November 2009

North of 49°
Grassroots Political Mobilization at Top of Agenda for IBEW Canada
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The continuing economic downturn and a politically unstable parliament with a precarious Conservative governing minority has convinced many IBEW members in Canada that it's time to step up grassroots political organizing efforts.

At the First District progress meeting in late summer, held in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, developing a national political action program was a top priority.

"We have to make sure the Brotherhood's voice on major legislative issues is heard across the country—in federal, provincial and municipal politics," said First District Vice President Phil Flemming.

While many locals have been energetic in building political action committees and encouraging electoral activism, many others are largely disconnected from the political process and have little communication with their elected officials.

Toronto Local 353 President Barry Stevens, who since last February has been the political action/media strategy coordinator for the First District, found this out when he did a political survey of business managers at the progress meeting.

"The results made it clear that the First District needs to step up its efforts to educate our members on the whys of political action," Stevens said.

It's a critical time for the labour movement in Canada. The recession has led to historic levels of unemployment, threatening the health of key social programs, while the federal government remains in the hands of anti-labour Conservatives.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's right-wing government came to power in 2006 promising to trim the influence of unions and cut back on vital social services, an agenda that has only been checked due to its minority status.

Currently the Tories hold 143 parliamentary seats, with the opposition divided among the Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois. While surviving recent votes of no confidence, many question how long Harper can hold onto power, making union voters a decisive constituency in the next election.

For many in the IBEW, the first step is grassroots education. "Too many of our members still don't understand the importance of political activity," said Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 Business Manager Rick Dowling.

For Dowling and other members in British Columbia, staying out of politics isn't an option. The provincial Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell has been working to undermine workers' rights since first coming to power in 2001. His attacks have brought IBEW locals from throughout the province together with the B.C. Federation of Labour to mobilize working families—writing letters, lobbying MLAs and blitzing the media. It's a level of mobilization that leaders in the First District say needs to be reproduced around the country.

Stevens wants to set up an online labour history class for business managers as a first step. "We need to remind them that the things we have and take for granted—health care, employment insurance, pensions—were fought for by our forebears in the labour movement and we're in danger of losing them unless we keep fighting."

On a federal level, the IBEW's priorities are preventing Harper from gaining a majority while supporting campaigns for employment insurance and pension reform.

The First District also hopes to encourage more provincial activism by assisting smaller locals in pooling their energy and resources to forge a common political program. The majority of labour law and skilled trades' regulations are decided provincially, and with three western provinces already in the hands of anti-labour governments, the future of the IBEW is dependent on building a strong political presence in each of the provinces.

"We have to build solidarity among labour unions as wide as we can, so we can speak with one voice on the key issues facing working Canadians," Flemming said.