By Linda Silas
The recent decision of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, to disaffiliate from our national labour federation, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), has cast uncertainty on the future of our labour community, and threatens to create even more division in its wake.
For many of us who have devoted much of our lives to the advancement of all Canadians, this division is as disheartening as its implications are troubling.
While nurses have a long and proud history of professional service in Canada, we are relative newcomers to the labour movement. Nurses in Canada have only been unionized for about 40 years, at a current rate of about 90%, and joined the CLC in 1999.
Despite our relatively short history, we are a strong and united force, and we know the power of working together for change. This is why we joined the House of Labour.
As frontline workers, nurses have long served as advocates for our patients and for our health care system at large. We see the effects of poor policy firsthand, from unsafe staffing that hurts our patients and costs our system more, to Big Pharma lining their pockets while millions of people in Canada go without medically necessary medications simply because they can’t afford them.
Since joining the CLC, we have been part of the real collective power of a broader united labour movement working in solidarity. When we come together as bus drivers, miners, auto-workers, accountants, hotel workers, public servants, physiotherapists, teachers, nurses and so many more, we have shown we can win important victories.
Through the CLC, we have won enhancements to occupational health and safety, increases to the minimum wage, a stronger CPP for young workers, increased awareness of domestic violence and gains for survivors, and advancements towards our collective goal of decent work that is free of violence, harassment and bullying, to name only a few achievements.
As a nurse, and the elected leader of close to 200,000 nurses and student nurses from across Canada, I am reminded of an important lesson from our daily experiences as health care providers.
Nurses have a unique appreciation of the power – in fact, the necessity – of community. Our health care system is built around a strong community ethic. Everyone, from the most highly skilled surgeons to the cooks in the kitchen, must work together as a team in order to provide the highest quality, safest care possible to our patients and their families. We do not all play the same role in delivering that care, nor should we. What is essential is that we respect, and indeed value, our differences.
The current rift in the labour movement is the result of a failure to bridge our differences with open communication, and respect each other while maintaining a strong commitment to being a part of a community of change-makers.
We will always have differences of opinion. I have worked side-by-side with Canada’s union leaders for the last 14 years and know that we are all proud of our diverse histories and cultures. We must remain committed to our House of Labour, the CLC, and the processes that govern our interactions and disputes as unions, which include our elected officers.
The decisions made by the Canadian Council of the CLC on February 5 were a recognition that our labour movement isn’t based on one organization or one leader. We took a solid stand behind the CLC constitution and reconfirmed that we are a strong movement dedicated to improving the wellbeing of all workers, and indeed all people, living in Canada. I proudly support this stand.
What nurses have always understood, and what we have appreciated as members of the labour movement, is that whatever our differences, our effectiveness rests in our unity. I challenge my fellow union leaders to join me in redoubling our efforts to deepen unity within our house so we can organize workers who need representation, and continue with our vital work of making our communities stronger, safer and healthier.