President of the OFL talks 'right to work' laws, union attacks and diversity

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Photo: OFL Communications

It’s the Friday afternoon on the last day of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention and Sid Ryan, President of the OFL, is tired. For a week he’s been leading the convention through its paces, which included a protest to raise the minimum wage and a whole host of eminent speakers, including Maude Barlow and the Official Opposition leader, Thomas Mulcair.

Most significantly, delegates voted to approve a new common front plan that will see the OFL expand its activism outside of its traditional labour scope.

Ryan’s exhaustion is then understandable -- but even after working hard for a week, he’s still ready to talk about labour issues. This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

 

At the OFL convention you got a mandate from your members to start the common front -- how are you feeling right now?

It’s exactly what we’d hoped to achieve. Two years ago we got a mandate to put together the nuts and the bolts of a common front. I think we’ve deepened the understanding of it now with the members by bringing in people to the convention from different organizations such as Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. I think most of the speakers at this convention -- they understand that labour on its own cannot defeat the Tory agenda. What is needed is a broader base and a broader tent, and that’s exactly what we're about to do.

 

I was at the Unifor founding convention and that really seems to be the message that unions are trying to get out -- that it just can’t be labour on its own anymore.

In Unifor's case they are building their community organizations. We've got a common front, Maude Barlow [who spoke on Tuesday at the OFL convention] talked about common frontiers.

 

It seems to me and to a number of other observers that Conservatives at all levels are really gearing up for an attack on organized labour -- is that why this kind of organizing is important?

This is part of it but we’ve known for a while that it isn’t just the labour issues. I’d like to protect public education, health care, the social safety net, raise the minimum wage -- all those issues and the impact upon labour. It’s not necessarily labour’s bread and butter, which is collective bargaining and raising wages and benefits and pension plans and so on. But there is a recognition that we don’t operate and cannot operate on a silo on an island.

We have to start connecting with those other social programs and activists that are fighting to preserve them. We have to expand beyond simply fighting for the crumbs off the table. We’re still fighting to protect medicare instead of saying "why aren’t we fighting to expand it?" The same with post-secondary education -- we should stop talking about freezing the rate and start talking about what they’ve got in Ireland: free university.

 

In terms of expanding that tent, do you think that one of the other things you need to do is make sure that there are more diversity of leaders in the labour movement?

No question about it. I mean it’s the greatest flaw. We’ve looked at the demographics and if you look ten years out, 80 per cent of the universe that we are trying to attract to the labour movement are made up of either women, the aboriginal community, LGBT community and of course visible minorities. That is the demographic and we aren't seeing it as yet. I kind of admonished the membership a little bit and said it’s not enough to talk labour employment equity without making space and making room at the local level as well.

At the OFL we probably have the most diverse executive board in North America. It’s gender balanced and equity balanced and everyone from the equity seeking groups has designates. But it’s still not enough. We want to see that replicated in the local organizations as well.

We have a lot of work to do in that area if we're hoping to attract new members down the road

 

What kind of programs is the OFL going to implement to try and work on that situation?

This time around, we brought into the convention itself all of the forums that would normally be held at night time. For example normally the human rights forum would be held on a Monday night and who ended up going to that forum were all the dedicated, committed folks who are like preaching to the choir.

We thought, this isn’t making any sense. Why don’t we bring their work into the main convention where they get a chance to talk to 1,200 folks, particularly the ones who have no idea what human rights means.

 

After the women’s forum, there was a woman who spoke up and said she was concerned that a lot of people had left the room during the forum. How do you fight against that?

Maybe they did. But normally you’d have 150 people going to the women's forum in the night time, but we still had 900 people in the hall. So it’s an evolutionary thing I think. We start to make this part of the mainstream and folks will stay to listen.

Look how many women activists got to the microphones, strong young women leaders who talk about their local leadership at their own locals -- and they were empowered by what they heard on the floor. Now they are going back with a base of knowledge that they didn’t know before.

I don’t expect that it will all happen overnight. But we’ve been working on women’s issues for a long time. It’s taken a long time to get a sense of parity with pay equity even thought it’s still a long way to go.

 

The other big issue coming up is that the next time Ontario goes to election there is the possibility of right to work legislation being on the table. How on guard does the labour movement have to be for this possibility?

The campaign that we’re going to have to wage is not one of high profile placards and demonstrations. That’s not going to do it -- this one has to be much more grassroots. We need to have all these conversations with our members over the next four months before any of it gets dropped.

I will add what is interesting about all this right to work stuff is that Tim Hudak barely got it through his own convention.

This is energizing and mobilizing the labour movement like never before. We now have a real interest in being involved in this election much more so than in the past. This I think is a strategic error that Hudak has made in signaling to his base that he is going to take on the labour movement.

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