Many of us have, like John Lennon, imagined a world without war, greed, hunger or possessions. There are those rare individuals who insist that we should settle for nothing less, that humanity’s true heart is to live in communities guided by understanding, compassion and social justice.
As individuals, our greatest struggles often occur at our jobs; collectively that struggle turns into one of an entire class. Capital’s boundaries appear in many forms, but the most easily understood is class. Everyone knows the difference between the boss and the employee and few employees don’t feel at some point in their careers, fear of and/or resentment for “the boss.” That your life can be so controlled by the whim of one person or of some faceless entity, known as “management,” is unsettling. How do you gain a sense of control over your work life, over your ability to make a living?
Workers who are lucky enough to belong to a union are better protected and are able to participate in a more democratic workplace than non-unionized workers. By bringing many voices together and allowing them to speak as one, the barrier set between employer and employee becomes more porous and flexible. The barrier may never collapse completely, but unions reduce its effectiveness, allowing for better wages and working conditions. Whether through our public health-care system, OAS, CPP or even such basic services as clean water and sanitation, unions have fought to tear down the barriers keeping all citizens from accessing essential services and programs. Unfortunately, all these public services are now under attack by a powerful wave of privatization which is slowly but surely rebuilding the barriers unions fought so hard to tear down. The fight must never end until the dream is realized.
Non-unionized workers face higher obstacles than unionized workers, but they too have their champions. The dedicated people who work at organizations like the Workers Organizing Resource Centre, the Community Unemployed Help Centre and the Manitoba Federation of Labour’s Occupational Health Centre offer resources, advice and advocacy services to all workers. Whether being unjustly denied employment insurance, requiring advice about workplace health and safety, including medical attention, or advising workers of their rights under Employment Standards or how to join a union, these organizations help workers understand their rights and support them as they fight to realize them.
As important as the work of unions and worker advocacy organizations is, it is not enough to fuel a sustained attack against the barriers we all face, whether it be lack of access to our basic rights or exploitation on the job. We all need inspiration and information so we can understand how our world is changing and where to find allies.
An organization that reminds us that the status quo is not inevitable is the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba. This non-profit research institute’s mandate is captured in the words “policy alternatives.” Using a social justice, left-of-centre lens, the centre delivers high-quality research challenging Margaret Thatcher’s infamous declaration that “there is no alternative.” She was of course referring to the neo-liberal wave that swept across the developed world and which so effectively fortified and expanded class barriers. By providing accessible and reliable analyses of public policy, based on academic and community sources, CCPA challenges the status quo, whether it be through mainstream media, public consultations and presentations or its many publications. CCPA’s research feeds a wide audience, from government workers to community activists. It reminds us all that in fact, there is an alternative.
So much of the work done by all the organizations mentioned here would not be so effective were it not for a large group of fearless individuals — those activists who take their ideals and dreams to their workplaces, to their meeting halls and into the streets, who educate, who march, who organize, who push the envelope day after week after month and into years. Some of them have left us, but so strong was their voice that we fight on in their names: Joe Zuken, J.S. Woodworth, Nellie McClung and more recently, Nick Ternette and Errol Black.
Even now a new generation of warriors steps forward; young, mature, aboriginal, non-aboriginal, trade unionists, men and women from all sexual orientations who like their predecessors refuse to settle for anything less than a just and peaceful world.
» Lynne Fernandez is the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at CCPA-MB.