Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Canadian Labor Today: Partial Successes, Real Challenges

Barry Brennan is an activist in the Canadian labor movement.

It is undeniably true that the Canadian labor movement has been healthier than our neighbors to the south in the past twenty years. In many ways, Canadian unions represent a positive counterpoint to the crisis of labor in the United States.

Union density levels are around 30 percent (18 percent in the private and 72 percent in the public sector), as opposed to 12.5 percent in the United States (8 percent and 36 percent in the private and public sectors, respectively).1 Canadians avoided the disarming symbolism of shackled U.S. PATCO (air traffic controllers) leaders and the accompanying message of utter defeat. Unions in key sectors such as auto led a two-decade-long struggle against concession bargaining and have so far prevented multi-tiered wage agreements. Public sector unions have linked the defense of public sector workers with relatively effective strategies of maintaining strong popular support for public medicine and social services.

Canadian labor has been historically independent of the major capitalist parties, developing a relationship with the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) in English Canada, and in Québec, the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (PQ), which had strong social democratic influences, at least in the mid-1970s though the early 1980s. The stronger Canadian social safety net—with Medicare as the crown jewel—is the supposed proof of this strategy’s effectiveness. Canadian labor has also become more Canadian. Until the early 1990s, most workers were in international, that is, U.S.-based unions. Today roughly 70 percent of organized Canadian workers are members of Canadian unions.

The socialist left also retained more of a presence in the Canadian labor movement than in the United States. In many unions, the anticommunist purges didn’t run as deep. This has affected the economic and political orientation of labor at critical times.

But if you look below the surface today, all is not so rosy. The long-term effects of neoliberal inspired restructuring that began in the late 1970s have reshaped the environment of today’s Canadian economy. This has given new power to employers to demand concessions. Whether the threatened outcome is takeover by a U.S. corporation, the movement of investment out of the country, enhanced dependence upon transnational investment decisions, outsourcing, or bankruptcy protection, the logic of capitalist restructuring weighs heavily on the minds of workers. This is not to mention the three-decade-long assault on public sector trade union rights going back to the late 1970s. Governments have increasingly used their power to legislate public sector workers back to work, instead of bargaining.2

Huge differences in wages, job tenure, security, and working conditions continue to be a growing feature of working-class life. Precarious work is becoming more prevalent. Better-off workers worry about losing their jobs and being forced into a lower tier of the labor market. Lower down the ladder, those who survive by working longer hours and making other sacrifices blame those at the bottom. The poorest feel little solidarity with the rest of the class. The reduction of social services and rights and the lack of collective experiences of common struggle have helped to create a “disorganization” of the class, with a growing consciousness of resignation to and acceptance of the status quo, resulting in a search for individual solutions.3

These factors have helped to undermine many of the previous successes of Canadian labor and leave the movement vulnerable. But they only tell part of the story. In this era, when capital continues to aggressively dismantle what remains of the welfare state, the movement has been unable and unwilling to recognize the depth of the crisis, the impossibility of resuscitating the postwar compromise, and the necessity of radicalizing its political outlook and its ways of working and organizing.

Comparisons with the United States hide the downward slope of Canadian membership levels. Density peaked at 40 percent in the mid-1980s, declined to 36 percent in the mid-1990s, and has been reduced to today’s 30.4 percent level. Most of the decline came in the private sector, which shrunk from almost 30 percent in the mid-1980s, to less than 20 percent today. Public sector numbers have remained fairly steady.4

Densities are quite uneven across the country. Levels are highest in Newfoundland/Labrador and Québec, both around 40 percent. But in Ontario—Canada’s industrial heartland and by far the most populous province—rates have remained at about 27 percent overall, and at 17.8 percent in the private sector. Unions have organized new members, but the modest success of organizing hasn’t kept pace with the growth in the workforce.5

The decline in union coverage has affected men more than women. The percentage of male workers who were unionized fell from almost 50 percent in the mid-1980s to about one-third today. The percentage for women has fallen much less, remaining steady at 32 percent since 1997. This reflects the preponderance of women in the public sector, where two-thirds of women work. Sixty-one percent of unionized men work in the private sector.6

During this period of employer aggressiveness, most unions have retreated to a position of defensiveness.

In auto and auto parts suppliers—Canada’s most important industrial sector—the World Trade Organization (WTO) has annulled the U.S.-Canada Auto Pact rules that tied market access to investment levels. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) calls for continental, rather than country-based content rules. With no effective state-imposed regime regulating investment, and a growing overcapacity in the industry, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW)—the country’s largest private sector union—has become more dependent upon U.S. multinational auto companies’ investment decisions and less able to argue for political means to structure or direct them.

Nonunion Japanese transplants, such as Toyota and Honda, have been increasing their market share. Independent parts suppliers have been shaken by competition, assembler demands that suppliers take on new responsibilities for design and manufacturing, and continuous calls for cost reductions. They have responded with immense pressures for concessions from the union. In this sector, too, the percentage of nonunion jobs has increased.

The CAW originally broke away from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1984 over what was then the Canadian section’s refusal to accept concession demands from the big three auto makers. Since then, the union has continued to hold the line against multi-tiered wage and benefit agreements, and has made substantial gains over the years, in the face of some difficult times.

Immediately after its formation and through the end of the century, the CAW openly challenged the ideology of competitiveness, arguing that while the competitive success of employers was a constraint, it must never become a goal for workers. Armed with this perspective, the union always looked to consolidate the independence, understanding, and power of the workers, even when they were unable to make gains in the short run. In the long run, they worked to push back the constraints of the marketplace through struggles and political action. The union did so for many years, making collective bargaining breakthroughs during the difficult decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and the early 2000s, organizing a series of militant industrial actions, such as plant occupations in the late 1990s, and pushing the political envelope.

In the past few years, however, the challenges to the goal of competitiveness have all but disappeared as have the plant occupations. The union continues to fight attempts at reopening agreements and takeaways of wages and benefits, but applying the principles negotiated in the big three auto companies to the parts sector—in the face of management arguments about uncompetitive labor costs—is becoming increasingly difficult. Employers have had some success in modifying working conditions and are now pushing for changes to hours of work. Increasing work intensity, associated with efforts to boost productivity through various forms of lean production, is an ongoing problem for workers in the major assembly facilities, as well as in the supplier plants. The union has a mixed record in dealing with them.

The union developed a broad program—and waged a campaign in local communities, involving the membership—to fight for job creation in the auto sector. It featured calls for government subsidies to leverage corporate investments. While state subsidies for multinational investment are an unfortunate fact of life in today’s world, mobilizing workers to demand subsidies for their employers—the wealthiest corporations in the world—undermines the independence and ideological strength of the union. It also threatens the bonds of solidarity between unionized workers and the unemployed and recipients of social assistance who see themselves in competition for the social transfers otherwise subsidizing U.S. multinationals. The policy also calls for the need to break free of NAFTA restrictions, but so far, this hasn’t been taken up seriously. What’s needed is a movement, with labor at its core, to provide progressive political alternatives to the reliance on competitiveness. That is not happening and workers are increasingly at the mercy of competitive market forces. The recent experience of the CAW is far from one-sided. It remains far ahead of other unions in defending against employer attacks. Recent struggles include a ten-week strike of a mostly immigrant workforce at Butcher in Windsor, Ontario that fought off major takeaways; a drawn-out battle to defend jobs in a New Brunswick paper mill; a refusal to accept a two-tier wage agreement at Fabco, a major stamping facility; and a blockade of fishing boats in Newfoundland to protect the rights of unionized fishers. The union’s long tradition of struggle remains a counterpoint to the massive challenge of restructuring and the eventual outcome of the current conjuncture remains open.

In telecommunications, years of continuous deregulation have weakened union power. New, nonunion employers have radically transformed the sector. The dominant union there—Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP)—has had great difficulty maintaining the status quo, after a number of key bargaining setbacks. CEP has played an important role in arguing against forced overtime, organizing a campaign to limit work time in collective agreements.

In steel, the Canadian giant Stelco is under bankruptcy protection with massive pension liabilities. Key locals of District 6 of the United Steelworkers of America are locked in a complex struggle to protect their pensions and prevent concessions. These locals have so far successfully resisted pressure from the employer and courts and have forced Steelworkers leadership to stick by them. The union has been trying to influence the outcome of the bidding process, but without an alternative vision for the industry, and a strategy to fight for it, the effort remains uphill.

Food and retail reflect similar trends. Wal-Mart, with 262 stores and more than 70,000 workers in Canada, has announced the closure of the only North American location that has certified a union, in Jonquiere, Québec. One other location is close to certification and there are a number of aggressive drives in Saskatchewan. So far there is no bigger campaign to challenge the retail giant. In the face of pressure from Wal-Mart in 1993, the principal union in the food sector, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), agreed to major concessions to Canadian food retailer Loblaws.

Defending workers rights in the air transport sector requires waging a political campaign to convince the public to support demands for re-regulating the industry and renationalizing Canada’s flagship carrier, Air Canada. But in the latter’s recent bankruptcy crisis, none of the five unions put this forward. When it came to fighting concessions, even with the best of intentions (and this wasn’t the case with all of the Air Canada unions), this limited approach left no way of winning, only of limiting the damage. In this context, the significance of a successful battle to defend defined-benefit pension plans led by the CAW and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was lost in the restructuring of collective agreements and the sacrifice of other rights.

Employers in other sectors are well aware of the stakes involved in the Air Canada crisis: they often remind union bargainers that the Air Canada experience shows that their union can be “reasonable.”

In many of these cases, unions have retreated. Even those that have held to the most consistent anti-concession stands have increasingly found themselves in concession bargaining situations. But the situations are only part of the problem.

There are times when unions engage in struggle with employers and lose. Sometimes workers can be forced to give back previous gains. The issue of concessions is bigger than winning or losing. It is more of an approach, an ideological perspective. When unions accept the legitimacy of giving back previously-won wage, benefit, or working condition gains in the name of competitiveness or productivity, it signifies a fundamental shift in the terms of class struggle. When unions are forced to give something back as a result of struggle, they must clearly explain to their members the reasons for the defeat and point out factors that will aide them in winning them back in the future when conditions change. Concessions given ostensibly to enhance the competitiveness of employers can never be legitimated as a union goal.

As well, there is an increasing reluctance to use political demands to reduce the power of market forces. And, more alarming, there are all too often open acknowledgements that the need for competitiveness and productivity is partially the responsibility of the workers and unions.

In the public sector, neoliberal changes to the state have placed enormous pressure on workers and unions there.

The federal public service bore the brunt of the brutal efforts to eliminate the deficit through budget cuts in the early 1990s. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the principal union there, has been fighting ongoing efforts to limit wages, privatize numerous services, and “reorganize government” based upon the American application of lean production to government institutions.

Cuts to federal social transfers to provinces for health care and post-secondary education and other social programs, along with neoliberal policies of provincial governments have challenged provincial public sector unions. They have also brought teachers and nursing unions into the mainstream of the labor movement. Across the country, provinces have sought to limit health care spending by attacking hospital and health care workers. Restructuring of provincial public spending, administration, and delivery is forcing competition between unions, as bargaining units are redefined, and therefore open to representation votes. This has created bitter, divisive legacies within the union movement in a number of provinces.

Increasingly, provincial governments are opting for Public-Private Partnerships (P3s). P3s maintain nominal public ownership, but cede actual control and management to the private sector. They are partially a response to public sector union resistance to full privatization. P3s are becoming a major component of government policy in Ontario and Québec. There have been some successful struggles challenging P3s in the health care sector, involving CUPE, the CAW, and other unions, led and coordinated by the Ontario Health Coalition. In general, though, unions haven’t consistently taken up the battle against them.

Municipal workers face the fallout from government amalgamations and restructuring, new pressures to compete with private sector service providers, and measures to shift services, which had previously been funded and administered by higher levels of government, down to the provincial and municipal levels. The principal public sector union at this level is CUPE, the country’s largest union. It has led a number of key municipal strikes which have managed to stave off employer demands to privatize services and jobs.

Like their private sector counterparts, public sector unions have a mixed record in responding to the current round of attacks, for similar though not identical reasons.

In the west coast province of British Columbia, the right-wing Gordon Campbell government succeeded in forcing major wage cuts and outsourcing of jobs against low-paid hospital workers, mostly women. Although the union, an affiliate of CUPE, and the British Columbia Federation of Labor were able to bargain some minor limitations on the attacks in the face of repressive back-to-work legislation, the final takeaways were brutal. This led to widespread anger and discontent in the labor movement. Critics cited the negative effect of shutting down the struggle and argued that accepting such setbacks without a challenge would serve as a warning to reduce expectations across the country. Based upon the mass support for industrial action building across the province, they criticized the leadership for failing to recognize the important opening for inspiring and mobilizing others that was lost. They also wondered if the reason for not fighting Campbell was the fear of not being able to elect the NDP in the upcoming provincial election. Whether one concludes that the labor movement in British Columbia missed an important opportunity to build, or bargained the best possible retreat under the circumstances, it was clearly a major defeat for the labor movement and an opening for neoliberal governments with similar goals.

Public sector unions have maintained a firm public stand against cutbacks, concessions, and privatization, but, like their private sector counterparts, have been unable to apply this consistently in practice. Locally, managers appeal to joint concerns about privatization and sometimes prevail upon their union counterparts to reduce worker demands or accept changes to working conditions (like increasing the number of “casuals”) that reduce costs for the employer.

As in the private sector, simply saying “no” isn’t enough. In order to be successful, public sector unions need to argue for both increasing revenues (and higher taxes) to fund public services, and for a different, more democratic vision of the services and delivery. Given the pressures of today, the public sector unions haven’t featured this approach in the recent period.

Arguably the most disappointing role has been played by some of the central union bodies. The largest union federation, the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), isn’t noted for its ability to lead. Very much a creature of the large member unions that pretty well go their own ways, the congress has always had difficulty in taking a strong position that might be opposed by a powerful affiliate. Unfortunately, the CLC has been noteworthy for its recent and embarrassing public pronouncements accepting the limitations and permanence of NAFTA, free trade, and neoliberalism.7

Provincial federations of labor have been extremely weak in recent years. The failure of the federations in Ontario and British Columbia to mount credible campaigns against right-leaning governments in those provinces has had a demoralizing effect on activists. In Québec, with four out of ten workers in the union movement, the three union centrals have also been unable to mount a strong response to the neoliberal Jean Charest government.

After a series of important experiences in the 1990s and the early 2000s which had the potential to open up space to move beyond traditional social democratic politics, the movement has slipped back into the same kind of mild reformism that has held back unions around the world.

Unions played a major role in organizing and mobilizing the opposition movement to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988. When the first NDP government ever to be elected in Ontario blamed public sector workers for the budgetary deficit and imposed concessions and overrode collective agreements in 1993, a number of major unions such as CUPE and the CAW began to question their relations with the party. Lurking below the surface were bigger questions that always influenced the direction of peoples’ thinking in those and other unions, such as how to handle relationships with “friendly” governments seeking to discipline the working class; what kinds of political choices does labor have if neoliberalism requires their traditional social democratic allies to act “responsibly” and what is the possibility of challenging neoliberalism itself.

Many in these unions recognized the common pattern emerging from the experiences of NDP governments in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and social democratic governments in Europe: neoliberal policies and a distancing from the working class.

In 1995, when the hard-line right-wing Michael Harris government was elected in Ontario, these same unions spearheaded a series of one-day, rotating general strikes and demonstrations known as the “Days of Action.” Activists learned how to engage and convince coworkers (many of whom had actually voted for Harris) into striking their employers over issues such as public service cutbacks and attacks on union rights. Many learned important lessons about a different kind of political action from their participation in these struggles.

Thousands of workers also participated in the antiglobalization movement that suddenly broke out at the end of the decade. A number of unions actually waged internal educational campaigns to convince their members to challenge NAFTA and the WTO and oppose plans for a Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA), which assured mass labor participation in Windsor and particularly Québec City. The CAW even organized a Task Force on Working Class Politics to engage members and activists in debate and discussion about developing a new kind of class politics, appropriate to the era of neoliberalism.

By 2002, much of this ferment began to die down. In the wake of 9/11, the antiglobalization movement ended as an effective phenomenon, and labor did little to resuscitate it, even though NAFTA and the WTO remain as key constraints on state regulation of capital. Debates about the nature of the neoliberal counterrevolution were quietly dropped. Some union leaders half-heartedly supported a moderate-left effort to create an alternative political movement called the “New Political Initiative”—but it sheepishly faded back into the NDP, when the party elected a new leader. The CAW task force became little more than a series of focus groups with members (although it did spur the development of other political initiatives in the union). In Québec, all three labor centrals continue to support the neoliberal and sovereigntist PQ. Even there, most left-wing trade union activists have chosen to work in a left caucus within the PQ.

Labor has given up seeking ways to reduce the reliance on private capital accumulation as the engine of investment and growth. Most unions believe that the Canadian economy can carve out a competitiveness that doesn’t rely on lowering wages and working conditions, and is somehow “progressive.” The framework of NAFTA, the WTO, and free trade is accepted as a “given.” For most, politics is once again identified with Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP. Mass demonstrations and educational campaigns have, for the most part, given way to lobbying moderate neoliberal governments for reforms.8

From the perspective of the United States, this still might look better than being tied to traditional business parties like the Democrats. (Although, increasing reliance on lobbying bourgeois politicians looks suspiciously like American labor politics.9 ) But, whatever the advantages of working with a party like the NDP might have been in the postwar era, it’s hard to argue that the kinds of solutions the party offered—based as they were on the belief of the compatibility of social justice and private capital accumulation—are valid today. Labor’s support for the NDP is not itself the problem, rather it is the acceptance of a moderate, third-way default position which is common to both social democracy and the mainstream of Canadian trade unionism today.

Canadian labor also suffers from a series of other weaknesses:

Divisions:The labor movement has always had major political divisions. This is healthy and has often created space for the left. A decade ago, there were vibrant debates between those who argued in favor of worker “empowerment” and labor investment funds, and those who called for heightened class independence, struggle, and political controls on capital; between supporters of export competitiveness as a strategy, and an opposing camp looking to develop domestic needs and capacities. Differences between nationally-based unions and U.S.-based international unions mattered. Contexts change, and the strategic challenges of one moment can give way to others. But today, squabbles over competing jurisdictional interests have trumped such exciting political and strategic debates. This is only partly related to the fierce competition among unions for new members, often in overlapping sectors. It has more to do with the political regression that has affected the movement and the drying up of alternative perspectives. There is also no discussion similar to the growing debate in the U.S. labor movement over strategic focus.

Organizing:Canadian unions tend to approach organizing as a way of increasing the membership of their individual organizations, and not as part of a strategy to build the power of the class. There have been modest organizing successes, but most of the growth in the larger unions has come through mergers. While changes to the legal framework governing organizing have certainly become more pro-employer in recent years, fundamental problems lie within the movement itself. There seems to be little interest in collectively building multi-union efforts toward major organizing breakthrough in any sector. Several projects being considered in the United States—such as the effort by SEIU, UFCW, and the AFL-CIO to create conditions for organizing Wal-Mart—are not being considered here. Given the stratification of Canadian labor markets, this is a major weakness.

Internal Democracy:Inside major Canadian unions, there is little substantive debate over union policies and approaches. Even where spaces for debate and discussion do exist, leadership all too often predetermines the shape and outcomes. People on the left lack the confidence to challenge, and there is a growing cynicism about the futility of expressing one’s opinion. In larger forums, such as conventions, all too many potentially controversial decisions are made behind the scenes, and, aside from a handful of dissidents, the debates there are usually sterile.

Structure:Some of the powerful private sector unions are very centrally controlled. This allows them to coordinate bargaining strategies and organize unified political campaigns. That is their strength. However, this central power of the elected leadership, so necessary for leading and engaging in struggles, prevents alternative perspectives from percolating up from the bottom and smothers potential challenges. At the opposite end of the spectrum are some of the larger public sector unions. They are so decentralized that they lack the capacity to organize real debates and carry out focused campaigns or common collective bargaining approaches. Some groupings within these unions have used their autonomy to wage creative challenges to employers (which, in the public sector, out of necessity includes political campaigns), but others have supported employers in the face of the generally progressive policies of the elected central leadership.

Leadership:The present generation of Canadian union leaders are, for the most part, smart, dedicated unionists who have come from workplaces and up through the ranks. They are a far cry from the caricature of cigar smoking fat cats divorced from the reality of their members. They face challenges that are different and more complex than their predecessors. They also come out of a common political tradition, having fought and won significant gains in the 1970s through bargaining, reformist political activities, and mass struggles. They remember when it was possible both to make gains and satisfy the concerns of employers for competitive space. The current aggressiveness of employers is something unprecedented and cannot be addressed through traditional political or organizational approaches. With the weakness of the radical left and the ebb of mass struggles, they have little impetus to trust or even entertain other approaches. There is no longer very much pressure coming from the left. They also have no programmatic opposition and have gotten used to working in virtual one-party systems. Balancing the concerns of jobs and the need to make gains is always difficult, whatever one’s politics, but without any real sense of the possibility of challenging the logic of capital—in an era where the space for acting progressively while respecting the need to be competitive is shrinking—they have become extremely ambivalent about organizing (or tolerating) the kind of collective resistance that they used to lead in earlier periods.

The labor movement in Canada needs to recognize that the current era of employer aggressiveness is rooted in the present stage of capitalism and requires a radical and aggressive response. A return to the welfare-state era is impossible. Labor needs to move beyond simply opposing concessions, privatization, and the dismantling of social programs. It needs to challenge neoliberalism and its underpinnings.

Labor must work with others, but take the lead in building a movement to dismantle NAFTA and challenge the powers of capital that limit our ability to develop a more domestically-oriented economy. It should be in the forefront of the struggle for democratic control by Canadians over our political and economic life in the face of the increasing integration with U.S. imperialism being relentlessly advanced by the dominant sectors of the Canadian capitalist class. Inside workplaces, labor has to aggressively challenge the brutal speedup associated with the almost universal application of lean production techniques and practices. Unions must argue for a different kind of workplace than capital.

Radical changes to the political and economic goals of the movement require an equally radical transformation to the way unions carry out their business. The inner workings of Canadian unions have to be places where an informed membership can freely debate and influence decision making. There needs to be an atmosphere of creativity and openness to new ideas.

Organizing needs to become a central way of rebuilding class unity, bringing workers from low-paid, fast-food or retail outlets into the ranks of organized labor. This requires a cooperative effort between unions, zeroing in on agreed-upon priorities. Canadian unions can learn from some of the interesting experiments being attempted in the United States. 10

Probably most fundamental is the need for alternative political movements that bring a socialist orientation to the struggles of working people. This will not come from within the union movement; it needs to be built from outside it. The political radicalism that began to build in the 1990s in CUPE, CAW, CUPW, and elsewhere was not sustainable without the existence of an organized socialist left. Unions are not capable of standing in as functional equivalents of parties.

A political reference point that raises the perspective of challenging the system—different from both the “liberalism” that prevails in the United States and the social democratic orthodoxy in Canada—is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the prevailing atmosphere of resignation and the ever-narrowing possibilities of neoliberalism. It is a necessary instrument for bringing together the forces within the union movement that wish to transform it and an important way of pressuring existing union leaders from the left.11

While there are no easy ways of bringing about change, a number of positive trends, projects, and factors can serve as foundations.

Traditions of union militancy in Canada are far from dead. Large numbers of workers have recent experiences with strikes, direct actions in the workplace, political campaigns, and the mass demonstrations of the past few decades. In particular, unions with richer traditions of struggle include pockets of activists who are looking for projects that promise a way out of the defensiveness and resignation of the current period. General attitudes are less hostile to unionism in this country than in the United States, and this, too, creates space.

Concern about U.S. imperialism runs deep within the Canadian working class and among many ordinary Canadians. As victims of U.S. economic and political domination (a domination that is supported and facilitated by the Canadian bourgeoisie), this affects Canadian workers differently than people south of the border. Mass pressure and public opinion influenced the Jean Chretien government’s refusal of Canadian participation in the infamous coalition and current Prime Minister Paul Martin’s opting out of Bush’s missile defense program. Opposition to U.S. imperialism serves as an important resource for working-class consciousness in a host of ways.

Creative initiatives are happening below the radar in a number of unions. The CAW retains an independent, union-based array of independently developed and delivered education courses, including negotiated residential and in-plant programs. They continue to raise challenging and fundamental issues. Their new Union in Politics Committees have the potential of creating union-based political campaigns, independent of the NDP. CUPE, as decentralized and fragmented as it is, has rich pockets of militancy, organizing creative community/workplace campaigns. In Ontario, a new group of militant leaders from different unions, led from within CUPE, are organizing to defend hospital workers and oppose cutbacks. Steel, long a rather centrally-controlled and conservative outpost, has more recently seen the blossoming of an autonomous opposition, regional councils, and other democratic spaces, and a new anti-concessions movement. The large Toronto local of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) was the focus of creative campaigns, rooted in the workplace, to empower lower-paid workers of color, rebuilding what had been a corrupt and powerless organization and succeeding in creating the building blocks for sectoral bargaining.12

Many unions have seen the growth of bold and sophisticated human rights structures that have spawned autonomous caucuses of workers of color, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. These caucuses have brought whole new constituencies into the ranks of activism and opened up space for political radicalization.13

Anti-imperialist work inside unions continues to happen, raising worker consciousness about imperialism, neoliberalism, and the need for mutual support for common struggles. Loose, informal networks of health and safety and environmental activists that criss-cross the union movement also have radical components that serve as a potential base for change.

While the labor centrals and provincial federations stagnate, a number of city-based labor councils have picked up some of the slack by organizing union members in their communities for political campaigns, starting union mentoring programs to develop younger leadership aspirants; teaching union-building skills to activists in communities of color, and creating new municipal political coalitions.

Coalitions around the defense of health care bring unionists in contact with young, Marxist-influenced activists, pressuring unions to deepen their political analyses and practices. Small groups of labor activists are working with homeworkers, precarious workers, refugees, and undocumented workers, although there is no real support from the structures of the labor movement. As well, in every large city, anti-poverty activists, usually influenced by anarchist politics, organize highly-publicized actions with homeless and social service recipients. They help to radicalize a small number of unionists throughout the country.

Finally, there are new efforts to create a worker-based socialist movement. Shorn of much of the baggage of earlier sectarian efforts, but still suffering from the effects of the historic defeat of socialists in this era, they bring the hope of rebuilding a much-needed tradition. Such efforts are critical, for without a conscious project to orient these positive forces in a socialist direction and building an independent class-based perspective, the movement for union transformation will be superficial. Labor could very well slip further backwards and face the kind of crisis we see south of the border.


  1. Canadian figures from HRDC Canada, Workplace Information Directorate, Union Membership in Canada—2004; and Statscan, Perspectives on Labour and Income, Fact Sheet on Unionization 5, no. 8 (August 2004). U.S. figures from USDL, Union Members Summary, January 27, 2005.
  2. In these instances, penalties are draconian. Repressive powers are often used against efforts by the lowest paid workers to catch up after years of wage freezes and cuts. See Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz, The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms: From Wage Controls to Social Contract, 3rd ed. (Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press, 1994).
  3. From revised notes from a speech given by Sam Gindin, “Frozen in Neoliberalism’s Headlights: Labor and the Polarization of Options,” on October 22, 2004, at Auto21 Conference on Workers and Labor Markets in the Global Economy, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Gindin argues that neoliberalism disorganizes the working class through individualizing consumption patterns, internal stratification, and institutionalizing dependence upon competitiveness.
  4. Andrew Jackson, “Solidarity Forever? Trends in Canadian Union Density” in Studies in Political Economy, no. 74 (autumn 2004): 139. Jackson suggests that losses have come through the increase in the proportion of nonunion employment in the manufacturing sector. This, in turn, he attributes to, “a combination of large job losses in union plants through closures and layoffs, stronger recent growth of employment in non-union than union plants, and much stronger employer hostility to union organizing.”
  5. Jackson, “Solidarity,” 130.
  6. Jackson, “Solidarity,” 134.
  7. See Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) President Ken Georgetti’s speaking notes to the CLC Industrial Policy Conference, September 22, 2004,
  8. In response to recent electoral rule changes restricting corporate and union funding of political parties the CLC organized what it called an “issue-oriented campaign” in the recent federal election. The content differed little from the NDP platform and there was almost no education or mobilization involved.
  9. Unions always have to supplement their main political strategies, such as working with their own political parties and building mass mobilization and education with the need to develop some type of ongoing relationship with existing governments. The undue emphasis on the latter today is extremely worrisome.
  10. See by Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003). This is a fascinating account of creative and exciting experiments spawned by the crisis in the US labor movement.
  11. Bill Fletcher Jr., speech to Labor Notes Conference, September 12, 2003, This is a clear explanation of the necessary role of perspectives that challenge the capitalist system, in fostering an environment where key breakthroughs for the working class are more likely.
  12. Chris Schenk, “Union Renewal and Precarious Employment: A Case Study of Hotel Workers,” unpublished, 2004.
  13. The activism of the LGBT movement can be measured by the almost unanimous support given by unions to the struggle for same sex marriage.
2005, Volume 57, Issue 02 (June)
Comments are closed.