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Building worker power to shape a better future for Canada



This Labour Day solidarity takes on a renewed importance and our work as progressives acquires a new urgency. Over the summer, white nationalist and racist right-wing mobilizing turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia as the ideology of hate grows increasingly visible across North America. Here in Canada, that same ideology led to the massacre of six men at prayer in a Quebec City mosque at the hands of an Islamophobe.

The labour movement has long been a key partner in the fight against racism - both as a first line of defence against the racist, nationalist right, and as an actor in building progressive policies and capturing victories to create a more just Canada. Every just and progressive policy we have won in this country has been led or supported by unions, finding power in the cooperation with civil society organizations.

And let’s be clear - fighting racism and stopping its spread means that we must stand up to it. But it also means that we must fight to reduce inequality, create better jobs and working conditions, and put in place robust social programs.

By striving for a social democratic Canada, we have fought back against recurrent right-wing racist movements and others that threaten progress. In the current political environment, defending progress requires us to prioritize political action that centres on the imperative of winning material gains for the most excluded in our society. This includes both those working under the most precarious conditions without a union as well as those unionized workers who constantly face pressure to concede more at the bargaining table.

There is cause for hope.

Where progressives are winning in North America, labour and community have joined forces and found new and innovative ways of organizing. Among the most emblematic of those fights is the #FightFor15 in the United States. With the backbone support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) it has gained enormous ground and inspired ground-breaking organizing in Canada, including in the Fight for 15 and Fairness campaign.

British Columbia’s newly installed coalition government has committed to phasing in a $15 minimum wage along with labour reforms to fight precarious working conditions. BC joins Ontario, which in turn joined the Canadian leader, Alberta, in phasing in a $15 minimum wage and new protections for the most vulnerable workers. Three provinces make a movement with momentum.

These fundamental wins at the provincial level are key in confronting recruitment by the right among workers who have faced growing injustice in communities across the continent. Decades of lost ground for worker rights and wages has left our society vulnerable. These recent minimum wage victories must be only a beginning.

Imagining and fighting for a new economy that simultaneously tackles the climate, inequality and precarity crises is of vital importance for progressives at every level and across the country. This is not about tinkering around the edges, but about disrupting oppressive systems. Not an easy task.

Building worker justice and power is a core area for transformational political practice. New forms of organizing in which community and labour join together to advance shared interests hold enormous potential for making transformative change. And building power in local communities can create the foundational relationships and networks to deliver on policy and political wins, while delivering material improvements for people.

The Broadbent Institute’s work supporting community benefits organizing in various cities and communities – Windsor, Hamilton, Peel, and Toronto – has allowed us to learn from leaders in action building local economic democracy. They are community-based leaders joining labour leaders in a new kind of partnership and in full recognition that their interests are advanced by aligning agendas for change.

The awakening of communities to agency and power in relation to the shaping of the economy can produce profound changes. People begin to look at infrastructure investment and development differently. They begin to demand tangible benefits, to demand accountability. This work builds resilience and resistance to the right. And it allows people to reimagine the economy they want to build for themselves.

As economic, racial, gender, class and climate justice are centred, leaders and activists together learn the principle and the practice of fighting injustice in all its forms. Supporting these efforts is a concrete way in which the Broadbent Institute delivers on our leadership mission to build up the backbone of progressive organizing in Canada.

This Labour Day, we look forward to deepening our commitment to support the organizing that is happening across the country in partnership with unionized workers, particularly where it bridges into communities.

We have learned that this kind of organizing requires a profound commitment to equity, a respect for the lived experience of others, and a valuing of each other across our differences. Our contribution to building these practices is to facilitate the learning on the ground by leaders.

We must move beyond a simple oppositional defence of the status quo to propositional initiatives that drown out voices of hate with louder and more inclusive voices of solidarity. Creating new, innovative ways of knowing and doing is a fundamental way to do it.