Thursday, 1 May 2008

Building coalitions within unions

Canadian unions are forming umbrella equity or human rights committees comprised of groups representing women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, aboriginals and sometimes young people, writes academic Linda Briskin in a new paper.
Women have a long history of self organisation within unions. Rather than ending up in a marginal position, they have “promoted women’s leadership, challenged traditional leaderships to be more accountable, encouraged unions to be more democratic and participatory and forced unions to take up women’s concerns as union members and as workers through policy initiatives and at the negotiating table”, Briskin writes.
However, as other groups started to form their own committees, their work became more complicated. “The women’s committee used to be very well mixed. Ten years ago, the women’s committee was almost equally made up of women of colour and white women. Lesbians and women with disabilities openly identified in that way on the women’s committee. But that has changed. [...] Women of colour feel strongly, at this moment that the place for them to organise is around anti-racism”, an informant told Briskin.
In order to develop an integrated equity agenda, unions are now forming umbrella committees comprised of various constituencies. Their work can be difficult too, the same informant explained: “We’re so used to being on the outside of stuff, and having to fight for attention and fight for resources that part of the big work is to unlearn that culture with each other. People thought we’d all be holding hands and singing kumbaya a lot! But the benefit of the structure is that it allows us to deal with inter-constituency conflicts as they come up, ’cause they will come up”.
In any case, mobilising the multiple constituencies is vital to the long-term vigour of the Canadian labour movement, argues Briskin.
Linda Briskin (2008), Cross-constituency Organizing in Canadian Unions. British Journal of Industrial Relations 46: 221-47. Photo from York University Gazette

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