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More than 1,000 labour and community activists packed into the Toronto Metro Convention Centre on November 22 to discuss solutions to the global financial crisis, ever-increasing inequality and environmental disaster. It wasn’t the gathering of talking experts that one might expect, but a genuinely participatory and thoroughly diverse conference that invited delegates to raise questions, debate issues and produce answers that would help reduce poverty and discrimination, create good-paying jobs and put Canada on a path of ecological sustainability.

“This conference is about bringing people together in one room to talk about a good jobs economy and a 21st century economy that is sustainable,” said Toronto and York District Labour Council President John Cartwright. “We’re creating an action plan to put pressure on governments at all levels, corporate decision makers, and those in both the public and private sectors, to say we need a commitment to good jobs for all.”

The conference was organized by the Good Jobs Coalition, an alliance of over 35 community, ecological, labour, youth and social justice groups from Toronto, who originally thought that about 700 participants would attend. Going well over the mark during the weeks leading up to the event, organizers were forced to close registrations. Even so, those who couldn’t register managed to trickle into the back of a standing-room only main hall to hear the morning speakers.

Toronto mayor David Miller started the conference by discussing the importance of green jobs, training for young workers, energy conservation and public transportation. “Good-paying jobs. A just society. That’s the goal of this conference, and it’s a goal I share,” he said. Miller added that labour unions and the recognition of Canada’s diversity are both vital components of fulfilling that goal.

Keynote speaker and executive director of the U.S. Blue Green Alliance, David Foster, agreed about the importance of the labour movement. “Union struggle is what made good jobs in the 20th century, and it will be the same that will make good, green jobs in the 21st. We shouldn’t forget that.” He also commented on the growing poverty rate in the United States and how it can threaten the financial well-being of all. “The lesson we learned from the Great Depression is that poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere,” he said.

The conference broke into six workshops that discussed issues and later reported back to the plenary. These included skills, training and professions, precarious work, community and economic development, immigration policy and labour, employment equity and public services. This is where the real debate took place and where solutions were forged. Even during the lunch break, one could see almost spontaneous group sessions breaking out in the hallways, with delegates working furiously to meet conference deadlines and scribbling down resolutions later presented to the plenary at the end of the day.

There were discussions on rights for farm workers and undocumented workers, organizing the unorganized, replacing temp agencies with a publicly-owned agency based on good working conditions and a living wage, re-investing needed funds back into social programs, including Employment Insurance, eliminating user and tuition fees for education, removing employment barriers and recognizing credentials of New Canadians, reducing the workweek, instituting fair trade, and re-tooling our economy, especially the manufacturing sector, with green technologies.

Each delegate received a booklet of background papers, one that painted a very bleak picture. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist Armine Yalnizyan, for example, noted that food bank usage has almost doubled since 1989, household debt for the average family in Canada has reached alarming levels, and the wealth gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed to a 30-year high.

These statistics might make even the most conservative of economists wonder how in the world we’re supposed to fight poverty and maintain a decent quality of life for working people when 350,000 manufacturing jobs, many of them unionized and well-paying, have been lost in Canada during the last eight years alone, and that many of those jobs have been replaced with non-union, low-wage, part-time and insecure forms of employment. One of the main questions asked at the conference was how workers could fight back against almost thirty years of neo-liberalism, free trade, zero inflation, privatization and deregulation, billion-dollar cutbacks to social programs, and attacks on unions.

“Workers are being told that the economy is in crisis and that everyone will have to get ready to tighten their belts… The problem is that there’s no more notches on the belt left!” stated keynote Deena Ladd, coordinator of the Toronto Workers’ Action Centre, to which she received an enthusiastic ovation by the 1,000-plus delegates. “We don’t need incremental change,” added David Foster. “We need massive, transformative change, and we need it now.”

One part of this change, and an issue that has very recently made a comeback in the labour movement, made an appearance at the conference: public ownership. “Nothing makes me happier than to see banks being nationalized,” said Foster, referring to the recent buyouts of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. In some of the workshops, delegates were seen clearing the dust off of public ownership and putting it forward as a means of saving one-industry towns, protecting jobs, and creating entirely new industries based on green energy and other environmentally-friendly technologies.

This brought the discussion back to social programs. As CUPE National Representative Kathy Johnson said, “Public services are the foundation of a strong economy. Until we have that foundation, instead of the fragmentation that we have now, a strong economy just isn’t going to happen.”

It was somewhat shocking to hear speakers and participants alike talk about progressive economic solutions with a kind of confidence and pride that had been absent from the labour movement and political Left for years, if not decades. The message they put forward was simple: the experiment of neo-liberalism and free market capitalism, where corporate executives were the scientific “experts” and working people the test specimens, had come face to face with its internal contradictions. It failed, and the experts were just going to have to get over it.

Proof of this failure is seen in the recent multi-billion dollar bailout packages and partial-nationalizations initiated by governments that until recently swore on the sacred bible of the market. The elephant in the room quickly noticed by delegates was that if banks and other financial institutions were being bailed out in a time of economic collapse, then why couldn’t the government intervene to create good-paying jobs, invest in sustainable forms of energy, help working people pay the rent, afford post-secondary education, transportation, and save for retirement? As one CUPE delegate noted, “the timing of this conference is impeccable.”

But in a period of economic turmoil, what happens to a society? Do people look inward and concern themselves with their own troubles, or instead look outward and work with others to create workable solutions based on solidarity and equality? Many delegates saw opportunity from the latest financial downturn. “In times of crisis, change happens,” said Kathy Johnson. “It doesn’t have to be divisive, but we have to challenge people to think differently… When trouble occurs, families come together, and communities come together.” OPSEU research officer Manzur Malik reminded others that throughout history, some of the most progressive legislation evolved out of the very worst of economic upheavals. “Just look at the New Deal and the labour activism that came out the Great Depression in the United States,” he said.

Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination were also addressed at the conference. In one of the background papers presented to delegates, Grace-Edward Galabuzi of the Colour of Poverty Network wrote about the widening racial divide. According to a United Way of Toronto report, racialized people made up almost 60% of poor families in 2001. And between 1981 and 2000, while the poverty rate declined by 28% for others, it increased 361% for members of racialized communities. The employment income of immigrant men fell from 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men in 1980 to 63 cents in 2005. And even more startling, the corresponding numbers for recent immigrant women were 85 cents and 54 cents, respectively.

Still, anti-racist activists and those struggling for the rights of undocumented workers were hopeful. “What’s amazing about this conference is that you see very diverse faces from various immigrant and refugee communities, people coming from a cross-section of Toronto,” said Sima Zerehi, who volunteers with Status Now!, a Toronto-based group that fights for the defence of non-status immigrants. “What this conference says to me is that trade unions are recognizing what immigrants and refugees have been telling us for years now, that the face of the working class is changing.”

Traditionally, relations between labour unions and environmentalists weren’t always so friendly. Before the concept of green technologies, many believed that being ecologically-sound meant the destruction of jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector. Yet both speakers and delegates at the conference confirmed that building a green economy that is environmentally sustainable isn’t only necessary for human survival, but economic renewal. “What’s exciting about this conference is that we’re hearing about the importance of green jobs from a seasoned steelworker,” said John Cartwright.

During the final plenary session, solutions put forth by the working groups were presented and the conference’s twelve-point declaration was announced in English and twelve other languages. Delegates left convention centre satisfied that a new, confident movement of working people, environmentalists and progressive organizations was taking shape and ready to challenge the failures of neo-liberalism with bold strategies and fresh ideas. As part of the declaration read, “We are living in a special moment in history. The dominant economic model of recent years is leaving many behind. We know from real experience that other ways are possible… Together we can build an economy with good jobs for all.”

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