Neoliberalism Has Wreaked Havoc on Canadian Workers. Now, They’re Charting a New Path.

“Labor has not survived unscathed. It is quite scathed.”

Maximillian Alvarez

Federal government workers stage a protest outside Service Canada building in Scarborough district of Toronto, Canada on April 19, 2023. Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

From May 8-12, the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress took place in Montréal. Reporting for Working People and The Real News Network, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez attended the convention and spoke with a number of rank-and-file workers, organizers, and union officers about the state of the labor movement in Canada.

In Part 2 of our two-part dispatch from the CLC, we talk to: Nora Loreto, writer, editor, organizer, podcaster, co-host of Sandy and Nora Talk Politics with Sandy Hudson, and author of numerous books, including Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Take Back The Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age; Meg Davis, brand director, illustrator, and former member of the organizing committee at Point Blank Creative ad agency, where workers unionized with UFCW Local 1518; Larry Rousseau, current Executive Vice President of the Canadian Labour Congress; and Nicholas Marcus Thompson, Trinidadian-Canadian social justice advocate, union leader, and Executive Director of the Black Class Action Secretariat.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Nora Loreto: My name is Nora Loreto. I am a writer and an activist based in the French capital city of Quebec, which is also called Quebec.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Nora, it is really, really cool to be sitting down and chatting with you. I am a big fan of your work, which I think is really, really great, really important. And we are, of course, sitting here in the expo wing of the 30th Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. So I’m trying to soak in as much as I can, trying to talk to as many folks as I can, learn as much as I can. And then folks who are listening to this are going to have very little background knowledge of organized labor in Canada. I think that we’ve been hearing a lot of the bigger news stories: the federal workers strike, the teachers in Ontario, the freedom convoy”. There are bits and pieces that we get. And, as you know, in general, Americans aren’t that plugged into what’s going on in Canada.

I wanted to start there, actually, and ask if you could give your bird’s eye view of where the labor movement is in Canada right now amidst all of these wild political shifting winds.

Nora Loreto: I hate to do this to you, but I have to take you back. If we’re going to have this conversation, we have to look a little bit in the rearview mirror. Canadian labor has been in crisis, I would say, for decades, frankly. It’s been battered by neoliberalism, as is the case across the Western world. I was just saying to someone that if it wasn’t for the legal requirements of the union to represent its membership and to do the work of industrial relations — that is the core work of the labor movement — we might not even have much of a labor movement today. Because we certainly do not have many social movements, frankly. Lots of movements have come and gone and have not been able to reconstitute themselves, whether it’s the feminist movement or the anti-war movement. Certainly, there’s been new movements like Idle No More, which is a movement for Indigenous rights, and LANDBACK, and Black Lives Matter. But labor has not survived unscathed. It is quite scathed.

So this was what it looked like as we entered the pandemic period. And we have a pretty normal, I would say, mix in relation to the United States of public and private union density, but the private union density is higher. About a third of workers in Canada are unionized, and that is a big enough number to have a pretty major impact on how elections go. Though the party that they align with, which is the NDP, the impact is not on the NDP. It’s more on how things are talked about and how even the most right-wing mainstream political party in this country is trying to attract workers through rhetoric, through pro worker, pro-union rhetoric, which is so interesting, so fascinating. So that’s the overall context.

So labor walks into this pandemic, frankly, battered and unsure of how it can do all things: protect the members on the ground with adequate personal protective equipment and also fight the government, because unfortunately, fighting the government became coded as a right-wing thing. And so unions created this consensus, not formally, but there was a consensus that we had to support the government. So that has been really difficult.

At the same time, there is a renewed labor militancy. We saw a historic strike of educational workers in the province of Ontario, and the premier of that province tried to override the constitution and forced those workers back to work. Now, I mean, premiers have been trying to do this for a long time, and there’s been ways that they’ve tried to do this, and the Supreme Court has made rulings that that’s unconstitutional. But the way that the premier did that in this case was enough to actually unite labor, which is quite difficult in this country. There was a united front that almost triggered a general strike, and the premier pulled back. So it was a very huge victory for those workers.

Fast forward four months and we’ve just had the strike of the public sector workers, including workers at the Federal Revenue Agency, the Canada Revenue Agency, and that was historic at 155,000 workers on strike. But they are now in the process of voting on a collective agreement that many people are saying is not exactly a victory. So —

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s a mixed bag.

Nora Loreto: It’s a mixed bag! It’s a mixed bag. It’s a mixed bag. And what’s really difficult is that labor education in this country is very low. People don’t understand what the role of unions are. But what I’ve seen, having written about this stuff for about 15 years now, is there is a renewed interest. What is a union? Why do you exist? What is the point of this? Do we really need unions? And it’s like, I mean, yeah, do you want sense brought to your workplace or no? It’s not more complicated than that.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Up to you. Do you want to be at the perpetual whim of your fucking boss or do you want to have some sort of backstop there? And that has been a really exciting bright spot in the United States as well. And we don’t have many of those these days. We’re, like you said, playing even farther from behind with union density across the board being just above 10%.

It’s very, very low. And even with public, I mean the bulk of it is public sector workers, but you got a lot of folks in the States looking at the strikes that you all have had here recently and thinking, oh, I guess that’s why we’re not allowed to strike that way in the United States — in the public sector that is, or the federal workers.

So there still is, I think, a lot of that learned defeatism among the rank and file that I talk to, but especially among the younger ranks of workers, Gen Z, even a fair amount of millennials. You’re seeing, like you said, a lot of more interest in learning what a union is, a bit of an insurgent, militant mindset that is even putting the established unions a bit on their back foot, which I think is necessary and important. But there are limits to that too.

If you’re the Amazon Labor Union or Trader Joe’s United and you don’t have that institutional backing because of the ways that labor laws are so stacked in favor of the bosses in the US, you can effectively squeeze and demoralize and delay those insurgent campaigns, which is what the bosses are trying to do now.

So anyway, I wanted to ask, in that regard, if you’re seeing that same generational divide? Is the energy coming more from the younger ranks of workers or from certain sectors across Canada?

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Nora Loreto: It’s very interesting because I was on the CBC, the national broadcaster, and the hook on that was what we’re seeing such a fervent rise in unionization around Starbucks and Amazon. I’d have to stop every time a journal assesses me. It’s like, you’re talking about the United States. We’re not seeing that in Canada. We certainly know that unions are very interested in mobilizing and organizing and trying to change things in warehouses, whereas Amazon warehouses, of course, have fulfillment facilities all over the country that have a ton of people that need to be unionized.

There was a Starbucks that was just unionized in Waterloo, Ontario. I believe it’s the first in anyone’s memory, it’s amazing. But it’s not like this is something that’s happening a lot in Canada. And Canadians have this, I don’t know, problem, this systemic problem of always looking to the United States and saying, oh my goodness, this is awesome.

And the Amazon Union’s a really good example of that where the national unions in Canada invite the Amazon Union folks to come and speak as if their version of themselves in the United States are not the problem. Because the established unions have a lot of barriers that they have to overcome to be able to penetrate a company like Amazon. Amazon knows very, very well how to deal with the auto workers, for example, because the auto workers are the standard of unionization in North America. And so it’s not surprising that it’s an upstart group of excited young people who are like, the fuck, I’m going to do this.” I got to hang out with Derek Palmer, and it was like, man, you’re so cool and average. It’s so awesome.

But that kind of energy is critical, but we can’t expect that people are going to be talented enough to go take that energy and then take on something like Amazon. And I think that this is the problem with the established unions.

10 years ago I wrote a book about the labor movement in Canada and young workers, and it felt desperate then that young workers were so systematically shut out of these kinds of spaces, of convention spaces. And my own union — which is not here, it’s not a member of the Canadian Labor Congress, but it’s the largest private sector union in Canada — at our convention in August, of something like 1,200 delegates, fewer than 50 were young workers.

And the young worker age cutoff is not young. It’s 35. When I wrote my book, I was, of course, a young worker at the time. And sure, there’s pockets of people that get it. There’s pockets of people with really good politics and analysis, but by and large, the structures are shutting young workers out. And what’s really troubling is that there’s a rise — and this gets very, very interesting — there’s a rise of retired worker activism that then squeezes out younger workers. I’m certainly seeing this in my union, where all of a sudden you’ll see a motion passed for 20 new retirees, but then the young workers don’t get to actually have a say in their union anymore.

So there’s a really interesting intergenerational tension that I don’t think that the leadership has ever properly reckoned with. And while there’s no doubt that there’s excitement amongst certain groups of young people, the work that I do, especially through my podcast, I would say that young workers are more often than not frustrated.

They’re not ready to go to the barricades yet. They’re like, what the hell is happening? And how do I fix this? I don’t know where to start. The ones that figure out the formula, they’re lucky or clever, or at the right place at the right time, or have the right people around them. But there’s no systemic way to make sure that the people that aren’t in those spots have the same kind of support to be able to bring those things forward. Because the reality is that it’s hard enough to make a union, but man, you make that first collective agreement, that’s even harder. You make that second collective agreement, that’s even harder because then the bosses are going to plow you under with all the bureaucracy that comes with managing this stuff.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and that makes me think about, again, going back to the bird’s eye view, because I think it’s a really important point to make, especially for folks in the States who are listening to this. Because we can understand this in the context of our own nation, but when we’re looking abroad, suddenly we start reducing everything to very simplistic forms and shapes.

So what I mean by that is the AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia does not represent the whole of the labor movement. It’s a big institutional chunk. But even then, you have a lot of the same problems that you’re describing here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to hear President Liz Shuler and others saying, we’re going to organize a million new members in 10 years. But for most of us who hear that and are looking at the downward trend of union density, that’s not even going to be a net positive. That’s not even that many.

They’re like, oh, but that’s just a base. And I was like, what message is that sending, especially at this moment when we’re all facing a cost of living crisis. The planet is boiling. Record profits are being made by the same companies that are exploiting the shit out of their workers and cycling through bodies left and right like Amazon.

So I wanted to ask where the labor movement, such that it is in Canada, fits into the larger national political scene, and what, if anything, labor can do to counteract this right-wing resurgence, or what it’s not doing?

Nora Loreto: Yeah. Well, the question is where does it fit in is not the question where should it fit in. Where does it fit in is, we are so tied up with politics as they are with the status quo that no one can imagine beyond annual debates of, do we support the NDP? Do we have critical support for the Liberals? Do we call for strategic voting? All of this garbage. And the reality is — and it’s the same in the United States — that we have these settler colonial nations that are fake to their core, that shouldn’t exist, that only exist because a bunch of people believed God gave the land to a bunch of white people that got lost. And that’s the literal foundation of our countries. So we have to start there.

Sure, the United States has more of a history of being a country, but only by accident, because we just got all the people that love the British crown and then became a country later on. But it’s the same thing. We’re talking about very, very similar genocides, very similar violence, very similar approaches. The thing where we diverge is obviously the United States figured out how to do global hegemony, and we didn’t. We were just like, you know what? That seems like a lot of work. We’ll just hitch our ride to global hegemony and hope that it’s not going to bite us in the ass. And now we’re in the ass biting era.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. We’re in the find out stage of history.

Nora Loreto: That’s exactly right. So where does labor fit in all of this? Okay, so there are many contradictions here. One, labor is a democratic structure and is a bulwark against fascism. And that is true. What is happening on this convention floor is some level of democracy. We can debate what level, but if we’re going to compare it to mainstream democracy in Canada, it’s totally democratic. I mean, mainstream democracy’s not much better.

When you have a democratic structure and when you have a leadership machine and you have a way to actually organize people in their workplaces or in their communities, then that’s a lot of power. That’s where they should be. But where they are is seeing themselves, I think, more as lobby groups thinking that they can influence politics. You can do this politics of PR or politics of pushing a government to just make the right decision here.

The reality is that, as inequality grows, and as Canada continues to over-represent itself in the global carbon offset problem, we’re making things actively worse. We’re making things actively worse. Average people, regardless of who they vote for — because people do move between parties, you don’t have to register for a party in this country. There’s a lot of movement between the parties, regardless of where people are, they are craving authenticity. They’re craving somebody to say, you know what? We might not see snow next year for the winter, and that’s a huge problem. That’s an attack on our identity and an attack on the land and attack on everything.

So labor has to figure out how it’s going to interact with this. I don’t have much hope for the status quo, because they haven’t yet. The leadership in this country does not understand the power that they have and the responsibility that comes with that power to not sit down with Justin Trudeau, but to literally shut him out of his office. That’s the power.

And that’s why the trucker people were so popular, because even Canadians who totally disagreed with what they’re doing, they’re like, they seem authentic. It’s like, oh, but they’re not authentic. They’re not authentic! They’re a bunch of chuckleheads. They’re totally not authentic. But they look like they are talking about the issues that matter. And all we have often on the left is rhetoric. And rhetoric is not enough. It’s not even close to enough. Sometimes it’s a waste of our time. Sometimes it’s hiding bad politics. And that’s really difficult, and I really struggle with that.

I struggle with that, and then I get to go and talk to people who are involved in a labor council in a really small town somewhere in the country, and people are struggling with the same issues, and they know what it takes to probably win, and they know how hard it is. So we have the solutions, but we can’t put much stock, I think, in leadership, unfortunately. And then to also identify the leaders who are doing really good work, because there are some of them out there too.

“There’s a really interesting intergenerational tension that I don’t think that the leadership has ever properly reckoned with.”

Maximillian Alvarez: They’re out there. And it is important to uplift those and to help people see the different levels of people in the movement. Like you said, international leadership does not equal the union as such. And we saw a lot of that, I think, we saw a lot of people learning that in real time over the past year, two years in the States. Because again, we’re starting with a labor movement that’s been on its back and on the downside for over half a century at this point, you have so many people who don’t know the basic rights that they have in the workplace. You have a country in which you technically have these rights, but if you want to exercise them, you got to go on a Lord of the Rings fucking excursion where you could get fired at any point, your friends could get fired, your store could get closed, all these barriers.

Nora Loreto: You might get shot.

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s nuts. You might get shot. Not even joking.

But I had a lot of people reaching out to me and asking about the fact that John Deere workers, the International Leadership of the UAW recommended that tentative agreement to be voted on to be approved. The membership voted it down twice because they were like, fuck that. We’ve made this company more profitable than they’ve ever been during a pandemic. We deserve more. And so people saw that and they were like, oh, there’s a difference between the rank and file and the leadership, and you’re seeing that play out in real time.

Nora Loreto: If I can just jump in, it’s also not bad to have that tension. Because when you’re at the bargaining table and you don’t think that you can go any further, to have that mandate from your membership is so important.

And so there’s also a follow the leader problem here where we put a lot of stock into the leadership to be the voice of the membership. And then when the membership rejects the leadership’s voice, then we’re like, oh, they’re out of touch. But there’s a very important push and pull here that has to happen if we’re going to be able to flex any muscle at all.

This has happened, of course, with the federal workers in Canada, and I don’t know if anybody’s going to reject the tentative agreement. I know that the one division is recommending defeat, and they represent 36,000 workers, which is not nobody. People can read that as a failure of labor. I prefer to read that as, actually, labor working finally, where the membership is like, don’t sell us out, and we’re going to recall you and we’re going to replace the bargaining team, and we’re going to tell management, look, we’re united and we’re serious. We’re not only serious with our own union, we’re coming after you next.

Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s a really great and important point, because this is how I respond when conservatives in the States are trying to always point out the problems with unions. The point is not to say that unions have no problems. Of course they fucking do. The UAW leadership got indicted for racketeering and embezzlement, and we all know about Hoffa and the Teamsters. We’ve got problems.

But if you have the same problems at your company, do you as an employee have the ability to vote out your CEO, right? Or the entrenched bureaucrats and career politicians who will make a show of wanting our vote, but ultimately they don’t give a shit what any of us have to say individually. So like you said, organized labor is still at least a place where you can exercise democracy if you choose to. There’s more hope to actually see that change happen through democratic action in the organized labor movement than there are in most other realms of our lives.

That is something to really be hopeful about. I guess I could talk to you all day, but I know it’s been a long day and I got to let you go. But I kind of wanted to spin that into a final question about if you feel that the larger groundswell that we’re seeing internationally is reaching people in Canada as well, if it’s actually playing a factor in emboldening workers a little bit more to take that step. The United Kingdom workers across the UK are taking industrial action from the RMT workers who we’ve had on the show to the NHS workers, to teachers and university lectures. France is on a general strike, but we’ve been seeing strikes in Greece and Belgium and Germany, their mayday celebrations and protests across the globe this past week. Do you feel like Canadians see themselves in that, or do you feel like that energy, do you feel it anywhere in what we’re seeing in Canada right now?

Nora Loreto: Yeah, I do think that it’s connecting with people. I hear a lot from people saying, Why can’t we be like France?” And it’s like, Well, because they’re nuts in France is why.” And I say that as someone who lives in a city where the majority of our immigration comes from France. So I have a lot of experience actually with how things are so different when you live in an Anglo-Saxon society versus a society that is different. But no, there is a lot of excitement. And the question is, how do you harness that excitement? How do you move that excitement from one direction to another? The striking federal workers in Canada, that was historic. That was a historic strike. That’s the first time that’s happened since 1991. And that period from 2023 to 1991 was an abysmal period for labor. It was an abysmal period for the left.

And we have not recovered from it, but it does show that there’s excitement, and there’s different ways to gauge this, but I was asked to do radio interviews for our national public radio, and the way that it works is they put out the guest and the shows say that they want the guest or not. And the last one I did, which was about the federal public service worker strike, every station in Canada wanted the interview. So that’s weird. That does not happen. And that was so weird that the producers were like, Oh, man, this sucks for you. You’re doing so many interviews.” And the interviews were all curious, really curious. And it’s not about being pro-labor.

I hate this idea that you’re pro-labor or anti-labor. It’s like, labor is labor. You could be for capitalism or anti-capitalism, as an anti-capitalist, I think that it’s very clear what side we should be on, but how can you be pro or anti-labor? That’s like being pro or anti-roads, right? Yeah, we can move around without roads, but they’re useful. I hate cars, and I’d like to see fewer roads, but if a road’s being built, I’m not like, well, maybe sometimes I’m like, Death to that road.” 

No, the road that makes sense. It’s how we travel around.” But labor is just a way to do things, and it’s a way that makes sense. So the barrier we have is we have lost three decades. We’ve lost three decades of labor knowledge in this country, and that’s not just young workers, that’s all kinds of workers. And then with those three decades, we also lost, what, 700,000 manufacturing jobs, which would translate to 10 times that in the United States, and of course the United States had a manufacturing collapse as well, which is thanks to our leadership and thanks to free trade.

“We’ve lost three decades of labor knowledge in this country, and that’s not just young workers, that’s all kinds of workers.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Just a quick aside on that, as someone who grew up very conservative and is no longer that, but this is one of the things that drives me nuts when I talk to the new quote unquote the populist right who are railing, like you said, they’re picking up that language that can and does appeal to a significant chunk of working class people who have seen the industrial heart of their towns, their counties been ripped out over the decades, and who have never effectively had those union jobs and that economic stimulus fully replaced except by low wage service work, gig work, so on and so forth.

You see them speaking to that pain, that very real pain and saying like, Oh, all your jobs went to China or your jobs went to…” I mean, mainly they talk about China.

But I’m like, You are the fuckers who were supporting this 20 years ago. I grew up listening to you guys talk about how it was the unions who were destroying manufacturing in the country for the poor business people who couldn’t compete. So they had no choice but to go abroad. And now you’re 20 years later, you’re acting as if you were on our side the whole time. It drives me nuts.”

Nora Loreto: Yeah. Well, because it’s so flagrant, right? I mean, we’re conditioned to hate hypocrisy more than anything else. You can punch me in the face, but if you’re a hypocrite, it’s like I’m going to remember the hypocrisy more than the punch to the face. And I’m working on a book right now, and it has forced me to go back to the 1980s, the 1990s, and what was happening in Canada, and not just Canada. Obviously, Ronald Reagan plays a huge role in how our political orientation changed and whatever. But I mean, we blame Reagan. But those trends were happening in Canada before he was elected, certainly.

What we forget is the society that we built after the war after World War II was a society that had a lot of people who experienced directly the ravages of war, who said goodbye to people who never came back. It was a period of a war followed by depression, followed by a war, and where they saw the extremes of fascism doing what fascism does. Now, the post-war pact was: we will save capitalism by giving people, male, white, breadwinning families, women stays at home, we’ll give you what you need to survive and we’ll give you good jobs. And that’s going to be how we build a just economy.” And it worked for a little bit. Until it stopped working in a colossal way. 

So there’s still, I think, a huge hangover from that period; this is why Make America Great Again is so resonant and so effective. It’s like, we used to have a society that worked. I used to be able to afford my house. Canada is way worse than the United States in terms of our housing costs. It’s unbelievable. So now here we are 40 years later after 1980 and saying, Holy shit, it’s really bad.” Not only is it really bad, but we don’t have a single politician on any side of the House of Commons that’s willing to take any of this stuff on. There’s a politician that’s willing to exploit it to get elected, and then there’s a politician who’s willing to exploit it in a different way to get elected, and there’s nothing else.

So we are societies in decline. So how do left wing people react to that? Well, it’s radical organizing. And when it’s radical organizing, then we have to be very sober about what role unions play in that. They can be radical. They can be vehicles towards radicalization. They can be absolutely not at all radical, and we need to get them out of the way. Knowing the difference and knowing who’s where is really important. But at the end of the day, this is class politics and our classes in our workplace. This is where we spend the most amount of our time. And if our politicians think that the best stimulus and the best handouts to people is a good job, well Christ, then we got to be organizing those jobs. And I think that that makes more sense today than it did certainly when I was a kid where the message was, Oh, it just takes one person to make a difference.” And then you try and you’re like, Shit, I tried.”

Maximillian Alvarez: I did not make a difference.

Nora Loreto: I didn’t make a difference. I tried to stop sweatshops and they still exist. What the hell? And then you’re like, Okay, well now I got two kids. I have no time.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no. Like I said, I could talk to you for about 10 more hours about this, but I actually think that’s a great spot to end on because it really puts the ball in all of our courts. The question isn’t, what is labor going to do at this convention? The question is what are we all going to do? How are we going to meet this moment? How are we going to harness those positive energies to the maximum effect? How can we build solidarity across trades, across generations, across all these other ways that we are seemingly divided? I think that that’s a really important and hopeful message to end on. Before we formally end, I want to ask if you could plug your great work and tell listeners where they can find it and what you’re working on.

Nora Loreto: Okay. Yes. So again, my name is Nora Loreto, and I have a podcast that’s called Sandy and Nora Talk Politics. It’s a weekly podcast and anything you’ve ever wanted to learn about Canada, it’s there. It’s a really fun podcast that you should check out. But I also have a Daily News podcast. So if you got seven to 10 minutes every day, you want to hear the biggest news in Canada and internationally, check us out there. Otherwise you can find my writing at noraloret​to​.ca. And I’ve got a couple books out too. So if you want to read about the state of Canada’s feminist movement, you can find my book, Take Back The Fight at Columbia University Press, published in the United States and Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic, was also out in 2021, which was a brutal time. You know what? Don’t write books. Don’t write books. It sucks.

Maximillian Alvarez: Listen kids.

Nora Loreto: That’s the worst idea. And then certainly do not write two books during a pandemic.

Maximillian Alvarez: I did one during the pandemic. I don’t fucking know you did too, but kudos to you.

Nora Loreto: Let’s just say that some parts of my body are on the floor and they never got up. Thank you for this.

Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you, Nora.

Meg Davis: My name’s Meg and my pronouns are she and they. I’m based out of Ottawa. I’ve worked in labor since about 2015, so I think I’m going on eight years now. I started off at a little agency that was then called Media Style and was like labor NDP adjacent, but not a hundred percent focused on labor. Then from there, I had quit there and found Point Blank through a friend of mine who was going on mat leaves, I was covering her. And then I just stayed there for a very long time and started organizing around, I guess, the end of 2022, summer 2022 at Point Blank. And now I’m currently at the CLC.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. Well, Meg, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at the Real News Network. We are, of course, sitting here in the Action Network tent at the expo section of the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. And the Real News is here to talk to as many folks as we can, learn as much as we can about what our fellow workers in Canada are going through, the organizing that’s happening, what the state of the labor movement is in Canada. And it’s been really, really great to chat with folks like yourself about that. I’m feeling very energized by the work that’s being done here, which as you said, you were a part of.

So you and your coworkers unionized an ad agency very recently, and I want to talk to you about that and what that was like because it does seem like… We just interviewed James from the Game Workers Union in Edmonton. And so it’s really exciting to see more, I guess, white collar workers as we would traditionally call them, getting in the movement, organizing and fighting for what they deserve. So I wanted to ask in that vein how you got into doing that kind of work and what that work looks like.

Meg Davis: Yeah, so it was kind of funny how I got into it. I didn’t really put myself in there on purpose. It wasn’t really my focus. I had been an NDP supporter for a very long time, and I had done a few campaigns at the NDP as well. I think when we started to unionize Point Blank, the bargaining team had gone through a few rounds of people at this point by the time I had joined. And every time that a new team would leave the table for a break or for whatever reason they had to be put on pause, they would all immediately leave. Well, most of them anyway. And so it got to a certain point where we were ready to get to the table again. Lucas, actually, a mutual friend of ours, had come to me and asked if I would like to be a part of the team because a few people had mentioned my name, which was really nice and lovely to see that my team thought that I could be a part of that voice for them and was really humbling and really intimidating.

But I just dove in without any prior experience. Working in union stuff and in the union world and the labor world for so long gave me the knowledge that I needed at least to get off on the right foot. But it was presented to me as, Do you want to do this?” I was like, Hell yeah, I do.” So I learned a lot actually from Lucas on how to be at the bargaining table and what to ask for and tactics and stuff like that. So that’s kind of how I started.

“You really see how committed people are to progressive values when the question of power-sharing with one’s workforce comes up.”

Maximillian Alvarez: I guess on a day to day, week to week level, what kind of work were y’all doing at that agency?

Meg Davis: In terms of our actual work or organizing work?

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, day to day work because I guess most of us haven’t done that kind of work, so I’m curious what the labor conditions were, the kind of work that you guys did, and what sorts of issues were arising out of that that led y’all to start talking about unionizing?

Meg Davis: Yeah. Well, it’s a special situation with Point Blank because when I first started, it was a very small shop, and I think in Ottawa, pretty much the majority of the team was in Ottawa, and it was about six of us and maybe even less when I first started. But it grew so fast and it just exponentially shot up in terms of not even just the team itself, but the amount of work we were taking on, which is awesome. Of course, everyone wants to see their workplace do that, but growing pains come with that. And there was high turnover and burnout, and I think a lot of folks were asking why, rightfully so, and feeling a little nervous that their work might be a bit more precarious than we feel like it is when we work at a progressive agency.

So working on all this stuff, I remember specifically… to backtrack on your question about what our day-to-day work is, we had provided full service campaigns for unions. So that came in a number of different packages, but sometimes it was a logo or a brand for a campaign, and sometimes it was the full campaign with TV spots and ad buys and strategy and all that stuff packaged in. So it ranged in terms of the breadth of stuff that we would do for one client and also the capacity of stuff that we would do. But I remember specifically working on this one campaign in the middle of the pandemic or right at the beginning of the pandemic where people were asking for paid sick days and 10 paid sick days from the government in Ontario. We were fighting for paid sick days, and we didn’t even have them at the agency that we were at Point Blank.

There was a lot of what the fuck coming up, rightfully so. People were like, We’re writing all this copy, we’re putting out all these graphics where workers are demanding paid sick days, and why don’t we have them?” I think that that was a catalyst for a lot. I’m sure there’s lots of other things. I wasn’t the first bargaining team, so I’m sure there’s some things that I’m missing that were also part of the catalyst for that. But it was like we are talking the talk, we need to start walking.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right, that seems like quite a volatile situation if you are a progressive ad agency that literally helps unions in their campaigns, their organizing efforts, helping them craft and put out their message for other workers. And you’re there designing these, crafting these to the highest standard, but it’s all stuff that you guys don’t have at your own workplace. It feels like that can only go for so long before you start being like, Hey, what the fuck?”

Meg Davis: Yeah, and reasonably so, I don’t think it was malicious intent or anything that management was like, No paid sick days for you.” It definitely wasn’t that. Yeah. It was just maybe an unfortunate oversight or something that was just lagging behind. I think we also got a lot of pressure from clients like, Why isn’t your shop unionized?” So management was really, really supportive of us unionizing, and they were like, Here you go. Do it. We’re not going to fight back. We want you to unionize.” I think not only for the interest of the workers, but also selfishly for the interest of the business. You have to put that first when you’re a business. So I think there was just a lot of pressure from all sides, hurry up, get it done, kind of thing.

Maximillian Alvarez: It always strikes me as bizarre when progressive companies or ostensibly progressive companies, and I’ve spoken with workers who work for a number of progressive companies, or again, nominally progressive companies, whether they be food production workers at a vegan meat alternative company called No Evil Foods that viciously busted their union drive, and then after successfully busting their union drive closed down their operating plan in North Carolina, laid everyone off without severance, and if they had had a union, they could have negotiated the terms of that layoff. They just did so much damage to their progressive image. Or Amy’s Kitchen, people love Amy’s Kitchen and their food products, they just closed a production plant in California that was trying to unionize, or progressive media organizations or nonprofits that fight tooth and nail. You see the limit of their progressive bonafide when there’s workers, there’s staff saying, We want a union.”

In my mind, I’m just like, Why don’t you just voluntarily recognize your union?” A, it’s the right thing to do. B, it would save you so much shit that you’re going through and your workers so much shit. You’re drawing everyone into this awful process, and you’re damaging your reputation in the process. But again, you really see how committed people are to progressive values when the question of power-sharing with one’s workforce comes up. So it is great to hear that there are businesses that don’t take the shitty route and in fact take the more positive supportive route. So I was curious, what did the organizing and the bargaining look like in that context, in a context where you weren’t at the same time trying to fight off rampant union busting, trying to stifle this movement in the cradle?

Meg Davis: Yeah, so it was obviously a lot easier to get it started with no pushback from management on just the idea of unionizing, which is great. But I do find, like you said, in every progressive business, there’s a limit to progressivity. There’s a limit to where that is because at the end of the day, I feel like every business owner is a capitalist at heart inherently. When you get into that position of power, you have to be. So we saw that come through with the bargaining table and when the monetary asks started to happen, which was really unfortunate and caused a lot of tension, I think, between the bargaining committee and management, and I think they would probably say it was a pretty negative experience. In fact, I’ve actually heard that from management through the grapevine. But that being said, I don’t have experience organizing in a workplace that does put up resistance and that does bust.

I really don’t have the lived experience to compare the two, but it was jarring and kind of eye opening to see what the limits were within our so-called progressive workplace. And the things that we got stuck on in the monetary proposals and whatnot was just something that you would think would be inherent. Benefits came up a lot. We were pushing for a lot more than we got. We got really good wins in our collective agreement while we were there, and it’s really a good agreement as a whole, but there were little things along the way that shouldn’t have been the push that they were, for sure.

Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) strike on April 19, 2023, in Kingston, Canada. LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, on that note, could you just say a little more about, I guess, what the end result was?

Meg Davis: Yeah, the end result was a really great collective agreement for folks. There were a lot of good pay raises for everyone. I can’t remember the exact number. I think it was around maybe a 7% or 8% actually to come up for inflation. It staggered through based on your seniority at the company as well. So some folks did get less of a pay raise, and some people who were there for longer did get more to adjust. There was some tension around the one to three ratio, I believe, having the highest paid worker, not more than three times the lowest paid worker. There was some tension around bumping up the lowest bar on the pay scale, which to be fair, no one’s being paid at that right now, from 45 to 50. There was just a hard no on that. So it was just little things like that where it was a bit confusing as to why the no was so hard.

But we did get bereavement leave. We’ve never had that before, so that was a huge win. And we did get a good amount of vacation days. I think we have 20 vacation days, if I remember correctly. I think overall, folks were happy. I think it really gives the union and the folks who are on the bargaining team now a lot more ground to gain in the next round of bargaining. It’s a really, really good skeleton to build on in the future. I think there is so much more to be won, and I think the team is really energized by this first agreement. That’s what I’ve been hearing anyway. So I think the outlook overall is pretty positive, but they know that there’s more to be done.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and, I guess, that’s the case for the labor movement always. There’s always more that needs to be done. We can’t just sit on our laurels and say like, Oh, we won the weekends, the struggle is over.” No, that’s clearly not the case as we saw. Working people see this every day. We get mistreated by management, by customers. A lot of us can get fired with no just cause. Many of us are struggling amidst a cost of living crisis to pay our rent, pay our bills. We’ve got kids and families that we’re trying to support. So there’s always more fighting to do, and it’s been really exciting to be here at the CLC and hear about folks who are carrying that fight on.

I want to end by asking you about that. As someone who in your own corner of the labor force has participated in this growing resurgence of worker organization, interest in collective labor power, it’s not a one-to-one correlation between the US and Canada, let alone the strikes going on in the UK, France and stuff, but something’s happening here. We’re seeing record profits being made while we’re all getting squeezed by inflation. We’re working longer, we’re working harder and struggling to make ends meet.

It’s encouraging to see folks turning to unions and working collectively to address these issues. But it is very demoralizing and sad that we’ve had to get to this point and see all the abuses and excesses that we saw during COVID-19. We had to experience that for people to really bounce back and fight back. So I wanted to ask, just again, as someone who’s working and organizing amidst that, what your read is on the state of the movement here in Canada. Are you seeing what we’re seeing, a lot of energy coming from young workers, folks from industries that have typically not been unionized like tech or even the service industry? I guess, just for folks watching and listening to this outside of Canada, what do you think they should know about where the movement is here in Canada?

Meg Davis: I think it’s quite different across the provinces. There’s a lot of different fights happening at different degrees and stuff. But I think Ontario, I won’t say it’s feeling the crunch the most, but that’s just I guess where I’m wrapped up in. So I feel like it’s pretty bad. I feel like it’s pretty dire in Ontario. I really think that Ontario needs to be taking notes from France. I think this is what we need to get to. I am not of the mind of waiting around until things change. I’m not of the mind of waiting for an election. I don’t think your vote is your most powerful thing. I think it’s useful and it’s valuable, but I don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere. And we’ve seen that our whole lives.

Our whole lives, we’ve seen people wait for elections and wait to vote and wait for that one moment to use your voice by putting your ballot in the box. I just don’t think that that’s enough. I don’t think that that is going to get us anywhere. I think even the most progressive politicians or people who are on our side can only go so far with that, with voting and legislation. I think Ottawa, where I’m from specifically, gets really tied up in the bureaucracy of things and the rules. I think we need to start breaking rules. I think we need to push beyond electoralism and push beyond waiting for politicians to make the changes that we want to see. And I think we really need to be taking notes from France. I really believe that. I do think it’s going to come to people being in the streets.

I do think it’s going to come to things that seem and look really radical when they’re on the news, but actually are just powerful movements of people demanding more. I just don’t think that we really have the privilege of time. Look at the climate crisis right now. It’s not coming. It’s here. I don’t think there’s anything really more important than workers striking at this moment in time to demand more. We’re seeing how often it works and what those workers gain. We just saw with PSAC, they got there 12.6%. That’s incredible. And they were out there every day in probably the shittiest week of weather in Ottawa. It was cold and raining and they didn’t want to be there, but they got what they wanted. Well, they got most of what they wanted anyway. I think there’s still ground to be made, of course.

But I think my main takeaway is to stop working within the rules and just really push beyond that and use your imagination. I think people really get stifled by the bureaucracy, and I think our imaginations can really push so much more beyond that in ways that we can organize and ways that we can demand more. I really will shout it from the rooftops that it’s time to get in the streets.

Larry Rousseau: I’m Larry Rousseau. I’m the Executive Vice President for Canadian Labor Congress, and I’m at CLC Convention in Montreal now where I’m reoffering for my position because I really have found my calling in, as our president calls it, kicking ass for the working class”. I think that I’ve always known that the best way to get workers into the middle class is by unionizing and by having good union density. In Canada, we have better union density. It’s around 30%, 31% if you look at the public sector, private sector. Public sector, we’re up around 75 or so. I come from the public sector, from the federal public sector. So I work at Statistics Canada, and I am on full-time union leave because we have a contract. When the members elect me to a position, to a full-time position contract, says, Hey, there you go.”

That’s what people really need to understand is that when you’re in the workplace and you’re covered by a contract that is giving you civil rights, that is giving you compensation benefits, all of that, that the employer has to respect. That’s why the resistance to getting unions into workplaces is so great, because when you have that power as a worker, because you do have a collective agreement that is covering everything. When you do have that power, that allows so much. I’m responsible for education. So one of the things that unions do best is education, not the corporate driven employer stuff that really does not do much for workers at all. But when we see union delivered courses that will look at even the courses that are looking at employees’ workplaces for health and safety, let’s start with health and safety. That’s the base.

If we’re going to say that workers’ rights are human rights, then of course we’re going to bring in the human rights courses as well, and apprenticeships and leadership, because we find amongst our workers, our unionized workers, we find the folks who will come up as leaders who will want to take on that task. So education is so important for our movement that I’m very happy to have that file for Canada’s labor movement. And also health and safety, I just really am a passionate activist. These are all action plans that we’re going to be discussing this week at this convention. When I look at the future of work, then we get into: how are we transitioning workers from the economy as it is today?

We know the economy is in transition, the economy is changing, but how are workers transitioning in this economy? As far as too many employers are concerned, those workers will not transition. All right. We will not train, we will not prepare. We will suck out and extract as much as we can. Then when there’s not another dime to be made, then so sad. So sad to be you. Then you got nothing.

But when we look at a good transition plan, we say from the beginning, we have to plan, if it’s going to be five years, if it’s going to be 10 years. How are we going to get employees from point A to point B? That means education. It also means making sure that for those people who want to transition away from the jobs that they’re doing and into something else, that they have the opportunities to do that. Governments have to be involved to help fund that and finance that. That’s why here we have an employment insurance program that we are really trying to push, and it’s only going to happen through worker solidarity to push to make sure that our employment insurance program helps to cover those aspects of transitioning. Future of work means AI. How is that going to affect people? Technology has been in collective agreements since collective agreements have existed.

Printing presses evolve. The ways of doing things evolve. Auto assembly plants, everything evolved. We call that technology. But now the technology is more software and AI, and we are seeing how AI is being implemented on a for-profit model. I don’t have too much of a problem with people making profits, excess profits is a problem, but when you implement these models for profit, for example, AI, and you forget about the workers and you want to replace the workers, well, that’s where workers have to be at the table.

Because we’ve got legislation that we want to see come to the House of Commons federally, but across the country as well, in the provinces, to say, When we’re going to be talking about technology, when we’re going to be talking about AI, we have to make sure that AI works for the workers.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. Well, I mean, we are literally having this conversation in week two of the Writers Guild strike.

Hollywood screenwriters with WGA East and West are currently on strike. I just interviewed workers from WGA East about this very issue because the studios are threatening to replace more of the writers with AI, and then they want the workers to essentially come in and just punch up an AI generated script. The workers can see not only does this spell disaster for us in our profession, but also what is this going to mean for the entertainment industry, for the art that we create and that we put our hearts and souls into, and so on and so forth. So it’s a real crisis that is spreading to industries, even beyond the ones that we typically think of.

I wanted to sort of pick up on that real quick because, and I don’t have you for too long, but since I’ve got you here and since you yourself have had such a story career in the movement here in Canada, we’re here for the Real News Network, as you said at the 30th Constitutional Convention at the Canadian Labor Congress, trying to talk to folks about the state of the movement here in Canada and how we can better support one another as working people across international lines, across sectors, and all the typical ways that the bosses have tried to divide us in the past.

But I feel like in order to understand the significance of this gathering and think about strategically where labor goes from this moment, it’s worth sort of thinking about where we are in the broader scope of the labor movement. Because in the United States we cover this every week at the Real News. The story of organized labor is the story of decline right now. Our union density is barely above 10%. I’ve talked to workers in so many industries who have dealt with decades of concessionary bargaining, but now especially after COVID, there seems to be a militancy or renewed interest in organization fighting with your coworkers for better improved working conditions, better pay amidst a cost of living crisis, amidst all the abuses that workers suffered during COVID. You mentioned climate change, throwing everything into chaos.

The social safety net is being destroyed before our eyes as people struggle to make ends meet. So I wanted to ask you, what is the story that folks watching this in and outside of Canada should know about organized labor in Canada? How did we get to where we are and what is the significance of the moment we are currently in?

“I really have found my calling in, as our president calls it, 'kicking ass for the working class.'”

Larry Rousseau: Well, if we look at AI, because you were mentioning the Writers Guild, let us always remember one thing. There was one thing that technology and computers are not going to be able to do. That is to replace the talent of the best writing that we can see. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from Hollywood all the way to Abu Dhabi…it doesn’t matter. Wherever writers exist, I don’t think that there will ever be an AI program that will be able to replicate the aha moment that writer gets. That’s where technology has its fault. AI will be able to do certain things. It absolutely will. But just like machine translation, and I have a background in AI from machine translation…I saw it when it was starting and we will never be able to get to that point where someone doesn’t have to go in and say, Does this actually make sense?”

You will always need a human interface. You will always need somebody to get in there. So yeah, you can get somebody to do a draft, you can get AI to do a draft.But to go back and say that you’re going to have AI and then we’re going to shoot a movie, I don’t think we’re there. So what we need to do is inform workers as well that as much as the employer is going to tell you that the job that you’re doing can be replaced by AI…there’s always going to be a buffer. There’s always going to be a part where you’re going to ask yourself the question, okay, How much?” Because the employer approach is what is the cost of doing business? How many people can we afford to lose? Do you understand what I mean?

Maximillian Alvarez: I’ve spent the past year and a half interviewing railroad worker after railroad worker after railroad worker who have all told me the same thing, that they have been facing relentless staff cuts in the machine shops, on the trains maintaining the track, and then what do we get? We get catastrophes like East Palestine, Ohio.

Larry Rousseau: Because what happens is that you always have to remember that in the drive for profits, we are going down to the lowest denominator as far as quality is concerned. And as a society, we have to ask ourselves, How much quality do we want as a society so that everyone remains healthy and safe,” as opposed to saying, How much quality are we able to tolerate in order to make the profits that the corporations want in order to keep capital going?” This is a fundamental philosophical debate. If we are a society that is entirely based only on money, then we are going to hit a wall and that wall is going to be a very difficult wall to hit.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I feel honestly, we’re seeing the sort of social and political effects of more and more working people hitting that wall and realizing that they’re perpetually understaffed at their job. They can’t pay rent, they can’t keep a roof over there and their family’s heads or their industry is shrinking. The railroads, like Hollywood, I mean, we’re all experiencing these trends in our own ways and it’s really a question for us as a movement of how are we going to meet those concerns, those needs, how are we going to rise to the occasion of this pivotal moment that we’re in?

Because there are other forces vying for the support of working class people, including far right reactionary movements that are speaking to the pain of working people, but are maybe redirecting it towards, I don’t know, gay and trans people or immigrants or stuff like that. And again, even people who are working, people who believe in the power of organized labor, maybe they’ve felt shut out of organized labor in the past or they feel disconnected from other social movements. So I guess with the final few minutes that I’ve got you, I just wanted to ask how do we as a labor movement in Canada and internationally really learn from past mistakes, really rise to meet this occasion?

Larry Rousseau: I’m so happy that you bring that up. I have an uncle who always told me, If you do not know your history, you do not know who you are.” Let us remember as far back as we can go in the current system that we exist upon, which is a system based on creating capital and expanding capital, there has never been a far right regime or a far right political system that has benefited the working class. Number one. So let us always remember that when we look at the right, we are blinded or we do have blinders on regarding making money because the far right presents this mirage of we are all going to be rich. And that is so fundamentally untrue. The reality of the situation is that the redistribution of wealth means that we can at least all be as comfortable as possible within the means of the economy.

So let us remember that once we are aware of that, then we have to understand the power of numbers in a democratic system. We have to be informed and we have to vote. Because if people don’t think that voting matters, that’s exactly what the right wing wants you to do. If you do not pay attention to who’s passing the legislation, that is stopping me from unionizing. All right, if the legislation is stopping me from having the freedom to do what I need to do to make my situation better, all right, that is on me if I didn’t go vote. I know people don’t want to hear it, but people have got to hear it and we have got to vote. And there are votes coming up not only in the United States, but here in Canada. And workers have got to organize and workers have got to mobilize to make sure that as we vote, we push things more towards the working class, which is the middle class, which means more for everyone, not more for just a few.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I mean, I agree with that. I mean, because I think the problem is when we think that elections are the end all be all of political action because then we’re entrusting decision making to elected officials. And that plays a role in shaping the conditions that we live and work on like you said.

Larry Rousseau: We need to keep them accountable as long as we have a system where we have politicians who can pass the legislation and we know who’s lobbying the politicians very effectively. Okay? We can do that too. And we do that up here. We have lobby days on the hill in the House of Commons. So we do that. But as long as we have a political system that drives our ability to improve our lives economically, socially, et cetera, okay, we have to be involved in that political system and political action is part of the workers’ movement. It’s not just about collective bargaining, it’s not just about the collective agreements for health and safety because the political system also drives how we are able to do that. 

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: My name is Nicholas Marcus Thompson. I am executive director of a nonprofit organization called the Black Class Action Secretariat, which was sworn after workers organized and filed a class action against the entire federal public service of Canada. Frantic Black discrimination, essentially failure to hire and failure to promote Black workers based on their race.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, Nicholas, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at the Real News Network. I really, really appreciate it. We are, of course, sitting here at the Action Network 10 at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress and we’ve been talking to as many folks as we can, learning as much as we can about the state of the labor movement. What our fellow workers here in Canada are going through and what struggles they’re involved in, and ultimately how those of us in the United States and beyond can stand in solidarity with our siblings across the Canadian border and beyond. And this story is really, really important and I’m really, really grateful to you for sitting down and chatting to us about it because I really want Real News viewers and listeners to understand what we’re talking about here.

I mean, this Black class action lawsuit and in response to just the deep systemic racism and discrimination that Black workers in Canada face, it’s sad to say that I have to imagine a number of folks in the US will just be hearing about this for the first time. I want to make sure that they have all the essential information about how deep this goes, where the movement to redress this systemic injustice came from and how it’s grown and what role you’ve played in that. So I guess, take us back to the beginning. Take us back to where the movement started to identify and address systemic racism; how bad was it and is it?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: In order for you and your viewers to understand, we need to go way back. I’m going to take you back to the 1600s. So Black people have been in Canada for over 400 years. It is one of the longest racialized groups that have been in Canada. From the beginning of when Black people were brought here as enslaved people, throughout the passage of time, Black people have faced significant oppression in Canada. When slavery was abolished, laws were passed that prevented the full participation of Black Canadians. If we fast forward to the first World War, Black people wanted to serve Canada. They tried to sign up and Canada told them this is a white man’s war.

They eventually allowed a few Black people to serve in the World War, but the majority were rejected. And then they eventually formed a Black battalion, a construction battalion. So what that meant was that Black people predominantly, could not fight alongside the white soldiers. They were relegated to digging the trenches, disarming the landmines, cutting down the trees. And that’s exactly, fast forward a hundred years later, more than a hundred years later, that’s exactly where Black people remain digging the trenches. And those are still important work in Canada’s public service. And so throughout the passage of time, systems were created because Black people were viewed as subhuman, not good enough. And throughout the passage of time, those systems continue.

Now we have it in a very Canadian way, it’s not overt, it is covert now, it is with a smile. It is with, the law states this, and we’re following the law.” So Canada has had a very oppressive history when it comes to Black people. It has not come to terms with how it has treated them. People who have been here, lived here, fully participated, contributed, helped to build Canada into the economic powerhouse that it is while facing significant oppression from the Canadian people, from the Canadian government, state sponsored discrimination and racism because it’s happening at the state level intentionally and in some cases unintentionally. So fast forward to 2020 as the murder of George Floyd in the US.

We really felt that pain, we connected with that suffering because we had an economic knee on our necks. So for a long time we couldn’t breathe. We stood in solidarity with the Floyd family and Americans and global citizens to stand up and march and protest. As I led a protest in Toronto and I looked around and I saw all the different races for once in the history of time supporting Black people. It came to me and I said, Well, what if we really have this support where we can actually get changes to remove that knee on our necks in every possible way?” I had this thought and the thought was, This protest is going to end and things are going to go back to normal and nothing is going to change.” So how do we utilize this support now to try to bring about some tangible change? 

It was 2020 at that point, and nothing was changing for Black people. It was just being dressed up in a very Canadian way. Canada is known around the world as a beacon of hope. A country that thrives with multiculturalism and diversity and inclusion and welcoming. It reminds me of one government department, that immigration and refugee board, which welcomes refugees from around the world. Here you have a white manager telling a Black employee, We should go back to the good old days where we had slaves.”

That’s Canada, but it is not the Canada that we hope of, that we dream of, that we know it has the potential to be. So in that moment of protest, I was determined that we had to take some type of tangible action to bring about massive change because we would never get the opportunity to do so again. So I started looking in our workplaces. At the time, I was employed by the Canada Revenue Agency. That agency is responsible for administering Canada’s income tax, excise tax and other legislations. Essentially, the taxation regime for the country. It administers billions and trillions of dollars. It’s the only revenue collecting central body for the government. Essentially, almost every Canadian has to deal with this, one of the only bodies in the government that every Canadian has to pass through somehow or the other.

At this employer, there are about 50,000 employees and hundreds of executives. There are about one or two Black executives and rarely any Black people in management positions. We had been trying to address the huge gap from entry level employees who are predominantly Black to management and some leadership and having some opportunities. At the time, we had workers who were there for 30 years, no promotion, still in an entry level position. And the really heartbreaking part is that these were mostly women. When I look around seeing faces that look like my mother, my grandmother and the hopelessness in their faces, I knew we had to do something about it.

So I wrote to the commissioner of the CRA and I said, Hey, we have a major problem here. You’ve issued a statement talking about anti-Black racism in the US and your attention was on the US but we have a huge problem right here in Canada, and it’s insulting that you’re not acknowledging that and it’s causing even more damage and we want you to address this issue.” So they set up a task force to look at the issue. There’s about 50 people on the task force and one Black person. 

When you look at it, when you look at the minutes, this should not be about anti-Black racism. Let’s talk about all forms of racism now. So it equated it to an all lives matter approach and it did not specifically address anti-Black racism. Then I wrote to the Minister of National Revenue, I have a problem here, can you help us?” Then I wrote to the clerk of the Privy Council at the head of the public service, We have an anti-Black racism problem here, can you help us?” Then I wrote to the Prime Minister, Can you help us?”

Then I said, You know what, let me try to…” That point I was an elected president within my union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal, public sector union. I said, Hey, we have a problem at the CRA with anti-Black racism. Can you please help us?” But before we go to the CRA, before we fight this outward, we have a problem in the union.

Our union is not representative of our members and there isn’t enough that’s being done to ensure that Black and racialized candidates are being put forward or mentored or being supported. Our members do not see themselves in our union, and they view our union as not supportive on equity issues, not representative of us. So they stay away because they’re already facing enough barriers and racism in the workplace to now join the union to fight there too. Not everybody can do that, right?

At the time, I was hearing from workers who were having suicidal ideation, who had been on sick leave for long-term. Experts have told us how the discrimination impacts your brain, how it impacts your parenting, your social life, how it causes your brain to actually move in a particular way. So I was talking to all these workers and the response that I got from the union was not commensurate to the urgency that workers were experiencing.

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. So I hosted a town hall and I just needed to find a space to give workers a forum to bring awareness to the leaders to what their members and employees are facing. So I brought on workers, I brought on an anti-racism educator, I brought on a therapist because part of the problem too, when employees go to the employer’s employee assistance program and complain they’re experiencing discrimination, the usually white counselor would say, Well, discrimination’s not there. It’s your perception that you’re being discriminated against.” They can’t do that, causing even further damage.

So from that point on, we have all of these people in the town hall, and I also invited a lawyer because I knew there were significant legal issues and I needed the employers and the union to be aware that you have a legal obligation here to do something. I wanted a legal expert to speak about that and it somehow went very well. After that, the lawyer called me up and says, Hey Nicholas, you’re onto something here.” And he says, There’s a lot of negligence on the employer and on the union side.” And that lawyer, Courtney Betty, he’s a former Crown prosecutor, and having worked for the Justice Department, he had a good understanding of how the system worked. 

From there on we started exploring taking legal action. Our biggest challenge was finding a way to bring it before the court, because as unionized workers, you have to utilize the grievance process, the Canadian Human Rights Commission or any of the mechanisms within the labor framework. You can’t just go to court. There’s a threshold for that. And then we realized there’s a common theme, and the common theme in all the cases was racism was happening, but it was around staffing, right? The staffing mechanism was weaponized to exclude one group and give preferential treatment to others.

Maximillian Alvarez: So this is both, I imagine, in terms of hiring, who gets hired and who doesn’t?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: Correct.

Maximillian Alvarez: And who gets promoted and who doesn’t?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: Correct. Yes. So what it means for a Black person is that you could be how qualified, you apply, they’d find a way to screen you out, or they’d find a way to give opportunities to act in higher positions to other employees, developing them in the process, preparing them so that when a poster comes out, they have the experience to apply for it. You can’t even apply because you don’t even have the experience. So they could prepare you and tailor a poster to what those operational needs are. And the staffing regime for the public service, a lot of it is discretionary.

So the public service has predominantly used a staffing regime to promote non-Black racialized groups, to promote white employees, to develop white employees at the expense of Black employees. That’s essentially what this case is about. It means thousands of Black employees from 1970 and onward, that’s our starting period, have faced systemic discrimination in the public service. When we were going, we’d finally developed this case, and then I started talking to workers outside of the CRA. I went around to the different departments and I was hearing the same thing from workers, the exact same tools and how they were being used. So it wasn’t just the CRA, it was the Treasury Board of Canada. It was the Canadian Human Rights Commission where you file your complaint to, the only institution that’s supposed to be sacred and anti-discriminatory, workers at that commission told me that they were facing discrimination. And how when the commission receives race-based complaints, that it’s disproportionately rejected compared to other complaints. That is a much higher dismissal rate for race-based complaints.

And that the leadership of the commission is the same everywhere else in the public service, Black and racialized, some racialized right up here, and the leadership is white. I went to the intelligence community, the same thing, the policing, law enforcement, the same thing. Essentially all of the institutions were practicing anti-Black racism. And it was deeply embedded in all of their systems. It was almost normal, the status quo. That’s when we decided to extend the claim to the entire federal public service, over 100 departments and agencies and crown entities.

We examined the Employment Equity Act. And here’s how, this is the piece of legislation that the employer uses federally to exclude Black workers. This legislation was created in 1976, assented to in 77. And it creates protection for groups, women, Indigenous people, visible minorities, and people with disabilities. It’s worked very well for women, but it’s white women, mostly white women. We’re happy to see women are now more than 50% of the public service, right? We didn’t have that before. And more than 50% of the leadership as well. So that’s incredible. But Black women are not the beneficiaries of that woman category, or Indigenous women. It’s only been white women who have benefited from that category.

The visible minorities’ category places every racialized group, so if you’re not Indigenous or you’re not white, you’re in this category. Nobody is defined in there. So to meet employment equity, when there’s a gap for visible minorities, I could pick any group. So if I want, I could always pick Chinese and I’m meeting or exceeding my visible minority, I picked a visible minority. So federal employees and the CRA have always told me, Nicholas, we are following the law. The law says pick a visible minority and we picked a visible minority. It doesn’t say anything about Black. If you want this addressed, you have to change the Employment Equity Act.” That’s what they told me.

So we set it upon a path to strike down the Employment Equity Act, because it was not clearly defined, how it’s being applied is sanctioning, allowing discrimination against Black people. As federal employers have their preferred group for visible minorities, whoever it deems is the harder worker, the smarter worker, the non-lazy worker. Then when those racialized groups get in, they perpetuate and continue the status quo. In some cases, they ensure that people from their group follow suit. So I’ve seen where a leader of one department is this race and everybody in the department is that race or the majority of people. So we’re seeking to strike down that part of the act because we believe that how it’s being applied, it contravenes Article 15-2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it pertains to non-discrimination.

So here we are at a press conference and a national broadcaster, CBC, is carrying the story. December 4th it’s coming out. I’m in front of a camera, I’m nervous, not sure what I was getting signed up for, but I knew we had to do something about it. And the story broke. We filed a claim. What is the claim? We are seeking monumental historic changes to how our public service runs, how staffing functions. We want to ensure that our public service is strong and productive. Right now you have a lot of people injured showing up to work, serving Canadians in a minimal capacity due to the discrimination that they face in the workplace, not performing at their best potential.

So we want to create a stronger public service where everyone is included and where you can reach your full potential, whether that’s at the bottom or mid-level or at the top, wherever that is. And you’d be able to reach your fullest potential based on merit or what you bring to the table. And that’s the public service that we’re fighting for. That is the public service that we’re demanding. It is what Canada purports to be. So we’re holding Canada accountable to the image that it is trying to show the world that it is. So it’s real hard work and a lot of determination and sweat and blood to get there, but we know it’s achievable.

So we’re seeking amendments to the Employment Equity Act. We believe the only way to address the problem at the root cause is to amend the Employment Equity Act, is to remove Black employees from the racialized category where it’s being left behind consistently and create a new designated group. And that’s the only way you’ll be able to solve the issue of Black employee exclusion. So now what is in a distinct separate category, employers will have to look to see if there is specifically a Black gap in the workplace and then appoint a qualified, not just somebody because they’re Black, that’s not what we’re trying to do. Appoint a qualified, competent Black person to fill that gap.

Maximillian Alvarez: This is really an incredible undertaking, both in terms of the scope and scale of the problem. And I mean, we in the United States are no strangers to systemic anti-Black racism. But then to study at the level of the entire workforce of the federal public service workers going back 50 years and trying to account for and atone for and repair. I mean, that’s what reparations means, right? To repair that which has been broken and those who have been broken by this flawed, racist, bad system that needs to be repaired. I’m wondering how you take on the task of accounting for all of that and fighting for not just fixing the issues within the hiring practices and the Employment Equity Act, but also compensating folks who have been affected by this. And I wanted to ask about that side of things and where the state of the lawsuit is now and what support, what response you’ve gotten from the government and from the labor community?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: Those are very important questions. Well, let’s start from the top. The lawsuit is presently awaiting certification. So that’s the first legal hurdle. That’s where the court will determine if it meets the definition of a class action, not so much in merits of the case, but if it has a common class, if it meets the definition for a class action. That hearing is scheduled for October this year. Of course, the government can consent to that certification and allow us to move further ahead, they have not. Their position has been completely different in the courtroom than publicly. Publicly, most of the institutions have acknowledged that they have systemic discrimination. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that on many occasions. Most recently there was a finding by the Treasury Board of Canada that the Canadian Human Rights Commission discriminated against its Black and racialized employees.

Maximillian Alvarez: Which just blows my mind. The Canadian, I’m sorry, I know you said this earlier and I was containing myself, but the Human Rights Commission that is supposed to be there to safeguard human rights, within the office of that commission, they’re doing the same shit.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: It just goes to show you how bad the problem is. Those who were entrusted to protect human rights were violating human rights with no regard for their mandates. So if the Human Rights Commission was doing this, imagine for the rest of the public service, if the top, the beacon of hope was discriminating against Black employees and everywhere else that’s looking to the commission for direction and for help, for guidance and leadership, the system completely failed Black employees and Black employees have no trust in our federal institutions, have no trust in our institutions for redress through the labor mechanisms and view the court as the only place to be able to get remedy on this situation.

Compensation remains an important part of what we’re seeking. So we’re not only seeking legislative changes to address the present and future, but there has to be remedies who address the past damages. They’ve done it for other groups, for the LGBT community, and we’re not asking for anything new. You’ve acknowledged that there is discrimination, that there is damage, and the pain and suffering that it causes is real. That’s what the Prime Minister said. But with all of that, you’ve ruined a lot of lives, marriages, families, the generational impact.

I keep remembering Carol, she’s one of the people that came forward. She’s retired, living in a basement apartment, and could barely make ends meet after diligently serving this country for over two decades. What about all those workers? Will a sorry” be sufficient for all those lives you ruined? The impact on their children and then their children’s children. How do you just come back now and say, We’ve passed the law and we’ve fixed this problem.” You said all these nice things, but you’ve ruined tens of thousands of Black people’s lives and the communities that they live in and their culture and their ability to fully participate as Canadian citizens. So there has to be remedies to address those damages, those deep, deep damages.

So we’re truly seeking to address the issue from the past to provide compensation for those who have been injured, to address the present by fixing the systems from the root, no bandaid solutions. We’re seeking to remedy the root cause. So let’s say if an employer could be as racist as they want, they have to follow the law. If they don’t, we can hold them accountable. They would not be able to hide behind any category and say, Well, we’ve hired a racialized person” so they’ve met it. They wouldn’t be able to do any of that if we have appropriate legislative safeguards.

We also want to ensure there’s proportional representation. If the Black community makes up this amount of people, that should be reflected in the public service at all levels. We have to, I started by telling you the history of Black people in Canada. All of this has to be within that long history of oppression. So it’s not no special treatment we’re looking for, we’re seeking equality through equity. No handouts, but you’ve damaged us, so you have to compensate us for that, and then you have to stop damaging us. That’s what we’re seeking to do with the Black class action.

Part of the reason why we’re before the courts is because our unions have failed us. And to understand that I had to go back in the history books as well, and I found that when unions were just starting up in Canada, their constitution said, Whites only.” So our unions were not built with us in mind. They were built to exclude us, attitudes and behavior throughout the passage of time passed down and out of that fight, Black people mobilized back then and formed their own union, their own table. Black people that fought all the way through the courts and gave our labor system the duty to fair representation. Yet they still cannot benefit from that regime.

So our unions have, which essentially come from a workplace. So if you have workplaces where discrimination is rampant, where Black people are consistently being excluded, where white supremacy thrives, our unions are going to reflect that too. So it’s the same thing, or probably even worse, replicated within our unions. Pur unions have a lot of work to do in terms of turning that corner, accepting responsibility, right? We recognize the powerful vehicle that the labor movement is. The huge wins that it has brought home for workers from maternity leave to sick leave, to childcare, to living wage, to weekends. These things were not given to workers. The unions fought and won these things. So we accept and we support and we believe in unionism.

But when it comes to anti-Black racism, our unions and unions in general have not mobilized. And that is our goal to galvanize Canada’s labor movement into combating anti-Black racism, into actually fixing our systems, because we recognize the power that labor has, and if one is impacted, then all of us are impacted. If Blacks are being marginalized, then all of us are in the fight together. That’s really what part of this fight is about, bringing labor together. Because if we can fight this together, it means our workplaces would be barrier free. It means our members can fully participate. And that means our members can also now fully participate in the unions. So ultimately we’ll have stronger workplaces and stronger unions.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, and I guess on that note, and I can’t thank you enough for sitting and talking with me this long man. I really, really appreciate it. And I just wanted to ask in the final couple minutes I’ve got you is what should that look like from the union side? Actually rising to that occasion, looking inward and fixing the problems that we have still within the movement, excluding Black workers or having leadership that is not representative of our membership or not making these issues enough of a priority in our contract fights and beyond. So I wanted to ask A, what should the union effort to address systemic racism look like? And B, what can folks in the labor movement and beyond in Canada and the US and beyond, what can we all do to support y’all in this fight?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: Well, let me say this, the labor movement knows how to fight. It knows how to mobilize. It knows how to bring people together. It knows how to run campaigns. That’s what we need, the full force of the labor movement coming together on this, sharing resources, running campaigns, lobbying, talking to MPs, mail campaigns, TV campaigns, social media campaigns. Our labor movement knows how to fight for issues, how to fight for social justice. So we need our unions to fight for social justice. This is about human rights. So our unions know what to do, and the wider labor movement knows about solidarity. We’ve had issues in one area, and it’s so egregious. Unions from across the country come together, right? So because the same premise applies that if you touch one, you touch all, and that if you hurt me, you’re hurting all of my brothers, sisters and friends, right?

Maximillian Alvarez: You saw the national support for the Ontario educators last year.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: Exactly.

Maximillian Alvarez: Taking on Doug Ford and trying to strip their rights. So where is that for this cause?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson: That is exactly, unfortunately, we have to go begging for that support. We have to go running down leaders, pleading. There’s 17 federal unions and only two are providing some support for us. We want to be able to have the support of the entire federal public service, the entire labor community. Like the unions, I don’t even want to say these things, but unions know. They could just issue a letter of support. They can host a town hall, they can do stuff to raise awareness. This is about public awareness. This is about bringing to the Canadian public, to their attention, how our institution treats the workers that are serving them. It’s fundamental, basic human rights. And if we can do that and bring people together, I think that’s where we’ll win. So labor needs to come together to combat anti-Black racism. And when it does that, we will all win.

Additional Information

Permanent links below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People” Theme Song
  • Post-production: Jules Taylor

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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