One might think that a prolonged and deep recession would provide the inspiration for socialist renewal. The contradictions of capital, combined with the insatiable greed of many capitalists, have once again revealed how this system doesn’t work for people who depend on selling their labour. But failures of capitalism don’t automatically lead to thoughts of socialism. If history can teach us, we should look beyond the labour movement for sources of new inspiration and leadership. The 1981-83 recession was preceded by a wave of large-scale strikes in both the public and private sectors. Tens of thousands of federal government clerks, mostly women, went on their first strike in 1980. Postal workers and Hamilton steelworkers went on six-week strikes in 1981. When the recession hit in mid-1981, it dealt a body blow to the private sector. To ensure that public-sector unions could not use their continued bargaining leverage, Trudeau imposed federal-sector wage controls in 1982, which were replicated by most of the provinces. The most significant response of the labour movement was the agreement, in 1982, to a no-concessions policy. This was designed to stop unions from competing for jobs by offering wage and benefit concessions. While not totally successful, the no-concessions agreement did provide an objective for unions in bargaining and also helped workers understand how capitalists use recessions to increase their share of wealth and further their control of the workplace.
Just as important as the no-concessions agreement, in my view, was the publication of “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis” by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The seven-page paper identified itself as a call for alternative economic strategies and visions, and ended with a six-point guideline for study and action, which included supporting struggles of workers, developing alternative industrial strategies and increasing community ownership and control of industries. It was a radical document that helped to unify the broad progressive Left.
I raise the role played by “Ethical Reflections” because I believe it is important for labour activists to search out and welcome and incorporate political and economic analysis originating from other movements and institutions. Today, the number of labour activists that identify themselves as communists or socialists has dropped significantly since the 1980s. This is not surprising, as almost all of the left political parties that provided Marxist training to young labour militants have disappeared. Currently it is much more likely that the sharpest analysis is likely to come from those working in other social movements like environmentalism, human rights, women’s rights and anti-poverty struggles. We need to be close to these movements and spare no effort to invite activists to participate in conferences and educationals organized by the labour movement. We need to hang together more than ever.
As we head into this recession there will also be plenty of labour struggles. We may win a few, and we are likely to lose plenty. Recently we have seen some major struggles — like the York University workers and the Ottawa bus drivers — ended by legislation, or the threat of it. In every public-sector strike, there will be differences of opinion within the Left as to the strategy pursued by the union leadership. This was certainly the case with the Ottawa bus drivers’ strike, where the union was unable to garner much public support. And anyone reading this issue of Canadian Dimension can see the divisions that have emerged surrounding the CUPE 3903 strike at York University.
We will never improve our unions if we don’t identify and talk out our differences. We need to debate. We should celebrate the strength of our leaders, as well as their faults. And we need to do so in a principled manner characterized by comradeship, solidarity and respect.
This article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (Mayworks: A special issue celebrating and debating labour).