by Charlotte Yates, Director of Labour Studies

As food riots rage around the world in reaction to the climbing price of declining stores of food staples and growing numbers of political leaders question the returns of globalization to the world’s population, we are at a critical juncture of change. The once muffled criticisms of globalization are swelling into a deafening chorus insisting on our return to the ideals of security, equality, fairness, and collectivism. Yet at the very moment when change and redirection of the political-economy is possible, Canadian unions are suffering from battle fatigue, in danger of losing a golden opportunity to offer a roadmap for change for working Canadians.

The labour movement needs to turn past defeats into a new agenda and strategy for action, building on the existing abundance of opportunities for renewal and overcoming the barriers to change. This requires action by individual unions but also a new role for central labour federations. It requires an alternative vision of the future and a strategy for realizing that future through building labour power.

An Abundance of Opportunities

For years we have been told that unions are dinosaurs left over from the postwar age, ill equipped to deal with the new world of work and workers. Yet, with all its shortcomings, the labour movement has an abundance of resources and opportunities that make it a critical player in any coalition for change. To list these opportunities acts as a reminder to unions and union members of the raw materials they have at their disposal to use in the building of a new and better Canada.

Notwithstanding more than a decade of decline in union density, nearly a third of Canadian workers belong to unions. With more than 4 million members, the Canadian labour movement remains one of the most significant in the English-speaking world with enormous potential for mobilization and access to resources far beyond the wildest dreams of most other activist or non-profit groups. The face of union membership is also changing as women now outnumber men and a growing proportion of workers of colour join the ranks of unions. This change has occurred as teachers, cultural workers, health care professionals and pink-collar administrators join the mainstream labour movement. Although official leadership in the union movement does not reflect this diversity of union membership, this transformation of the face of Canadian labour is reflected in the shifting locus of labour’s militancy.

Evidence of this can be seen in examples of strikes and labour-based protests over the last decade. In 2004, over 40,000 hospital and long-term care facility health care workers in British Columbia, most of whom were women of colour and members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), went on strike to protest government cutbacks and they mobilized thousands of other workers. A year later, 38,000 teachers in B.C., led by Jinny Sims an immigrant from India, engaged in a two-week illegal strike to demand improved wages as well as a series of improvements to the public education system. This echoed a similar illegal 10-day strike amongst teachers in Ontario in 1997 against proposed radical changes to public education. And in the summer of 2005, a strike at Tyson meatpacking plant in Brooks, Alberta saw new Canadians fight for their rights against an employer and provincial government intent on exploiting them at work that was dangerous, dirty and poorly paid. This militancy and the coming together of worklife issues with the defence of public goods point to a shift within the labour movement in who is leading working and middle class struggles, and how these struggles are framed. These struggles and labours’ resources point to the labour movement’s continued capacity and importance in influencing public opinion and political choices.

What is Labour’s Vision for the Future?

Unions and social democratic parties united in the postwar period around a vision of a productive society in which the rewards for economic growth were more equitably distributed and governments shared a collective responsibility to protect the weakest and ensure that everyone, including corporations, played by the rules. But today that vision is not so clear. Consequently, for many working people there appears no alternative to the daily grind of work and the gnawing fear of insecurity, for themselves and their children. Moreover many do not see unions as organizations that can help in their struggles, whether as workers or as allies in broader progressive struggles for change.

A lack of vision breeds a lack of hope; a lack of hope sucks up the air needed to blow the winds of change. It is for this reason that the labour movement needs to articulate a vision, a vision that is heard across the country and makes sense and gives hope to everyday people, whether they be migrant workers, farmers, steelworkers and autoworkers, retail workers or secretaries.

Such a vision needs to be built on certain principles of social justice and collective good. Elements of this vision include a commitment to security – of food, housing and income; a defence of the public sphere seen in the championing of community centres, public transportation, subsidized housing and socialized medicine and pensions; a commitment to clean air and water and to reversal of environmental damage; the protection of basic labour rights for all whether part-time or full-time, migrant or citizen, black or white; and a commitment to collective solutions and responsibility.

The importance of articulating an alternative to the present neo-liberal, corporate agenda cannot be underestimated. There are three reasons why an articulated alternative is critical to labour movement renewal and a new political future. First, although unions can sustain existing membership support through the negotiation of bread and butter gains in the workplace, such gains are inadequate for enticing unorganized workers to join or support unions. The history of labour shows that economism associated with an exclusive focus on bread and butter issues has limited capacity for rebuilding the power of labour.

Second, organized labour’s weakness lies in low membership numbers as well as a more deeply embedded general hostility to unions. This hostility is only partly a consequence of neo-liberal policy and ideas, that emphasize individualism and competition and encourage attacks on collective, equity seeking institutions. 

Unions sometimes have themselves to blame for not appealing to a broad cross-section of working people. Under pressure to save jobs and protect incumbent union members from closures and restructuring, many unions resort to defending the status quo. At times this has led some groups such as racialized minorities and women to view of unions as institutions of privilege with little or no commitment to substantive change in the labour market or workplace. 

Finally, without developing any new alternative vision of the future, organized labour is in danger of either abandoning the politics of ideas in favour of a politics of pragmatism or hanging on to the remaining vestiges of social democracy, thus feeding into the view that unions are outdated and ill-suited for dealing with contemporary challenges and leading the way for change.

A Dearth of Institutional Strategic Capacity

A vision of the future combined with their raw materials for power leaves the labour movement with one final barrier to overcome, namely the organizational dynamics of fragmentation that are eroding labour’s capacity to take leadership and mobilize behind a collective agenda. Union power is rooted in the capacity to mobilize the activism and resources of its mass membership behind a collective plan of action. Reduced to its most simple form, if 4 million members agreed to one common political act, whether to vote for one political party or strike on one common day of action, labour’s power would be revealed. Yet unions fight one another for members, for resources and over government favours.

In and of itself, organizational fragmentation need not be a fatal flaw in union efforts to rebuild. But the ways in which that has played out in Canada have encouraged destructive competition between unions and a lack of leadership, especially from central labour bodies. This weakness has been evident in organizing drives aimed at especially hard-to-organize employers, such as Walmart and McDonalds. After many failed attempts by individual unions to organize these employers in Canada, it has become widely accepted that taking on these corporate giants requires coordinated action amongst multiple unions. 

The lack of central organizational capacity to facilitate this reduces the likeliness of success in these and other campaigns. Unions need to find a way to build bridges across their organizations and members and pool resources. Central labour federations along with union democracy therefore have critical roles to play in enhancing labour’s strategic capacity and the likelihood that labour will become a leader for change.

Start Small, Build Big

These are daunting challenges in the face of which no on would blame unions for becoming faint hearted. But to build momentum for change, unions should perhaps begin small and build big. Central labour federations could mediate bilateral codes of conduct between warring unions in an effort to establish the foundation for pooling resources and cooperative action in organizing and specific campaigns. Perhaps a central labour federation could establish a centre for labour rights amongst migrant workers, mobilizing the active support of human rights activists and lawyers.

Labour could initially choose a single campaign around which mobilize, coordinating strategy across the country and engaging in culturally creative and imaginative tactics whether in support of publicly funded childcare or card check neutrality. Change is urgent. Change is within reach, but only for those who have a dream and take those small steps from which mighty things can grow. 

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