Building Power for Workers. Canadian Edition

We are not alone. Despite the growing severity of the challenges we are facing in the fight to build an economy that works for everyone, my recent trip to Toronto reminded me that we are far from alone in this struggle.

I was invited by the Atkinson Foundation for a week of reflection and discussion on building power for workers in a place where unions have larger membership bases, where government programs are stronger and yet where a legacy of organizing is lacking. After my singular focus of the past few months on the US, the opportunity to step outside of our national lens to look at our work’s mission from a global context was as refreshing as it was reinvigorating. My time in Toronto made it clear that although we work in solidarity with activists and leaders around the world, our respective challenges are distinct and our strategies for building worker power should be as well. In a word, I was reminded that context matters.

Take, for example, popular understandings of Canada being a liberal utopia where neighbors shovel each other’s snow while American cities burn. Contrary to this belief, Canada is indeed facing its own strain of nationalist racism in its political mainstream. Only a few years apart, Canadian nationalism is emerging similar to the US. The difference, however, is that the relationship between the two nations is far from equal.

It is said that when the U.S. sneezes, Canada gets pneumonia. As the U.S. is currently in the throes of a delirious fever, one could expect the effect on Canada to be significant unless they stick to a regimen of preventative medicine, informed by the lessons of what we failed to do. Our leaders failed to speak fire, unafraid and with courage in calling for a vision of a more equitable world. Canadian labor leaders are in a unique position to do so now with the knowledge of what is to come should they choose not to (more on Canada / US labor relationship in this Toronto Star piece.)

Another keystone of the Canadian context is its legacy of government funding for the non-profit sector. Canada relative to the US is more active in funding non-profit organizations, leading to a categorically different understanding of the role both government and philanthropy play in society. Whereas the U.S. often sees the non-profit sector as necessary to fill significant gaps in social service provision and to organize workers as a means of power-building, the Canadian experience is more conflated as non-profits are often relegated specifically to programmatic operation. This distinction is critical for labor leaders in our northern neighbor to bear in mind when adopting strategies from our successes and failures as direct political advocacy or community organizing are not as commonplace or as developed.

Despite these differences in context, however, I left Toronto with inspiration and insight to infuse into our current thinking. By recognizing the differences of those we stand in solidarity with, we can cultivate more effective strategies, more scalable innovations and greater conditions for working people in the US, Canada and around the world.