·  Ken Neumann Speech

Ken Neumann Opening Address - USW Human Rights Conference

"Steelworkers, at our core, are human rights activists."

Ken Neumann Speaking Notes
USW National Human Rights Conference
Toronto/Hamilton - 2-3 April 2014

It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you today.

Sisters and Brothers, we are here today because, as Steelworkers, we believe in a fundamental truth.

We believe that, as Steelworkers, we are not simply trade union activists.

We know that, at our core, Steelworkers are human rights activists.

Defending human rights defines who we are. It defines what we stand for.

And we are here today because, as Steelworkers, we embrace this role.

I'm proud to define myself as a human rights activist.

I'm delighted to be here with some of the most dedicated human rights activists anywhere!

Brothers and Sisters I want to welcome you to Toronto for this exciting conference.

And I want to remind you that there is another exciting event coming to our city, that you might want to mark on your calendars.

You may have heard that, from June 20th to 29th Toronto will be hosting WorldPride 2014.

The Steelworkers were the first union sponsor of this great, international event. And I am especially proud that our union is the largest sponsor of the Human Rights Conference of WorldPride.

We will be helping to bring brave LGBT activists from countries like Russia and Uganda. These are places where you can end up in prison, or where you can be killed, if you are a member of the LGBT community, or if you dare to even speak out for basic human rights.

So I am very proud that, once again, the Steelworkers are showing that we walk the walk, when it comes to defending human rights everywhere, for everyone.

Brothers and Sisters, your commitment to human rights is inspiring. It is inspiring to feel the passion that you bring to your work.

You are passionate about your work because it doesn't simply benefit our members. Your work in defence of human rights benefits all workers, all families. It benefits our entire society.

And we can be proud of our victories and achievements. But we also know that the struggle for human rights continues.

Every day, we see how corporations and right-wing politicians want to entrench a low-wage economy in our country.

We know that this low-wage agenda is bad for working families. It's bad for young people. It's bad for our communities. It creates greater inequality.

And we know that, most of all, this low-wage agenda hurts racialized communities. We know that equality-seeking groups are the most adversely affected.

Sisters and Brothers, this is why we are here today. As the conference theme says, our fight against the low-wage economic agenda is part of our fight for human rights.

Our commitment to defending human rights goes hand-in-hand with our work for a sustainable, fair and inclusive economy, for everyone.

Brothers and Sisters, I want to recognize the crucial work that all the human rights activists in our union do to defend our members' rights.

We have Steelworkers Human Rights Committees to fight for equality at the national, district and local levels of our union.

Every year our union trains hundreds of grassroots activists through Steelworkers education programs at our national and district levels.

Steelworkers developed our own Anti-Harassment Program, so that we could fight more effectively for equality in our workplaces. And we've negotiated anti-harassment and human rights policies in our collective agreements across the country.

In Quebec, District 5 Steelworkers developed a workshop to directly address cultural diversity in our workplaces. And this workshop is now part of our union's overall Anti-Harassment Program.

And almost 25 years ago, pioneering women activists in our union launched our Women of Steel program, which has become a model for the labour movement.

Women of Steel across the country continue to train and engage other USW women to become activists and leaders in our union, in our communities and in our political system.

Through the leadership of Women of Steel, we are fierce advocates for the clear need to establish a national child care program in our country - NOW!

We are leading activists in national campaigns demanding greater resources to combat domestic violence and violence against women in all its forms.

Sisters and Brothers, when the federal Conservative government says it's not worth having a public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women in our country, you know our human rights activism is needed more than ever.

Brothers and Sisters, since we are gathered in Toronto today, I'd like to highlight a very recent victory for our human rights activism, right here in this city.

As many of you know, for several years we have been working closely with taxi workers.

Toronto taxi workers are a heavily racialized group. It's a very vulnerable, exploited, low-wage group of workers.

Many of these workers are recent immigrants, and many of them are professionals or skilled workers. But their credentials are not recognized here.

So for the last several years we have worked closely with our friends - the iTaxiworkers - for much-needed improvements to their working and living standards.

And I'm proud to say that, just in the last few weeks, we helped the iTaxiworkers achieve historic reforms to their industry.

This is a great victory because the odds were against us from the beginning. We had to fight against wealthy owners and right-wing politicians.

You will hear more about this tremendous victory later in the conference.

But let me just say that, because of the changes we fought for, frontline taxi drivers will be able to keep more of the money they earn.

These drivers won't have to starve any more when they are sick or disabled and can't work. They won't have to work around the clock to make ends meet. They'll be able to hire replacement drivers to help them out. Hundreds of new jobs will be created. And service to customers will improve.

There are still more changes and reforms needed, to improve the lives of thousands of taxi workers in this city. And taxi workers know that they can count on us, to fight with them to make these changes happen.

Sisters and Brothers, I'm proud of the leadership that Steelworkers in District 3 have taken, to establish "Aboriginal Working Groups" in our union.

This is part of our union's commitment to build our relationships with aboriginal workers and communities.

And I'm proud to say that we intend to expand our work to build these relationships, based on our shared values. Values such as sustainable development, social justice, and economic opportunity for all.

Brothers and Sisters, this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

I was raised on a family farm in Saskatchewan. Our farm was very close to a large native community, only a couple of kilometres down the road.

My family often bought fish that were caught and sold by our aboriginal neighbours.

Every year at harvest time, many of our neighbours came to work on our farm to help us harvest the crops.

So I grew up with aboriginal children. And I worked on our farm alongside aboriginal families. It was normal, as far as I was concerned.

So it was always shocking for me when I encountered racism, hate and discrimination against aboriginal people. As a youngster, I didn't understand it. As an adult, I learned that being a trade union activist was an opportunity to fight against it.

When I was a Steelworkers staff rep in Regina, one of the assignments I received one day was to help organize a plant where all the employees were aboriginal workers.

This was a small steel plant that was created with the help of the Saskatchewan government, to provide training and job opportunities for aboriginal workers.

These workers eventually realized that they needed a union to help them deal with issues with their employer. And of course, they chose the Steelworkers. And I can tell you that this group of workers not only added to the diversity of our union, they made it stronger and they made it better.

Sisters and Brothers, the Steelworkers commitment to human rights is a big reason why our union has been the leader in the fight to reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

We know this program has been failing aboriginal communities. It has been failing Canadian workers and families.

Also we know that under the Conservative government, this program has been exploiting vulnerable foreign workers like never before. We've heard of the stories of abuse.

I'm proud that Steelworkers activists in British Columbia have stepped up to help temporary foreign workers who have been brave enough to complain about the abuse.

USW activists are helping these vulnerable workers file official complaints and fight for justice.

It's our union that launched a national campaign to fix the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and stop the abuses.

And we're going to continue this fight until we get the meaningful reforms that ensure justice and opportunity for all workers.

Brothers and Sisters, Steelworkers know that we must be politically active, because what happens at the ballot box has a direct impact on workers' rights and on human rights.

That's why we volunteer on political campaigns, and why we support progressive candidates. It's why we encourage our friends, colleagues and neighbours to get involved.

Political activism is one of the most practical and effective things that all of us, as Steelworkers, can do to advance our fight for human rights and to build a better society.

This is why Steelworkers have developed such strong political alliances with the New Democratic Party, and with other social democratic allies at all levels of government.

And while I'm on this topic, I have to mention the exciting political campaign that many Toronto Steelworkers are involved in right now.

Steelworkers and progressives all across our city are mobilizing behind Olivia Chow to make sure Olivia is elected as the next mayor of Toronto!

I know I don't have to remind people in this room how much of a friend and ally Olivia has been for Steelworkers, for so many years.

I'm sure you know that, through her tireless work for social justice causes, Olivia has proven that she is a champion of working people and the disadvantaged.

And I don't need to tell you that the alternative to Olivia is not acceptable!

We have the opportunity to help elect the first woman of colour as a mayor of a major Canadian city.

So this is a very exciting campaign. And I want to remind you that you can volunteer, and donate, to help elect Olivia. And together we can finally get rid of the circus and the disaster that is the current mayor of this city!

I believe that electing Olivia also will send an important political message across the country.

It will set the stage for the federal election next year, which I believe will be the most important election in my lifetime.

Electing a progressive mayor in Canada's largest city will validate the need and the desire for change. The need and the desire for progressive government across our country.

Sisters and Brothers, I'm very proud that our Union's commitment to fighting for human rights does not stop at our borders.

It is our Union that set the standard for the labour movement when we created the Steelworkers Humanity Fund almost 30 years ago.

Over three decades, through the Humanity Fund and other programs, Steelworkers have become a global force in fighting for equality.

And we will continue to stand in solidarity with workers and communities in many countries where the fight for human rights is a daily struggle.

Brothers and Sisters, I know that during this conference, you will tackle new challenges and concepts, such as the Eco-Justice movement. This is the concept that the right to a clean environment and a green economy is a human right.

This may be a daunting challenge, but Steelworkers are not shying away from the issue.

In fact, we are working with allies such as Blue Green Canada and the Green Economy Network to move forward on these issues.

Because Steelworkers, as human rights activists, know that indigenous people and other equality-seeking groups are the most vulnerable to the serious environmental problems we face.

Sisters and Brothers, I commend you for being here to help build on the Steelworkers legacy - your legacy - as leaders in the struggle for human rights.

I know you will bring new ideas and renewed passion and commitment to your discussions on the human rights challenges we face in today's economic and political environment.

And I know that you will continue to help build a better world.

Thank you and have a great conference.

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