NDP leader addresses Steelworkers conference
Although provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath agrees the province needs to tackle its $13 billion deficit, she said it must be done without attacking the rights of workers.
“You can't have a thriving economy if people aren't earning decent wages and if people don't have jobs to go to,” she told reporters after giving a speech at the Steelworkers Hall in Sudbury Sept. 17.
“How can you keep a community thriving if nobody has an income to be able to spend in the local economy?”
It's a message which resonated with the 350 Steelworkers members from Ontario and Atlantic provinces gathered at the venue for the union's annual district 6 conference, which runs Sept. 17-19.
The union is a traditional supporter of the NDP.
After watching a video featuring members of the NDP caucus, union members clapped along to the strains of BTO's "Takin' Care of Business" as Horwath was led to the stage. Parts of her speech were met with cheers from the audience.
Horwath said she's “honoured and humbled” by the Steelworkers' ongoing support. “It also puts the fire under my feet to ensure I deliver for you each and every chance I get,” she said.
The people of Ontario have a chance to choose whether they're going to rise to the challenges they're facing “or get swamped by them,” Horwath said.
“We can choose the status quo, where everyday folks are asked to take on more and more of the burden, or we can take a more balanced approach,” she said.
“We can choose to believe that Ontario's best days are long gone, destined for decades of decline, and we can start making reckless cuts, or we can actually put faith in the people who make our province work every day. I've got to tell you, I put my faith in people like you.”
The Liberal government offered former Kitchener-Waterloo Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer the head job at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Horwath said.
They did this so a seat would be vacated, and the Liberals would have the chance to gain a majority government in a by-election. Instead, the NDP's Catherine Fife won the election.
Horwath said recent legislation passed by the province to impose a contract on the teachers was just a ploy to get voters on their side so they could win the by-election.
“They tried to create a crisis in education, claiming the school year is at risk, even as teachers continue to bargain,” she said. “Even after they said they were ready to take that wage freeze, they pulled out every trick in the book.”
The NDP has plans to tackle the deficit which won't hurt the average worker, Horwath said.
She spoke about some of the measures the NDP were able to negotiate with the Liberals last spring, including cancelling corporate tax cuts and implementing a new tax on those making more than $500,000 a year.
The Liberals had been ignoring revenue-generating measures such as these, Horwath said.
“What was true back in Grade 3 math remains true in life,” she said. “If you ignore half of an equation, you get the wrong answer.”
Horwath said she has a number of other ideas she'd like to see implemented as well. This includes tax incentives for companies who invest in their plants and hire workers and ensuring the province's natural resources are processed here.
“We want to see a stop to the giveaways to companies that pull up stakes and move somewhere else, or lay off swaths of workers after they've gotten support from the Ontario government,” she said. “That doesn't work.”
Touching on a subject that's near and dear to the Steelworkers' heart, Horwath said her party is supportive of efforts to strengthen worker safety.
That includes launching an inquiry into mining practices in the province. The union requested such an inquiry in the wake of the deaths of Jason Chenier and Jordan Fram at Vale's Stobie Mine last year.
While the government pays lip service to keeping workers safe, “they're not serious about health and safety,” Horwath said.
“A good way to get to the bottom of what's happening is to have that kind of inquiry,” she said. “It provides not only an in-depth analysis, but a series of recommendations.”
During a media scrum after her speech, a reporter remarked that it almost seems like the NDP leader is on the campaign trail.
Horwath replied that there's a minority parliament in Ontario, “so it's always important to be clear about what you'd do differently.”
Wayne Fraser, the Steelworkers' district 6 director, said he was excited to have Horwath speak at the conference. “She's going to be the next premier of this province,” he said.
Union members will spend the next few days talking about ways to reduce the inequality in society and increase union density.
“Part of the inequality agenda is to weaken unions and to take the power away from workers so the one per cent get richer and richer and stronger and stronger,” Fraser said.
“One of the steps to equalize the inequality is to have more union density. Unions don't sit there. They work to increase the quality of life for their membership. It's an instrument that helps workers. What other instrument does that?”
He said the Steelworkers have about 200,000 members in the country right now, which is somewhat less than it used to be. “It's gone down a bit, but we're organizing and bringing new members into our union every day.”
Steelworkers international president and Sudbury native Leo Gerard was also at the conference. He said these conference are a good chance for union activists to build solidarity and develop a plan for the future.
Gerard said he thinks the union's plan should be to convince the government that strong union representation actually creates jobs.
“We need to build solidarity to get government to understand you need to create jobs,” he said. “The way to create jobs it to create consumers. The way to get consumers is to have trade unions that bargain decent wages and living standards.”
The labour movement has been “madly maligned” and was blamed for the recession, Gerard said.
“But the economic mess we're in wasn't caused by working people,” he said. “That economic mess was caused by economic greed and the powerful people on Wall Street and Bay Street and Fleet Street.”