Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

A first post-pandemic political victory—hardly a ‘general strike that could have been’

Slamming unions for failing to call a general strike is not what this moment demands

Canadian PoliticsLabourEducationSocial Movements

CUPE education workers and supporters amass at Queen’s Park to protest after the Ontario government enacted the notwithstanding clause to legislate a contract on the union. Photo courtesy OPSEU.

The following article is a response to “The general strike that could have been” by Martin Schoots-McAlpine, published in Canadian Dimension on November 10, 2022.

In the face of the Ford government’s equivalent of a nuclear attack on a 55,000-member CUPE local made up of cleaners, lunchroom supervisors, librarians, early childhood educators, cafeteria workers, safety monitors, education assistants, and social and maintenance workers, the union stood firm. They faced down a challenge to the local’s right to strike at the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) and confronted the imposition of Bill 28, which sought to impose a contract by invoking the notwithstanding clause (or Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) to disallow the union’s constitutional right to strike, and applying draconian fines on the union and individual workers.

A determined, organized and mobilized local union, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), closed down most of the main school boards in a “political protest” which doubled as a contract strike. The Ford government withdrew its Bill 28, a constitutional attack and challenge at the OLRB, and was forced to go back to the bargaining table. CUPE maintained its right to strike if an agreement was not reached.

This was a big victory for CUPE, public sector workers, and the labour movement writ large, even though, like all such wins, it is temporary, conditional, and is only one moment in an ongoing class struggle which takes both economic and political forms. It was recognized as such by most working people, union members, officials, and critics from the left and socialists across the board.

Yet, in a naïve, mechanistic, and abstract intellectual exercise, this wasn’t good enough for Martin Schoots-McAlpine. For him, in his article published yesterday in Canadian Dimension (and there are other activists and comrades who clearly feel the same way), getting Ford to back down on this battle didn’t matter. The promise of a larger general strike—to be led by the dreaded labour bureaucrats he so roundly attacks—developing into a greater political movement (led by whom?) targeting many of the key elements of the capitalist agenda in the city and province was in the wind and was ended unilaterally, and wrongly, by calling off the CUPE strike and the movement towards a general strike.

And, further, even though this was to be led by the dreaded bureaucrats, Schoots-McAlpine writes, it seems that the working class, and the members of the union movement were chomping at the bit to build this movement. He writes, “for a brief moment we as workers in Ontario had an opportunity to really change the direction of this province for the better…workers across the province were willing to fight.”

Delusions and wishes can’t substitute for materialist analysis of reality

Moments of struggle always provide openings to build and move forward, and for workers who are participating, to learn key lessons and develop deeper consciousness and understanding. But every struggle and every moment aren’t necessarily similar. As a socialist, one has to look at the particularities of the experience and the potentials, and build on them.

But you must start with a sober analysis and a proper reading of reality. This article does nothing of the sort.

What happened was that the CUPE local did ongoing preparation and education of its membership, democratically developed its demands, and was prepared for an onslaught from Ford. They understood that this is one battle in a larger effort by the provincial government to impose further austerity on public sector workers, undermine public education (and later public health care) and create an environment where the union movement and the larger working class would be placed on the defensive. And yes, there were socialists involved.

But Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce overplayed their hand. The attacks on the CUPE workers were cynical and off base—seeking to build on the exhaustion and anxiety of parents of students who lost precious education time and lived with all kinds of parental burdens, due to the pandemic and the handling of it by the Ford government. Further, the imposition of Bill 28, the notwithstanding clause, and the open attack on the strikers and the right to strike were meant to not only cow the strikers, but also other unionists and build an anti-union sentiment among the public (in all public sector struggles, the public—users of the services delivered by the workers—are a critical political component of the calculus needed to wage them).

Working people across the province and the country were sickened by the use of the notwithstanding clause—seeing it as a larger attack on democratic rights—and identified with the workers, blaming Ford and Lecce for the disruption of their kids’ education. Even more, working people—without prompting from the activist layer—mostly seemed to support the demands of the strikers. They defended the right to strike and called on the government to end the repression and bargain with CUPE (a lot of this was missed by the emphasis on the notwithstanding clause).

What’s more, the larger labour movement, including some of the least militant and most collaborationist unions and most bureaucratic of leaders, saw this as a direct threat to the survival of trade union rights (as the author concedes) and the needs and interests of their members. The threat of some form of general strike was real and made a huge difference to both union members and the larger working class. Yes, one wonders how they would have prepared or what kind of leadership they might have provided, but the threat to organize cross-union strike action of some sort was real, and it was rather unprecedented in recent times (but, there were historical precedents, and I will get to that in a moment).

The bottom line is that the target at hand was not the larger neoliberal political agenda itself—although it certainly underpins everything Ford ultimately will do (or be forced to do by capital) and needs to be identified and become part of our educational work. But the issue here was the attack on CUPE’s right to strike, the government’s refusal to bargain, the effort to win over the support of the larger working class in communities and, of course, the use of the nasty constitutional clause. In order to move forward towards addressing the larger agenda that the author justly identifies, this battle (it is one battle) had to be understood, won and ultimately, built upon.

It was won, and arguing that workers were somehow prevented from continuing the strike and actually engaging in a general strike and more, is not born out by looking at their opinions, experiences, and the role of rank-and-file workers in today’s unions.

Of leadership, bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers

A central argument in Schoots-McAlpine’s article centres around labour bureaucrats, and as a corollary, the relationship of the rank-and-file and activist components of unions to the leadership. He seems to say that the structure of the post-war labour-capital compromise—concretized in the Rand Formula, dues deduction, formalized dispute resolution, codification of the ban on in-contract strikes and critical solidarity activism—has created an environment where leaders are necessarily bureaucrats, unions become sclerotic, and real and ongoing struggle against employers is anomalous.

Certainly, the strictures placed on unions and the institutions of class struggle developed during the early days of industrial unionism are real constraints (although, in my years as a union shop floor rep in an auto plant, I can’t see how automatic dues deduction had anything to do with stopping or limiting regular and daily interaction with the membership. That is an academic myth). And, one would have to be from Mars not to see the degeneration and defeat of the trade unions in Canada and most of the Global North. But these constraints are not an “iron cage”—they are not the cause of the degeneration of the union movement. Class struggle approaches can be built and challenging those constraints (and working to eliminate them) is a key part of it. During the 1950s and early-1960s there were waves of wildcat strikes across the auto sector in Windsor and throughout southern Ontario over working conditions and the union leadership didn’t try to smash them.

Theses struggles were a weekly occurrence in my early years working on the auto assembly line, and when I became a union rep, we (I wasn’t the only one) organized all kinds of creative and participatory forms of collective resistance. I’ve had many conversations with old timers from that earlier period and with the late Canadian Auto Workers President Bob White, about how the union has to, and can and did, challenge those constraints.

There are bureaucrats and there are leaders. Sometimes those leaders have too much power, and sometimes they actually lead the ranks and secondary leadership through education, mobilization, ideology and democracy. What is missing in the past decades are socialists (what used to be called communists) working in and around workplaces and in unions to develop a class struggle approach and understanding with their co-workers while providing real leadership.

Schoots-McAlpine argues that regardless of the intentions (or even the ideological orientation) of leaders, their lifestyle, distance from the ranks, and their integration into the structures of state regulation, they are necessarily co-opted into a partnership approach with the bosses. Even more, they are supported by the most privileged and well-off section of their sectors and unions. There is a certain truth to this, of course.

But the big question here is what is the role of the masses of members, the rank-and-file and lower-level leadership? The implication is that they are essentially or naturally militant and want to collectively take on the boss and the state.

What experience does Schoots-McAlpine have to base this perspective on? In fact, it is not true. Rank-and-file workers reflect contradictory points of view and, in a context of employer power, the material dependence that workers have on their employers for their livelihoods (without unions or political movements limiting that dependence), union weakness and refusal to take up everyday workplace struggles, lack of socialists to provide a radical pole of references and a leadership that is all too often bureaucratic, why would they miraculously reflect a militant and radical perspective? And how could one who is passionately concerned with building class struggle unions—as the author of this article clearly is—not know this?

How would the author’s analysis explain the phenomenon of working class leaders who did come up through the ranks and made a difference, such as Jean-Claude Perot, Bob White, JP Hornick, or Madeline Parent—leaders that provided education, mobilization and bold challenges to employers and governments at critical times?

The bottom line is that this kind of a perspective reflects a very mechanistic, abstract, and academic reading of the realities of class struggle. Slogans about class conflict, bureaucracy, and the Rand Formula don’t really guide many of these folks on how to put these critically important concepts into reality—in ways that undermine bureaucracy, challenge employers, and build the understanding of unionized and non-unionized workers alike. If workers had this understanding already, they would be challenging the agreement for CUPE to go back to the bargaining table, pushing for a general strike, and calling for a political movement arguing for the demands that Schoots-McAlpine legitimately calls for on their own. But calling for general strike plans to go ahead anyway avoids the necessary education, organization, and strategizing that socialists and radical activists in and around the union movement must bring to either force or help leaders create opportunities to make it happen. Schoots-McAlpine leaves no place for it to happen.

A word on general strikes

We have experience with general strikes, and Schoots-McAlpine’s take on the potential action that was shot down doesn’t fit with these collective experiences. While there are examples of the BC Solidarity Movement against Social Credit, or resistance to Scott Walker in Wisconsin, we have a more direct experience with the Ontario Days of Action in the mid-1990s—the one-day general strikes against the Mike Harris PC steamroller that attacked all levels of the working class, starting with welfare recipients.

There isn’t much space to go over this here, but there are some key lessons that directly refute the call to continue the general strike plans made by Shoots-McAlpine. In the 1990s, the Ontario Federation of Labour was unable to create a real unlimited general strike: many workers had voted for Harris and needed to have their opinions changed; a number of unions refused to strike against their employers; and some union locals were too conservative to participate. On the other hand, a number of the ‘bureaucrats’ were pushed by the social and anti-poverty movements and some of the activist layers in the union movement, and knew that employers needed to be shut down to have any real effect. But, to make it work, the unions had to create or call on trained militants, going to different workplaces and locals in each community, doing education to convince them to oppose Harris, support the larger working class, and vote to support the strikes in their communities. These were organized in partnership with locally based social movement organizations and activists.

The one day strikes eventually petered out into a series of demonstrations, and the tenuous unity built between the unions and the unions and community organizations broke down. There was no left political movement to build and do the education necessary to let it continue—or to create a socialist political alternative, even in the face of a then-discredited Bob Rae-led NDP. Yet, even after it ended, there were those denouncing the ‘bureaucrats’ for sabotaging a movement for an unlimited general strike—which was not going to happen, regardless of whether the leaders called for one or not.

Is this happening now? Were the union leaders planning to develop this kind of strategic approach? Where was the left in working to make this happen? If, according to this article, the bureaucrats were so desperate to maintain labour peace, why would you rely on them to do the things necessary to organize a general strike now?

And, of course, the main issue was not to change the Ford government’s larger political agenda all in one go, but to defend the right of the CUPE local to bargain, build support amongst the larger working class for their demands and opposition to the government, and force Ford to back off. That was the initial step in this ongoing war and workers mobilized around it and won.

Workers celebrated, but the struggle continues. The education necessary to eventually organize more widespread, radical, and concerted actions still needs to be done within unions, locals, and communities in the education, health care, and other sectors. Is the author of this article willing to contribute to this, or would he prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize the main protagonists?

Slamming unions for failing to call a general strike that no one will show up for, anyway, is not what the current moment calls for.

Herman Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based socialist activist, educator, organizer and writer. He is a retired national staffperson with the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor), and worked in their Education Department.


URP leaderboard June 2024

Browse the Archive