Review: A Grander Vison: My Life in the Labour Movement, by Sid Ryan, Toronto: Dundurn, 2019, 310 pp., $24.99 (ebook $12.99).
A review by Suzanne Weiss: It is rare to find a labour leader who not only speaks on the union’s behalf but acts in the interests of us all, on both local and global issues, with honesty, firmness, and determination. Sid’s memoir of his life in the labour movement is a fast-moving narrative of exciting events that affected the wellbeing of all working people.
His story is brimming with the excitement of union life in his native Ireland, in Ontario, and on the world stage. His moving portrayal of early life in Dublin and Belfast shows how his character was in part shaped by engagement in Ireland’s struggle against colonialism – a theme that resounds in his later activities in Canada.
First elected to leadership positions as a member of CUPE Ontario, Sid prevailed on unwilling bosses to grant esteem and protection to rank-and-file workers, displaying the loyalty to social justice that he learned from his father. Sid understood the central issue of union life: membership unity against the bosses and respect for members as contributors to changing and bettering their own conditions.
Sid’s fifth chapter, entitled, “At Home in the World,” speaks to my heart. It was in this arena that I came to know him. For Sid, “The labour movement has always had an international dimension: the injustices and inequities that unrestrained capitalism visits on workers in one country typically have analogues abroad.”
Sid believes the labour movement must not be narrow, parochial, or restricted to local issues. It is part of the world struggle for social justice. The unions must be a reflection of the social movements that fight so hard for the rights we prize as unionists.
The situation in Israel/Palestine drew Sid’s attention as a lifelong enemy of colonialism. He was in Israel when Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party “gave the green light to the building a four-hundred-mile barrier wall that would separate the West Bank from Israel and, in the process, cut deeply into prime Palestinian land.” The International Court of Justice was quoted to say that the barriers’ construction was “tantamount to annexation and impeded the Palestinian right to self- determination,” Sid states.
In 2006, five members of CUPE Ontario appealed to Sid to join them in the convention that year to support resolution 50, calling on CUPE Ontario to join the international campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to hasten the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The resolution was proposed by my friends, Katherine Nastovski, Adam Hanieh, Ali Mallah, Rafeef Ziadah, and David Kidd. Reading Sid’s account renewed my pride in having worked with these solidarity activists.
As a retired unionist, I was active in the emerging social movement in Toronto in support of Palestinian self-determination. I heard Sid describe the events at the CUPE convention that year at a forum during Israel Apartheid Week, where he recounted the whole episode. All us of there burst with joy as he reported the vigorous near-unanimous stance of 900 delegates to the CUPE Ontario convention representing 220,000 members. Sid explained how the resolution would break new ground both for the union and the BDS campaign worldwide.
Sid was well aware that he would take the brunt of denunciations from right-wing quarters of labour, and government for this bold stand. But to social activists Sid is a labour hero and an example.
Sid 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.” A Grander Vision explains how this concept has been applied, and it is truly one to inspire us all.