01/07/2016 05:01 EST | Updated 01/07/2017 05:12 EST

Unions Will Lead The Fight For Equality And Justice In 2016

As corporate globalization undermines the standard of living of working families, workers will re-discover the value of grassroots organizing and collective representation. In the process, a whole new generation of diverse, talented leaders will come to the fore.

Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images
BLOOR STREET, TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/03/07: Thousands gathered in Toronto to mark International Womens Day with a large protest march, minimum wage demand. The main themes of this years march were fighting for the rights of aboriginal women and raising awareness about sexual violence and racial discrimination. International Womens Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years. Torontos march is the largest in North America. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Most Canadians have entered 2016 with a sense of optimism -- rid of the Harper nastiness, they're ready for the "sunny days" of a Liberal government still in its honeymoon and should be rightly proud of the role played by our representatives at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris.

At the same time, the economic picture is less certain. Canada's labour movement will continue fighting the corporate austerity agenda, as well as defending jobs and public assets. But in 2016, labour is also positioned to lead on key issues that matter to all Canadians: workplace justice, climate action and equity.

One of the most exciting campaigns in the last year was the fight for $15 and Fairness. Driven by community-labour coalitions across North America, the actions drew attention to the dramatic rise of income inequality and increase in precarious work.

More people now see that the economy will fail the next generation unless current trends are turned around. In Ontario, the ongoing Changing Workplace Review offers an opportunity to make reforms to the laws that govern the world of work.

Labour is gearing up to take on this challenge because people's incomes and working conditions have always been determined by how strong unions are in each sector, and in society as a whole. When more people have access to unionization there is less poverty and more respect at work.

Employment standards have to be significantly updated and enforced to address the exploitation that is so prevalent in today's job market. If the Wynne government is serious about tackling inequality, the Changing Workplace Review will usher in significant improvements to workers' rights. That will be a massive victory for all Canadians, but particularly for the next generation.

Then there is the hard truth of the slogan, "There are no jobs on a dead planet." The COP21 negotiations in Paris saw the world's leaders come together and reach a remarkable consensus on the urgency of climate change. Our politicians pledged to come home and pursue aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There will be a huge opening for new ideas, as well as an intense struggle for sustainability that includes good jobs for all. Because our members are on the front lines, we can lay out a plan for every sector of the economy. We can partner with politicians and civil society to frame a vision that includes both equity and just transition. We can replicate the model of Community Benefits Agreements, incorporating jobs for racialized youth on public mega-projects.

Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray has set very ambitious goals for carbon reduction. Labour can be a key ally in the both the public discourse and the delivery of programs needed to support these goals.

The difficult issues of race and prejudice that have dominated headlines in the last year create both a crisis and an opportunity. I am proud of the principled response to Islamophobia by Canada's labour movement as we stood side-by-side with our Muslim neighbours.

But as the Black Lives Matter and Aboriginal movements show, so much more needs to be done to challenge the systemic racism that underpins our world. Politicians, employers and community leaders must all step up to the plate.

In the fall of 2014, Labour Council published a Leaders Guide to Equity to help our affiliates undertake this work. Racial justice goes farther than diversity and inclusion to demand a true practice of equity in workplaces and society.

Half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada. Many whose first language is not English often do not feel welcome in the existing structures they find. One new initiative has been the creation of Diverse Workers Networks led by union activists from different communities -- Chinese, Filipino, Tamil, Somali and Ethiopian/Eritrean.

They have reached out to provide education on workers' rights, help people join unions and mobilize on pressing social issues. They give members the confidence to be more engaged and provide leadership within their own unions and communities.

Tackling these issues brings up the question of how relevant unions are in a changing world. The successful fight labour undertook to stop Tim Hudak from bringing so-called "right to work" laws to Ontario was actually crucial for the economic health of the province. It also renewed the dialogue with union members about the role of their unions in the both the workplace and society.

As corporate globalization undermines the standard of living of working families, workers will re-discover the value of grassroots organizing and collective representation. In the process, a whole new generation of diverse, talented leaders will come to the fore.

History shows that working people need to be in motion in order to discover their power. More often than not, those mass movements break rules and make the elites uncomfortable.

Seven generations ago -- in 1871 -- workers came together to create a collective voice in Toronto to bargain a better deal with those who ruled society. They challenged laws, changed politics and built a movement that has benefited everyone who came after them. In 2016, I am confident that we will continue that legacy of working for social and economic justice for all.

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