On May 7, 2009 the Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) held a “Stewards’ Assembly.” It was attended by some 1600 shop stewards, officials, staff and some rank and file members of both public and private sector unions. Promoted in TYRLC communications to affiliated unions since the end of March as the “first ever mass stewards assembly” and an “historic event” needed to develop a “collective response” to the economic crisis, it flowed from an earlier large event, the Good Jobs Summit of Nov. 22, 2008.
This event was a classic example of the kind of multiracial union-based mobilizing that takes place in some large urban centres in the US and, recently, Toronto and which is seen by many supporters of union renewal as “cutting edge.” It began with some economic education. This was followed by pre-arranged interventions from the floor, mostly by workers of colour who are struggling, with some limited successes, in the current crisis. In different forms, we heard “We can do it!”-style rallying cries from the front of the hall. Importantly, at the front of the room there was a multiracial panel of officials and staff that included some women of colour who are committed to the grassroots organizing of low-waged workers and workers of colour grassroots organizing (which their unions give little real space for).
The fundamental problem with the event was that it was more of an audience than an assembly. All activity was tightly controlled from the front of the room. There was never an open mike, never a missed beat in the political process. CAW president Ken Lewenza had the opportunity to speak near the end of the event; this I can only characterize as offensive given his dedication to giving concessions to the auto companies and to union-employer partnership. The fact that the event finished with a speech by Toronto mayor David Miller (booed by a few of those present) was really quite something.
We were repeatedly told to take both the TYRLC’s 6-point “Solidarity checklist” and the fix-EI petition back to our locals and to “mobilize our memberships.” The checklist includes vague but significant messages such as “put fair rules in place” and “don’t blame ourselves — or other workers.” Interestingly, TYRLC president John Cartwright regularly refers to this kind of organizing as “political bargaining.” If this is so, why do workers never even get to vote to ratify any of the various plans that Cartwright and the TYRLC leadership comes up with, as we would with contracts bargained with employers?
During the event, participants all sat at round tables. At one point, we were given 12 minutes to speak to our table-mates with the goal of filling out a yellow piece of paper with our ideas on how to operationalize the “Solidarity checklist” delivered to us that night. We were also assured that all our yellow papers would be reviewed by Labour Council, which would use them to prepare an action plan, to be unveiled to us on Labour Day.
On May 12 TYRLC affiliates were sent a follow-up letter calling this event a “resounding success.” The letter tells us about the four things that come next: getting signatures on the fix-EI petition and sending it back to the Council by May 29; posting the Solidarity Checklist on union bulletin boards; mobilizing for the June 13 rally planned jointly by the CLC, TYRLC and Good Jobs for All Coalition; and having focused discussions with members about these issues.
I would say it might have been a historic event but I would also suggest that counting the heads of participants who have been sent off with vague tasks is not enough to measure an event’s effectiveness.
Clearly, the TYRLC leadership has a political project that goes beyond what usually passes for “labour-community coalitions,” namely holding occasional events. The work done by people of colour to demand and achieve access to positions as union officials and staff is important. At the same time, a “mass” assembly is not the same as a “mass” movement. The ongoing activities of a campaign controlled from the top-down by a section of the union officialdom should not be confused by activists with a movement.
The direction given by the TYRLC leadership at and after the event to discuss issues in our locals is not a bad one; we should be talking about them. But what if members in such discussions have some ideas about what to do? How do we connect with other locals? Where do we discuss our ideas, make plans and decisions? Or do we just talk among ourselves and then wait to hear top officials speak for us before we march into the Exhibition grounds on Labour Day? Fundamentally, in these isolating and difficult times, how do we learn to collectively tell the difference between participation and genuine democratic control and to demand the latter?