GSWS Students

Riding the Waves

November 04, 2019

On a hot Tuesday evening, my partner arrived for dinner with tears in her eyes. It had been rainless in Vancouver for weeks now, which was in no way normal or healthy for the climate of the Pacific Northwest. Earlier in the day she had read about the confirmed death of a pod of resident killer whales she’d been following for years and, most of all, she felt hopeless about the state of combative partisan politics with the Canadian federal election approaching.

She was frustrated. She felt like she ought to be doing something more actively, both in her career and her spare time, towards engaging people on the issues of the climate crisis and other forms of global injustice. She spoke about wanting to work against the divisiveness of Liberal, Green, and NDP voters who all share threads of overlap in ideology. My roommate piped in “we need to address the insidious strength of capitalism and consumerism if we’re going to talk about addressing the climate crisis.”

I flippantly responded to them saying I was doing my best in academia to address this ¾ that unions could be an entirely new player in addressing capitalism and consumerism. What I meant was, unions can bring people together beyond partisan political lines, to organize around bigger problems such as the strength of the 1% who are directly invested in promoting capitalist, consumerist culture.

While I was being flippant by injecting my research as part of the “solution”, I find myself coming back time and time again to that Tuesday night conversation. It was a moment when it clicked within me that the “real” goal of my project was to try to reconnect unions to their “roots” in Canada. Namely, concern for the most vulnerable, which certainly includes Mother Nature.

For context, my research elevator pitch sounds something like this: “I want to explore how effective Canadian unions are in 2019 at advocating for human rights.”  From that conversation in my living room, I realized that a significant part of my MA pursuit lies in trying to untangle partisan approaches and to look at the ways humans can organize around big picture values and ideologies.

Despite the specifics of how to combat capitalism and corporate strength in Canada, the vast majority of us are living at the brunt end of this system. Organizing within workplaces seems like a pretty good starting place. Yet Canadian unions have undeniably frustrated workers with their own bureaucracy over the years and, in many ways, they have become a study in hypocrisy.

“So, you’re basically arguing for a second wave of unionism?” my roommate said during that Tuesday night conversation.

The light bulb in my head at that point turned into a string of Christmas lights.

In the simplest of feminist theory terms, the shift from first, to second, to third wave feminism and beyond, has primarily revolved around the undoing of gatekeeping within activism. These waves have re-examined ways feminism has historically promoted the supremacy of some (white, able bodied, cisgender women) and ignored others. Similarly, there has been a shift in the LGBTQ movement from its roots in the second wave feminist movement. A shift away from centring white, posh, gays and lesbians towards recognizing the longstanding resistance of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) queer, trans, and gender nonconforming leaders in the community.

As I continue to work through my thesis project, I have kept this analogy of a second wave of unionism in my thoughts. What might this actually look like is of course a complex answer bound up in taking some theoretical tips from Marxism and certainly leaving some behind.

However, I know it will include a diversification of leadership, and an organizing of solidarity that always keeps the most vulnerable voices, bodies, and lands at the centre. There is an overwhelming amount of violent history to be reconciled within unionization in Canada and a great deal of listening and work will be required by those of us who have benefitted from the history of colonial practices within unions. Yet, like the other movements we’ve watched improve over time, I see hope and possibility in second wave unionism, which will be led by workers of colour, by queer activism, by relying on union policies invested in protecting our planet, and which will extend beyond internal fighting on “the left”.


Sarah Cibart’s MA thesis proposal was approved on October 29, 2019, and the proposed completion date for her research project is Spring 2021.