Volume 41, Number 3: May/June 2007

Saluting Labour, Thinking Forward

May Day is a time when workers around the world celebrate their collective strength, solidarity with other movements and their accomplishments in working towards peace, equality and social justice.

In Canadian Dimension we also choose to use this as a time to reflect upon the health of our labour movement.

Of course, the labour movement is diverse and its experiences are uneven. We applaud recent efforts by some sections of the labour movement and its political ally, the NDP, to drive the minimum wage towards a living-wage standard. At the same time we recognize the limited extent of mobilization in most unions, the absence of a similar effort to raise social allowances and lift up the living conditions of the non-working poor; and we note that NDP governments, like the one in Manitoba, consistently refuse to implement a living wage, or even accept it as a goal.

We applaud CUPE Ontario for backing the cause of the oppressed peoples of Palestine by supporting the global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid. At the same time we note that CUPE Ontario has come under severe attack both from within CUPE itself and from the wider labour movement. We recognize that many unions are passing excellent resolutions on peace, while very few are mobilizing their members to turn up at peace rallies.

It would be wrong to say that there are no gains won at the bargaining table these days or to deny that particular struggles emerge that are sometimes both heroic and significant beyond themselves. Yet, overall, gains are few and far between. Unions are making no breakthroughs organizing new sectors; the decline in the proportion of workers organized may have been stalled for now, and there is no sign of significant growth; mobilization of existing members is not being deepened; the labour movement is not exciting a new generation of young workers; and unions are not creatively engaging other movements or communities, or even expanding cooperation among themselves.

To a degree, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the labour movement, both in its capacity to make gains at the bargaining table and to contribute to the wider struggles for justice and peace, are a reflection of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the Left and the other popular movements. Our best moments – in the early 1970s, with Quebec’s Common Front, for example, B.C.’s Operation Solidarity (1983), Ontario’s Days of Action (1999), the protest at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (2001) – all occurred when the Left was coming alive with new formations, new energy, new ideas. When the Left falters, the labour movement loses its momentum, as well. We are in such a period today.

There are objective factors at work, as well. NAFTA, and globalization more generally, has greatly increased the mobility of capital and opened up low-cost competition from Third World locations. The current wave of corporate mergers has caused a rash of plant and office closures. Employers everywhere have adopted far more aggressive tactics toward workers. These are capitalism’s ways of overcoming its own crisis of overproduction and crisis of profit. This environment allows unions a far smaller space within which to manoeuvre. Compromises are less easily had.

In this period, a return to a kinder, gentler capitalism is not an option.

The options available to the labour movement are two-fold. The first is to find ways of more fully cooperating with corporate owners and the state to protect jobs. The second is to become an instrument for working-class struggle against capital and to help build the movement towards socialism.

We see some unions frantically lurching toward the first option. We fully understand that the second option cannot happen without an internal revolution within the labour movement in terms of vision and building new kinds of organizational and communication capacities to cope with what we face. And we know that this cannot occur without a much more substantive Left within the labour movement – and in all the popular movements.

Clearly, given where capitalism has been heading, worker activists must start considering more radical changes within unions and how unions see their place in the world.

Happy May Day!

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