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Photo: Jon Milton
Photo: Jon Milton

The future of union leadership: It takes a village

Workers are emboldened and frustrated. We need to build on the unity we feel in this moment.

May 4, 2023

7-minute read

I grew up in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, where “It takes a village to raise a child” was more than a motto. Living in “the Pier” meant working for everyone’s best interests and taught me that An injury to one is an injury to all. Our community pride is to lift one another.

Being born into an economy that relied mainly on steel and coal led to a lot of ups and downs in our city, over the years. My community used to have businesses all along our main street of Victoria Road, but after the closure of the steel plant, many businesses left, not all at once, but one by one over time. Some homes and streets were shut down and remediated due to the pollution left behind from the plant and the adjacent coke ovens.

With our area seemingly forever struggling with precarious work, I witnessed first-hand how people took care of each other. My mother is a community leader, who worked as an early child care educator and a school board representative. My father is a retired firefighter and mechanic. Helping others, especially those in need, is a family value.

My understanding of leadership came from those experiences, as well as from hanging out and working at the Community Hall, the United Mission, the Menelik Hall, as well as the Boys and Girls Club. Listening was more important than talking.

Our community is full of leaders, from caregivers at the halls, to business people and local politicians. In my community, being a leader means being accessible and meeting people where they are at. Being open to learning from others helped me become better at relating to people and looking to take every opportunity to make that meaningful connection. These lessons have served me well in life, and as a trade union activist and leader.

Igniting workers’ power

Leadership is about people.

The world can be rough, but everyone deserves to be seen, valued, and accepted. My goal as a person, let alone as a leader, is to make every person I speak with feel welcome, heard, and respected. Everyone comes with their own story. To lead, you need to be curious about people. You have to want to find out what makes people tick, and how we can enhance each other’s lives.

By forging more than superficial connections, we gain insight into what’s important to a person and why. We understand more about why they respond in certain ways, and that insight affects future interactions. Ultimately, finding the common ground helps us determine what we can build as a collective goal.

Working for the members, and more than that

I remember going to labour school with my home union, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU/NUPGE), when becoming active provincially. I felt intimidated by our leadership. Yet, it wasn’t about them, it was about me. Through the eyes of a new member and a new activist, the union leaders seemed so far above me. I will always remember that feeling; it’s part of what drives me to put myself out there to relate with everyone. The future of the labour movement relies on engaging members—new members and those not engaged—and on fostering activism.

Making those connections may get your foot in the door, but we need to act in ways that reinforce members’ belief and trust in their leadership. Consistently acting with integrity, operating with transparency, and appealing to our common humanity are qualities that have allowed me to build trust and instill confidence that our union has members’ best interests at heart.

Our union is a democratic institution, governed by the members at our national union convention. While delegates set the course, we have a talented and dedicated executive board that translates words into action. As an elected union officer, it’s my responsibility to keep advancing that direction.

That means tackling issues that are important to our members. It also means taking risks by trying new things to achieve our goals. Leaders always need to be aware that the members are the union, and that means listening throughout as we execute our overall strategy.

In the bigger picture, union leadership means pushing for rights that benefit not only union members but society as a whole. Our core function is representation and servicing. But, if we ignore our members’ lives and what affects them, we would be only doing part of our job. That means fighting for public health care, for stronger labour rights, and for green energy as issues that create healthy families and strong communities.

Leadership in the post-pandemic

At the beginning of the pandemic, many workers had no choice but to quickly adopt new working conditions, learn new technology, and deal with the enormous strain and stresses brought on by this new way of working. Other workers had to adapt to entirely new careers to make it through. Many more had to rely on government support measures until things opened up again. Many people are still struggling.

Rising to the challenge was a significant feat. And it produced something amazing. People felt valued and seen. People did not just shift where they work; there has been a seismic shift in how workers see their work and themselves.

No one wants to be a faceless cog in the machinery of work. Nor do they expect a pat on the back at the end of every shift (although, why not give it!). But they do want to work somewhere that cares about their health, their wellbeing, and their safety. They want leadership that understands what it takes to get the job done properly, understands that morale matters, and that worker satisfaction creates productivity.

Now, workers are looking for more. Not just more money for wages and benefits, but more autonomy, more flexibility, and more respect. They know their worth!

Much has been said about not returning to the way things were at work before March 2020. Promises to never go back to the way that life, and work, operated are now disappearing. Management in so many workplaces have already started to slide backwards, forcing an inflexible and unforgiving style of work.

But, for the sake of workers everywhere, as leaders, we have a responsibility to not let that happen. We need to reinforce that feeling of worth and build a sense of power to win real, tangible victories.

To build a better, more equal, and just society post-pandemic requires us to become politically engaged. As much as we focus on representing our members and creating leaders within our unions, we also need to focus on the political realm where decisions are made. People are learning this: Union leaders must include politics in their conversations, making the point that every decision made in city hall, in a provincial legislature, or in the House of Commons affects workers’ day-to-day life.

The time of union leaders tiptoeing around politics must stop. This doesn’t mean we should be partisan, but we need to emphasize the needs and direction of the membership and call out those whose interests are in conflict with them. As I said, a leader's job is to meet the members, listen to them, and therefore be an extension of the members in all aspects of representation.

To compete with the corporate lobby, unions need to have a consistent presence with those who make decisions at the highest level. Through the Canadian Labour Congress, we belong to an organization with well over three million workers. With that strength, we need to harness our influence, to be in the ears of officials as we push a workers’ agenda, an agenda that can bring social and economic equality across our country.

I feel great about our future. The pandemic has been a game changer in terms of labour demand. We are fed up with the same old, worn-out capitalism and the trickle-down economic theories of the 1980s, which were flat-out lies. Many people blindly accepted these destructive policies. And while I know those before me opposed their ways, now is the time for today’s leaders to embrace the “more uncomfortable” space to take these powers on.

We’ve been squeezed ever so slightly, a bit more, year after year. We’ve been squeezed too tight, but we’re still here fighting for what is just and fair. We need to examine our past successes and appreciate the gains we’ve made collectively—and learn from them. The opposition’s game continues, and believe me, it’s a game for them. For us, it’s our livelihood. We have come so far; to not learn from the past is to be taken advantage of in the future.

Despite how valuable workers seemed during the pandemic, we continue to face stagnant wages, growing economic inequality, and harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Governments have reverted to talking about cuts, downsizing, and contracting out work, claiming a crisis when we know austerity measures created the problems, as in health care. Workers are tired of constantly fighting just to hold on to what we have, let alone fighting to get further ahead.

But that exhaustion has led to activism that will bring about permanent change. We want to forge a new way forward. And I know we will because the membership that I represent—over 425,000 workers—is emboldened, energized, and defiant. If a leader can’t rally with that, they should step aside and allow those ready to make change rise!

The Right is not prepared for our collective action. As a proponent of a general strike since the days of Stephen Harper as prime minister, I was both excited and elated with the actions of labour in Ontario rallying against the notwithstanding clause used by the Ford government. This show of strength brought a premier to the media, displaying a tone of bewilderment that labour would unite as we did.

Don’t be fooled, Ford knew what was up! But that, all too often, seems to be the play by too many political leaders these days. We cannot be sidetracked by a game of smoke and mirrors. We also need to be calculated, proactive, and forward thinking. But, at the same time, we need to establish ourselves with the politicians to have difficult conversations. Generally, I’ve learned most politicians and bureaucrats have a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the union. If we want a better Canada, then the work needs to be put in to help others understand and see through a worker's eyes.

We need to build on the unity we feel right at this moment. We need to harness this frustration, anger, and the hope our members are feeling. The leaders in our union, in our communities, have had a glimpse of a different world and want to secure that. If the pandemic showed us anything, workers—collectively—have the power to change the future.

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