Commentary from the Central Trade Union Commission, Communist Party of Canada

In January of this year, the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) launched a discussion paper, "A Moment of Truth for Canadian Unions", meant to make public and transparent their merger talks.

It is interesting and noteworthy that although this paper posed the fundamental problems affecting both unions it went much further in analyzing the crisis of labour in North America.

It is interesting and noteworthy that although this paper posed the fundamental problems affecting both unions it went much further in analyzing the crisis of labour in North America. The general state of alarm in some areas of the Canadian labour movement, even though it is not yet universal, is a direct response to the neo‑liberal, anti‑labour environment which began during the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher ascendency in the 1980s.

This corporate offensive against workers and their unions has continued to intensify ever since. Who can forget the humiliation of the leader of the U.S. Air Traffic Controllers, led away in manacles after 11,000 of his members were fired and his union disbanded? Who can forget the 180,000 British miners under Scargill who lost a year long struggle, suffered the reduction of their mines/workplaces from 170 to 17, and were abandoned by the opportunist sections of the trade union movement nationally and internationally?

That historic abandonment is part of the present malaise and requires further exposure. These were the opening salvos of an offensive against labour internationally that has escalated to a level in Canada where the federal and provincial governments intervene, representing the corporate agenda directly using parliament, legislatures and the courts as their instruments. The right to strike, the certification process, labour standards legislation, the closed shop, collective bargaining and even the right to belong to a union are slipping away under tons of arbitration, so‑called mediation and legislation.

The International Labor Organization and the United Nations have cited Canada in 17 areas of violation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Right of Assembly. Unfortunately, too many labour leaders have slept through thirty years of this offensive, or treated it as a spectator sport. Some have ridden into battle with a white flag, facing backwards on their steeds, more concerned with what was behind them than what was in front. Most unions have engaged in raiding to build their economic base and replace losses at the expense of unity. Most have abandoned sector organizing in favour of merger, amalgamation, raiding or capture.

The trend has been for every major organization to become a mini-labour centre, organizing and expanding only in the area of least resistance. In seeming contradiction, some of these, perhaps most, have fought well at times. It becomes obvious then that both the problems and the solutions can be found by studying spontaneous practical experience. The contradictions must have a conscious resolution which will determine, to whatever degree it succeeds, labour’s revitalization and renewal. Workers, and many of their leaders, have shown the ability and the will to resist, fighting serious and courageous engagements through strikes and lock‑outs.

They have consistently lost ground and have been forced to retreat, or to declare the tattered remains of collective agreements a victory because they at least prevented absolute collapse. These retreats may appear to be a rout, but they also have, in a very real sense, the potential to become the staging ground for a counter offensive and a compliment to those who have stood, those who have defended. Resistance itself becomes the most important component of fightback, providing that experience shapes effective defense, new tactics, response, political maturity and counter‑stroke.

It is apparent that these are the problems that the CAW‑CEP initial discussion attempted to address. The decline in private sector union density to an all‑time low of 6‑7% in the US and 16‑17% in Canada (down from 33% in 1980) definitely puts the handwriting on the wall. It also has opened up the door for an offensive of absolute destruction against the public sector in the US, where the goal is not only the removal of the union but the removal of the right to organize and belong.

If the private sector decline is not reversed in Canada, the attack against both sectors will intensify until the private sector becomes a negligent influence in the working class. The public sector will stand alone without the allies it needs, without the strength of industrial unionism that paved the way for its emergence.

The initial discussion paper, the work of the joint CAW‑CEP committee, the transparency and the involvement of membership in both unions, has given birth to a unique document called "Towards a New Union, CAW CEP Proposal Committee Final Report". Many fine studies have sounded the alarm to labour, emanating from progressive academics, publications, labour studies programs and individual trade unionists.

All these probably have complemented the CAW‑CEP committee efforts, but the document is first and foremost a set of proposals and analyses from the labour movement and trade union thinkers. In that sense it is unique and long overdue. The document identifies priorities: social unionism and political involvement in new ways; special attention to Aboriginal, gender, social justice and extra-parliamentary movements; recruiting the unemployed, students, pensioners, and creating status for them within and parallel to the traditional bargaining and representation of the union.

The document identifies the main enemy as capitalism, and talks of the working class, not the illusory "middle class" so popular in social democratic dogma. It also recognizes the national status of the Quebec working class and its organizations, as well as identifying with the Quebec student struggle, the Occupy Movement everywhere, and the need for world peace.

The differences of the two unions, their ideological clash during the 1990s over the Ontario Days of Action (when CAW championed militant mobilization and CEP was one of the "Pink Paper" unions advocating withdrawal behind plant gates and handing the workers fate into NDP parliamentary hands), seems to have disappeared into what could be hopefully the emergence of a much needed class struggle ideology.

But conversely, the issue of affiliation to the NDP is still an open question and is recommended to be left to the founding convention for the delegates to decide. This poses a real danger, because the underlying question is not affiliation, but rather what ideology will determine relationships to the NDP and other political parties, and on what terms.

The historical problem of Canadian labour since the McCarthyite decimation of the left has been the social democratic abandonment of socialism and its acquiescence globally to neo‑liberalism, free market economics and the odious concept of the "labour market".

The dominance of social democratic reformist ideology in the labour leadership has kept the movement in neutral. For too long the tail has been wagging the dog. The working class and the labour movements in many other countries are grappling with similar problems and contradictions during this difficult period. In some countries, trade unions are engaged in militant mass struggles against the corporate assault and the neoliberal policies of both right‑wing and social democratic governments.

There is still no effective, coordinated international fightback, but the global capitalist offensive compels workers in all countries, including Canada, to consider new forms of organization and resistance, going beyond the narrow confines of individual trade unions and state borders.

Nevertheless, the document "Towards a New Union" is a step forward, and the contradictions left to be solved are transparent and publicly placed.

This is a debate that can and must take place as the two unions seek to grapple honestly with the needs of all the working people and the future of our country.

This Labour Day 2012, we are confident that working people in Canada will welcome all the emerging forces of resistance to the neo‑liberal agenda, and struggle for a world of peace and ecological safety, health and prosperity, not a world of hunger, disease, exploitation and war, a place to live and prosper, not a place to suffer and die.

People’s Voice, Canada
September 1-15, 2012 issue