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Biography & Autobiography Political

A Grander Vision

My Life in the Labour Movement

by (author) Sid Ryan

foreword by Gerry Adams

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2019
Political, General, Labor & Industrial Relations
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A stirring, heartfelt manifesto written by a man who fervently believes in what workers with their civil society allies can achieve for the good of all.

Sid Ryan, one of Canada’s most courageous and progressive union leaders, draws on the experience of his varied and colourful life to show what is right with the labour movement, what is wrong, and what has to change if it is to avoid becoming irrelevant.

In A Grander Vision, Ryan calls for the adoption of social movement unionism, in which labour forges an alliance with other progressive elements in civil society, taking up the cause of young people, precarious workers, and immigrants. Ryan asserts that a renewed commitment to the NDP — the party that was built by unions — is necessary and that the Leap Manifesto should become the pillar of the movement in Canada.

About the authors

Sid Ryan served three terms as the president of the Ontario Federation Labour, where he represented over one million workers. Previously, he had served eight terms as president of CUPE Ontario and general vice-president of CUPE National for seventeen years. He lives in Whitby, Ontario.

Sid Ryan's profile page

Gerry Adams' profile page

Excerpt: A Grander Vision: My Life in the Labour Movement (by (author) Sid Ryan; foreword by Gerry Adams)

Quebec City, April 2001

I knew there was a chance that there would be some kind of confrontation — maybe even violence — but I would never have guessed the melee would be so fitting. The toughs who blocked our path tried to make us turn to the right. We knew the road to the left was the way to go. It was perfectly symbolic.

The incident occurred at the Summit of the Americas in April 2001. I was pretty sure the burly men trying to thwart our demonstration were union members, and their interference, sadly, indicative of a fissure in the labour movement that I had struggled with throughout my years as a union leader. The things that divided us were complicated, but the effects of the rift were simple: it distanced us from our philosophical roots and from our members; and it made us less effective — or worse — against an opponent that wasn’t divided at all.

The Quebec City summit was one in a series of high-level meetings convened over a period of years by corporations and politicians to tie nations together in a web of global trade agreements. For Canada it started with the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which morphed into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and, more recently, the Canada–European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), but the beginnings can be traced back much earlier.

In 1989 John Williamson, an economist at the Institute for International Economics, came up with a list of principles that, he claimed, represented the common wisdom within institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He called it the “Washington Consensus.” This so-called consensus calls for deregulation in the financial and environmental spheres, privatization of state-owned assets, free trade in goods and services, reduction of taxes for corporations, and unfettered movement of capital. These objectives were aimed initially at Latin American nations in financial trouble and were applied with disastrous consequences in other parts of the developing world.

The recession of 1981–82, combined with an increase in interest rates engineered in Washington to curb runaway inflation, caused a worldwide trade slowdown that hit export-dependent developing countries, especially in Latin America. Governments in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that were flush with petrodollars from the dramatic surge in oil prices were only too happy to invest their money in sovereign debt. However, these debts were short-term. When the recession hit, the creditor nations refused to renew the loans. They called in their debts and the shock waves reverberated throughout the region.

First Mexico and then other countries caught up in the crisis were forced to turn to the IMF and the World Bank to bail them out. The World Bank and IMF were supposedly set up to alleviate and reduce world poverty, but the remedies they offered only did further damage. As a condition of receiving bailout money, debtor nations had to agree to a set of measures referred to as a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). The SAP looked a lot like the remedies described in Williamson’s Washington Consensus. In practice, they amounted to little more than theft. Public assets were sold to foreign investors at fire-sale prices. Argentina’s airline and railway systems were practically given away. The price of debt relief included not only privatization, but also deregulation and the erosion of workers’ rights.

Bolivia’s situation was similar, only worse. The country’s Indigenous population, having lived for years under a brutal dictatorship, was governed by a white ruling class of European descent based mostly in the cities. When the debt crisis erupted, the country’s white rulers readily accepted the terms imposed by the IMF and World Bank, the harsh effects of which were felt mainly by the Indigenous people. Public assets, including the railway, telephone, water, and sewage systems, were privatized, along with the airline industry and the provision of healthcare and education. Wages for public-sector workers were reduced, labour laws were eliminated, corporate taxes and tariffs were lowered, and subsidies for Bolivian industry ended. At the same time, the government agreed to expedite the extraction and export of raw materials, a measure benefiting foreign companies rather than local ones. But their biggest blunder was the privatization of the Cochabamba water system, given to the U.S. engineering giant Bechtel Corporation. Cochabamba erupted with riots on the street, and eventually the government was forced to cancel the contract. Evo Morales, a cocoa farmer and congressman, emerged from the “water wars” to become the president of Bolivia in 2006.

Bolivia and Argentina are just two examples of sovereign Latin American nations’ economies the World Bank and the IMF took control over. The same policies set out in the Washington Consensus and SAP became the principles that found later expression in the free trade agreements negotiated by the United States with partners around the world. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States used the IMF, WTO, and World Bank to export its free-market ideology across continents. Globalization was becoming a reality.

NAFTA was signed early in 1994 despite resistance from unions and civil society. By the end of that year, at the First Summit of the Americas in Miami — at which all thirty-four countries of North and South America together with the Caribbean countries, with the sole exception of Cuba, were represented — the United States was floating the idea of a hemispheric free trade agreement. This became known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Over the next seven years little or no public discussion of the proposal occurred, but behind the scenes about a dozen multinational committees met regularly to figure out how such an agreement would work. Then president George W. Bush announced that the FTAA would be the focus of discussion at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.

Early in 2001 I called together CUPE Ontario’s International Solidarity Committee (“CUPE” being the Canadian Union of Public Employees) to develop a campaign to fight the FTAA. Edgar Godoy would coordinate the campaign and work closely with CUPE Ontario’s executive director, Antoni Shelton. I appointed Stella Yeadon to head up the communications strategy.

The proposed FTAA agreement would bind all thirty-four signatory countries to terms modelled on those incorporated in NAFTA. During the run-up to the summit, word leaked that the terms included the Chapter 11 provisions of NAFTA, giving investors in one country the right to sue other governments that pass laws or regulations seen to restrict their ability to profit from their investments. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had expressly denied that these provisions would be part of the deal and was chagrined when Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians exposed his dirty little secret. She used the revelation to demand the full text of the FTAA document be placed before the Canadian public.


Editorial Reviews

Sid Ryan, in his usual style, has written a no holds barred political biography mostly about his time as President of CUPE and the OFL. An inside account of the most important battles of the labour movement and within the labour movement, A Grander Vision not only looks at some of the most important political battles of the last few decades, it also provides ideas for building a strong united social movement of trade unions in alliance with community groups."

Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head

Sid Ryan is a pit bull for justice and his book reads like an action novel! Sid has had an extraordinary life and it comes alive in this fast-paced insider’s story of the most important union battles of our time.

Maude Barlow, honorary chairperson of the Council of Canadians

I rarely agreed with Sid, but never doubted his sincerity, and — as readers will discover — his courage to stand by his principles against both friend and foe.

Claire Hoy, columnist and author

Sid Ryan’s unapologetic commitment to the class struggle at home, and social justice internationally, made him a controversial union leader. That controversy will be stoked by his readiness to expose weaknesses in the movement that was such a fundamental part of his life. But here too he is unapologetic, rightly convinced that honest self-examination is fundamental to the working class reaching its potential as a social force.

Sam Gindin, author and former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers Union

No mushy middle for Sid Ryan! This is a great read, looking back at decades of bold and principled labour leadership in partnership with community, dedicated global solidarity, and a powerful call for social movement unionism to lead the struggle against inequality and climate change – a vision for a world of social, economic and environmental justice.

Svend Robinson, former NDP Member of Parliament