A local union leader is trying to revive the labour council that last operated here close to 20 years ago.
The council would draw from several unions in the region to create an organized effort when dealing with issues affecting its workers.
“It really gives us an opportunity to, sort of create an organized effort in terms of how we're dealing with different issues,” noted Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Rainy River Occasional Teachers vice-president JoAnne Formanek Gustafson who is working to create a labour council.
She told the Times if the council is formed, it would provide a stronger voice for local branches of unions when pushing back against government cuts that effect workers and service users.
Formanek Gustafson held a meeting earlier this month to gauge interest for the labour council, brainstorm ideas, and lay a path going forward.
“Right now we're just calling ourselves a labour collective because we're really not anything organized right now,” Formanek Gustafson explained.
"I had spoken too people from OPSEU [Ontario Public Service Employees Union] in Thunder Bay and people from CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] regionally and there's certainly strong interest from those groups.
“At this point, it's really a discussion about, 'Do we want to do this, and if we want to do this, how are we going to get things started?” she added.
Representatives from CUPE, OPSEU, ETFO teachers, and ETFO occasional teachers attended the meeting held by Formanek Gustafson and she said she's developed 15 more contacts from local unions she hopes to draw from for the council.
“There's actually an amazing number of 'locals' in the community," Formanek Gustafson noted. ”Some of them are very small and some of them are pretty large.
“Locals make independent decisions for their local, they have their own bylaws or constitution . . . and generally, it aligns with what their umbrella body does or has for their constitution but it doesn't have to be identical necessarily; they're autonomous,” she added.
The former labour council which operated here still has a charter which is the legal framework within which the council operates.
The charter comes through the Canadian labour congress and bylaws are created for the council, so members can determine how they want to run the group.
Formanek Gustafson told the Times part of the reason the former labour council went dormant was because of disappointments in the local NDP government, after going through the cuts made under the Harris administration.
“I think people just lost energy at that point and I think people are a little more fired up right now because we're heading back into a similar kind of mode here,” she said in reference to the current Ford government.
"I think that right now, labour doesn't have a big voice with our current MPP.
“No offence to him but I know people have been trying to get a hold of him and have a meeting with him for six months and they haven't got a call back,” Formanek Gustafson added.
Meanwhile, the labour council provides solidarity between union branches and allows them to better support each other or take public action.
Formanek Gustafson said CUPE, ETFO, and Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) workers can push back against cuts to education but without a labour council, it's difficult to compare the effects of the cuts across all the unions and determine how it affects students.
“Labour council provides an opportunity to look at all those aspects and then collectively decide how you'd like to develop awareness in the community or choose some sort of option to try to address it.”
Organized rallies or public action efforts and campaigns are some of the types of activities that could be undertaken by a labour council.
The Labour Day Picnic that was held by local unions at the point on Sept. 2 was fantastic for illustrating how the cuts to education will effect the system and students, according to Formanek Gustafson.
Moving forward she said the “labour collective” will gauge interest and see if the formation of a council is viable.
“Our first step is really getting in touch with other union folks and having them talk to us about, if we did this, what would you like to see,” she noted.
“Then if we're creating a new labour council . . . there's a lot of directions you can go: you can be political, you can be equity-minded in terms of our local community, you can do social justice work—there's a lot of different ways to do things.”
One of the potential ideas for a local labour council is to help educate younger workers on the legislation that exists to protect them, what responsibilities they have as a worker, and health and safety awareness, among other things.
Anyone interested in supporting or joining a labour council can contact Formanek Gustafson by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 275-6284.