Photo: UFCW International Union/flickr. Our desk dictionary defines clique as “a small group of people who spend time together and who are not friendly to other people: a narrow exclusive circle or group of persons; especially : one held together by common interests, views, or purposes”.
Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing “trade agreements” that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Seventy-Two Hour Hate, a three-day frenzy of official- and media-sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement. - David Climenhaga. David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.
The push-polls prove it again, Canadians hate unions … really, really, really they do! Happy Labour Day
David Climenhaga Alberta Diary Alberta Canada September 1, 2014
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The past is a foreign country: Labour Day in Vancouver, not so long ago. Below: The workers, united, will never be defeated! The goal of union “transparency,” “worker choice,” “right to work” and other Orwellian right-wing buzzwords is to ensure the workers are never united and always defeated. Below that: Stephen Kushner, president of the anti-union Merit Contractors Association.
NOTE TO READERS: Since the Alberta chapter of the Merit Contractors Association, a group of non-union construction companies, seems to have recycled much of its past opinion survey and press release on union “transparency,” I thought I’d recycle most of my 2012 post responding to nearly identical claims made by the same group. Remember, it’s not plagiarism if you’re only plagiarizing yourself.
When I was a kid growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s, there was a holiday at the end of the summer called “Labour Day” on which Canadians celebrated the vast contribution of working people to the past, present and future of our great country.
Unions, groups of working people who pooled their modest individual strength to bargain collectively and ensure that a fair share of the great wealth they created ended up in the hands of ordinary families, would sometimes gather for picnics on this holiday, which was tinged with true patriotism, and sing songs.
One of those songs, a particular favourite in those long-ago days, went like this: “It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong….”
Well, those days are gone — the part about “but the union makes us strong,” anyway — and I can almost hear many of you, dear readers, silently mouthing “Thank God!”
Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing “trade agreements” that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Seventy-Two Hour Hate, a three-day frenzy of official- and media-sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement.
Oddly enough, though, this occasion is still known as “Labour Day.”
This year, as in the recent past, we are marking Labour Day 2014 with the traditional publication in the media of “studies” by right-wing think tanks that “prove” how we’d all be better off if there were no unions, no pensions and no public health care, as well as with a “new” poll that purports to show everyone is in agreement that unions are at best an irrelevant anachronism, at worst an outright menace.
OK, enough with the sarcasm. The survey was conducted for the Merit Contractors Association, a group that describes itself as “the voice of open shop construction in Alberta.” Open shop, in this context, means non-union and prepared to do pretty well anything to stay that way.
The poll was conducted by Innovative Research Group, Merit said in its press release on Friday, which otherwise was little different from statements it has made about similar polls conducted for the association by other pollsters in the past.
The survey purports to show, in the words of Merit President Stephen Kushner, that “Albertans have a strong desire for labour reform on union fiscal transparency, worker choice and a fair and equitable labour market.”
Related: Transforming unions demands creating structures from below and support beyond the workplace. This will require establishing networks of activists across workplaces backed by resources to facilitate sharing experiences, doing training, and a degree of collective strategizing. - Sam Gindin
Beyond the impasse of Canadian labour: Union renewal, political renewal
Sam Gindin Canadian Dimension Canada May 21, 2014
Canadian workers have been remarkably patient. For over three decades now—a generation—their wages have been restrained, workloads intensified and social benefits eroded, the promise being that this will ultimately bring security for themselves and their families. What they got was more of the same while class inequality reached the highest levels in over 80 years. Where is the anger? When the Great Financial Crisis hit, first and deeper in the US then in Canada, the Canadian state acted decisively to subsidize banks and imposed austerity on workers to pay for this. Where was the rage?
To take on their employers, whether private corporations or the various levels of the state, workers need a collective mechanism through which they can respond; as individuals, workers can’t substantively change their circumstances. Absent such a structure, any rage is manifested in relatively ineffective protests or internalized in often destructive ways. If we want to know why workers’ responses have been so muted, we need to ask about the status of their chosen form of collective representation: the unions that workers established, joined or just found themselves in.
Where then are unions at today? When, at the height of the financial crisis, Occupy signalled that audacious action could gain popular sympathy and that an articulation of class, however crude, could touch a popular chord, unions nodded in support and offered funds for water, toilets and tents. What unions didn’t do was pick up the real challenge and, inspired by their own history of workplace occupations in the 1930s, take over facilities that were more than symbolic—government buildings, schools, hospitals, and factories.
The inability to seize that moment reflected the fact that labour movements everywhere, in spite of sporadic and sometimes heroic struggles, are at an ebb. It isn’t just that union leaderships are overwhelmed and drifting (and in some cases even comfortable with the lowering of expectations because it makes their own job easier), but that signs of rebellion from below have also become rare or, at most, fleeting. The financial crisis, which exposed capital and neoliberal policies, should have been a turning point in labour’s long slide. Instead, labour was soon on the defensive again, confirming the depth of labour’s decades-long defeat. Getting a handle on that defeat is essential to understanding the possibilities and limits of the present.
There is a general narrative here, one depressingly common across most of the capitalist world. Unions are inherently sectional organizations, representing specific groups of workers based on their sector or skills, not the class as a whole. In the special circumstances of the postwar decades this didn’t seem to be a problem. Unions made gains that spread to others, and it seemed that progress was inevitable with only the pace of change in question. By the mid-1960s, however, those gains began to threaten profits (even if, in retrospect, the gains didn’t seem all that radical). As confident workers stood up to management authority and—even as the conditions for the postwar boom faded—assumed their right to ever-increasing compensation, corporations and especially governments countered with a series of policies dubbed “neoliberalism.” Four aspects of neoliberalism were crucial. First the emphasis on securing property rights, market freedoms and profits also contributed to the acceleration of globalization. Second, labour was not just attacked in covert ways but also via the “natural” discipline of competitive pressures and economic restructuring. Third, in the context of faltering unions and a weak Left, worker survival was expressed through individualized responses (longer hours and debt; looking to tax cuts, homes as assets that will hopefully rise in price, stock market gains to support pension increases; etc.). This led to an atrophy of collective capacities for resistance, undermined solidaristic sympathies and reinforced the zeitgeist of neoliberalism, further integrating workers into capitalism. And fourth, all this combined to make workers fatalistic about collective social change; fatalism became a central barrier to resistance and mobilization.
This narrative played out in an especially intriguing way in Canada. Neoliberalism came to Canada in the mid-70s, generally earlier than in the other developed countries, including the United States. The “anticipatory neoliberalism” was rooted in the fear among Canadian elites, ever sensitive to Canada’s economic integration with the US, that the continuing militancy of Canadian labour threatened the competitiveness and profits of corporations operating in Canada. The Central Bank moved to monetary restraint and the government imposed controls on collective bargaining, which brought on a one-day general strike on October 14, 1976—the first such action in Canada since 1919 and the first general strike in North America since the 1930s. However, as impressive as the protest was, it did not force a reversal in the trajectory of state policy.
In the mid-80s, Canada initiated free trade talks with the US, a move intended to consolidate Canada’s special access to US markets. This deeper economic integration tied Canada’s workforce even closer to the particularly weak American labour movement, with an expectation that this would further tame Canadian workers. Canadian unions launched, along with their movement partners, one of the most vigorous educational-political campaigns against free trade anywhere, but lost as the Liberals and NDP split the oppositional vote (whether a defeat of free trade would have ended or only postponed the free trade juggernaut is of course a different story).
And then, another decade later, in response to a right-wing Ontario government looking to accelerate the erosion of the welfare state, labour and its movement allies carried out a uniquely creative tactic: a series of rotating community-wide general strikes that came to eight communities over two and a half years, a highlight of which was shutting down Toronto’s core in the largest demo ever seen in the city (some 250,000 people). This too, however, only slightly slowed the right.
These responses on the part of Canadian labour demonstrated a remarkable capacity to go beyond the narrow confines of unionism and act politically, including a notable emphasis on popular education and recruiting young workers to activism. In so doing, informal political leadership shifted from the NDP to unions. In each case the NDP believed that labour’s actions misunderstood the public mood, hurt the NDP’s electoral chances and (heaven forbid) diverted labour activists from elections to the politics of the street. What seemed confirmed was the bankruptcy of the NDP as a political organization on the one hand, and on the other, the potential of the labour movement as an agent of social change.
And yet measured in terms of the stated goals, this politicization was disappointingly unsuccessful. In fact, as the “highs” turned to “lows” the demoralization of having done everything possible and still failing set the stage for even greater defeats. Some tried to channel the frustrations back to a more pragmatic social democratic politics (voting for the NDP), but that very emphasis on pragmatism pushed others to go further and make deals with the Liberals. A good many union leaders, concluding that industrial action and street politics were futile, turned to corporate deals with employers with some grumbling but little opposition from a disoriented and increasingly individualized rank and file.
Below: A new organizing model gives non-union workers a chance to engage and organize.
Roxanne Dubois Canadian Dimension Canada June 2 2014
At Unifor’s founding BC regional Council, a speaker stood up at the mic and shared an idea. As a member of the Vancouver-based Local 3000, representing workers at various White Spot locations and elsewhere in the service industry, the speaker shared thoughts about how to reach out to non-union restaurant workers and to engage them with the union, its services, and its knowledge.
Restaurant workers exemplify what precarious work is all about: many of them are young, but not exclusively; they work irregular shifts, have dodgy contracts at best, and certainly don’t have any backup if they have problems getting paid or issues with their boss.
The challenge is that the restaurant industry is one where the turnover is very high: workers often move from one restaurant to another. it is one of the reasons, amongst many others, why the industry is a challenge to organize in the traditional sense.
The local’s idea would allow workers at different restaurants throughout the city to organize a unit in which they could share experiences, articulate common issues and offer each other support. This would allow workers to stay connected to the union even if they change workplaces every so often. it would allow for some support where they may not have had any beforehand.
This is exactly the kind of project that Unifor is hoping to build through its community chapters. Like any organizing projects, these ideas take time to develop and the local will be strategizing the way forward on getting this chapter started in the coming weeks and months.
Although they are still a new model, Unifor’s community chapters have a lot of potential. The concept came out of the rigorous process undertaken by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) and the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) part of creating the blueprint of Unifor. Several working groups were struck to look at all aspects of how the union would operate to serve the best interest of members, one of which was dedicated to organizing. its premise: given the changing nature of work in Canada, how should the nature of organizing match up?
What came from it was a renewed commitment to organizing, which was endorsed by the membership during the Unifor founding convention. The commitment was partly on monetary terms, with 10 per cent of the union’s total budget going to organizing. The commitment was also on principle: to adapt the union’s traditional organizing ways to reach out to new groups of workers.
By “new groups of workers,” the union is referring to the increasing number of people working in what can be qualified as the new working conditions in Canada: contract, freelance, part-time, low-waged and shift work, as well as unemployed people, student-workers and others who find themselves in a situation where they could not get a collective agreement, even if they would like to.