Recently, I attended an event for labour sponsored by the United Way. Being a federal public servant, I was seated at the Public Service Alliance of Canada table with B.C. PSAC leader Bob Jackson. Something started to bother me as I glanced around the room at the other tables. We were listening to impressive social justice activists highlight gains made over the last generation. After a few moments it hit me. Ten years from now, roughly two-thirds of that room will be retired. Actually, forget about the next decade; I just aged out of the youth movement and I couldn’t see many of my peers in the room. What are our unions going to do without succession? Do people my age not understand that we are at war?
Canada’s labour movement is fighting for survival. Unionization in the private sector has slowed. In addition to writing legislation that threatens to cripple unions, the government is contracting out public services to for-profit providers whose workers are not unionized. Our unions struggle internally as well. National leadership blames locals for their lack of involvement while struggling locals accuse leadership of inaction. Our unions have gotten so bogged down with bureaucracy that the spirit to act has been muffled by red tape. In the public sector seniority often trumps merit, frustrating a new generation of public servants. Most importantly, we are losing our image battle. The right wing is beating us in public relations and, in response, we talk about decades-old achievements that no longer resonate with the public. It’s no wonder my friends aren’t inspired to join me in the civil service.
Don’t tell me people my age don’t care. I participated in the Occupy movement. I helped lead a team of young people to raise money and awareness for the United Way. The passion and motivation to raise the bar is out there. We just need to tap into that 99 percent.
The right wing is terrified that unions will again lead the fight for social justice in this country. They are terrified that we will work, as we have done historically, for positive social change. This is the role our unions must assume in order to regain lost ground. Retail workers, waitresses, line-cooks, manual laborers: we must organize the un-organized.
So I am calling the charismatic leaders of tomorrow—the ones being alienated by the gerontocracy which dominates our unions—to step forward. You’re the ones that I want. We need leaders who show passion and empathy and who are capable of inspiring the next generation of union members to act. We need them to think outside the box and lead by example while expanding our presence into our communities. Together we’re going to lead the fight against poverty, ensure quality housing and childcare, help establish a national aboriginal strategy, and fight for seniors living in isolation. We’re going to strengthen campaigns for social justice and help revitalize the labour movement. We’re going to change our public image from that of a spoiled, self-centered organization focused only on its own members to champions of social justice and equality. Canadians will stand with us as we raise the bar for human rights in this country. Then we will watch as legislation designed to dismantle us crumbles without public support.
We can once again lead society in changing the world as we did 100 years ago. There are millions of people eager to participate in building a better world—they just need to be inspired. Together we can make unions exciting places to work, where real change happens. We’re going to need to be creative and fierce to achieve our goals. Playing by the rules will not work when we are at war. I’m sure you, Gen Y, will have no trouble in defying convention as we fight for union survival.
Welcome to the front lines, sisters and brothers.