When 2,350 delegates entered Montreal’s Palais des Congrès for the biennial convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the banner, United Toward a Working Recovery, was largely an expression of hope for solidarity. The umbrella organization representing two million Canadian workers met amid grumbling over the leadership of president Dennis McDermott and arguments over the best tactics to improve wages and working conditions eroded by the recession. Still, after five days of meetings last week the slogan floating over unionists of varying political viewpoints seemed almost appropriate. McDermott won another two-year term in the $72,000-a-year office, the CLC agreed to fight unemployment by campaigning for a shorter workweek without any pay cuts, and members transformed the CLC’s executive council by guaranteeing women six of the 14 vice-presidential (at large) positions.
That feminist breakthrough on the quota acknowledged the growing clout of women within the CLC, where they represent 34 per cent of the membership. But it was only one indication of a desire for change. In addition, militant delegates won CLC endorsement of a shorter work-
week and no compulsory overtime as the first step to creating jobs for 1.5 million unemployed Canadians. Among those pushing the CLC to a tougher economic position were Robert White, Canadian director of the United Auto Workers, and Jean-Claude Parrot, head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Like Parrot, White will make expansion of the work force an issue when his 110,000-member union begins bargaining this fall, but he admits that the shorter workweek alone will not solve the unemployment problem.
The CLC’s renewed militancy was a mild rebuke to McDermott, who has held the president’s job since 1978. He won re-election without a challenge even though influential labor leaders have criticized him privately for tired, uninspired leadership and suggested that he give way to Shirley Carr, a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representative. As the newly elected secretary-treasurer, she is now the second-ranking CLC executive and is likely to become the first woman— and public service union member—to lead the organization. Just before the convention opened, Parrot described McDermott as arrogant and criticized him for advocating closer links be-
tween the CLC and the New Democratic Party.
But in Montreal the delegates gave McDermott a standing ovation when he urged them to support the NDP, adding that workers who voted for the Liberals and Conservatives were like “chickens who cast their lot with Col. Sanders.” As for Parrot, he spurned a chance to continue as a vice-president on an establishment slate endorsed by McDermott. Instead, Parrot ran as an independent and lost by 111 votes.
But despite the newfound solidarity that led to McDermott’s re-election and increased representation for women, the CLC still has pressing problems to solve. Since 1978 the percentage of union members in Canada affiliated to the congress has dropped to 56.5 per cent from 76.2 per cent. That decline is largely due to the 1982 break-
away of building-trades members, who left the CLC to form the 200,000-member Canadian Federation of Labour over jurisdictional disputes. But while the congress is anxious to recruit new members who now belong to independent labor organizations—including engineers,
nurses and teachers’ federations—its own rules are proving to be barriers to increased membership. They currently require all unions joining the national body to affiliate with CLC unions that represent workers in the same occupations—a policy meant to prevent the proliferation of unions in the same field. McDermott has promised that the new CLC executive will try to solve that problem in the near future, although it will likely be easier to admit unions that have never been in the CLC than win back organizations that broke away from the congress.
The jurisdiction problem is still a secondary issue to the CLC’s determination to present employers with a harder line in contract negotiations. And many union leaders argue that it is the employers’ turn to be flexible. “They must show their goodwill to us,” said Jeffrey Rose, president of 300,000-member CUPE and a CLC vice-president. “You cannot sit down with someone whose past practices have indicated they are going to try to kill you.” McDermott echoed Rose’s militancy in an address to delegates. “The next two years are going to be rough and tough,” he declared. “But I say to our adversaries, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ ” After two years of being on the defensive, obviously CLC members are convinced that the times are ripe for a counterattack. -ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH, with Mark
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