Thursday October 3, 2002

"Organizing for strength in Toronto's diverse communities"

Since the first peoples named this the "Gathering Place", Toronto has been a city that has been built by immigrants and children of immigrants. Its population has come from 170 different countries, and speaks 100 languages. Over 50% of us were born outside of Canada. Most Torontonians are now people of colour - the visible majority.

What does that mean for the labour movement? It has profound implications, that many of us are only just beginning to understand. There is a great deal to learn, starting at the grassroots and reaching to every level of leadership. What needs to be done in order for our unions to reflect the changing workforce - including at the leadership level? How does our movement interact with workers of colour, many of whom are newcomers with a wide spectrum of views on trade unionism and left politics? How do we organize the unorganized?

In the past decade, our movement has tackled the issue through extensive anti-racist and human rights work. Anti-racism activists from the labour and social justice movements and our communities have displayed incredible energy and commitment in keeping the equity agenda alive. Equity is a principle embedded in union policies. Today, we can proudly point to two of the four top officers of the Canadian Labour Congress - Hassan Yussuff and Marie Clark-Walker. We are starting to comprehend the rich legacy of our sisters and brothers through projects such as CUPE's "Colouring our Union" and our highlighting of the monument to Chinese Railway Workers. Leadership skills courses are being offered through many organizations. At every level, we want to be consciously making space for workers of colour to participate and lead.

The next step is in forming solid links in the diverse communities across Toronto. Labour Council has been involved for many years with community organizations and activists on issues of equity, anti-racism, and social justice. It's time to make those links stronger, and broaden our focus from dealing with cases of injustice to reflecting the wider aspirations and priorities of the entire community. Labour's key messages should be found in media serving new Canadians - Asian, South Asian, African, Caribbean, Latin American, as well as eastern European and Portuguese - so that women and men in those communities see the labour movement in its full role; and feel at home helping to organize and build unions in every sector of the economy.

The lesson we learned from the Rexdale by-election is that victories are possible if progressive activists who are rooted in diverse communities come together, and provide the base for an authentic partnership of equals. While the bulk of civic activists traditionally live in the older city, there is a new reality in the suburbs, particularly north of St. Clair and Eglinton Avenues. The changing demographics offer real potential to build similar partnerships in other areas. We have started to embark on that kind of process in the Scarborough and North York, as well as following up in north Etobicoke.

In many cases our members are already leaders in their own communities. Their knowledge and skill is crucial part of the building process. In other cases, we will be sitting down with people who may not have always trusted unions, and so the honesty we bring to the table will be of utmost importance. The goal will be to create a stronger basis for progressive politics across all of the city. The power that comes from that will have to be shared, and respect given to the experience that will brought together from many different places.

By weaving together two threads - labour and community organizing - we can start to create something that is both exciting and full of potential. Workers from the diverse communities need to feel that this proud union city belongs to them as well. The strength of thousands of working people is there to be tapped. It's time to be bold, and make big strides forward. As Sister Clark-Walker affirms time and time again - "There ain't no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don't stop"!

The executive recommends:

  • Labour Council work with our members and allies to engage the fullest involvement of communities of colour in the key campaigns on medicare, water and public education.
  • Labour Council Executive work with the Equity Committee to develop processes that encourage workers of colour to become active, to become leaders, and to consciously advance women and men from diverse communities into roles of greater responsibility and stature within the organization.
  • That Labour Council undertake an extensive consultation with activists and leaders in diverse communities throughout Toronto to set the stage for new progressive partnerships in municipal and education politics.
  • Activists and members attend the labour/community forum on October 5th at the OFL Building.
  • Every affiliate send as many delegates as possible to the CLC Aboriginal/ Worker of Colour Conference in Toronto November 29-December 1.

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