Volume 38, Number 2: March/April 2004

Trade Unions and the Left

Recently I have been looking at some public opinion polls that looked at issues such as voting intentions, trade, public ownership, health care and education. On almost every issue trade union members are significantly more progressive than the other segments of the population. I suppose there are many reasons for this. Collective power probably gives union members the confidence to think more about the potential for changing things. Union education programs undoubtedly play a role. The democratic process of unions also requires members to discuss and debate issues.

So it should not come as a surprise that gaining employment in a unionized workplace would promote some leftward political movement among a proportion of the members. Of course one can overstate the political development of union members. Unionists may be twice as likely to vote for the NDP than the new Conservative Party, but a majority of union members still choose the Liberals as their first voting choice.

What is surprising is how we on the socialist Left have been so spectacularly unsuccessful at convincing more than a small percentage of trade union members that the world would be much better off under a socialist system than under capitalism.

I suppose there are also lots of reasons for this. One might ask if anyone is even trying. Certainly the unions do not see this as their mandate. Most trade union education programs are good on critiquing capitalism and globalization but stop well short of opening the discussion of a socialist alternative. Although the union movement has embraced much more progressive political, economic and social policies there is little or no discussion of what it would take to for workers to truly wrestle power from capitalists. And while most of the current union leadership may be significantly to the left of the membership, the vast majority of their time and efforts are taken up in direct workplace concerns such as health and safety, bargaining, organizing, grievances etc. In terms of left labour organization the level of activity of the “Action” caucus has been largely restricted to activities at union conventions.

The job of bringing socialism to union members falls to socialists and our track record is sadly lacking. The logical source of socialist inspiration should come from Left parties. With the end of the cold war one would have thought that Left parties would be better able to make inroads within the ranks of Left trade unionists. Likewise with the decline in “anti-intellectualism” within the unions, due in large part to the ever-increasing linkages being made between progressive university-based academics and trade unionists, one could assume that there would be more opportunities for socialist academics to challenge the unions to complete their analysis and critiques of capitalism.

I think it will take a lot of changes in the political culture of the Left before a discussion of socialism will be more welcome inside the unions. The current vicious attack on trade union rights will not necessarily lead members to embrace more radical alternatives. Indeed the need to fight back against right-wing governments requires unionists to focus on more short term and realizable struggles.

We also need to recognize the huge cultural and analytical gulf existing between many socialist academics and their trade-union counterparts. Ask most Left trade unionists what they consider to be the most significant recent political accomplishments of the trade-union movement and they will point to giant mobilizations such as the Ontario Days of Action and the 60,000 member strong anti-FTAA march in Quebec. Look in the pages of Left publications, including Canadian Dimension, and you can read all about how these accomplishments were really defeats engineered by a sell-out leadership. The Left’s lack of understanding of the democratic traditions and practices of most unions is astounding. When Leftists treat workers as victims of labour bureaucrats we get nowhere.

Perhaps I should be more optimistic. Cooperation between progressive academics and trade unionists is at an all-time high and is growing. Unions are more integrated in the broader political struggles and movements that ever. The political pendulum seems to be moving to the Left. The contradictions and failures of capitalism are daily becoming more transparent. There is ample potential for the socialist Left to build upon these developments. But that hasn’t happened and it needs to.