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Organized Labour Is Seeing A Rebirth

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Three years ago, those who stood for big business and against the interests of working people could smell blood in the water.

And, if we're honest, who could blame them?

Union membership was down to levels not seen since the Second World War. Unions were on the defensive against aggressive employers, and Conservative politicians made plans to turn the clock back on labour legislation - eroding already weak laws for forming new unions and rolling back protections for workers, from health and safety laws to the social programs they relied on in tough times.
Meanwhile, increasingly precarious, part-time work and high unemployment made many workers afraid to stand up for themselves, and to wonder what a union could do for them.

This was also the frank assessment of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union in a January 2012 report noted for its rare candid language. Just over 18 months later, those two unions would merge to form Unifor.

This week, three years after the founding of Unifor on Labour Day weekend, we can honestly say the labour movement has seen a rebirth in this country. Today, the busiest day of our convention this week in Ottawa, we will see a measure of how much has changed since that January 2012 report was released.

The first thing we will do today is welcome an incredible group of Aboriginal leaders to join us, including child advocate Cindy Blackstock and Senator Murray Sinclair, the first Aboriginal judge appointed in Manitoba and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both will receive awards from Unifor for their tireless work for justice to reconcile and heal the wounds in Indigenous communities.

We will also welcome Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, whose NDP win in that province was once thought impossible.

And, as if that's not enough, we will hear from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will speak to the 2,000 labour activists who have gathered to represent workers from coast to coast to coast employed in every major sector of Canada's economy.

To me, taken together, today's events represent what Unifor and a revived labour movement is all about. It's about fighting for justice for our members and all workers, being an active ally to support the struggles of diverse communities for the justice they need and deserve, and it's about playing an active role in the politics of this country.

While much has been accomplished, there is more to be done - which is why we are also marching to Parliament Hill today, to demand swift action on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, educational funding and employment opportunities for all Aboriginal children and a real commitment to repairing the homes, public buildings and services in their communities.

Welcoming Trudeau and Notley to our stage shows just how much has changed in Canadian politics in three years. When Unifor formed, Stephen Harper was prime minister and Tim Hudak was leading in the polls in Ontario with open talk of bringing in regressive labour laws.

Today however, Harper's worst labour laws have been repealed, Hudak is shilling for the real estate industry and Ontario is in the midst of truly modernizing its labour laws and employment standards to reflect the nature of work today. There is no denying that the political landscape in this country has changed significantly and this is real progress and worth a celebration as Unifor turns three.

The change that we have seen is due, in no small part, to the revitalization of a mobilized and united labour movement and its renewed strength since the founding of Unifor.

Later today, after the awards are handed out, after we hear from the prime minister, march to Parliament Hill and after we hear from the Alberta premier, we will receive a report from our Social Justice Fund, which does much of its work outside of Canada to help workers and struggling communities stand up for themselves and build better lives. Our Social Justice Fund is funded by our members and it continues to bring about positive change around the world. This same Fund was instrumental in organizing Unifor members to sponsor five Syrian refugee families to come to Canada.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Syrian refugee camps in Jordan as part of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees mission, and on Friday families brought to Canada from war-torn Syria will help close our convention.

Three years ago, such strength and influence for the labour movement seemed unthinkable to many. Thankfully, there were those in the CAW and the CEP who saw the potential to do more, and the honesty to pursue that on the basis of a frank assessment of how bad things had become.

Three years later, we have accomplished much, and we will accomplish much more in the years to come.

Just watch us.