Kent Peterson launches Project: Community at the 2014 SFL convention.

Unions are political
By: Kent Peterson, SFL Strategic Advisor and Labour Reporter editor

The very act of signing a union card is a political act. When we become a member of a union we signal that we believe in workplace democracy. We signal that we think people deserve fair wages, a good pension, and the right to work in a safe environment – all of which are radically political ideas.

The adversaries of working families – such as corporations and conservative governments – advance the idea that unions aught not be political at all. They say unions have no business talking about gender equity, job security, or tax fairness. It is very easy to see why corporations and conservatives try to frame being political as a bad thing – it threatens their authority and, of course, it threatens their almighty profit. Ultimately, though, the priorities of a union are set by the workers that make up that union. If workers want to take a political stance and stand up to the forces that enable domestic violence, they should do it. If workers want to take a political stance and say they believe in a robust, publically-funded and publically-delivered healthcare system, they should do it. And, more to the point, those workers should not be ashamed of doing those things. Being political is a good thing.

Saskatchewan’s labour movement has always practiced social unionism, and social movement unionism. We concern ourselves with achieving fair wages, good pensions, and job security – of course. However, we look beyond those direct workplace issues and focus on people’s lives outside of work. We build community coalitions, and take up the causes of our allies, and we work towards a better society for everyone – these, too, are fundamentally political acts.

From supporting women’s suffrage to organizing waitresses at the Baltimore Café in Regina in 1918, this Saskatchewan’s labour movement has taken on political issues from the founding of this province in order to build better lives. Saskatchewan’s unions have never hesitated to withdraw labour if the result meant better working conditions for all people. One such example occurred in 1920 when the Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters union (current-day UA Local 179) went on strike, because they believed people shouldn’t die as a result of going to work. Furthermore, our unions recognized early on the need to force a workers’ agenda in elections. Indeed it was Saskatchewan’s Labour Movement that rallied behind J. S. Woodsworth’s Independent Labour Party in 1929, and partnered with M. J. Coldwell and the farmer-backed Progressive Party to ultimately form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

It was the political activity of workers and their unions that won all of Saskatchewan’s residents many of the rights we enjoy today, as well as a strong social safety net.

These are but a few examples of how unions are inherently political, and how being political is the only path to real change – change that is good for all people. Throughout all of those examples, workers and women and all marginalized groups of people were opposed – and sometimes even murdered – by the forces of the right-wing. The right wing, such as corporate bosses and conservatives, said back then as they say now: unions have no right to talk about issues that affect people outside of workplaces.

Well, unions not only have a right to engage in political activities that build a better province – indeed they have a responsibility to do so.

Saskatchewan's Labour Movement: the folks who brought you the constitutional right to strike!