RICHMOND—CUPE activists heading to the bargaining table over the next couple of years need to reject the arguments of global capital that have always saddled workers with the heaviest burden during tough economic times, a prominent U.S. trade unionist said at Tuesday night’s opening session of CUPE’s provincial bargaining conference.
In a rousing guest speech that drew enthusiastic applause from the more than 300 delegates present, Stewart Acuff, special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, compared U.S. and Canadian political environments and found many similarities in the struggle for workers’ rights.
“For 20 years now, we have all been trapped in a vicious, ever-accelerating global race to the bottom where workers have no bargaining power, and we have to compete in a global economy,” said Acuff.
“We’ve been told that even if our work isn’t mobile, we have to lower our expectations and compete with cost-cutting privatization schemes. It took many of us too long, especially in the United States, to find out that a corporate-fuelled globalization was a huge scam to lower our quality of life.”
Acuff, citing some shocking statistics, described an American workplace environment that has become increasingly hostile to union activity. Last year, he said, 30,000 workers were fired or otherwise lost money for engaging in their right to be involved with a union. Two in five union activists can expect to be fired in every organizing campaign. And every 23 minutes, a worker in America will be fired for union activity.
“For the past five years, we’ve been trying to stop that by fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act,” he said. “Our fundamental fight is the fight to restore the absolute freedom of every worker in Canada, and the U.S. and the world to associate with whomever they want to, including their union.”
One world, one struggle
Acuff, citing NAFTA, recalled how the Mexican government was forced to cut off subsidies so that products made from corn and beans, such as tortillas, were no longer affordable.
“That’s why we’re learning in America, that when a worker comes across the border to feed their family, we don’t call them illegal,” he said, to a rousing ovation: “We call them brother and sister.”
As a 30-year veteran of bargaining in some of the most difficult labour environments in the U.S, Acuff urged delegates to reject the global context and fight for what’s right.
“Get as close as you can to your members, your rank and file. Train them, listen to them. Reinforce that the union belongs to its members—the leaders are the stewards of the union members.”
Solidarity the key
Acuff said that winning better rights for workers is “a question of power—not clever bargaining, not being right or being reasonable, but being strong. We must be comfortable with power, we must understand how to use it and we must be willing to use power.”
The key to harnessing that power, he said, is recognizing that solidarity means not only reaching out to one’s union brothers and sisters, but finding allies wherever possible and bringing them in. Since 2004, he said, the U.S. labour movement has “completely bungled” union solidarity. Only recently has the movement begun to work out its differences, and reunite for the struggle ahead.
“We leverage power in coalitions and in solidarity. Everyone else we bring to our fight makes us stronger, and we make them stronger. Disunity only helps the bosses.”
In one example, Acuff described how the Steelworkers and AFL-CIO are working together with large environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club on common issues.
“We will work for a green economy, and the Sierra Club will work for green jobs to be good union jobs. That’s the kind of solidarity we need.”