Canadian Labour Congress, Leader
Speech to USW Constitutional Convention, Aug. 17, 2011
Sisters and Brothers, I am pleased to bring you greetings of solidarity from the Officers and 3.2 million workers who are members of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Consœurs et confrères, c'est un honneur pour moi de vous transmettre les salutations de solidarité des dirigeantes et dirigeants et des 3.2 millions de travailleuses et travailleurs du Congrès du travail du Canada.
Hermanas y hermanos, es un honor para mí traer saludos de solidaridad de los funcionarios y trabajadores de tres punto dos millones de afiliados a la Confederación del Trabajo de Canadá.
Many thanks to my friend Leo Gerard and your executive for inviting me to speak here today.
And given the heat here in Las Vegas, when I stepped out of the airport, I thought for a moment Leo had been serious when he told me to go to hell...and said he'd send me a ticket to get there!
Anyway, Leo told me to take as long as I want to speak to you today.
But I want to remind Leo of what former U.S. President Woodrow T. Wilson once said when asked how long it took him to prepare for giving a speech.
He answered: "That depends. If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation. If 15 minutes - 3 days. If half an hour - 2 days.
"But if you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now."
Well, Leo - I'm ready now too!
I'm sure you all know the old saying: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?"
But with your Convention this week, the opposite is true - what happens in Vegas this week needs to be spread all over the United States and Canada.
Workers need to hear our message - your convention theme - "Stand Up, Fight Back!"
Because that's what must happen!
We in Canada know all too well about the fight in Wisconsin over fundamental labour rights, about bitter strikes and lockouts because of outrageous employer concession demands on pensions and wages and about governments slashing public services.
What happens here in the U.S. is happening in Canada and indeed all around the world - in the United Kingdom, in Greece, in Spain - and it is an ugly sight.
We are in a class war right now - a war that was declared by the upper class and big business against ordinary working people.
It's a war that we are currently losing - but one that we must win if our labour movement is to survive.
Why this war has been declared on us is simple - and it goes well beyond the usual reason of simple corporate greed.
No, this is a diversionary war - a tactic designed to confuse us, to divide us and then to conquer us.
When big business and the right-wing tell us America is broke or Canada is broke - it's a lie.
What they don't tell you is that just 400 rich Americans own as much combined wealth as half of all Americans - 155 million of them.
They don't tell you that the top one per cent of Canadians got one-third of all income gains in Canada from 1997 to 2007.
Or that the income gap between the richest and poorest Canadians widened from $92,300 in 1976 to $117,500 in 2009.
Our countries aren't broke - it's simply that the rich are breaking us!
That's why we have to: "Stand Up, Fight Back!"
When big business tries to pit union workers against non-union workers, when it tries to encourage private sector unions to oppose public sector workers - then we understand they are up to no good.
When big business and the right-wing try to start a fight between us on Main Street it's because they don't want everyone together fighting Wall Street.
But Wall Street is where the real problem lies, not Main Street.
Tell me, do you remember when steelworkers crashed the stock market, took billions in bonuses, killed millions of jobs, trashed the world economy, and paid no taxes?
Do you remember when teachers or nurses, postal workers, librarians, social workers or airline employees did all that?
No, me neither.
But our opponents have managed to turn the tables and have workers fighting with each other for a shrinking slice of the pie, while they take all the money in the economy for themselves.
Is it any wonder that we need to "Stand Up, Fight Back!"
When you add up all the attacks on workers - the sad truth of the matter is this - Canadians and Americans are being played with a bait and switch game.
The gap between the rich...and the rest of us is widening at a level not seen since the early 1900s.
It's been 30 years of wage stagnation for the middle class while the richest 0.1% - those with annual incomes of $1.5 million - have more than doubled their share of Canada's wealth.
How did we get into this terrible situation?
And how do we get back out of it?
First - we've been framed by our opponents. In the wake of a financial crisis caused by an unregulated market economy, unscrupulous investment scams, greed and fraud, they saw a literally golden opportunity to roll back workers' hard-won gains.
In Canada, as in the United States, those responsible for the economic crisis are trying to blame the victims.
And we simply have to do something about it.
We have to be smarter in fighting these threats to workers and their unions.
When they try to frame us, we have to fight fiction with facts.
Fight fiction with facts - by using social media - like Twitter and Facebook and blogs and texting and the Internet.
Here in the U.S. you also have to fight Fox News with facts! That will confuse them!
I said at the Canadian Labour Congress Convention in May that labour can't be playing 8-tracks...and expect to organize workers listening to Podcasts on their iPhones!
It's true - we have to be more relevant to our members - and to the public.
We have to do more talking to the public through unfiltered media where our direct message can be heard - because we have a compelling story to tell about the union advantage.
And that's one of the key ways we are going to get out of this mess and win the war being waged against us.
But we need to do more than just get our message out - as critical as that is.
We need effective political action.
As a Canadian labour leader, I'm not about to tell anyone in the United States what they need to do.
But I will happily tell you about our political action plans.
Make no mistake - we now have the most right-wing Conservative government ever in Canadian history.
At the Canadian Labour Congress, we deal straightforwardly with all governments to advance labour's agenda.
But we work directly with one party formed 50 years ago with the direct participation of the Canadian Labour Congress - the New Democratic Party.
The NDP in the last federal election became for the first time in history Canada's Official Opposition party - the second largest party in our Parliament.
That makes the NDP the alternative to the Conservative government - and we hope the NDP will actually win the next national election in four years' time.
Sadly, NDP leader Jack Layton has been stricken with cancer and has taken a leave of absence to fight this terrible disease a second time.
We hope and pray he soon wins this battle and returns to lead our party.
But in Canada we have a very different political environment than you do in the United States.
For one thing - corporate and union contributions to national political parties are completely banned.
Only individuals can donate to national political parties - imagine how that would change the big money control over both the Republican and Democratic parties here if corporations couldn't simply buy elections and politicians with their wealth.
But as a labour movement we can still participate in national politics, and we run education campaigns, endorse candidates and mobilize our members.
The Canadian Labour Congress has run a very successful "Better Choice" campaign in the past several elections, pointing out the difference between the party positions on key labour issues.
We don't need to tell people who to vote for - they can see that easily for themselves if they get the information.
But we make no secret of our strong support for the NDP.
And through political action we managed to put labour's agenda into play in the recent national election, forcing every party to respond to the need for retirement security, for better unemployment benefits and much more.
Put simply - Canadian workers cannot be ignored any longer by political parties, because we represent a large segment of voters - and we make that count.
But we still face challenging times ahead. We have to educate our local executives, activists and steward body to talk to and engage our members with our message.
And we need every union member's help to get these simple messages across:
That lifting up our standard of living is a good thing.
That being in a union means earning a decent wage so that we can buy a home, a car, raise a family, take a vacation, put our kids through college, and after a lifetime of work, be able to retire in dignity.
We can't as a society - and especially as a labour movement - tell our kids that they don't deserve the same standard of living as we have enjoyed for ourselves.
What kind of a world would that be if we accepted such a terrible notion?
And yet that's what big business and right-wing governments are telling all of us.
We have to Stand Up, Fight Back!
And when we do, we will win.
Thank you for listening and for all you do to make this a better world.