The history of the labour movement is the history of working class struggle. It is a David and Goliath battle that is structurally skewed in favour of big business and corporate bosses, with laws underpinning an economic system that extracts profit from workers at all costs. Plant closures, stolen pensions and back-to-work legislation are all too common injustices foisted on workers by immoral companies and their political allies.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal New Democratic Party and MP for Burnaby South, calls it a “rigged system” that “consistently puts the powerful and wealthy above working families, making policies that benefit the few at the cost of many.” Postal workers got a bitter taste of that system last year after months of fruitless negotiations. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) was fighting for fair compensation, job security, gender equity and safer working conditions but Canada Post, a crown corporation, had other ideas. So workers walked off the job, holding rotating strikes across the country. Their rallying cry echoed from coast to coast: “Canada Post for public, not profit.”
UFCW 1518 members and leadership joined other unions at a rally held in support of the striking posties last fall. It was an empowering moment for the labour movement. But it didn’t last long: only a month after strikes began, the federal Liberal government legislated CUPW members back to work, undermining the rights of 50,000 unionized workers to strike and to bargain collectively. On November 27, postal workers were forced back on the job, their bargaining power weakened and their contract unchanged.
Only the labour movement stands between penny pinching employers and individual workers, a collective force fighting to balance an inherently inequitable relationship. But the real power lies in Ottawa and federal politics and it is the task of unions to push for political action that benefits working people. “The Liberal government intervening in the bargaining process put postal workers in an untenable situation, so they couldn’t negotiate a fair collective agreement,” asserts Jenny Kwan, NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver-East. “We stood up for workers and the right of collective bargaining.” Kwan was among the majority of NDP MPs who walked out of the House of Commons in protest after voting against the Liberals’ back-to-work legislation. Joining them was Jagmeet Singh. It was a show of solidarity, Singh told the press: “We want to send a message that forcing people back to work who are fighting for something as simple as pay equity and the right to have a safe workplace is wrong.”
Both Conservative and Liberal governments have a track record of using legislation to undermine and weaken workers’ rights. “Decisions taken at the federal level like those regarding strikes, pension security and PharmaCare impact all workers,” asserts Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Johnson. “That’s why it is so crucial to have a government on our side.“ So far, Canada has not seen a worker-friendly government rise to power federally. That could change on October 21, when Canadians head to the polls to elect new federal leadership. “We have an opportunity to change the narrative this fall,” Johnson says. “But we need to vote in our own interest. And that does not lie with political parties who favour corporate interests and the wealthy elite. It lies with the only political party that supports working families and that is the NDP.”
Problems faced by working people are complex and multifaceted and so too must be their solutions. “We can address poverty by fighting for higher wages at the bargaining table, but unions cannot eradicate poverty experienced at a societal level,” explains President Kim Novak. “We rely on the government to set the basic standard of fairness, like a living wage, equitable labour laws, affordable housing, and safe, accesible child care.”
That’s why political action is so critical, says Secretary-Treasurer Johnson. “We bargain hard for our members at the table and we also take on the bigger political fights. That’s where we can make a substantive difference, with legislative changes and labour code reform that have a broad social impact. We work to elect politicians that value working people and then we lobby them so they understand our issues.”
Labour unions realized early on the importance of having a voice in government when the first democratic-socialist government in North America was elected in 1944 in Saskatchewan. Led by Tommy Douglas, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was a coalition of labour, farmer and socialist interests. It was founded on the radical principle of regulating the economy in order to fulfill human needs rather than to create profit for corporations. The CCF pioneered many social programs but its most significant innovation was universal public health care, which all Canadians continue to benefit from today.
Today’s New Democratic Party has its roots in labour, born in 1961 of a coalition of the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress that solidified the alliance between organized labour and the progressive political left. Like most labour organizations in this country, UFCW Canada is an affiliate, which means the union supports NDP candidates through volunteering and campaigning. At the NDP’s founding convention, union delegates drafted policies that reflected the new party’s commitment to social and economic justice. It was then that UFCW member Huguette Plamandon nominated Douglas to lead the NDP.
“There is shared history with the NDP because we share values. The reason unions support the NDP is because it is the party of working people,” says Secretary-Treasurer Johnson. “After 16 years of Liberal rule, the BC NDP stepped into power to tip the scales in favour of workers and to establish a kinder, more caring province. Now, just two years later, things are noticeably better, not only for workers but for seniors, for families, for those with disabilities. It’s our intention to take that progress to Ottawa this October.” Since being elected to office in 2017, the BC NDP have brought in a flurry of progressive changes: they raised the minimum wage, established a poverty reduction plan, piloted universal child care and reformed the BC Labour Relations Code to provide greater job security and make it easier for workers to join a union.
Nelda Navarro, a member who works at PriceSmart Foods, wasn’t always involved in politics. But in 2001, she learned that the personal is political after the reigning BC Liberals laid off 10,000 health care workers—most of them women. A former care aide, Navarro heard horror stories about the aftermath of the mass layoffs from her former colleagues. “I heard my co-workers complain and I pitied them. Their hours were really cut by the Liberals, and it was hard for them to live.” Quality of care for the province’s most vulnerable also declined. In 2018, the BC NDP repealed the legislation responsible for the layoffs, lower wages and increased precarity among health care workers.
Provincial and federal governments may seem far away, and often the decisions made by politicians appear out of reach. But their impact can be personal and immediate, which is why union members must be politically active and support progressive candidates who will stand up for workers, says President Novak. “Unions engage in political action because the decisions made by elected officials affect workers and their families in all aspects of life. Achieving a better life for our members involves more than just negotiating strong collective agreements,” she explains. “It also requires engaging in the political process and electing leaders who will stand up for workers.”
UFCW Canada’s Political Action Committee provides election and lobbying training for members to advocate for workers issues at every level of government. Locally, UFCW 1518 hosts an annual Lobby Day in Victoria, where members and leadership meet directly with politicians. “When our members are politically engaged, they have a voice,” says Secretary-Treasurer Johnson. “They can help politicians make informed decisions on things that are important to working people, like health care, housing and workplace rights.“
In May, members, leadership and staff traveled to Victoria for UFCW 1518’s second annual Lobby Day. There was an afternoon of lobby training, followed by informal and formal meetings with ministers and MLAs. The theme of this year’s lobby was labour code reform—in particular the need to protect workers from franchising. Members met one-on-one with some of BC’s most influential political leaders, including Attorney General David Eby, Minister of Health Adrian Dix, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson, and Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addiction. Premier John Horgan also took time to sit down with President Novak and Secretary-Treasurer Johnson. “The premier listened attentively to our concerns about the labour code,” comments President Novak. “He knows that workers form the majority of his base and that he needs to understand and act on their concerns.”
MOBILIZING THE VOTE
When Sears closed its doors in Canada in 2017, it applied for creditor protection and slashed the pensions of about 16,000 retirees by nearly 20 per cent. Despite vowing to change bankruptcy laws to protect workers when they were in opposition, the federal Liberal government did nothing. “It’s nonsense that the federal government would allow companies to steal pensions,” asserts MP Jenny Kwan. “The NDP believes pensions should be made available for all Canadians. It’s an ongoing fight with the federal government and corporations.”
On October 21, workers have the chance to elect a government that works for them. “UFCW has 250,000 members nationwide. We have the numbers to make a difference,” Secretary-Treasurer Johnson affirms. “There is a lot at stake in this election and having engaged members in this democratic moment is essential.” To mobilize the vote, UFCW 1518 will run member-to-member campaigns, so people can learn from a trusted co-worker about the importance of voting.
Although Navarro just started volunteering with the NDP last year, she is a now seasoned campaigner, with several victories under her belt. One of UFCW 1518’s most politically engaged members, she helped elect the NDP’s Bowinn Ma, Ravi Kahlon, Anne Kang and Sheila Malcolmson to the provincial legislature. She also worked on Jagmeet Singh’s campaign, which sent the NDP federal leader to Ottawa as the Member of Parliament for Burnaby South. “The first time I went canvassing I was very nervous,” Navarro recounts. “But now I’m used to it. I have fun with other members and the union staff. I’m making a difference—that’s why I do it!”
In this year’s federal election, the NDP will run on a platform to make life more affordable for Canadians. MP Jenny Kwan says a key promise is a universal drug insurance plan: “So many workers do not have access to PharmaCare services. I don’t know how we think that is okay. If you get sick you should not have to use your credit card.” Other pledges outlined by Leader Jagmeet Singh include building more affordable housing and strengthening collective bargaining rights to improve the lives of working Canadians. “Ultimately, our promise is to lift everyone up. My mum has told me we are all connected: if we see other people suffering, we are all suffering. That’s the basis for why I care; I really believe we are all connected. Getting involved in politics, coming together to collectively solve problems—that’s a noble thing.”
The October 21 federal election is an important opportunity to change and improve our government. UFCW 1518 will be working hard to ensure those who are elected represent the needs and interests of working people. To get involved, email [email protected] and let us know that you want to join the union’s Political Action Team.