Unions are offering their support to the Canadian version of Occupy Wall Street, giving a boost to the nascent movement as activists prepare to begin their own demonstrations against corporate greed and inequality.
Canadian Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada have all endorsed the movement and said some of their members will take to the streets on Saturday.
“We are encouraging people to participate in peaceful demonstrations,” CAW president Ken Lewenza said on Friday. “The issues being fought on Wall Street and this weekend on Bay Street are issues that we have been talking about for quite some time.”
Activists say they will gather in Toronto on Saturday to highlight the gap between the wealthy few and the rest of the world. Hundreds of similar events are planned to begin in cities around the world on Saturday.
Mr. Lewenza said he doesn’t know how many people from the union will attend, but he sent a note to CAW Locals asking members to show up in force.
Canadian Union of Public Employees president Paul Moist said the union hasn’t been formally asked for support, but is working through provincial federations of labour to support the gatherings. “It seems to me that it’s natural that labour would support folks that are raising issues about the growing gap between haves and have-nots,” he said.
At a Toronto planning meeting on Thursday that attracted more than 250 people, an organizer said he had asked for the support of several local unions.
“The labour unions want to help us out,” the man said. “Do we want to accept labour’s help?” The group, which makes decisions by consensus, clapped and cheered.
In New York, a group of powerful unions joined Occupy Wall Street last week, bolstering demonstrators’ numbers and amplifying their message. And in Canada, the BC Federation of Labour announced earlier this week it would lend formal support to protesters in Vancouver who plan to convene near the city’s art gallery on Saturday.
But some protesters and union leaders have expressed concern that the labour movement’s participation could overpower other protesters.
Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, has encouraged union members to attend the event, but said the OFL won’t send busses or get involved in organizing. “We’re very conscious about barging in and saying ‘the labour movement is here and we’re taking over,’ “ Mr. Ryan earlier in the week. “We want to be respectful of their decision-making process.”
On Friday, the OFL called on Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack and other police forces to respect protesters’ rights and avoid using confrontational policing tactics such as tear gas, mass arrests and rubber bullets.
“I’m hoping that there will be a different set of orders going out to the police officers to be mindful of what happened at the G20 and how quickly it can all get out of control,” Mr. Ryan said, referring to last summer’s protests during the G20 summit.
Toronto Police say they have a plan for handling the demonstration, but declined to offer details. “We have a consistent record of facilitating lawful protest and we would certainly like to do that again,” spokesman Mark Pugash said earlier this week.
Two unions said they will each bring a busload of activists to the Toronto event. CUPE Local 966, which represents Region of Peel municipal workers, will drive union members and community activists to the protest Saturday morning, and the SEIU, which represents healthcare workers in Ontario, is sending a bus of its own to the event and said they will offer food, cooking facilities and first-aid training.
Farshad Azadian, who is part of the Toronto protest’s loose group of organizers, said he’s glad to see the unions taking part.
“I’m sure many of the young people and workers involved are enthusiastic and encouraged by this,” he said on Friday. “It tremendously strengthens the movement.”
Other organizations taking part include the Canadian Peace Alliance and the Council of Canadians.
Occupy Toronto protesters are meeting on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the corner of King and Bay Streets. They say they will set up camp in a public space nearby, but have so far declined to release the location out of concern police will block the area off in advance.