Q&A with Sid Ryan, outgoing Ontario Federation of Labour president

We discuss labour, legacy and future of Ontario unions

After six years as president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Sid Ryan will not seek re-election this November. But as he told us in an interview — we haven't seen the last of the labour heavyweight.

Why aren’t you seeking re-election?

There were a lot of factors. We did have unions, right from the very beginning when I got elected, that didn’t support me, and when I got elected, within a matter of weeks of assuming office, they withheld their union dues. Over time, it was grinding us down to the point where it was practically impossible to run the organization. So I asked: Does the labour movement really need two more years of this — or is there another person who can do this job as good as or better than I can? And the answer is of course; there’s a lot of people in the labour movement that could do that. It’s better for the movement.

That must have been a tough decision.

It was. I put in almost 25 years and prior to coming to the OFL, people were saying the OFL had disappeared from the radar screen — it wasn’t very active, it certainly wasn’t visible to the membership. And they wanted someone who could come in and raise the profile of the OFL. We engaged governments on policy issues and at the same time mobilized the membership around issues such as strikes, or even mobilized people around the question of minimum wage.

What was your biggest accomplishment?

Of course what fell into my lap was to deal with was the whole question of (ex-Conservative leader) Tim Hudak, when he was running for premier of Ontario. He would have destroyed labour, no question about it. It was my job, I got a mandate from the convention two years ago to mount a campaign to make sure that Hudak never got elected and that particular right-to-work agenda never saw the light of day, which is what we did. We were the only jurisdiction in North America to successfully stop the implementation of the right-to-work formula. We had 10,000 activists go into workplaces in Ontario saying that, this time around, if you vote Conservative, you’re going to be basically voting against your own self interest. And that campaign worked — Hudak didn’t get elected and resigned as leader of his party.

Any unfinished business?

Yeah we’re in the middle of it right now, which is labour law reform. I really would have loved to have been able to bring back the anti-scab legislation and card certification. Simply, if you get the majority of people in the workplace signing the cards then that should be enough to get them certified. Instead what happens now is employers get opportunities to call people into rooms and be threatened by saying, ‘We’re going to have to close down the workplace if a union comes in here.’ What happens is we end up losing those votes.

In the past you’ve called the rank and file of the labour movement its backbone. How did that affect your reign?

I’ve always been in organizations where it’s difficult to reach the grassroots of the membership because they’ve always got union leaders and executives in between the central labour body and the membership, so I deliberately went out of my way 20 odd years ago to make it a point to speak over the heads. In other words using social media, using mainstream media, to get my message out to the membership. And some folks are saying we’ve now altered and changed the way we conduct our business in the labour movement as a result.

Any advice for your successor?

Don’t let the activist agenda die. We cannot go back to being a lobbyist organization, where all we do is lobby in the back rooms. You’ve got to engage government on the big ticket items whether it be pension law reform or employment standards reform or workers’ compensation. You’ve got to reach out to the community, like the health and child care coalitions. We’ve got to bring those folks to the table and we’ve got to be championing their issues as well as our own.

Also, we don’t do a great job in the labour movement of promoting into leadership roles the folks out there that pay our union dues. When I look at the diversity of the leadership in the labour movement I don’t see it nearly as proportioned as what it should be. If 50 per cent of our union members in the Toronto region, for example, are people of colour, well then we should be seeing at least 50 per cent of the leadership as people of colour as well. And we’re not anywhere close to that. So bringing equity, or the equity agenda to the OFL, is probably something I’m most proud of, even more proud than I am of the Hudak campaign, to be honest.

I think the whole question of equity and social justice and inclusiveness is what I would prefer to be remembered by, because I sincerely believe that if we do not reach out to all of these new communities that are coming to Canada, and those that have been here for a long time — like the black community — we’re going to die on the vine. The future of the labour movement are those people. It’s those people who are in low-paying jobs, marginalized jobs, precarious jobs, some of them holding down two and three jobs — that’s who we have to reach out to. I hope they don’t let go of the work that we started.

The last piece is that we always have to be cognizant of the mobilization of the membership. When they see tens of thousands of people protesting, they’ll know you’ve got a massive movement behind you and that this is an issue that moves people — otherwise they wouldn’t be giving up their Saturday or noon hour to rally.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know exactly what is next but you are absolutely dead right — there’s no way that the labour movement or any other social justice or human rights movements have heard the last of Sid Ryan. I will not be disappearing from the scene any time soon. My voice will still be heard…I’m not ready to retire by a long shot.

This interview has been edited for length.

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