Different, yet the Same
Alternative trade unions from across the world all believe the same thing: that all workers deserve work that is dignifying and safe.
By Sue Siemens, CLAC Regional Director
Recently, I had the great privilege of attending an international gathering of alternative trade unionists from across Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. CLAC has been a member of the World Organization of Workers (WOW) since 2012, and every year, WOW holds a conference focussed on a particular theme. This year’s theme was The Future of the Labour Movement, and we were invited to speak on this topic from a Canadian perspective.
The conference itself was interesting, and we heard from several speakers from different countries, sharing the particular challenges the labour movement faces in their context. However, the highlight for me was getting to know some of the individuals representing their unions.
At first glance, there’s not a lot that would connect a labour relations practitioner from Canada to a union activist from the Philippines, Moldova, or Ukraine. We face significant challenges in Canada, some of which we spoke about in our presentation: worker shortages in the skilled trades and healthcare, the growth of precarious, low-paid and part-time work, and the list goes on.
But as I listened to a woman’s story about trying to protect workers while her country’s entire economy crumbles under the weight of government corruption, or another woman’s tireless efforts in organizing women who make a living off market stands in Manila, or a man’s struggles to attract young workers to join a union in post-Soviet Ukraine, I began to feel like our challenges were quite small.
However, as I spent more time with these individuals, that feeling faded. While our challenges may be so different, there’s even more that ties us together. Each organization represented there—from the biggest to the smallest—were united by the same belief: that this thing we’ve all trying to do matters; that workers, from the oldest to the youngest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, deserve to have access to work that is dignifying and safe. What’s even more unique about this gathering of people is that we all believe there’s a way to achieve justice for workers through alternative and peaceful means, and we are constantly seeking new and creative ways to ensure the global labour movement continues to grow.
And CLAC is proof that this is happening. In Canada, the number of people who join unions has steadily decreased since the early 1980s. Today, less than 30 percent of working-aged Canadians belong to a union. While union density in Canada continues to decrease, CLAC continues to grow. Today, we have more than 60,000 workers across Canada. People continue to join CLAC because our model of labour relations looks different than our competitor unions.
The world of work is changing. Gone are the days of full-time jobs with secure pensions. Also, the workforce is aging and younger workers have very different priorities when it comes to work. And while all these shifts are taking place, Canada is staring down a crisis-level shortage of workers in key industries. In light of these key challenges, CLAC has been working hard to stay relevant, to advocate for our members in precarious industries, and to help train and equip Canadians who need assistance in accessing work to fill the shortages. Our model is working: Canadians continue to look to CLAC as the modern union of choice in a shifting labour landscape.
While our challenges are so different than our colleagues’ in other parts of the world, we are all working toward the same goal. I left my week at the conference feeling so inspired by the people I met and their unwavering commitment to seek justice on behalf of the marginalized. The work of CLAC and our members in Canada matters to the trade union movement in places where they face much greater challenges, and their work matters to us. It’s exciting and inspiring to be part of a global labour movement—and while many of our paths may never cross, we’re connected by an unwavering commitment to an alternative way of advocating for workers.
We’re so different, and yet we’re the same.