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Organizing in Your Local Community: Voice in Conversation with Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Ontario Regional Director Erin Harrison

What are labour councils and what do they do in their communities?

EH: Labour councils bring together local union members in a given geographic area to discuss working class issues and how, working together in solidarity, they can tackle the challenges facing their communities. As of today, the CLC charters 40 labour councils in Ontario.

Every labour council is democratic (much the same as local unions), making decisions and taking direction through both their executive boards and members. The councils meet once a month.

Over and above advocating on behalf of workers in their communities, labour councils also form partnerships with non-profit organizations such as the United Way, community shelters, food banks, and others.

Labour councils represent workers’ interests with local government, municipal councils, boards and commissions on a daily basis. By bringing together local unions they are able to perform activities including (but not limited to) combating austerity, providing strike support, organizing community campaigns, hosting local educationals, organizing local events (such as the Day of Mourning, Labour Day etc.) and raising funds for local community not-for-profit organizations.

How relevant are labour councils to community organizing today, given that they were started more than 60 years ago?

EH: Labour councils are the grassroots of the labour movement as a whole. They have not only adapted with the ever-changing times, but also help the labour movement keep an ear to the ground.

The CLC recognizes the important work labour councils do in advocating for working class people in their communities. Great examples of recent labour council activism include combating anti-union legislation (such as Bills C-377 and C-525 introduced by the Harper government), rallying against austerity measures such as attacks on unions and reductions in public services, lobbying local government on the need to expand the Canada Pension Plan, getting “living wage” policies passed through their local municipalities and assisting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada.

How did you get involved in the labour movement?

EH: Funny enough, my activism was rooted in my own labour council (Durham Region) where I was a delegate on behalf of my home union (then CAW, now Unifor, Local 222).

Shortly after being elected a delegate to the labour council, I was elected the first (ever) Youth Member-At-Large on the labour council’s Executive Board. It remains a position to this day.

The labour council nourished my activism and yearning to learn more about the labour movement. It gave me opportunities to work as an organizer on member-to-member political campaigns and sent me to various conventions on the labour council’s behalf.

Through these opportunities and with my home union’s support, I grew as an activist and as a strong member of my community. Today I’m honoured to be the youngest female director at the CLC, and I attribute many of the skills I have to do the job to my labour council activism.

Labour councils nurture and foster activism. There are lots of ways to be involved. Each labour council has executive positions, as well as committees where members can be involved in the issues they relate to the most. Most labour councils across Canada have limited funds and no full-time staff. Their work is carried out by elected officers (most of whom are unpaid) together with volunteers from among their delegates and other union members. Because the labour council is a labour central at the community level, councils are financed through per capita dues from CLC affiliates within the respective area. Affiliation is voluntary and all local unions are encouraged to join to increase participation in and capacity of the labour councils in each geographical area.

One of my favourite labour council activities is their support for labour-friendly candidates for political office. During the last provincial election (June 2014), labour councils in the province supported seven ETFO members in their bids to become members of provincial parliament. Three were elected – Jennifer French (Oshawa), Ann Hoggarth (Barrie) and Joe Cimino (Sudbury).

What is the history of ETFO and other teacher unions being involved in labour councils?

EH: Teacher unions have a long history of labour activism in the province including carrying out the largest province-wide two-week strike in North American history involving 126,000 teachers in 1997. Teacher unions (OSSTF, OECTA and ETFO) have been involved in labour councils since their affiliation with the Canadian Labour Congress. (ETFO joined the CLC in 2000.) Labour councils have seen a spike in participation by teachers over the last few years since Bill 115 attacked public education and denied teachers’ basic human rights to collective bargaining and strike. Teacher unions made deputations to all labour councils in the province to gain support for the fight against the injustices they faced with government’s attacks on the education sector. To this day, teacher union representatives give updates at monthly labour council general membership meetings and engage other unions in the community to support their efforts.

What kind of work do ETFO members and locals do through their labour councils?

EH: ETFO locals and members work with local community organizations through their labour councils, organize labour friendly local events and send delegates/alternates on behalf of their locals to give reports and be eligible for election to the labour councils’ executive boards. ETFO members hold positions as President, 1st Vice-President, 2nd Vice-President, Treasurer, Recording Secretary, Executive Board Member-at-Large, Sergeant-at-Arms, Youth Representative and Trustee on their labour councils.

What advice do you have for ETFO members who want to get more involved in their local labour council?

EH: Get involved, and bring others with you! When affiliating with labour councils local unions will be asked for delegate names, but locals should also send alternate delegate names (this way if appointed delegates are unable to attend every meeting, others can attend with voice and vote and the local is always represented).

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