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Learning about the power of unions
By  CMG  •  Posted on  April 1, 2011

Unions at Harvard? That pricey and rarified business bastion of lawyers, privileged co-eds and future political stars? Think not? Well think again.

Harvard may be the richest University in the world; it is certainly among the most prestigious, proud of its reputation as a source of reflection, education and inspiration. Given that philosophy it is no surprise it has nurtured a unique program, bringing together great minds to examine how and why unions have become such a powerful voice for change. The program is called the Harvard Trade Union Program and is designed for people who are active in their unions.

Just as corporations, politicians, philanthropists and entrepreneurs have changed the world, so have ordinary people, mere mortals with no claim to brilliance, Swiss bank accounts or celebrity connections. Armed with a social conscience and an unshakeable idealism, we realized early on that improving the world could be our destiny if we embraced collective action. Such is the power of unions.

But sadly this year, the 100th session of this remarkable program, the focus was the unprecedented campaigns to destroy this collective global force. Ironically this surge in anti-union propaganda comes from interests in the “freedom loving” United States, (and to a lesser extent Canada, Australia, and Britain), where the average working class Jo is buying into the ludicrous idea of blaming his neighbor for earning a little more, or having a pension.

A dozen prominent professors (in law, economics, labour studies, history and sociology) form the guts of the program, another dozen Harvard and M.I.T. professors chip in, and some 60 influential thinkers, and academics (like M.I.T.’s Noam Chomsky) share their thoughts. I can’t help but brag that the heart and soul of the program today is a feisty Canadian who was once a leading NDP activist and former party president in beautiful BC. Now a tenured professor at Harvard, Elaine Bernard has lost none of her passionate support for the underdog, and the belief that only by working together can we build a fair and just society.

Being surrounded by this cumulative brainpower is inspirational to say the least, but it is also troubling to hear their take on how dangerous a time we live in, how critical it is that we speak up and fight back for unions to remain any force at all. It is sobering, even depressing to hear their predictions of what faces us if we let this escalating union busting continue. If we let American legislators get away with pummeling teachers, nurses and public servants, it is only a matter of time before like-minded politicians in Canada try it too. In fact, a newly-named federal Conservative candidate in east-end Toronto, Canadian Taxpayers Federation director Kevin Gaudet, recently told the Kingston Whig Standard that “we need a Wisconsin up here,” referring not to the spirited demonstrations but to the draconian anti-union legislation that prompted them.

Tough times will continue, and the economy is not recovering as quickly as forecast (ironically the US banks that caused the breakdown have almost to a nickel recovered their losses through victimizing taxpayers yet again).

Unions are at a crucial point, and those of us who love them for the hope, inspiration, justice, equality, respect and dignity that belonging to a union can bring into your life, must share the love. We have to take on the work our grandparents started, BUT find innovative ways to convince our colleagues that UNION is back in style, that it’s suited to Gen-Xers, Gen Ys and beyond. We all want fair and just workplaces, we all want equal access to a real job. Let’s make it happen.

Carmel Smyth is the national president of the Canadian Media Guild. You can reach her at or by calling 416-591-5333 or 1-800-465-4149

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© 2000- CMG