Union Matters: What are Labour Councils?

This week, host Mary Otto sit down with the President of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council (HDDLC), Suzanne MacNeil about what Labour Councils do, and the role they play in the overall labour movement.

Full transcript of podcast:

Hi and welcome to the NSGEU podcast Union Matters. My name’s Mary [Otto] and I’m going to be your host for today. Today I’m really happy to have with me Suzanne MacNeil, who is the President of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council (HDDLC) (http://halifaxlabour.ca/). Thank you so much for coming to talk to us.


SM Thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here.


MO We’re going to talk all things labour council, but before we get into that, do you want to give us a bit of a background about who you are? I know some of our listeners and members will know you, you’re quite a well-known trade unionist in Nova Scotia, but for those who don’t know you…


SM Okay, yes! First and foremost I’m a proud Cape Bretoner who is now living in Halifax. I moved to Halifax in 2014, but I really got my start in the labour movement about a decade ago. I had just graduated from university, I was getting into the writing and free-lance media world. Just the year before I got involved in the labour movement and I went to a really great Student Journalism conference where I met a few union reps from a couple of different unions. In particular there was a Canadian Media Guild member from the CBC who said, a lot of you folks that are just coming into the work force and are really excited about free-lancing because that’s a new thing, he said, you know, make sure you join an organization. There’s this brand new Canadian free-lance project that’s on the go and you should really look into it, because you want to make sure that you have colleagues you can call on when you have an issue or if you need help with something. So that really planted the seed in my head for thinking of, not just my personal career, but what I wanted to do at a time where everything in the media industry was all about out sourcing and staff cut backs and this new era of increasing free-lance media in a world where there were fewer and fewer permanent jobs. I came to realize that was the same across so many different sectors of work


MO Absolutely and it’s just getting worse. There’s deefinitely this new gig economy and online work or contracting out and it’s really across everything. My brother, for instance, has his PHD and trying to get into academia, it used to be you got tenure. I have friends who’ve been bouncing from contract to contract to 10 years getting paid poverty level wages with how much debt coming out of university. There’s such a push towards casualization, part-time work. I can imagine even just since you’ve graduated it’s gone that way a lot.


SM Exactly, and so when I first became involved in the labour movement I was the only member of my union in Cape Breton, so the labour council is where I went in order to meet other trade unionists in the community. It was through that work that I learned how much we all have in common. Boss to boss, sector to sector, there’s only a handful of tricks that they used to keep us down and divided. The involvement in the labour council really emphasized to me that the more we share our stories with each other, the more we can find opportunities to work together on common projects and the better off we’ll all be. That’s really what won me over to, not union involvement in general, but in particular anything that brings to gether members of different unions.


MO Yeah, one fo the things I actually enjoy about the labour movement is, obviously I’m a very proud NSGEU member and I really love meeting members from other sectors and other organizations and different types of work. There’s such a wide variety of jobs we do. But I also really love the greater labour movement and some of the experiences I’ve had meeting union activists from, not just Nova Scotia, but right across the country. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to get the word out about labour councils. Getting to meet other trade unionists is so helpful even when I just go back to my own local.


SM Getting that broad perspective for everybody from a university professor to someone who works for the city or the education system or health care or the private sector, there’s just a range of experiences. How interesting working people’s lives are! But also how the diversity of those experiences lends itself to a really rich movement.


MO Would you give us a little synopsis of what a labour council is?


SM Absolutely. A labour council is a delegated body made up of union delegates of different union locals around a certain geographic area. In our case it’s Halifax, Dartmouth, basically the HRM area. There’s also three other labour councils at the moment in Nova Scotia. There’s one in the industrial Cape Breton area, one in the South Shore, and one in the Valley area. A couple of generations ago there would have been many more labour councils across the province, but, due to things like union density and the changing nature of employment in our communities means that some of that terrain has shifted a bit.


MO There definitely has been a move from rural communities to urban communities and that has had an impact. My mother, for instance, lives down the Eastern Shore. The change in demographic and who lives down the Eastern Shore has shifted and changed and industry has changed and it’s had an impact on the labour movement in general.


SM Absolutely. I should say that any opportunity that union members have to be able to work with each other and work across different unions is really valuable. And so, in any community where such an opportunity already exists in the form of a labour council, it’s such an asset for that community.


MO And that’s one of things I wanted to mention – the other labour councils. We are a province-wide union. The great thing is, as a NSGEU member, every local within the HDDLC Region has three delegates, is it?


SM Yeah. Three delegates is the bare minimum that everyone gets, and then you get an additional delegate for every 100 members. I would have to actually look at our delegation forms, as I don’t always have that info off the top of my head, but your union local automatically gets three delegates and most union locals also have many more than that, so there’s lots of room for involvement, so if your local has a few people that are really keen for a certain kind of involvement that labour council might be go for, there’s opportunity to get involved.


MO I [wanted to let people know] you could go to your local meeting and let them know you are interested in going to a labour council meeting. And with the [NSGEU] convention coming up, everybody’s going to have a triennial meeting to elect all new delegates for things like regional council, occupational council, labour council, and the executive, so I wanted to put it into people’s minds. As I delegate myself, I know it’s a really good opportunity, and I don’t think enough people are coming out to labour councils and I want to encourage people to come out and meet us!


SM Absolutely. A lot more activists would certainly be welcome. Even if a member wants to observe a meeting and see what it’s all about, we welcome any union member into the room as a guest. If that person is really excited, they can go back to their local, discuss it with the executive and see about delegating someone. Each local, each union, has a diffrerent process for selecting delegates, and it’s up to them who they send, of course.


MO In my local we hold an election. I was the only person who ran, but I’m hoping to get a few other people. I do have a lot on my plate, I do a lot, and it was one of the things I was a little wary about committing to, but I showed up (I went to a few meetings before I was officially a delegate and I appreciated the opportunity to go and observe and take part in the conversations) and it helped to know this was what I wanted to get involved with. I really encourage people to get out and go if there is a loabour council in your area. How would you find out about when these meetings are?


SM We have a Facebook page. You can search Halifax Labour on Facebook, or you can type in Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, but Halifax Labour will give you the same result and you’ll see our Facebook page. All the information is there. We always meet the second Wednesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. at 3700 Kempt Road in Halifax. Our meetings are always then unless there’s a snowstorm or whatever.


MO Labour council is interested. It falls under the umbrella of the Canadian Labour Congress, doesn’t it?


SM Absolutely, yes. This is the part where I wish I had a diagram I could show people, which is not suitable for a podcast, but the easiest way I can describe this is that it’s the local version of the labour centrals. We have, at the federal level, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). At the provincial and territorial level we have the federations of labour. And then at the local/municipal level we have our labour councils. It’s like the three levels of government in Canada: municipal, provincial, and federal. The labour centrals are like that as well.


MO Labour councils tend to work on things at that municipal level as well, right? So if there’s say an election going on you may do some political action, like, who are the candidates running and are they labour friendly, because that’s important on a municipal level as well, isn’t it? Who you vote into city council or county council?


SM Absolutely! And that actually brings us to one of my favourite projects on the labour council level. About a decade ago a lot of folks in the labour movement realized there’s not a whole lot of attention on the municipal level of politics, but that’s also where a lot of leadership capacity is developed. We alsways want to elect progressive people at the provincial and federal level, but we don’t always have the capactiy to really get them started, start building profiles in their commmunities to make a first time provincial or federal run successful. Also, the decisions that are made on a municipal level are also the ones that most immediately effect us.


MO Absolutely. Who’s collecting your garbage, who’s clearing your snow. Just all those day to day issues.


SM Exactly. So the first time I was involved in a municipal level campaign for the labour movement was with the Cape Breton District Labour Council. The first one the council ran was in 2008, just before my time, but the next round of elections that came up I was involved in. The campaign was called municipalities matter. It was developed by the CLC for labour councils to use across the country to get progressive labour friendly councillors elected. We engaged in a process both of trying to recruit progressive people to run, people who were up-and-coming labour activists who were starting to be interested in the idea of public life were really encouraged to run, and we developed a survey. At the municipal level there’s no real restriction on who can run. No one is holding the gates closed. It’s a more accessible level of political office for a lot of people. You don’t have to fund-raise huge amounts of money, although, if you’re running for mayor that can get quite expensive. People have run and won council elections with a very small budget and a couple of people helping out.


MO I always want to encourage people to think critically and get out and vote on those elections, because voter turn out is pretty dismal often. And it has such a direct impact on our lives.


SM It’s so important! So we developed a survey to ask candidates where they stood on certain key issues, for example, contracting out and public/private partnerships are really big on the municipal level, so we wanted to get a sense of where candidates stood on that. And green jobs on the local level – where they saw potential for that. Where they stood on tax revenue – the finances of a municpality. There’s a lot of push for tax fairness for municipalities. There’s a lot of unevenness with how municipalities are funded and the services they are expected to cover, so our tax dollars don’t always make it to municipalities. Also trying to get a progressive take on that stuff.


MO And you amde those surveys available to people when they were looking to vote, didn’t you?


SM Exactly.


MO I know that is the type of information that I, as a voter, want to have. I want to know where do the people running my city, my municipality, where do they stand on things like are they going to build a stadium or are they going to build affordable housing. It’s one of those things, I want to ask those questions, having a survey, or going to labour council and heaving these discussions, I find it very helpful.


SM Exactly. I think it was also helpful for a lot of union members to see in plain language and in plain print where municipal candidates stood on the issues. Through this process some people came out of the woodwork as labour-friendly candidates that would never have been on our radar. We were able to identify those people and encourage folks to give them donations and support. This last round in Halifax we were able to engage in a little bit of campaign training for some of the candidates that we identified. Our endorsed candidates, like Lindell Smith was one that we identified as being labour friendly and so was Lisa Blackburn, and so we were able to get to know the labour movement a bit better. It established a line of communication for when they got in office.


MO Yeah, somebody can say something when they’re campaigning, but when they get into office, things can change. It’s a good way to have a line of communications to hold them accountable.


SM Through this I want to give a shout-out to Mark Cunningham, the former president of CUPE Local 108, the outside workers in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). Throughout the last municipal election here in Halifax he showed such leadership in terms of the issues and where Canada stood. Especially when it come to out-sourcing. One of his big issues was the snow removal. Most of that is contracted out, so it’s really hard for that service to be done effectively and also in a way that’s accountable. If the city is able to say — it’s not our responsibility if the street isn’t done well, we’ll just go with a different contractor next time — the reality is that doesn’t work.


MO And that’s not something that’s unique just to the HRM. I’m sure that’s something people are seeing in cities right across the province.


SM Absolutely. The value of keeping services in-house with workers taht are paid a living wage and do work that is of decent quality is such a big thing. But with municipalities being crunched for funds, the pressure to out-source is constantly present.


MO Yeah, privatization and contracting-out is such a huge issue. Obviously that’s something you’re working on witht he labour council. What are some of the other things you’re working on?


SM I’m so glad you asked that. One of the things I’m most pround of is our Mayworks Festival.


MO Yeah, we’re going to have Sebastian on and do a podcast all about Mayworks.


SM It’s such a wonderful project, and as folks will hear from Sebastien it’s our tenth anniversary for this festival here in Halifax. An easy way for members to become involved is to go to a Mayworks event. There are a lot of free events and the ones that require a ticket purchase are reasonably priced.


MO And I think it’s conveniently falls within convention time, so members from right across the province will have an opportunity. I’m really looking forward to the interview with Sebastian!


SM And, of course, sponsoring the festival is something locals can do. Every little bit of a donation helps keep the festival affordable.


MO Anything else you’re working on? You do some work around raising the minimum wage, don’t you?


SM Absolutely. We’re very active in the fight for fifteen, which also involves a number of different groups and individuals in the community. We have a very active fight for fifteen student campus chapter here in Halifax. That’s a campaign any labour council can pick up and run with, and any union as well.


MO It’s a province-wide issue to have meaningful work that pays you a wage you can live on. That’s vitally important. They keep saying unemployment is down, but how much of that work is actually jobs that pay a living wage?


SM Exactly. And I have to give a shout-out tot eh Canadian Centre for Policiy Alternatives for crunching a lot of the numbers on this issue, but there are so many workers in this province that make below $15/hour, which means there’s less economic activity in our communities. It effects everybody.


MO Absolutely. You look at numbers that recently came out, Nova Scotia has the highest rate of child poverty, and that’s something that could help fix that. It’s something we need, especially in rural Nova Scotia. Having a $15/hour wage, it’s not like that money [will get spent on big ticket items], we’re probably going to be buying groceries and spending the money within our communities.


SM Exactly. This is a provincial issue, but it alos has a really important local community-base aspect to it that makes it perfect for labour council involvement, because each of us are not just defined by our work places. We send our kids to school, we partake of all of the different aspects of a community in terms of recreation, school, work, home, play, all aspects of life.


MO There has been a demonization of unioin members as people who make a lot of money and get benefits but don’t do anything, when the reality is we have union members who are not making huge amounts of money. And there’s value in our work. A lot of those jobs, especially once you get outside the HRM, those are the decent paying jobs where you can actually put money back into the community, It’s vital that the labour movement stays strong in small municipalities.


SM Yes, and the fight for fifteen campaign in particular is an opportunity for union activists to develope relationships and build solidarity with workers who don’t have a union yet.


MO There’s almost like there’s this race to the bottom, like [they’re saying] I don’t have it, why should you have it? When really, it should be, we’re union members, we should help to bring people up. That’s how so many things like maternity leave and weekends [are reality] because of the labour movement. Nova Scotia has such a rich, strong history in the labour movement.


SM Yeah, and picking up the torch helps in the mean time and honours that history. We’re here today with good union jobs, those of us that have them because of the struggle of generations of workers past. Honouring that struggle means that we work to secure more rights for workers in the here and now.


MO And that’s one of the things about labour council I do love and the labour movement in geneal is that feeling of solidarity. If something’s happening in my local and I go out on strike I know there are going to be members of other locals and from [outside NSGEU as well as the labour council], I’m sure you’ll be there and people from other unions will show up, march the picket lines, and give that solidarity. We have to look beyond just ourselves.


SM Exactly. Something as when a union local is on strike, having a place where people can share information and coordinate support is a small thing, but also a big deal to be able to do that. That kind of thing is easier to do when there’s a labour council there for people to take advantage of.


MO Thank you so much for coming. We’d love to have you back again some time. Anything else you want to mention before we finish up?


SM We hit everything we wanted to talk about, so we can end it here.


MO Thank you! I really encourage people get involved with their labour council. Here are some links for the various NS Councils:


Thank you eveybody for listening. Be sure you subscribe so you don’t miss any upcoming episodes. Talk to you soon.

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