Organising Together: Canroots 2019

| Chantelle Spicer | Organisers from labour, the environmental movement, tenants’ rights, and youth advocates gathered together in Vancouver on April 13 & 14 for a conference to reflect on challenges and victories over the previous year and make plans moving forward. The event, Canroots West 2019: Together We Win put on by Organize BC, focused on the power of mass movements when they are able to work together, following the lead of those most affected by social inequities and marginalization. What many took away from the conference, myself included, was the pivotal moment we are in considering the visibility of climate change and ongoing social injustice within our communities.

The range of speakers addressed their area of expertise while also including the importance of organising together for change. Keynote addresses came from individuals with various social movement backgrounds including Sharmarke Dubow, City Councillor in Victoria, Musqueam women’s and land rights activist St’agid Jaadl, and Sophia Zaia of the Sunrise Movement, which is progressing the Green New Deal in the States. Many workshops and speakers spoke to the role of digital and social media in raising awareness within union membership or the public, but also the real need to move this awareness into real world action.

Nikita McDaniel of the Save Cottonwood initiative in the Kootenay region attended the conference and was inspired by the opportunities to learn from other social movements.

“Over the weekend, I feel like Canroots far exceeded my expectations. Not only did I get the chance to learn from the experience of the speakers, but I was provided with the opportunity to connect with and learn from the other attendees. I was astounded by all the efforts being expended to solving the more complicated issues we face. In being surrounded by this wealth of knowledge, I came home revitalized and with a new view for my own campaign to save Cottonwood and Apex.”

Of particular interest to me were workshops and conversations surrounding the labour movement and their role in cross-issue organising and consciousness raising. Over the past decades, unionization in Canada has been on the decline – in 1958, more than 50% of BC’s workers were unionized, but by 2014 the unionized labour force had shrank to 30%. So how do labour unions stay relevant not only for their membership, but also better address larger social issues we all face together? How do we raise awareness and mobilize all workers regardless of unionization rates?

First up on my conference schedule were Emma Pullman and Stefan Avlijas, campaigns and communications organisers from the BC Government Employees Union. The heart of this presentation was also my heart – reminding us all of where we come from historically as a labour movement to inform how we move forward through this second gilded age. Avlijas spoke to the disconnection many workers feel within their workplaces as labour unions have grown in size and merged. In many cases, this has severed the person-to-person relationship that are key to mobilizing and organising. The focus then becomes how do we meaningfully reconnect workers to each other, their rights, and their context in the realities of intersecting issues – all of which centres around the need to raise class consciousness.

Foundational to this is shifting union structure away from bureacractic leadership and putting power back into the hands of the workers. Organisers within the BCGEU have seen meaningful leadership coming from their members on issues that matter to them such as housing, climate change, and the opioid epidemic.

“No collective agreement can fix affordable housing or climate change. We need to use labour unions as vehicle for building class consciousness within our membership to make this kind of large scale change. Its not happening in secret, like the bargaining process, its out in the open for all to join in,” stated Avlijas.

With this in mind, union Locals organised regular opportunities for workers to get together to discuss issues and solutions for the problems they see around them, making the union about more than bargaining and entering workers in the campaigns and conversations.

It is my hope that unions increasingly undertake this kind of foundational work to inspire and (re)connect their membership, but also for the membership – for workers – to demand more of their unions. This is point is particularly driven home by recent BCGEU defence of a two-tier pay scale for community-base social service workers. In recognizing the need to organise with and between other social movements, so to do we need to work for the rights and equality of all workers.

Also on the program was an opportunity to hear from long-time union leaders Marie Pantellis and Harjeet Dahmi from the Hospital Employees Union, who spoke to organising women of colour within an unstable industry. HEU employees were highly impacted by Bill 29, which was introduced by the Liberals in 2002, allowing the province to tear up the B.C. Hospital Employees’ Union contract and led to the layoff of more than 8,000 unionized health-care workers. Though Bill 29 was repealed in 2008 after being declared unconstitutional, it left a legacy of exploitation amongst hospital workers such as contract flipping (the practice of terminating existing unionized employees under one contract and then hiring the same employees for lesser wages and benefits under a new contract), leading to highly precarious employment for workers already marginalized by existing systems.

Pantellis and Harjeet spoke to a very different kind of union and organising style than that expressed by the BCGEU. In the case of HEU workers, the vast majority of their membership are women of colour who live and take part in their own community and cultures (many of which are hesitant to take part in union activism), many speak English as a second language, and work 2-3 jobs. This means that organisers become a part of community and family life, building lasting relationships of trust. It also means that organisers must have an understanding of the cultural reality for their workers (ie. will their husband allow them to join the union, to rally, or protest?) However, once organised, the workers are quick to build a community, creating more worker-led, worker centred mobilizing.

The second day opened with conversations about transitions into greener economies through the Green New Deal, which has been making headlines in the States and now in Canada as we move towards a federal election. The central pillars for this deal, as related by speaker Sophia Zaia, include equity seeking initiatives to ensure justice and opportunity for all communities. The success of policy and industry change on this scale will require the coming together of all mass movements, unifying their power.

In hearing of the Green New Deal, I am always hopeful, but left uneasy in my belief that reforms of this magnitude are not possible under a capitalist system. With exploitation of workers and the land at its heart, I do not believe it is possible to reform capitalism in a way that makes space for justice and equity. Despite reforms coming from federal and provincial BC governments over the past 3 years – changes many viewed as hopeful – the realities of inequality for many people on the ground has not shifted at all.

No one recognized this more fully than keynote speaker St’agid Jaadl, who humbled me with her honest and open conversation with the audience from her perspective as an Indigenous activist. “I am often tired,” she sated. “I look around and see the need for change in my people, in my community, and feel the weight of the effort required and the strength of colonialism. We cannot rely on governments to make this change – no matter right wing or left wing…its all part of the same bird. It takes a constant reminder that there are others working beside me – my ancestors, communities in all corners of our country, allies I cannot even imagine – to keep going.”

Like the theme of the Canroots conference implies, this kind of allyship and cross-equity work is integral to success in organising moving forward. There needs to be a recognition across all social movements that principled relationships need to be built to ensure social justice is at the heart of our work. I think it was important for me as an advocate to hear from and about the people on the ground working to enact change in their own way, reaching out to others in solidarity to make bigger change….the concentric circles of hope, learning, and work.

It will be interesting (and important) to see how (and if) these conversations become a part of larger national conversation with the impending Federal election. In many cases, our lives and the environments we know depend on all incorporation of profound hope, critical reflection, and meaningful change into policies at all levels of government (…or a revolution).