Organized labour stands at an impasse. Union density in Canada has dropped from just under 40%, to the current level of about 30%. It is even worse in the private sector, where the manufacturing crisis has reduced the private-sector unionization rate to 17%. The capitalist crisis has unleashed a wave of attacks by the bosses. Lockouts, privatization, back-to-work legislation, legislated contracts, contracting out, and off-shoring have been used to beat down unionized workers. In response, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers (CEP) have proposed uniting their forces, in a New Union with over 300,000 workers. Fightback considers this fusion to be a positive step forward. However, size alone will not solve the problems of the union movement; to really build the movement, militant and democratic methods, linked to the formation of a socialist society, are necessary.
What is proposed?
The New Union, if agreed upon at the CAW and CEP’s conventions this fall, will be Canada’s largest private sector union. CEP’s traditional base is in media, communications, mines, forestry, and power. CAW has its heart in the auto industry, manufacturing, and transport. Both unions have some public sector, healthcare, and service sector workers, as well. Significantly, rather than a merger, the two organizations are proposing creating an entirely new union with the intention of re-energizing the labour movement.
Organizing is to be a central focus of the new union — it has been proposed that 10% of the budget, worth $50-million over five years, should be allocated to this struggle. This figure is double the combined figure currently dedicated to organizing by the CAW and CEP with the intention of “launching a wave” to capitalize on the excitement around the founding convention.
The most exciting proposal of the new union is to open up the membership to workers without collective agreements — unemployed workers, students, and young people. This is an excellent proposal that cuts across the institutionalization of the labour movement, where a worker can only join a union if a representative of the capitalist state (the “labour board”) approves it. Many workers in precarious situations have a very difficult time organizing by traditional means. In the manner proposed by the New Union, they can join a union to exercise whatever power is possible via collective action. We would not be surprised if this method actually led to far more workers actually achieving collective agreements where nobody thought such a movement was possible.
What remains unresolved?
With any new structure there are always unresolved issues to be determined in the formation. This struggle is to be welcomed as new situations throw ossified configurations up in the air with the potential to overturn old bureaucracies. Fightback has identified three key issues that need to be resolved in the founding of the new union:
1) Democratic representation
It is fantastic that the new union will open its doors to workers and youth without collective agreements, but how are these members to have their democratic voice heard? An early draft proposal put forward an idea of city-wide super-locals, in which all members in an area could attend (with smaller sub-locals for members under a collective agreement). This idea appears to be absent from the final draft. However, without such a structure, there would be no democratic forum for precarious workers. The formation of these bodies, with regular monthly meetings, is an essential factor in unleashing the energy and activism of the most oppressed section of the membership.
2) Political representation
The CEP is affiliated with the New Democratic Party, while the CAW (after former president Buzz Hargrove came into conflict with the party hierarchy) is not. This is not the time to re-hash old arguments, which we believe were a damaging squabble between two bureaucracies, but this is a key issue that needs to be resolved. The CAW has even supported the Liberals in the recent period, which we believe is a betrayal of everything the labour movement stands for. Dave Coles, the current CEP president, has said that the issue of political affiliation will be put off until the new union is founded and that he expects a pro-NDP outcome. Significantly, CAW head Ken Lewenza rejoined the NDP after the federal election breakthrough, and campaigned for Peggy Nash in the federal NDP’s leadership contest. It has been said that apolitical unionism is yellow unionism and we believe that it is vital that the unions not only affiliate to the NDP, but fight for the party to run and implement pro-worker policies.
3) Political standpoint
The principles set out in the new union proposal identify austerity and corporate power as the problem and propose “social unionism” as a solution. This is a step forward but it is a far way from a clear appreciation of the problem and the solution. The problem is capitalism, and the solution is class struggle unionism linked to the formation of a new socialist society. Social unionism is the idea that it is the job of organized workers to fight for the benefit of all workers, both union and non-union. This is a laudable goal, but repeatedly we have seen this be jettisoned by union bureaucracies that just protect the narrow interests of their members (and sometimes not even that!)
Transit workers should fight for free public transit; workers in the education sector should fight for free tuition; all trade unions should fight to raise the minimum wage and improve government pensions. Where possible these demands should be backed up by militant action, including strikes. Lewenza appears to be moving leftwards, but only a few years ago, he essentially sold the farm by giving up massive concessions to the Big-Three automakers without a fight. At the time we explained that the bosses would just see this as weakness and come back for more; this is exactly what is occurring in the current round of auto negotiations. If the new union leadership capitulates on the vital struggles, it will not matter one bit how good its structures are. Nobody joins a union to go backwards.
In his interview with Fightback, Dave Coles admits to not knowing what the answers are and appears to be in denial about the nature of the capitalist crisis. We consider Dave as a comrade and friend, but we believe he is wrong on this point. In our opinion the crisis is real and there will be no going back to the “good-ol’-days” of the 1960s. The problem is not just inequality — it is the capitalist system itself. Austerity is not just a “neoliberal” political project; it is the best this system can provide workers. As long as workers’ organizations accept that there is no alternative to capitalism, then we will see nothing but concessions and rollbacks. The wave of concessions after the 2009 crash typified this approach. We say, “If capitalism cannot meet the just demands of the workers, then we must do away with capitalism.” Only if the unions adopt a revolutionary socialist philosophy that questions capitalism can concessions be won in this period of crisis.
Irish revolutionary James Connolly said it very well:
“The possessing classes will and do laugh to scorn every scheme for the amelioration of the workers so long as those responsible for the initiation of the scheme admit as justifiable the ‘rights of property’; but when the public attention is directed towards questioning the justifiable nature of those ‘rights’ in themselves, then the master class, alarmed for the safety of their booty, yield reform after reform — in order to prevent revolution.
“Moral — don’t be ‘practical’ in politics. To be practical in that sense means that you have schooled yourself to think along the lines, and in the grooves those who rob you would desire you to think.”
Therefore, while we support the formation of this new union as a step forward and an opportunity to increase workers’ power, it is vital to continue and step up the fight for socialist policies and militant democratic tactics within this union and the wider labour movement. Only then will we see a turning around of the setbacks suffered by organized labour in the past period and an end to capitalist austerity.