Last week I had the privilege of being invited to a meeting of OPSEU activists in Sault Ste. Marie. As they say, the journey can be as important as the destination. This was one of those times.
On the flight north, I made the acquaintance of a young man who had recently gotten married. He and his partner were contemplating starting a family. We started with the usual pleasantries and then the talk shifted to our occupations. He was a corporate lawyer. I am a union vice-president. At first we seemed to be an odd couple. But were we?
It was soon clear that his corporate mentors had drilled in the expected message: “Unions are redundant.”
After saying as much he stopped and added, almost apologetically, “Aren’t they?”
Once he opened that door I politely barged through with my response: “Well my friend, not exactly.”
This was a unique moment: a moment to educate; a moment to spread the good news about what the labour movement means to working people; a moment to set out how the labour movement creates a healthy middle class. It was also time to explain how unions create a path for those seeking entry to the middle class. The moment turned into an hour and half.
At the end of it, had I been able to offer him a membership card, he would have gladly signed up.
Friends, this is how we can win folks over. We provide the truth. We help them to understand and accept it. We do so one person at a time; one conversation at a time. After all, unionized workers have advantages that are good for everyone. We don’t have to apologize for seeking livable wages, decent benefits, safe working conditions and decent pensions. These are the ingredients to a healthy society and a vibrant economy.
Empowered workers are productive workers. Empowered workers form a powerful economic force. Empowered workers found healthy communities. What we want for ourselves we want for everyone.
Corporations and big business hire only the workers they need to be profitable. They do not create additional jobs or spread the wealth. They need a countervailing force to push them to do so. That’s where we come in.
In Europe, millions of workers have taken to the streets against austerity. Why? They understand that business likes austerity. Austerity lowers the expectations of workers thereby lowering the cost business has to pay for that work. Record corporate profits result.
The USA is heading towards a “fiscal cliff,” a sexy term for austerity formed by the threat of higher middle class taxes and lower government spending. Our American cousins are getting the subtext to this: Austerity. And they have clearly said to their political leaders, “Fix it”.
In these jurisdictions, unions have been the voice that started this conversation. We are following that path right here in Ontario. Remember those OPSEU t-shirts that said: Austerity No, Prosperity Yes. That message resonated.
Higher wages are the answer. Fair taxation is the answer. Sharing the wealth is the answer. Vibrant unions are the answer.
The old right-wing stereotype that our job is to protect the lazy and incompetent is just spin and rhetoric. We are not about greed. The facts simply do not support this mantra. Instead, we are for rights and responsibilities. We are for everyone pulling their weight. In return we should all have access to a fair share of society’s wealth.
And all of this took place on that flight to Northern Ontario. By the time I arrived in the Sault I was energized. So were our Sault members.
Sisters and brothers, it will always be a struggle. Wear that struggle like a badge of honour. We won’t back down. Justice is on our side. And that’s worth talking about.
To end, I want to thank the OPSEU family who supported me and my family during the very difficult time of saying goodbye to my beloved father. Your kindness will never be forgotten. My dad, Antonio Almeida, was an immigrant who arrived in Canada looking for a better life. A man, who together with his wife of 57 years, Maria, raised four hardy boys.
He was a man who gave to his community and instilled in me a fighting spirit. In Portuguese he would stress, “Eduardo, be strong of body and kind of heart, listen more than you speak and never, ever give up the struggle.”
Rest in peace, Dad. God bless.
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida
First Vice-President/Treasurer, OPSEU