Powering Up Vancouver

A Thirst for Change

Where to start? I've just been elected as president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, the first woman president in its 112-year history.

We all agree the VDLC is a great labour council, and that retiring president Bill Saunders provided strong leadership and mentorship, but there's also a sense of new energy, new ideas and opportunity.

Our executive has lots of new faces, including five young activists. It's encouraging to see their enthusiasm and skills. They are not the leaders of tomorrow; they are leaders today. Our Young Workers Committee members wear T-shirts that declare: "Talk without action = zero." I believe we need to be visible both in our workplaces and in our communities, and that we need to offer a positive and achievable alternative to the corporate agenda. And we need to be prepared to take strategic action.

After decades of rollbacks, free trade agreements and legislative attacks on workers, it seems the labour movement around the world has reached a breaking point, and is stepping up to demand an alternative. Thousands of protesters in Wisconsin, and now Ohio, have been inspired by the struggle of Egyptians, largely fuelled by the trade union movement, to claim democracy. The Egyptians recognize the attacks on public sector workers in the U.S. as attacks on all workers.

Trade union leaders can be part of this thirst for change or risk the continued demise of unionized labour.

As a labour council, our primary role is to support our affiliates. We need to support bargaining; act in solidarity through job actions; lobby government; and organize events to learn and strategize together.

There are lots of ways to make our meetings and events purposeful and interesting, and I am keen to learn from the experiences in places like Toronto and San Jose how to involve more activists and set out focussed training programs for new leaders from within our affiliates.

But to revitalize the labour movement and have an effective voice, we also need to engage with others in our communities to speak out on issues that affect every Canadian, unionized or not. These issues include higher minimum wages; a living wage; health and safety in every workplace; an end to child poverty; and fair taxation.

In Vancouver we are collaborating with non-union organizations that share our values of equity and fairness, and view the labour movement as a vehicle to advance social justice issues. The MetroVancouver Alliance, for instance, is modelled after the Industrial Areas Foundation approach, which has organized many successful campaigns in the U.S., Canada and the UK, including the living wage campaign in London, England.

Rather than join together in response to an issue, we are building relationships based on trust between groups that normally don't interact but have common ground, such as labour and faith communities. Once trust and mutual respect develop, and leaders are trained in facilitation and campaign strategies, our capacity to work together on difficult issues will be much stronger, and can be sustained through multiple campaigns. Called "power before program," this Industrial Areas Foundation-inspired approach to coalition-building is a slow process, but it establishes deep roots and the outcome will resonate with many more people.

Importantly, the relationship needs to be reciprocal. Over the years, many labour-community coalitions have fizzled because the relationship was imbalanced. We need to share resources with our coalition partners; have equal authority in decisions; value diversity of opinion and experience; and take to heart the idea that we truly need each other.

Our labour movement's participation in this "organization of organizations" belies the myth that labour is isolated and only interested in ourselves. Our efforts to improve wages and conditions for non-union workers, and to address social issues outside of work, are completely consistent with the Tommy Douglas creed that says: "What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all." By strengthening the weakest links we can secure a better future for everyone.

Joey Hartman was recently elected as the new president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Her trade union and social activism began on the picket line during the 14-week Vancouver-area civic strike in 1981.

She is an active member of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, and has both public and private sector experience. Her most recent position in a union was with the Hospital Employees' Union, the B.C. Health Services Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. She first served as the assistant to the president and, more recently, as a servicing representative working with privatized hospital housekeepers and food service workers.

Hartman is also involved with a number of organizations, including CoDevelopment Canada, the Pacific Northwest Labour History Association, the On-to-Ottawa Historical Society and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. These community-based connections, she says, "broaden and enhance my work in the labour movement."