Volume 48, Issue 3: May/June 2014

Beyond the impasse of Canadian labour: union renewal, political renewal

This piece originally appeared as the opening article in “State of the Unions” our latest Canadian Dimension Magazine special issue published in May, 2014, which you can view and purchase HERE. Subscribe to our free e-newsletter HERE.

Canadian workers have been remarkably patient. For over three decades now—a generation—their wages have been restrained, workloads intensified and social benefits eroded, the promise being that this will ultimately bring security for themselves and their families. What they got was more of the same while class inequality reached the highest levels in over 80 years. Where is the anger? When the Great Financial Crisis hit, first and deeper in the US then in Canada, the Canadian state acted decisively to subsidize banks and imposed austerity on workers to pay for this. Where was the rage?

To take on their employers, whether private corporations or the various levels of the state, workers need a collective mechanism through which they can respond; as individuals, workers can’t substantively change their circumstances. Absent such a structure, any rage is manifested in relatively ineffective protests or internalized in often destructive ways. If we want to know why workers’ responses have been so muted, we need to ask about the status of their chosen form of collective representation: the unions that workers established, joined or just found themselves in.

The neoliberal defeat of working classes

Where then are unions at today? When, at the height of the financial crisis, Occupy signalled that audacious action could gain popular sympathy and that an articulation of class, however crude, could touch a popular chord, unions nodded in support and offered funds for water, toilets and tents. What unions didn’t do was pick up the real challenge and, inspired by their own history of workplace occupations in the 1930s, take over facilities that were more than symbolic—government buildings, schools, hospitals, and factories.

The inability to seize that moment reflected the fact that labour movements everywhere, in spite of sporadic and sometimes heroic struggles, are at an ebb. It isn’t just that union leaderships are overwhelmed and drifting (and in some cases even comfortable with the lowering of expectations because it makes their own job easier), but that signs of rebellion from below have also become rare or, at most, fleeting. The financial crisis, which exposed capital and neoliberal policies, should have been a turning point in labour’s long slide. Instead, labour was soon on the defensive again, confirming the depth of labour’s decades-long defeat. Getting a handle on that defeat is essential to understanding the possibilities and limits of the present.

There is a general narrative here, one depressingly common across most of the capitalist world. Unions are inherently sectional organizations, representing specific groups of workers based on their sector or skills, not the class as a whole. In the special circumstances of the postwar decades this didn’t seem to be a problem. Unions made gains that spread to others, and it seemed that progress was inevitable with only the pace of change in question. By the mid-1960s, however, those gains began to threaten profits (even if, in retrospect, the gains didn’t seem all that radical). As confident workers stood up to management authority and—even as the conditions for the postwar boom faded—assumed their right to ever-increasing compensation, corporations and especially governments countered with a series of policies dubbed “neoliberalism.” Four aspects of neoliberalism were crucial. First the emphasis on securing property rights, market freedoms and profits also contributed to the acceleration of globalization. Second, labour was not just attacked in covert ways but also via the “natural” discipline of competitive pressures and economic restructuring. Third, in the context of faltering unions and a weak Left, worker survival was expressed through individualized responses (longer hours and debt; looking to tax cuts, homes as assets that will hopefully rise in price, stock market gains to support pension increases; etc.). This led to an atrophy of collective capacities for resistance, undermined solidaristic sympathies and reinforced the zeitgeist of neoliberalism, further integrating workers into capitalism. And fourth, all this combined to make workers fatalistic about collective social change; fatalism became a central barrier to resistance and mobilization.

Canadian exceptionalism?

This narrative played out in an especially intriguing way in Canada. Neoliberalism came to Canada in the mid-70s, generally earlier than in the other developed countries, including the United States. The “anticipatory neoliberalism” was rooted in the fear among Canadian elites, ever sensitive to Canada’s economic integration with the US, that the continuing militancy of Canadian labour threatened the competitiveness and profits of corporations operating in Canada. The Central Bank moved to monetary restraint and the government imposed controls on collective bargaining, which brought on a one-day general strike on October 14, 1976—the first such action in Canada since 1919 and the first general strike in North America since the 1930s. However, as impressive as the protest was, it did not force a reversal in the trajectory of state policy.

In the mid-80s, Canada initiated free trade talks with the US, a move intended to consolidate Canada’s special access to US markets. This deeper economic integration tied Canada’s workforce even closer to the particularly weak American labour movement, with an expectation that this would further tame Canadian workers. Canadian unions launched, along with their movement partners, one of the most vigorous educational-political campaigns against free trade anywhere, but lost as the Liberals and NDP split the oppositional vote (whether a defeat of free trade would have ended or only postponed the free trade juggernaut is of course a different story).

And then, another decade later, in response to a right-wing Ontario government looking to accelerate the erosion of the welfare state, labour and its movement allies carried out a uniquely creative tactic: a series of rotating community-wide general strikes that came to eight communities over two and a half years, a highlight of which was shutting down Toronto’s core in the largest demo ever seen in the city (some 250,000 people). This too, however, only slightly slowed the right.

These responses on the part of Canadian labour demonstrated a remarkable capacity to go beyond the narrow confines of unionism and act politically, including a notable emphasis on popular education and recruiting young workers to activism. In so doing, informal political leadership shifted from the NDP to unions. In each case the NDP believed that labour’s actions misunderstood the public mood, hurt the NDP’s electoral chances and (heaven forbid) diverted labour activists from elections to the politics of the street. What seemed confirmed was the bankruptcy of the NDP as a political organization on the one hand, and on the other, the potential of the labour movement as an agent of social change.

And yet measured in terms of the stated goals, this politicization was disappointingly unsuccessful. In fact, as the “highs” turned to “lows” the demoralization of having done everything possible and still failing set the stage for even greater defeats. Some tried to channel the frustrations back to a more pragmatic social democratic politics (voting for the NDP), but that very emphasis on pragmatism pushed others to go further and make deals with the Liberals. A good many union leaders, concluding that industrial action and street politics were futile, turned to corporate deals with employers with some grumbling but little opposition from a disoriented and increasingly individualized rank and file.

Unions and politics

If the Canadian labour movement is not to slip into these dead-end alternatives, we need to come to grips with why its earlier quite extraordinary politicization failed. The crucial point is that there is a limit to the political role unions can, even at their best, play. Unions can sporadically act politically and do a certain amount of political education, but they ultimately confront the reality of what unions are. Unions are organizations with responsibilities to specific groups of workers. Those workers not only have diverse needs but differing political identifications and face constant pressures to address immediate economic needs. Systematically developing class unity, and strategizing and consistently acting as a class with an independent vision, is beyond the scope of unions.

A contemporary example might further illustrate this point. As the environment is further endangered, unequal access to the riches of nature and inequality in the burdens of addressing the environment will intensify class issues. Unions have cautiously come to be more supportive of environmental initiatives but their primary focus on job security and pay tends to push environmental concerns down the list of priorities. Neither unions’ orientation to broader class issues nor their existing capacities make it likely that unions can lead on the environmental front.

Leading on that front means going far beyond specifically “environmental policies.” The environmental crisis needs to be framed in terms of a broader struggle that includes the redistribution of income and wealth so as to more equitably share the costs of environmental restraint. It demands a cultural shift in the balance between individual consumption of goods and collective services (i.e. a turn from the “consumerism” that plays such a disciplining and integrating role in capitalism). It requires desperately needed infrastructural renewal. It calls for the conversion of potentially productive facilities rejected by the market to the production of socially useful and environmentally necessary products and services including public transit. All this necessitates placing democratic planning on the agenda and—to facilitate access to the financial resources to carry out such initiatives—raises making private banks into public utilities. It ultimately also means replacing capitalism, which has become a barrier to both human development and the preservation of nature. It is, to say the least, difficult to imagine unions leading such a broad response.

Conclusion: Unions renewal, socialist renewal

The organizations workers have developed for their economic defense—unions—have suffered an historic defeat. Union renewal in the form of adding a “class sensibility,” with all this implies, to the sectionalist foundation of unions, is a central precondition for broader social change. There is, however, no dynamic internal to unions that might get us there. Union renewal would require an organized socialist Left with feet both inside and outside the unions. But even with renewal, unions would remain primarily economic organizations (which also represent less than a third of workers). A political working class organization would remain essential. In this regard, social democratic parties—even if they are “the best of the worst” at election time—have proven strategically irrelevant to transforming workers’ lives. A serious alternative politics means having an explicitly socialist party, that is an organization able to fight for immediate reforms but strongly focused on the longer-term building of the working class, in all its dimensions, into a social force with a transformative vision of societal possibilities.

If the challenge of union renewal and of an alternative politics converge on the need for a coherent socialist presence, the question is: What steps can be taken today to begin to overcome that absence?

“Begin” is the operative term here; there are some historical examples of struggles elsewhere to study, but we are essentially starting over. The best we can do at this stage is to bring considerations of this larger issue into everything we do, experiment, learn lessons, try again. I conclude by throwing out for discussion five such “starting points”:

  • Most obviously, we need to make socialists if we are to build a socialist left. We need to organize a capacity to develop an educational infrastructure for the development of both socialist cadre and for popular education (literature, pamphlets, forums, classes and of course a political space to develop a consensus on what is being taught).

  • Education is inseparable from activism, from initiating or participating in campaigns that serve as apprenticeships for developing skills but also for raising larger issues in a concrete way and recruiting others to such discussions.

  • A priority is to bring class into all of our analysis, education and strategizing. This involves a broad notion of class. Class does not stop at the workplace but is experienced in the community—not just as alliances with others but as other dimensions of our lives. The community is an increasingly important site of class struggle. And class does not stop with unions but extends to all those not able to live off their capital assets (union and non-union workers, the unemployed, the poor).

  • The renewal of unions will revolve around bringing a class sensibility into strategic thinking.

  • Public-sector unions will have to become the clear leaders in the fight for defending and expanding social services. This is not a matter of spin but of restructuring all priorities—including bargaining—to address this priority.

  • Private-sector unions will have to lead in the fight for jobs (a contradiction for unions is that their function revolves around the compensation of workers while their members’ main concern today is having a job). Concessions have failed to provide job security and in the process have only weakened unions. Fighting for jobs means challenging corporate power, not reinforcing it.

  • Bringing more workers into unions requires seeing this as being about building the working class, not just getting more members and dues for a particular union. The breakthroughs in major sectors can only come through cooperation across unions and strategies based on what Jane McAlevey calls “whole-worker” mobilizing (respect for the potentials of workers to learn and strategize, and building on workers’ lives and relationships outside the workplace as well as in it).

Transforming unions demands creating structures from below and support beyond the workplace. This will require establishing networks of activists across workplaces backed by resources to facilitate sharing experiences, doing training, and a degree of collective strategizing.

Sam Gindin was born in Kaminsky Ural, Siberia in the former Soviet Union. He grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a Canadian intellectual and activist known for his expertise on the labour movement and the economics of the automobile industry. Gindin is a graduate of the University of Manitoba.