by David Rapaport

I first want to thank John Cartwright for initiating this discussion. It is important to take stock of our actions and the ideas that guide those actions. It is fitting that this discussion begins outside the formal hierarchies of the house of labour where realities like jurisdiction and personality can and do cloud these types of discussion. Being right and finding fault do not shed much light on our predicaments. In fact, they make matters worse.

Collective bargaining has been an important and powerful tool for the working class in Canada since the middle of the last century. It has brought millions of working Canadians into better economic and cultural spaces where we find more possibilities in our lives and in the world. Working class Canadians are more literate, healthier, better fed and clothed than in any other period. We are getting a larger share of the GDP pie. For all that, we can thank collective bargaining. 

Collective bargaining refers to more than a very specific industrial relations scheme. It also refers to social bargaining; which takes place in the court of public opinion, in parliaments, in government programs; the social wage. We bargain with our adversaries in many venues. 

With good reason, we all fear the shrinking of the collective bargaining space in our economic world. Union density is down. The continued absence of the card-check system in Ontario makes organizing workers more difficult. Its absence is one of many reminders that neo-liberalism survives – as it was taken away by Mike Harris in 1995 – very early in his first mandate. In Ontario, we have been unsuccessful in restoring card-check. 

In fact, there has been little discernible movement on the part of labour to restore card-check. That is a sign of a malaise. Is it a malaise of indifference, smugness, complacency or simple avoidance of the big issues that continually confront us? 

Threats to collective bargaining take on other forms. The acquisition of the right to strike was a huge victory for public sector workers. Yet, that right continues to contract with the vast number of essential service workers and the almost knee jerk reaction to legislate striking workers back to work. We saw this in April with the two-day TTC strike in Toronto, particularly in its aftermath when labour friendly Toronto councillors were publicly talking about declaring public transit an essential service. 

Once again, parliamentary friends of labour were prepared to abridge our collective bargaining rights in the face of pressure from elsewhere. This puts the spotlight on our political alliances and our political program. We should, at minimum, expect politicians whom we support to respect our collective bargaining rights, in all of its forms. 

Fighting for collective bargaining is in itself a political struggle. It requires convincing the rank and file of the political dimension of collective bargaining, where workers exercise democratic rights at work and in their unions and where workers have a tool to level employer dominated relationship. The struggle for collective bargaining is an on-going struggle. 

Collective bargaining has been an effective tool for the working class in the past century. It will remain our tool for as long as possible. We have not moved into a new age where unions are redundant and unnecessary as we sometimes hear. If anything, the new ‘lean and mean’ political and economic environment has reaffirmed our need for collective bargaining. 

We have seen downgrades in the arena of social bargaining. Until recently, the state has produced and enhanced social programs and social infrastructure that benefit working people. Recently, they have been subject to defunding, elimination and privatization. The recent Blue Ribbon panel in Toronto produced a report that strikes many of us as a prescription for privatization. This draws attention to another aspect of the spectre of neo-liberalism; the diminishing capacity of the social sector to sustain core functions that are available to all sectors of the working class, not just those covered by collective bargaining. 

The assault on workers rights and conditions will continue no matter what we do. Yet, there is very much that we can do and that we have done on the labour side to stand up to those assaults. There are never guarantees of victory. But there is the guarantee of commanding respect from the membership and our allies. When on strike, we learn that although our adversaries despise us they do respect us, as a group of workers who defend themselves. The world respects people who defend themselves. 

This discussion allows us to talk among ourselves; to reinforce the idea that responses to our many challenges should be strategic responses. Our unions and our collective agreements are tools that we use defend ourselves; to enhance our rights and material conditions. No more, no less.

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