In 1944, Karl Polanyi published his seminal book, The Great Transformation. In it, he outlined the fundamental importance of reining in out-of-control capital. Polanyi paints unfettered laissez-faire capitalism as a libertarian hellscape—employers exploiting labourers as they desire, leaving them to the immiseration of poverty. Polanyi famously noted that if labour was continually subject to the dictates of a self-regulating market, “human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure… [and] would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation.”
Paradoxically, capitalism cannot perish in the absence of crucial revolutionary action from below. Economic policy tools that treat labour as a tradable commodity and subject intrinsic human worth to the callously cold exposure of market value have been restrained most effectively by the collective will of workers.
The propensity of humanity to resist these economic mechanisms is on full display within the labour movement. However, the infernal days of unfettered capitalism are not behind us. Since the 1970s, the neoliberal revolution has threatened to reverse the efforts of labour and re-establish the dominance of predatory capital.
Locally, and more recently, Manitoba has been threatened by Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister’s radical austerity regime. Pallister’s disdain for labour is undoing Manitoba’s historical identity as the epicentre of unionism in Canada, and legislation introduced by his government reflects the marriage between neoliberal governmentality and capital described by Polanyi more than half a century ago.
Indeed, the Pallister era in Manitoba can be aptly characterized by the provincial government’s long war against the collective power of labour. This new period in the province’s labour history needs to be met with swift action from workers.
Pallister, capital, and labour
When Pallister was running for premier in 2016, he confidently claimed that poverty was “the number one issue” on his agenda. Later, he insisted that he could empathize with struggling Manitobans because he purportedly “grew up poor.” However, in 2019, the premier, along with the PCs, skipped Manitoba’s debate on poverty and hunger. This served as a metaphor for the government’s poverty reduction strategy—a no-show. Pallister’s promise to Manitobans wasn’t just empty. In 2016, the PCs launched a full assault on the labour movement and the poor.
A report by University of Manitoba professors Ian Hudson and Benita Cohen shows that standards of living, health, and inequality are directly correlated with minimum wages, public spending, and union activity—the three avenues that Pallister has repressed, attacked, and cut for the past five years.
It is clear that the Pallister government has done little to tackle poverty while setting labour policy on a calamitous path. In a study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, researchers gave the Pallister administration’s poverty reduction strategy a “failing grade.”
Ongoing cuts to public spending on healthcare, housing, social programs, education, and childcare have been accompanied by abysmal wages and draconian back-to-work legislation.
In 2020, the living wage for one person sat at approximately $16.15 an hour—an 11.1 percent increase from 2016. Meanwhile, however, the minimum wage has been virtually stagnant, hovering at around $11.35 an hour and fluctuating by cents occasionally. Thanks to PC legislation that froze the minimum wage in 2017, Manitoba has one of the lowest rates of base pay in Canada.
It wasn’t just the minimum wage that was frozen. In 2017, the provincial government passed the Public Services Sustainability Act (PSSA) which froze the wages of 120,000 public sector workers. The PSSA was ultimately challenged by a coalition of unions, and in June 2020, the legislation was deemed a violation of workers constitutional rights to associate, and hence, collectively bargain.
The striking down of the PSSA culminated in a series of labour disputes in the public sector this winter. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) voted to accept an unsatisfactory contract given the unprecedented precarity of COVID-19. However, UMFA closed the dispute by noting “[we] will continue to fight… for investment in public services in the months to come.”
The tide is shifting in Manitoba and workers are growing wary of the PC’s perpetual back-to-work legislation. After the PSSA was deemed unconstitutional, Pallister noted that labour disputes could act as “precedent” for wage negotiations across the province. This is likely the reason he hastily amended the Labour Relations Act (LRA) in October.
Pallister’s changes to the LRA made it easier for employers to fire striking workers and ended the requirement for employers and workers to enter into binding arbitration with a third-party facilitator. These new laws ultimately allow employers the right to perform capital strikes, should they desire. In these scenarios, employers boycott resolutions and leverage workers to return to work without compensation.
What can history tell us about labour’s new trajectory?
Manitoba’s rich history of militant trade unionism must be taken into consideration when discussing avenues of resistance to Pallister’s union-busting regime. Over the last century, militant trade unionists, or anarcho-syndicalists, were skeptics of the social democratic belief of reform from within. They operated in a context where unionism was often repressed violently by the state. As such, syndicalists worked outside of the confines of legal structures, giving them a unique tactical advantage that is no longer afforded to most unions.
As Riley McMurray noted in a recent analysis for Canadian Dimension, the paradoxical nature of reformism can help to explain capital’s dominance over labour. McMurray notes that without the revolutionary faction of syndicalism, reformists lost leverage over the interests of the state and capital. This leverage effectively died with Canada’s adoption of the Wagner Act Model (WAM).
The WAM was made up of several pieces of post-war legislation in Canada based on the Wagner Act (1933) in the United States. WAM sought to quell the militancy of the labour movement in exchange for the legal recognition of unions by the Canadian state. Industrial pluralism—the view that collective bargaining is self-government by labour and management—exchanged revolutionary wings of unionism for the right to recognition, the right to arbitration, and the right to maintain employment status while striking. Effectively, this era of legislation was the most restrictive in modern Canadian history, but it crucially legalized the right to associate within a union.
Regrettably, WAM pacified many revolutionaries. As the ‘golden age’ of capitalism gained footing and living standards rose steadily following the Second World War, workers got comfortable. This later culminated in the large-scale political demise of the Keynesian consensus and the domination of neoliberal orthodoxy.
Pallister’s assault on the labour movement is enforcing the restrictions of the WAM while simultaneously taking away the rights workers bargained for in the first place. The premier has described his punitive actions against workers as “tilting the table back to balance.” But how exactly does Pallister define ‘balance’? The only place Pallister is bringing the province “back to” is the unregulated hellscape that Polanyi described in his book nearly eight decades ago.
As such, the labour movement must respond forcefully to re-establish the collective power of workers. This means scrapping the industrial pluralism unions have had to navigate during the latter half of the 20th century to now. Workers can put the pressure back on the PC government by adopting old, yet efficient, tactics like walkouts, wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, workplace occupations, and even general strikes.
As speculative fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The Pallister government expects Manitoba’s workers to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while it actively steals their boots from under them. The labour movement has been losing its war with employers and the state since the radical wings of Canadian unionism dissolved. Reformism lacks the leverage needed to earn a seat at the negotiating table. A better world is possible, but it is achievable only through direct action from below.
Lucas Edmond is the comments editor at the Manitoban and a writer based in Winnipeg. He is completing his double honours degree in history and anthropology at the University of Manitoba and has specialized interests in economic and social history, labour history, and critical political ecology. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own, and not necessarily those of his employer.