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Educate. Advocate. Organize: the OPSEU/SEFPO legacy

Warren (Smokey) Thomas in a blue suit standing at a podiu
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Educate. Agitate. Organize.

It was the mantra of the labour movement during the days when I cut my union teeth on direct action, wrapped mostly in creating chaos and confrontation.

I was young, eager and more than a little belligerent.

In other words, an activist for the times. And what a time it was.

Pre-dating technology, long before the internet, way before keyboard warriors, it was an era when rabble-rousers took it to the streets for real.

We checked all the boxes of social defiance; tear gas and police presence be damned.

Picket lines were never to be crossed.

There was no such thing as negotiated protocols.

Lay down in front of a truck? No problem.

Hop a barrier? Of course.

Take over an MPP’s office. Piece of cake.

We could agitate with the best of them. And we did.

I recently was sent an August 2020 article by David Bush (listed as a PhD student at York University and author at the Socialist Project) that appeared in Spring Magazine. The piece points out the origin of the slogan, accordingly, “first used by the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a UK socialist organization whose members included Eleanor Marx and William Morris. The SDF first used the slogan in an 1883 pamphlet entitled, Socialism Made Plain, the Social and Political Manifesto of the Democratic Federation.”

Comrade Bush goes on to write, “Lenin was inspired by this phrase, referencing it in his classic 1899 article ‘Our Immediate Tasks’… As Lenin wrote – Learn, Propagandize, Organize – and the pivot of this activity can and must be only the organ of the Party.”

The academic author goes on to further quote Lenin, “we do not for a moment think of pushing other forms of activity into the background – e.g., local agitation, demonstrations, boycotts, the persecution of spies, the bitter campaigns against individual representatives of the bourgeoisie and the government, protest strikes, etc.”

Times change, which begs the question: is a 140-year-old manifesto still the best bet for OPSEU/SEFPO members – some very well and appropriately compensated through hard won gains at the bargaining table? Are these members by virtue of their bargaining success now to be categorized, according to theory, as members of the reviled bourgeoisie class? Should workers, who by reason of their elevated socio-economic status be targeted by a bitter campaign?

Isn’t that the job of a union?

To bargain. To defend. To raise workers up.

To organize more workers so they too have the benefits, wages and protection that we all have?

Which brings us to the 21st century.

I hear a lot of tongue wagging chatter out there about class wars, about leaders taking it to the streets.

I also hear claims about being too old school, and a little too direct and blunt.

Let me tell you something folks, if you’re planning on starting a workers’ revolution expect some push back from those at the top of the food chain. Expect confrontation. Heck, the generation that preceded you, and helped build this union, not only expected it, we cherished it.

Did we always get it right? Probably not. No one ever does.

But it got us to where we are.

180,000 members strong.

A membership that has more than doubled since 2007.

A union that matters.

A movement that is respected and has influence.

A union that has worked brilliantly to keep our members both safe and employed during the pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to the unfortunate millions of folks who have lost their jobs and our sister unions who have lost thousands of members and drastically reduced their own internal staff.

A union that has convinced a right-wing government to invest billions in health care, hospitals, corrections, social services and post-secondary and public education.

A union that gives credit when credit is due but calls out government missteps in a manner that leads to discussion, not isolation.

A union well-covered by both provincial and local media.

Together, we have mostly got it right.

We have navigated the unexpected and pivoted quickly to respond both positively and proactively to present and pending threats.

We continue to educate.

We have worked hard at organizing. And we have succeeded even in the face of incredible challenges.

Friends, we are better than the ancient idea of simply being agitators – a stone in the shoe, a fly on a horse’s rump. We are more than a nuisance.

We are a force. A machine.

Advocators not agitators.

Consultation rather than just confrontation.

Coordination and teamwork. Us not I.

What we say matters because we have been on the front lines from day one of the pandemic.

And it is paying off. Just look at the 2021 Ontario budget. Not one mention of the buzzword of the last decade, “Austerity.”

Why?

Because together, we convinced this government of the importance of quality public services.

Because together we make Ontario work.

Educate. Advocate. Organize.

It’s a legacy we should be proud of.

And for the disciples of Lenin, continue your pursuits of bygone political theory.

I was always more of a Ringo fan and his talent for mastering changing beats.

Stay safe and thanks for your amazing efforts.

Let’s keep up the great work.

In solidarity,

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, OPSEU/SEFPO
@OPSEUSmokey
facebook.com/OPSEUSmokey

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