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There is a huge opportunity to change the channel

An interview with Danny Cavanagh, newly elected president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour

by Robert Devet

Danny Cavanagh, the new president of the NS Federtion of Labour, talks about his plans for the future. Photo Robert Devet
Danny Cavanagh, the new president of the NS Federtion of Labour, talks about his plans for the future. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) - In late October Nova Scotia Federation of Labour (NSFL) convention delegates elected Danny Cavanagh as their new president.

The Federation, with representation of almost all Nova Scotia unions, is the central voice for Nova Scotia workers. The NSFL supports individual unions in their battles with employers, and takes action when issues arise that affect all workers in Nova Scotia.

Cavanagh, long-time president of CUPE Nova Scotia, was elected on an ambitious platform. He wants to build a more cohesive and energetic Federation, to push for new Labour Councils across the province, and to extend the membership of affiliated unions.

He also promises to support students, injured workers, and groups that fight poverty, discrimination, and environmental degradation.

Last week the Halifax Media Co-op met with Cavanagh to get to know him a bit better, and to talk about his plans for the Federation.

The person

One of the first jobs I had, after I got married and when I was still quite young, was digging graves, working 44 hours a week for minimum wage. After that I worked for a landscaping outfit for a bit. Then somebody suggested I get a job with the Town of Truro, and I got involved with the union there almost right away.

Workers there had essentially never filed a grievance, so I did some work there, and over the years I held almost every leadership position in CUPE Local 734. Then our Local got more involved in CUPE Nova Scotia, I started attending the conventions, one thing leads to another.

I also got involved in doing literacy work. Any member that wanted to be certified for provincial certification for water treatment, water distribution, those kinds of things. We started a workplace education program where people got their GED (high school equivalency diploma) and then got certified.

New energy

We want to get Labour Councils going in Yarmouth, in Amherst, in New Glasgow, all places where there were Labour Councils before. I was president of the Labour Council in Truro for a long time. There is no Labour Council in Truro now, but we need to rebuild and do that kind of work. I already started to make contacts and have those conversations.

We need to do more work with injured workers groups. We are going to pull a meeting together with them and see if we can get things working better. If people get injured we need to make sure that they are supported and that they do not end up living in poverty.

I think we can do lot more actions in smaller communities where we get 25 or 50 people out, and when other people start seeing those things happen then they want to get more involved.

There is a huge opportunity to change the channel, both with union members and the general public. This province is not as bad off as the government would like us to believe. We need to do some educating around that.


There will always be disagreements among unions to some extent. Last year's fight against Bill 1 is a good example. But let's not forget, there was unity in the beginning, and there was unity when we came out of it at the the end, after Dorsey was fired multiple times. Thanks to that unity, the unions solved that entire mess that the government created in just 10 days. And there still is unity today.

Each union in these situations is going to do what they have to do, which is what's best for their membership. We need to respect that, and that's the message I gave to our members at the time. We need to understand that there are going to be hurdles, and that unions have autonomy to do what's best for their members.

Getting the Federation to grow

I hate to be repetitive, but it's a matter of talking to people, letting them know what the Federation has to offer, show them that there is a positive change, and hopefully they will come on board.

Every union worker in the province needs to understand that we're all in the same boat, we all need to row in the same direction, and the more unions are affiliated the better that is for everybody.

Over the next few months we will try to meet with those unions that are unaffiliated. The Teachers Union was there in the meetings with the Finance minister, and we need to talk about affiliation and about working together. The teachers were with us in other campaigns. I am confident that when all is said and done we will have more unions affiliated than we have ever seen before.

Supporting social movements and inclusion

I'd like to talk with these groups, better understand the issues they are facing, and how we can work with them. We have to do that kind of work. Those are struggles that will still be with us long after I'm gone, but we all have to do what we can to raise these issues and educate people.

Their problems are everybody's problems. People forced to work two jobs, people who don't get medical benefits, no pensions. People should not have to choose between buying medication or heating oil or food. That's not the kind of society we want. We're better than that.

Upcoming battles

I don't know what we are in for. But I am proud of how well the affected unions actually get along. You don't necessarily have that in all other provinces. That's a huge advantage that we have here.

The province needs to stop coming to the table and holding a gun to people's heads. It would be so much better if we sat down and had a meaningful discussion on how we can work together. But if the province wants to play hardball then we will play hardball back.

If only the provincial government were a bit more proactive. For instance, investing in early learning and childcare would have huge benefits for the economy. If people were to spend 10 percent of their income buying from local suppliers and producers, the economic benefits would far exceed the benefits of Ship Starts Here. Yet all the government talks about is austerity, confrontation and privatization.

How can there be such a contrast between what Justin Trudeau is saying about how austerity doesn't work, how it doesn't hurt to have a deficit, and how we need to build more infrastructure, and Stephen McNeil who is going in an entirely different direction? It just doesn't make sense.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter  @DevetRobert



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