The Key to Steelworker Longevity
The backdrop for Steelworkers’ entry on Toronto’s stage was the Great Depression, wartime mass production and postwar recovery.
As metalworking, mining and manufacturing corporations flourished at workers’ expense, existing craft unions were too fragmented and blinkered to address industry-wide problems, or those of the broader working class. Industrial unions like the CIO “Steelworker Organizing Committee” (“United Steelworkers of America” from 1942) offered fresh perspectives, organizing skills and energy. But political infighting intervened. In 1940, Canada’s Trades & Labour Congress (therefore Toronto’s Trades & Labour Council) expelled all CIO affiliates. Who, in turn, created a rival “Toronto & Lakeshore Labour Council”. Only sixteen years later was unity (sanity) restored, within today’s C.L.C.
The key to Steelworker longevity here has been STAC, our “Area Council”. The USW Constitution doesn’t acknowledge them; they don’t exist in the USA; but Area Councils became popular forums in Canada. Locals in one particular region, gathering regularly, sharing experiences, identifying common challenges, planning strategies, mobilizing members: that develops collectivity among scattered workplaces. Toronto, with over 100 bargaining units, proved an ideal setting.
The key to success – our beating heart – became the Steel Hall, 25 Cecil, built in 1972, financed by Locals themselves. “The International” – with offices for servicing staff – was a tenant, not proprietor. Which fostered STAC’s autonomy and initiative.
Besides offices of individual Locals, Cecil Street has housed (created) various member services: Lifeline, Job Action Centre, Injured Workers, Dental Clinic. Tenants have included other unions, NDP, Greenpeace, Mayworks, retirees, i-Taxi Drivers, War Resisters.
Alongside Steelworker classes and meetings, the Hall provides accommodation for workshops, assemblies and conferences of countless political, social justice and labour groups. It hosts cultural events, music and dance; it welcomes non-profits, ethnic associations, social clubs, private parties. It’s become a community resource.
It was designed to become a vibrant membership hub – for political activism, organizing, outreach to the unorganized, unemployed, injured, immigrants. The location was deliberate – near City Hall, Queen’s Park, the Ministry. A launchpad for downtown events: IWD, Day of Mourning, Pride, Labour Day.
Also, base camp for strike support, with Radio Shack, Irwin Toy, SA Armstrong and Crown Packaging among the doozies of recent decades. Multi-bus convoys departed for Ontario’s Days of Action; others to Detroit and New York. “Have Flags – Will Travel” became STAC’S motto. To fight neo-liberal globalization, we despatched major contingents to Quebec City (train), Miami (plane), Ottawa (bus) and Calgary (I forget how – hang-gliders?).
Our biggest challenge now? Decimation of manufacturing. For years, workplace closures cascaded down. Organizing became really tough. To compensate, we pivoted. Targeting new recruits: university staff, security guards, bank workers, retirement homes, hotels. That’s now two thirds of our membership. A radically different demographic. Can we stay ahead of the curve? Stay relevant to a shifting membership base? You bet.