Why Unions Should Engage in Political Campaigns

As a Member Organizer with the Canadian Freelance Union, I was part of a Unifor member-to-member campaign during the three weeks leading up to the provincial election in Alberta on April 16. Our duties included communicating with Unifor members across the province in person, on the phone, and, in the final days prior to the election, via text messages We were asking members to take a pledge to vote in the election, as well as answer questions about issues affecting working people in Alberta.

One of the questions I got a number of times during the campaign was, “Why would a union be involved with politics?” That is a very good and legitimate question. Here are some reasons why:

  • At their heart, unions are organizations that are trying to affect the power balance in the workplace. We are trying to make the boss, or clients in our case, to be more even with us the workers. This power play often finds itself playing in the larger society during elections. We as workers need to ensure that those representing our districts are also representing our interests.
  • The labour movement has always been rooted in social justice. That's why it advocates for things like fair working conditions, hours and wages. The actions of the ruling political party can affect healthcare, education, housing, and other public programs. These issues affect union members and society at large.
  • Government makes policies. Policies affect people – this includes working people, like our union members. It falls within the purview of union representatives to form political positions based on a careful examination of what current and prospective political candidates and parties are communicating with regard to issues affecting workers. It also follows that union representatives would seek to communicate such positions to members. The ultimate choice of who to vote for, of course, still rests with the member.
  • The labour movement, like any social movement, requires the active participation of its members in order for it to be successful. It's a microcosm of society. And voting is a way to be an active citizen. Even if someone doesn't vote in their best interests, individually or collectively.
  • The party in power impacts the direction of labour and social movements. A progressive government should ideally result in the ability for the labour movement to work for positive changes, rather than always being on the defensive - as is often what happens when a regressive party is leading government.

While the Alberta election did not go the way we hoped, the member-to-member campaign made a difference. I believe it helped contribute to the record number of advanced poll voting (over 700,000), as well as voter turnout in general (over 70%). It allowed us to connect with many in our membership to discuss issues affecting workers in light of current events. Initiatives like this can help labour activists in mobilizing members around issues and lead to a more involved membership.

Paula E. Kirman is a Member Organizer with the Canadian Freelance Union.

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