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Labour's New Wave Reinvents the Film Fest

Using every digital tool, CLiFF brings work-themed cinema to wherever audiences may be.

By Jamie Williams 31 May 2011 |

Jamie Williams is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Contact him by email or on Twitter.

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Lorene Oikawa, BCGEU vice-president, is on the board of the Canadian Labour International Film Festival. Frank Saptel founded CLiFF. Photo: Jamie Williams.

Picture dozens of people gathered at the bottom of a mine shaft somewhere in the Yukon. They sit side-by-side on lines of foldable chairs and intently watch a movie projected onto a large screen.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in rural Saskatchewan, a family huddles in front of a computer screen watching a different movie on YouTube.

And even farther away on Prince Edward Island, a crew of fishermen sitting on a dock stare intently at yet another movie unraveling before them on an iPad.

Although everyone is separated by distance, the people chat, comment and discuss each film using digital technologies, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, even old-school chat rooms and live blogs.

There's no over-priced popcorn at these "screenings," no ticket stubs and no age restrictions, just thousands of people watching films made about "the world of work and those who do it."

Welcome to Frank Saptel's ultimate vision for the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLiFF), an integral part of the labour movement's new ambitious strategy to reach out and connect with the next generation of workers.

"CLiFF's about helping workers be able to tell their own stories across unions, across trades, across sectors and just to be able to connect," says Saptel, CLiFF founder and Machinist Union staff member. "It's about remembering that we are workers before anything else."

'Grass roots film festival'

The festival, now in its third year, screens movies throughout the month of November. People from all over the world submit films about workers and the working life. Last year, the event took place at over 50 locations nationwide. Dubbed "the grass roots film festival" by union members, each year's success relies heavily on social media and digital technology to bring people together.

Dominique Basi, 24, submitted in 2009 a short film to the festival and, whether she realizes it or not, has become an integral part of Saptel's vision.

Simply called Bus Driver, the movie documents the life of a bus operator who drives Vancouver's most notorious route, the number 20, which cuts through the poor urban district of the Downtown Eastside.

"I think the biggest thing I learned [making the film] is empathy for people you don't always consider," says Basi. "It really highlighted the divide between bus drivers and passengers and anyone who is providing a service and the people who are receiving it."

CLiFF and social (activist) networking

Saptel and British Columbia Government and Services Employees' Union vice president Lorene Oikawa came to Vancouver two weeks ago to attend the Canadian Labour Congress convention.

Union delegates representing over three million people and hundreds of labour unions accompanied them to draft the next three year action plan that will guide the movement under a Conservative majority.

And although leaders have yet to publish the fruits of this year's convention, one of the major goals is to figure out how labour unions across Canada can effectively employ media -- new and old -- and inspire young people to join their local union.

"The labour movement is so way behind," says Saptel. "I teach these so-called new media tools to our members and the first thing they'll say is, 'I can't add another layer of work, I've got so much to do.'

"I understand that challenge. But we've got to go and do it because the people who are gong into the work place -- the young people -- those are the tools they are using."

And part of this strategy includes film.

With little less than six months until the festival's third showing, community organizations, local union members, labour councils, university students and activists are managing to connect with each other and launch screenings at places that include everything from living rooms, union halls, theatres, to community centres.

With already over 60 locations representing nine provinces and all three territories participating -- and at least 10 more screenings still to be announced -- Saptel and Oikawa have trouble containing their excitement.

"Everything from a kitchen to a city hall was used," says Oikawa, a member of the CLiFF board of directors. "And that's what's exciting about it -- it's grassroots, it's part of a movement. And it's not just an internal union thing, it's a community."

Planting 'a seed of consciousness'

At CLiFF, participants don't just watch a submitted film, turn it off afterward then go home.

People from around the world submit their work-related films, which are then selected by the committee board. Volunteers at participating locations choose from this selection the films they want to watch and go on to discuss the issues it wrestles with.

The Coca-Cola Case, a documentary about the Coca-Cola empire and union members being murdered in Columbia, was voted best film at last year's festival and received the grand prize of $2,500.

But it's not the high-budget films that have Saptel and Oikawa so optimistic, it's the films like Bus Driver made by young, non-union members like Basi.

"If we can get young people to make a film about workers or an issue relating to work, a certain seed of consciousness gets planted," says Saptel.

"And it may sprout... and it may become a tree when they go to university so by the time they go to the work force, they already have worker consciousness and know about the innate sense of justice we promote."

And this grassroots seed-planting theory behind the festival contributes to a growing trend that is changing the face of the labour movement.

Workers of the world, tweet!

Stephen Von Sychowski joined the labour movement when he was 21 years old.

Now, just five years later, he operates as a chair on the BC Federation of Labour Young Workers Committee, as a key member of the Employee Action and Rights Network and has just been voted alternate vice president for youth of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Von Sychowski says connecting with youth using their preferred tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, are key in reaching out to his peers -- something that the labour movement has finally begun to understand.

"Using new technology is unavoidable in this day and age if you want to reach out to youth, and organize youth," says Von Sychowski. "I think the labour movement as a whole is really starting to pick up on this and adapt to it."

How to use social networking as a youth-gathering tool took the front stage at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Vancouver. Unions have started young workers camps that specifically focus on how to engage the demographic. Union management is hiring new young worker directors, such as British Columbia Federation of Labour's Jason Mann, charged with figuring out how to cultivate those entering the work force.

Union leaders have also moved youth-priority issues to the top of their list. Examples include the fight to protect late night retail workers, dubbed "Grant's Law," and the minimum wage campaign, which fought to raise starting wages to $10 and scrap the $6 training wage.

The results are tangible, says Von Sychowski.

"The exciting thing has been seeing really how the young labour component has grown since I first got involved," says Von Sychowski. "The first convention I went to of the B.C. federation of labour had, I think, 12 young workers present and the last time around, it was closer to 100 -- and you see the same thing with our annual Young Workers Conference."

Until now, strategies that affectively reach out to youth, including the use of modern-day technologies, have been "ill-used" by the aging baby boomers that largely make up the labour movement, says senior economist and labour expert Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Yalnizyan says unions have focused too long on their own members who are in their forties and fifties and who don't see the need to master new technologies such as social media.

"It's a kind of awakening that is going on," says Yalnizyan, adding that union members "are realizing, 'Hey, we're on our way out and what's coming behind us? We're not taking advantage of what's out there and we better learn how to do that.'"

Labour film festival's Saptel and Oikawa, two union baby-boomers and self-proclaimed "early adopters" of digital media tools, say that's what the film festival is all about: a way to introduce change that starts from the inside and ends with youth on the outside.

"Big unions are like any organization: there's layers, there's structures, bureaucracy and the whole bit," says Oikawa. "But we're getting to them because right at this convention how many times did we hear things like social media and hash tag? -- they brought it up, we didn't."

Unions 2.0?

From Barack Obama's presidential campaign to the Iranian election protests, social networking tools have become key factors in pressing forward successful movements.

But labour unions have long had trouble harnessing the power of digital technology.

Why? One expert sees a natural suspicion and even resentment among union leaders towards the Internet.

Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, has looked closely at the relationship between labour and the Internet.

The labour movement has been challenged in figuring out how to harness the power of the World Wide Web because it's the root cause for the decline of unions around the world, says Samuel.

"The advent of the Internet is very related to the global mobility of capital, which anyone would recognize is the number one contributer to the decline of labour power because companies can up and move anywhere they want," says Samuel.

The Internet also automated jobs that people used to do and helped change the traditional work environment by ushering in the information age, says Samuel. Big factories turned into small firms. Massive groups of workers doing various tasks under one roof dispersed to a globalized business world. Furthermore, people who work in the technology sector earn good wages and generally lead a privileged life, often don't work a nine-to-five job and frequently hold more than one.

All of the above has made it difficult for young, tech-savvy workers to relate to the labour movement and its big union image. But that could be changing.

Some leading economists, including aforementioned Yalnizyan, believe the Canadian economic climate may have changed the playing field in the labour movement's favour.

The recession wiped out half a million full time jobs, and knocked about 190,000 young Canadians aged 15-24 out of the labour market, says Yalnizyan. Approximately 200,000 of them still have not found employment.

And this rough economic climate has sparked the next generation -- one made up of those who seemingly don't care about the country's future and referred to as the "meh" generation -- to get politically involved.

But younger people were also instrumental in groups such as, and, which viralled their issues-based political campaigns around the Internet during the federal election.

Catching the new wave

The more political young people get, the more "a real opportunity" arises for unions to connect with them because unions are best-situated to do so, says Yalnizyan.

"Youth balk at big union, big business, big government -- all this top-down stuff. But unions are best placed -- most organically placed -- to take advantage of that new-technology two-way street," says Yalnizyan.

Aspiring director Basi, who has never been a union member, agrees. She says if the labour movement had a better online presence, better websites and was more connected, it would garner more attention from her.

Especially with messages and information tied to films. "I think they'd really reach a lot more young people and connect with tons of people."

Oikawa and Saptel like to remind that every action is political, even settling onto the couch to watch a flick.

"If you make the decision I am going to watch this film versus that one -- that is a political decision," says Saptel. "You may only do it for information, but the fact you decided to walk into a labour film and not the next version of Avatar, or another Sex in the City sequel, is an act of politics.

"And if we can get everyone to understand the real issues affecting workers today, hell, we win, we've already won, we don't need the festival anymore because we're already there."  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry, Film

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