove otherwise).

We are driven by the material, and even the emotional, needs of our members--their needs for security of income and of the person, for opportunities for their children.

The pursuit of those ends constitutes an essentially social-democratic approach to political life.

Oh yes, Ontario -

It should of course surprise no one in this room that organizations representing working people were considerably heartened by the recent election in this province. After months of bad news, scandal, and rancour in our national politics, and amidst the tangible evidence of growing inequality here in wealthy Ontario, symbolized best perhaps by the burgeoning food-bank business, it felt like Ontario's voters just threw open the windows to let in a blast of fresh air.

Now everyone is asking me what my check list of reforms looks like! What, and when, do I expect the new government to deliver on its campaign platform? Does an NDP victory mean labour gets to run the show? Part of me wishes that political life was as simple as such cliched questions suggest. But it isn't that simple, and I'm glad it's not that simple.

The politics of score-cards and wishlists serves no one well. It implies that government decisions are made by snapping fingers, with no regard for the complexity of social forces in the community.

The labour movement has learned from long experience that legislative change, even the most obviously virtuous change, has to be fought for, that we have to make our case and document our arguments. We don't expect that to change with changes in government.

What I do expect is a significant shift in the style of government. I anticipate that the New Democratic Party's sincere allegiance to values of social equality will mean that the voices of the marginalized and the disadvantaged will be sought out, and given a full hearing in public-policy formation. No one group has, nor can expect, a privileged place at the ear of the new legislators. Those who have had such privileged access in the past, allied with political parties who shared unquestioned assumptions about the power of wealth, will find they have to make their cases under greater, cooler, perhaps more sceptical scrutiny. It will be bracing--but not in the least unfair.

Contrary to much myth-making in the private sector, I've learned that New Democrats are nobody's lapdogs. Indeed, the Scandinavian echoes in their approach to social decision-making imply a politics of inclusion. By that I mean a greater emphasis on joint co-operation and shared responsibility among business, labour, and government in economic deliberation, the encouragement of partnership as opposed to conflict. The kinds of tentative steps in that direction contained in the outgoing government's Premier's Council reports will likely become more deliberate, confident strides.

It is part of the social-democratic complex of values to encourage recognition of the social-legitimacy of labour and its organizations. But genuine participation in restoring a productive and generous economy in Ontario will only come about when other social actors, particularly in the corporate community, acknowledge and welcome the citizenship of labour.

Let me change tack, and turn from the changing face of our Union and its implications for our social activism, to a second and very different example of dramatic change in conventional union practice. I am talking about the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. Similar initiatives are now developing in the communications' and autoworkers' unions, and I am sure that others will soon follow. Let me talk first about what the Humanity Fund does, and then about what it means, as an example of labour's re-thinking and re-orientation to the world around us.

The Humanity Fund was an initiative that emerged from a handful of local unions in Toronto, responding to the Ethiopian famine crisis, and was adopted as a general bargaining policy of our Union in Canada at the 1985 National Policy conference. As negotiations come due, participating local unions propose a new contract clause that contributes one cent per worker per hour to a fund for international aid and development.

The money that accumulates is strictly governed by the rules for registered charitable organizations, and is augmented by matching grants from the Canadian International Development Agency. Money generated by the Humanity Fund is supporting relief and development projects, in cooperation with other agencies, throughout the most impoverished parts of the globe--in Ethiopia, Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, El Salvador, Peru and elsewhere. Fifteen percent of Humanity Fund monies is mandated for domestic projects--for food banks, emergency shelter for the homeless, and projects for abused women.

This is what the Humanity Fund does and I don't hesitate to share our Union's pride in its inherently valuable work. What it means however--what it means as part of the evolution of bargaining practice; what it means in expanding the horizons of ordinary working people, and in combating the, self-centredness that afflicts so much of Western consumer culture--is of incalculable importance.

The Humanity Fund is an example of effective labour citizenship married to the most basic union activity. It demonstrates more vividly than any other example how one necessitates the other. We have at present over 240 collective agreements containing Humanity Fund clauses, covering over 45,000 workers. We are currently generating over a million and a half dollars worth of active development projects, and the numbers climb monthly.

But winning support for a Humanity Fund proposal means winning support and understanding from the local union bargaining committee. It means winning support from the local membership who must ratify the collective agreement. It means long hours of internal debate, persuasion, and education, long before one even gets to the bargaining table with the employer. Successfully pursued, it invariably means a big change in the conventional view of collective bargaining held by the average man or woman on the shopfloor or in an office. A change marked by a deepened awareness of the interconnected fates of the world's people, and by a deeper awareness of trade unionism as much more than an instrument to improve a wage and benefit package--not a slot machine union--but an instrument of social and economic justice.

International solidarity no longer seems like the abstract stuff that fills out a convention speech. The Humanity Fund represents a permanent change in the way the labour movement looks at the world.

Let me recap briefly.

I have cited two very different examples drawn from my Union's experience of the re-orientation and re-thinking underway in organizations of working people everywhere. The example of labour's development of a membership base in the service sector, broadly-defined, demonstrates the intrinsic necessity of greater participation in social, political and community affairs and in public-policy deliberation, whether the traditional elites want us there or not.

The Humanity Fund is a particular example of an imaginative recreation of the purpose and aim of collective bargaining, one that has a real impact on both the outside world, and on the personal horizons and values of the sponsoring workers.

Both examples, and I could have cited any number of others, are tied together by the idea of citizenship.

I think it's only fair to say what I suggested in my comments on Ontario. That is, that important parts of the professional and managerial sectors, and even of society as a whole, have difficulty acknowledging the citizenship of labour, the social legitimacy of the labour movement. That may even apply to some of the people at this luncheon.

It's also fair to say that periods of economic difficulty, like the present, are not normally auspicious times to build new understandings. Sometimes, what academics euphemistically refer to as "industrial relations practice," especially at times like these, only reinforces the prejudices and predispositions both sides take to the bargaining table. We wear them like holsters.

But difficult times can also sow the seeds for something new. An important example, I think, and one that emerged from the gut wrenching experience of the recession ten years ago, is the Canadian Steel Trade and Employment Congress. CSTEC evolved out of long deliberations between National Director Gerard Docquier of my Union, and key CEOs in the Canadian Steel industry. The global realignments in steel production and trade were having catastrophic effects on whole communities.

CSTEC's mandate and function, to facilitate formal management and labour cooperation on trade and adjustment issues, has not been without controversy. But it has persevered, and has become an important model for similar initiatives in other industries. It is another sophisticated example of labour's citizenship, and it can point the way to new ways of doing things.

But that kind of initiative depends for its success, as indeed does our entire political economy, on the active recognition of labour's social legitimacy.

I submit to you that if that recognition is denied, democratic society as a whole is impoverished. I can testify from bruising personal experience that the Canadian labour movement is an unparalleled school for democratic practice. The vigorous competition for local union office in my own Union, for delegate positions to conferences, or for positions in labour's umbrella bodies--nothing comparable exits in any other social or voluntary body in Canada, apart from what is provided by our parliamentary electoral system.

And again, looking outward to the rest of the globe: the remarkable collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe owes its origins in 1980 to a shy shipyard electrician in Gdansk who decided to build democratic trade unionism in his country. The defeat of years of authoritarian brutality in Chile was founded in a movement based primarily on internally exiled, and so-called illegal trade unions.

It is no accident that at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, where civil society and dissent are oppressed or intimidated into silence, the embers of democratic aspiration most often come to life in the form of workers banding together in free democratic trade unions.

And even in tolerant, open North America and Western Europe, especially in the mean-spirited era personified by Reagan, Mulroney, Bush, and Thatcher--forgive me if it sometimes seems like only the labour movement is keeping alive the basic democratic values of community cooperation and responsibility for the marginalized and the vulnerable--such values must never become unfashionable.

The practice of democratic trade unionism is an investment in democratic society; it is a guarantee against oppression, a guarantee that the voices of working women and men are heard and respected, a guarantee that purely economic considerations do not ride roughshod over human welfare, and a guarantee that equality stays on our social and political agendas.

For our part, the Steelworkers Union intends to continue exercising its citizenship, its allegiance to these social values, as a full member of the Canadian body politic. Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Bart Mindszenthy, Executive Vice President, The Beloff Group Inc. and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Citizenship of Labour


Some personal background. Some thoughts on the role of the labour movement as we enter a new decade. The Internal Task Force on Future Directions of the United Steelworkers of America: some changes made as a result of that task force. Two very different examples of change occurring within the Steelworkers. Details about the union. The union's appreciation of the complex interconnectedness of Canada's political economy. Earning social legitimacy (labour's citizenship). The right to influence economic policy. The social-democratic approach to political life. Some remarks following the recent election in Ontario of the New Democratic Party to govern provincially. What the new government might mean for the labour movement. A realistic approach to legislative change. Some expectations in a shift in the style of government. Another dramatic change in conventional union practice: the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. What the Fund does and what it means as an example of labour's re-thinking and re-orientation to the world around us. The Human Fund as an example of effective labour citizenship married to the most basic union activity. Winning support for Humanity fund proposals. A deepened awareness of the interconnected fates of the world's people. Trade unionism as an instrument of social and economic justice. The Canadian Steel Trade and Employment Congress (CSTEC): mandate and function. Initiatives that depend on the active recognition of labour's social legitimacy. The practice of democratic trade unionism as an investment in a democratic society.