The workers' movement in Canada and Quebec is in a state of disarray, unable to deal with ongoing attacks on the diverse working class. Whether unionized, non-unionized, temporary, racialized, women or indigenous workers, the weakness or absence of workers' organization reveals a movement in need of reinvention. What follows is an introductory piece meant to open discussion on the state of the workers' movement today.
We plan to publish responses and other articles that add to the discussion. We invite readers to respond directly to this opening article with reference to some of the key questions and concerns it raises (or others that you think it ignores). Responses do not have to be long (between 1000 and 2000 words) and can be sent to website[at]newsocialist.org Shorter comments posted below the article on the site are also welcome, as always.
By David Camfield and Salmaan Khan
Original version: http://newsocialist.org/770-reinventing-the-workers-movement
The workers' movement in Canada and Quebec today is in trouble. During the more than six years since the 2008-2009 "Great Recession" that opened a new era, it has been unable to begin to build significant resistance against attacks on the working class by employers and all levels of government.
It is true that the number of unionized workers hasn't been shrinking and that the decline in overall union density (the percentage of workers who are unionized) has been slow in recent years. This is not as bad as the situation in the US, where both union numbers and density have been falling for years. Union institutions remain generally stable, though some unions have lost large numbers of members and therefore income (for example, job losses reduced the CAW's membership from 265 000 in 2005 to 225 000 in 2009, which contributed to the CAW's 2013 merger with the CEP to form Unifor). This relative stability has contributed to complacency in some quarters about the state of unions in Canada and Quebec.
Signs of decay
But such complacency is misguided. Membership numbers and density don't translate directly into dynamism and power. Even more disturbing than the slow erosion of union density are the signs that it is becoming more difficult for workers to use unions as organizations through which they can act collectively in their own interests. (We say more difficult because workers in Canada and Quebec have faced significant difficulties on this front ever since the 1940s, when workers' struggles won new rights for unions that came with new restrictions on union activity.)
"The movement has turned more inward, so lobbying becomes the actions," is how one union insider describes the situation. The union officialdom (officers and staff) today is often preoccupied with defending unions as institutions. A Hospital Employees Union staffer put it this way: "I think there's just a real lack of solidarity, and any real focus on representing workers and the working class, as opposed to how do we get through this and survive. So I see a lot of the survival of the union, the institution is at the top of people's minds instead of workers' rights being advanced."
This has many damaging repercussions. For example, unions pay even less attention to what most non-unionized wage-earners experience. About 20% of men and 32% of women whom Statistics Canada classifies as employees do not have full-time permanent jobs. This underestimates the problem because some people classified as "own-account self-employed" rather than employees are, in fact, wage-workers. Some union officials give lip service to the plight of such precariously-employed workers, but action is rare. Only 23% of part-time workers are unionized, compared to 31% of full-time wage-earners.
People of colour are significantly under-represented among unionized workers. They face significant barriers in the workforce and are disproportionately represented in precarious and low -wage sectors. This has created a greater distance between unions and the non-unionized working class. So too has the decline of union density in the private sector, where most wage-earners are employed, to 16%. The dominance of older members within unions has also created a greater distance between many other workers and their unions.
Faced with increasingly aggressive employer demands, most of the union officialdom has come to accept concessions as inevitable (rather than seeing them as repugnant but sometimes forced on workers). This has a significant impact. As Unifor Local 199 Vice President Bruce Allen has argued, "Workers did not form unions to go backwards" but "to defend their dignity, to defend what they have and to move forwards whenever possible." Union appeal suffers when unions become associated with giving concessions to employers without a struggle.
A related problem is that union officials, concerned about getting workers to accept give-backs, can undermine union democracy to ensure workers agree to the "right" decision. Union democracy has suffered in recent years as a result of concession-selling officials asserting their control.
Another worrying sign is how often union political action involves campaigning for whichever politicians are seen as the "lesser evil." This often results in giving uncritical backing to parties (Liberals, the NDP in some provinces, the PQ and BQ in Quebec, Vision Vancouver) and candidates (such as Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow) that get support from capitalists - or (not quite as awful) uncritical support for the NDP where it doesn't enjoy direct business support. Union political action today is rarely about trying to develop the working class as a force to change society. The rock-bottom standard of backing the "lesser evil" mirrors the low hopes that most workers have for what unions can accomplish through collective bargaining; both are evidence of how working-class expectations have been lowered by over three decades of attacks from business and government.
As the union officialdom has become more inward-looking, divisions between it and social justice activists outside the unions have deepened. This was visible in the mobilization against the G-20 summit in Toronto in June 2010. Perhaps most obvious was the way Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) President Ken Georgetti quickly condemned attacks on property by some protestors, while CLC criticism of the arrest of some 1100 people was muted and failed to challenge the state's efforts to criminalize dissent.
Taken together, these changes amount to a process of the decay of unions as working-class movement organizations. The process is uneven, but it is real.
This matters a lot, for two simple reasons. First, wage-earners and the unwaged are facing capitalists and governments whose determination to expand corporate profits and power has never been greater. All that workers currently have to defend themselves against this threat are unions and much smaller community-based organizations. Second, these are the only existing organizations which give workers any possibility of changing society in ways that reflect their needs and interests.
What kind of change?
How, then, does the working-class movement need to change? What is needed of workers' organizations that can effectively mobilize sections of the working class to fight for change?:
Today, few people even on the left endorse this goal. But those of us who do need to start having serious discussions about the state of the movement and how to do whatever we can to contribute even in small ways to reinventing it. It's crucial that our efforts start from how workers are organizing and resisting today, not the vision of a different kind of movement sketched above. Tiny steps taken by radicals working with other people who want to fight back more effectively have much more potential than initiatives by radicals alone. We can take inspiration from - and build on - the desire for a very different kind of workers' movement that can be seen in the support for Hassan Husseini's campaign for the presidency of the CLC, the Offensive syndicale network in Quebec, the publication Rankandfile.ca, Migrant Workers' Alliance for Change and other initiatives.
David Camfield is the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers' Movement. Salmaan Khan is a member of Toronto New Socialists. They are both co-editors ofNew Socialist Webzine. An earlier version of this article was published in 2011.
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