In a few months the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) will hold its national convention in Montréal. Already many activists are considering the content of potential policy and constitutional resolutions and there is considerable discussion of whether there will be a leadership challenge to CLC President Ken Georgetti.
Conventions usually reflect the movement more than they change it. Labour militants usually don’t wait for conventions to take on new struggles. So, conventions often end up ratifying the new realities as opposed to initiating them.
I hope the upcoming CLC Convention will be different. The labour movement needs to take a hard look at its structures and its leadership. Anyone looking at developments in Canada and around the world can see that there is a very fundamental challenge being placed before the union movement by employers and governments. Major post-war gains of the working class are being attacked. Go to the website of any major union and you will see the majority of strikes are being fought to preserve rights and benefits as opposed to making breakthroughs.
Consider the trend lines. Massive concessions have been imposed and, in some cases, negotiated in the public sector in British Columbia. Air Canada has seen wage cuts and takeaways. The attack on benefits appears at almost every bargaining table. Retiree benefits are a special target, as many employers have not put aside funds to meet their liabilities. Many pensions are in a mess. Major employers, like Stelco, are trying to walk away from their pension obligations. This trend will only worsen if we move into a recession.
Whereas private-sector unions are faced with threats of relocations and closures, public-sector employers continue to use privatization as a sledgehammer against the unions. When outright privatization becomes politically unacceptable, right-wing governments embrace the new mantra of public-private partnerships. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Wage cuts for the workers. Internationally there is a concerted effort to increase working time, either on a life-time basis by increasing the pensionable age or on a weekly basis by increasing the work week.
Of course, this is not the first time that the Canadian labour movement has been under a concerted attack. And we can learn some valuable lessons from our past.
During the 1981 recession there was also a tremendous assault against the union movement in North America. Powerful unions like the American UAW, the forestry unions, the Machinists and the United Steelworkers were forced to sign concessionary agreements. In Canada the labour movement developed a united front to stop employers from playing off unions against one another. Under the leadership of Dennis McDermott, all CLC affiliates at the 1982 CLC convention made a commitment not to agree to collective bargaining settlements that contained rollbacks that would undermine the bargaining position of any other union. Despite the lack of enforcement or any clear definition of what exactly constituted a concession, the policy largely held and the Canadian labour movement fared much better than the American unions, where there was a free-for-all of givebacks.
Today we once again need leadership that is ready to challenge the movement to be more than the sum of its parts. We need the leadership to prepare the membership to participate in mass-based resistance to the attacks that are being waged upon the unions. We need to learn from the “Solidarity Pacts” that are being negotiated within CUPE and between unions in New Brunswick, a province that has seen successful public-sector general strikes in the past. We need to learn from the success that the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions enjoyed when it went to its membership and obtained a mandate to undertake illegal strike action. We can learn much from the Ontario Days of Action, which forced Harris to moderate his anti-worker agenda. The Québec Common Front bargaining can teach us valuable lessons about the massive political strength of the public-sector unions when they act in concert.
We can learn that it is not essential that all unions be involved in all actions. Rather, it is necessary to maximize involvement of the unions prepared to act.
We can learn that leadership at the top is valuable, but if labour centrals are unable to take on the struggle, then affiliate unions will have to find a way of joining together. That was really how the “Days of Action” were organized.
And we need to build inter-union solidarity so that unions will really support one another–on the picket lines and through solidarity job actions.
But most importantly, we need to work with all of our many community allies to map out a strategy to take the struggle out of the legislatures and into the streets. Together with our allies we have enormous political and industrial power. We need to find ways of using it more often than we do.
Geoff is CD’s commentator on national labour issues. He lives in Ottawa.
This article appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .