The Labour Education Centre (LEC) in Toronto is passionate about how unions and communities should come together to respond to the current economic crisis and how it is affecting their communities and organizations. On June 8-10, Highlander and the LEC co-sponsored a conference in Toronto entitled “Connecting Struggles, Movement Building.” The organizers and facilitators for the event included an amazing group of Toronto area educators and organizers as well as Jojo Geronimo, a member of the LEC staff and the Highlander Board; Susan Williams, Coordinator of Highlander’s Education Team; Elandria Williams from Highlander’s Education Team; Deborah Rosenstein, a Labor Educator at the University of Minnesota; and Rosalyn Woodward Pelles, a member of the Highlander Board and Director of the Civil, Human & Women’s Rights Department of the AFL-CIO.
Participants at the “Connecting Struggles, Movement Building” Conference;
The conference was an incredible three-day gathering of a diverse group of over 100 people including representatives from unions and central labour bodies, migrant workers centers, workers’ action centres for people without jobs, neighbourhood groups and social justice organizations, and progressive academics.
In the face of the current economic melt-down, very immediate organizing struggles energized the event: demands for training and adjustment services for laid off workers; campaigns for reform of Employment Insurance and for good jobs and fair wages; organizing for the rights of temporary and contingent workers and all migrant workers, like those in domestic and agricultural employment; and neighbourhood, housing and anti-poverty groups organizing to meet spiralling cost of living. The conference was organized around three popular education workshops:
- Worker-Activists: A Political and Collective Response to Job Loss – This workshop aimed to empower and sustain the activism of laid-off workers in their communities and unions while crafting a political and collective response to job loss. Ultimately, it aimed to create an alternative to job loss that goes beyond job search or the “training and adjustment” of workers.
- Activist Tools for Economic Literacy: (economic inequality in the age of global capital) – This workshop had three goals: 1) to develop education and organizing tools to frame the discussion of the current recession within the broader context of social and economic justice; 2) to help workers and activists shape the conversation around the economy; and 3) to empower migrant, laid off, and temporary workers as active agents of social change in the workplace and in the community. One participant said, “This workshop helped fill in gaps, there are still some missing pieces in the puzzle but I can now see the picture, not just the borders.”
- Social Justice Organizing across Communities, Campaigns and Cultures – This workshop aimed to help participants strengthen their capacity to organize and build networks and coalitions across issues and constituencies. As part of this effort, participants explored how to integrate culture into their organizing; examined the organizing implications of multiple language situations and different cultures and explored the challenges of building the capacity of unions/community groups and of nurturing union/community partnerships across cultures. This was a very powerful workshop. As one participant put it, “I have been to many workshops and come away with great information but this was the first time I got how we need to dismantle so much of what we have learned which – and rebuild with a true social justice agenda”.
Participants in each workshop were not only presented with inspiring content and practical tools, they were also challenged to “truly connect” with each other’s struggles and see how they are all interrelated. Stories, skits, singing, educational tools, tears, laughter, posters, and even supporting one group’s press conference on the second day, helped provide energy and space for sharing across very real differences that keep people from building strong alliances.
One evening during the event, the Labour Education Centre hosted a wonderful Highlander fundraiser, with music, art, and testimonials. Highlander has had contact with popular educators, researchers, labor organizers and others from Toronto for many years,, so this helped to renew some old ties and began to build new connections. Highlander folks were amazed and inspired to see a crowd of people who know of Highlander and wanted to support our work.. It was a wonderful testament to how the ideas of popular education can cross borders that often serve to keep people apart.
The conference marked the beginning of an 8-month process to support the local work of groups and encourage movement building. Support will be provided by a team drawn from practitioners, educators, and academic allies. In Fall 2009, participants will reconvene to continue their alliances by working not only on their own campaigns but also by supporting each other. In Winter Spring 2010, participants will consult with each other to share their findings/insights and to develop their own framework and action tools, using what they have learned and shared from each other and the support group. Finally, in March or April 2010, Highlander and LEC will co-sponsor a one day conference during which participants will share their experience of learning, sharing and doing. Experiences and models emerging from the program will then be compiled, published and shared during the rest of the year to continue the building of a movement for the long haul!
Pictures from the event are available here.