I’ve been immersed in the activities of political action for about a decade. I’ve volunteered on half a dozen provincial and federal election campaigns, looked after communications-related tasks for our local labour council, and represented union members through several different roles. For union activists, who spend most of their active time on political action, monthly involvement is typical, especially if it means getting to do things locally, regionally, and provincially.
While finalizing a Chief Financial Officer audit report for Elections Ontario during August of 2018, a short six weeks after Doug Ford became Ontario Premier, one by one all my activist responsibilities took on a kind of urgency I’ve never experienced before. Is this how people experienced the initial voltage back in 1995 when Harris got elected, I wondered, a steep uptick in activist communication and social currency? By the time summer had ended, I was already utilizing all pathways, nodes, and hubs of my social union network, searching for resources, people, and funds to begin pushing against Ford’s assault on the hard-fought Employment Standards and Labour Relations regulations we won through Bill 148, not to mention the attacks on Health and Physical Education and the development of Ontario’s important Indigenous curriculum, the Indigenous Cultural Fund, and the Federal Carbon pricing program. The urgency brought on by Ford’s aggressive agenda, combined with excellent training by the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Fight for $15 and Fairness, pivoted me toward specific goals about message, structure, and commitment. I made the conscious decision to see myself as an organizer, not just an activist.
I’m a firm believer that growth as a social unionist happens when we venture slightly beyond our union’s structure, experiencing the labour movement and social justice through local action. Labour council or $15 and Fairness, for example, are perfect places to try skills, techniques, and strategies we learn in union workshops. When we return to specific union work, we do so with greater understanding and context of important concepts like union equity, history, and solidarity.
The thing that makes community-based organizing equally enthralling and difficult is the near absence of an established structure as with the organizational structure of unions. Unions champion structure based on equity, democracy, and service. The goals of political action (i.e. protecting worker rights or the quality of publicly-funded education) become less about adhering to big picture policy, past practice, and elected positions (incredibly important nonetheless) and more about creating a culture of commitment. Through training and practice with $15 and Fairness organizers, I learned that organizing structure is relational. In other words, the quality of the personal relationships that get developed while implementing the strategy or campaign become the organizing structure. Whether online or in person, each point of contact or opportunity to gather within the campaign is an opportunity to build relational strength, and nurture the people power it takes to change the minds of elected officials.
As a Communications Officer with the North Bay and District Labour Council, it was easy enough work to connect with many public and private sector union representatives. The goal was to convince as many people as possible to contact the MPP to explain the importance of maintaining Bill 148, thereby winning the support of the ultra-business friendly Minister of Finance—a seemingly impossible mission. We used the campaign petition to learn and practice one-to-ones and to gently debunk decent work myths. We did this during main street media-friendly events, during workplace lunch and learns, and during scheduled union gatherings. The entire campaign was very time sensitive and quick paced, with specific goals set for two-week cycles, all designed to dial up the message that two thirds of Ontario voters were fine with Bill 148 and that repealing it would be a major political mistake. We earned several media stories and a lobby meeting with MPP Fedeli. We used pop-up street actions to build solidarity, we signed close to 1,000 petition signatures, and we culminated with a rally in front of the local Chamber of Commerce, the biggest source of anti-worker messaging. Above all, we gathered as groups and showed to one another that people power is real, that it teaches us about organizing ideas, skills, and humility.
We also created some serious momentum. Part way through the campaign to stop Bill 47, it became evident that the bill would pass third reading in early November. Many mid-sized communities have community solidarity groups: Making Waves in Windsor, London Common Front, and We are Oshawa are a few. Solidarity or social justice groups encourage people to organize along similar interests. Projects get initiated through relationships and tend to be about local issues. The fact that Ford started appealing to social conservatives so quickly by attacking human rights and equity services, institutions, and programs, combined with his willingness to use the not withstanding clause to reduce Toronto council seats (during a municipal election!), was enough to initiate a solidarity group in North Bay. Education sector workers, parents, students, trade-unionists, environmentalists, business owners, elected officials, equity justice organizers, researchers were gathering together to develop strategy and implement tactics in my town—it was amazing.
In the middle of social and worker justice projects and campaigns, it’s not always easy to visualize concrete success. Bill 148 was three years in the making, using organizing tactics throughout the province to pressure the Liberal government to modernize the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act. The victory was a legislated success. But what happens when we’re up against a majority government that makes decisions based on the hungry desires of capital wealth? What does organizing success look like when we know for certain the Premier wants to monetize and privatize publicly-funded education or implement grotesque ways to circumvent labour standards and union contracts? Successful campaigns use values to help storytellers build relationships that teach us to develop strategy around a timeline of tactics.
Community organizing means being a student of organizing. As a student of the Labour College of Canada I learn that the incidental and informal experiences that occur while community organizing are important learning instances. These are experiences that allow us to tell our stories and their frequency and curation help us build a culture of commitment. Rallies, for example, are perfect opportunities for organizers to promote new skills like public speaking, speaking to media, and promoting for turnout. Asking the question of who gets to speak is critical because it forces organizers to confront privilege and detrimental status quo structure.
My experiences of community organizing taught me that organizing for social change requires flexibility, compassion, and creativity. Meetings must be productive and have responsible and brave accountability. However, organizing for social change is different than union service work because the structure of organizing is mostly relational. Whereas union service adheres to collective agreements, constitutions, policy, and reporting, organizing colleagues to engage community allies requires a high frequency of collaboration and requires members to harness personal resources like developed skills and leadership networks to bring along new people.
When I ask colleagues during socially appropriate times, one to one, and in small, already establish groups, to take part in a bigger than life struggle they almost always have something important to say. Yes or no, I get to hear their story, and that means everything to organizing.