Growing a Movement

Unions need to develop deeper, broader membership activism
July 1, 2011

The 21st century has been a liberating time so far; bumpy, yet liberating. We have seen waves of democratic revolutions in Africa and the Middle East. We have seen popular worker and citizen uprisings against neoliberal extremism in Wisconsin. And we have seen seven years of minority government in Canada, which has not been so tumultuous that the country slid off the planet.

We have also seen increasing expectations for more effective participatory democracy in Canada. We have egalitarian, democratic, grassroots social media (my Twitter stream contains tweets from my favourite actors, musicians, and political leaders surrounding my friends’ tweets). We have web-streamed political rallies and thousands simultaneously taking part in telephone town halls for politicians’ campaigns, and issues like anti-privatization fights.

We have also seen popular, non-partisan mobilizing in Canada, by groups opposing two federal prorogations and, last spring, by dozens of “Vote Mobs” – groups of non-partisan youth converging, in public, with the very simple message that they intended to vote in this year’s federal election, in higher numbers than they had in the past. This message of democracy confounded Conservative MP John Baird so much that he called it “disconcerting.”

And, while we have seen a significant increase in the importance of House of Commons committees in minority parliaments because the government does not seat a majority of MPs on them, outside the House we have seen a complementary eruption of groups whose sole focus is to oppose corporate tax giveaways and public spending cuts.

These are all small examples of a changing political culture. But, when I step back and look at what they signify, I see people in the grassroots, young and old, yearning to be more involved in politics. They need avenues to engage with the party process and with the issues they care about: health care and education funding; seniors’ care; doubling the Canada Pension Plan; and restoring our international reputation as a seeker of peace. Meanwhile, political parties have spent the decade incorporating blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter and live-streamed events.

Trade unions need to do so more – a lot more. It’s all about member engagement. Unions have been doing good work in recent years improving how they engage with their own members, not only to mobilize them to work for progressive candidates in elections at all levels, but in communicating with members through more convenient methods like email, Facebook, and Twitter.

But we have learned from democratic movements that there is room for growth in how unions inspire their members. As well as more youth becoming union members, we see other demographic changes coming over the next few years, including more retirements. All this means a significant turnover in union membership. And, since many young workers were raised in this neoliberal era of corporate tax cuts, education cuts, swelling class sizes, and increasing user fees, unions have the added burden of letting their members know it wasn’t always this way, and doesn’t need to be this way in the future.

This membership turnover also demands basic union orientation to ideas like: why we even have unions; what unions have done for society for a century and a half, from weekends, to parental leave, to long-term disability coverage (LTD); and what obligations union members have in pursuing progressive change for society as a whole, as well as for themselves.

But we need to do more than just that. We need to convert that sense of social responsibility into political action. We need to help our members understand why privatization is bad for society; why corporate tax cuts do not lead to equal economic progress; why anti-worker changes to labour legislation have checked our real incomes for over a generation, while the rich get richer.

We need to help our members understand the history of trade unions, and of the NDP as the electoral wing of Canada’s progressive social movement, making it the best voice for working people. We need to show members how electoral reform would strengthen democracy, voter turnout, and the attention political parties will pay to the needs of working people and the economically and socially vulnerable in our society.

In short, we need to make political activists of our members. We have the resources to do this; after all, our membership dwarfs that of all political parties combined. Years ago, unions and corporations were banned from contributing to federal parties. Money that unions used to spend on contributions to parties can now be spent on increasing member education and engagement.

Although the federal election is over, we can’t stop our mobilizing: we shouldn’t tie ourselves to election cycles. Union members are yearning for social and political meaning and involvement – and their unions are well equipped to develop that resource. This means nurturing a deeper ongoing relationship with our members, funnelling the new energy into progressive goals like election campaigns, anti-privatization initiatives, and the core solidarity-building project of our own collective bargaining.

Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a CUPE research representative and former high school teacher. Visit his blog at