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The working class and the labour movement today

Ritch Whyman

October 5, 2012


Labour Day is always a good time to reflect on the past year of struggles, and there have been many in 2012.
The year began with lockouts of Electro-Motive Deisel (EMD) workers in London, Ontario and Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) employees in Alma, Quebec. This followed the pattern of large industrial multinationals that have targeted sections of workers with a strong and militant tradition.
Both lockouts received much solidarity and support from the broader labour movement. In London, a mass demonstration drew several thousand people, primarily from the surrounding area. While the lockout ended in defeat for the workers—Caterpillar eventually closed the plant—lessons are being drawn by activists in the union about what could have been done differently to stop future closures. These discussions are extremely important.
In Alma, the workers pushed their union, Métallos/United Steelworkers, to fight the lockout more aggressively. Families and workers mobilized in the community and linked up with RTA employees around the world. Crucially, workers at other RTA sites in Canada donated tens of thousands of dollars through special assessments on their wages to prevent the lockout in Alma from forcing employees to accept a bad deal. This example of cross-union, cross-workplace solidarity demonstrated the possibility of resisting a multinational corporation, and the potential for unity between workers in Quebec and English Canada. In the end, Alma workers saved hundreds of union jobs and defeated most of RTA’s concessions on contracting out.
Air Canada wildcat
In the spring, a major development in the fight against austerity was the wildcat strike at Pearson International Airport in Toronto by Air Canada (AC) ramp and baggage crews. The wildcat effectively shut down AC operations in Canada for a day and spread to Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. Previously, the Tories had removed the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ (CUPW) right to strike, along with AC workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), and had stopped the Machinists (IAM) from engaging in a legal strike, by taking away their right to strike, too.
There are three factors that made the wildcat so exciting. First, it was a wildcat—a spontaneous, rank-and-file-led strike—a tactic not seen on such a big scale for a long time. Second, it was a political wildcat, opposing the firing and disciplining of workers for mocking the Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt. Third, it sent shockwaves through the left, and gave union activists a boost of confidence—especially when the suspended employees got their jobs back.
Behind the scenes, small groups of employees from different unions have been getting together to develop strategies and support each other, overcoming the sectionalism of their union leadership. Actions called by these groups, along with CAW and IAM workers, have helped create a space for anti-austerity resistance at the airport—the beginning of a rank-and-file network of militants.
Postal workers, teachers
Like postal workers at Canada Post, Machinists at Pearson Airport are locked in a war against the employer, which is trying to use anti-union laws to curtail the union’s power on the shop floor. As a result, the union has been forced to instruct all shop floor stewards to return their steward’s badges, as the employer continues to target militants. Also in the spring, teachers in British Columbia went on strike, shutting down schools for several days. Workers in some regions even argued for breaking the law, in order for the strike to continue.
Toronto library workers
Toronto library workers defied expectations by successfully pushing back right-wing Mayor Rob Ford’s austerity agenda—the only municipal union to do so. Their success was primarily the result of preparatory work led by the union and rank-and-file activists, in generating public support for library services. This was a crucial victory, which helped turn the tide against Ford and right-wing councillors in Toronto, and which helped block stop—even if only temporarily—the contracting out of city janitors.
CP rail workers
At the end of May, a small group of workers once again attracted national attention—and the ire of the Tories. Four thousand engineers from CP Rail walked off the job over attacks on their pensions and working hours. The strike was national news and, in many small communities, had support from other workers.
Despite the small numbers involved in the strike, its effect on the economy was potentially massive. One report suggested that, if the strike had lasted two weeks, it could have cost half a billion dollars to the economy. This fact alone demonstrated the significant potential power that workers have at the point of production.
While the CP strikers were ordered back to work, the Tories were much more muted about the legislation, and took longer to enact it. The AC wildcat was a major embarrassment for the Tories, and has clearly helped push back their aggressive anti-union attacks.
Peel Region workers
Another important labour struggle was the recent strike by social service workers in Peel region, who resisted attempts by the employer to force cutbacks on the workers. Based in the suburbs, these workers had built a strong tradition of solidarity in their union. The local even owns a school bus, which it runs for its flying squad, and is a regular fixture on picket lines and demonstrations across southern Ontario.
The Peel strike generated a number of impressive solidarity rallies and big lively picket lines at sites across the Brampton/Mississauga region—and showed that the mood to resist exists in areas not traditionally seen as hotbeds of labour radicalism.
State of the class
All these examples demonstrate that, despite the depth of employers’ attacks on workers and unions, there is still a willingness to resist and fight back, amongst sections of the organized working class. The Occupy movement and its ability to address class issues on accessible terms—the 99% versus the 1%—have had a big impact on the wider public, giving workers the confidence to defend their rights against increasingly hostile and emboldened employers.
But these advances don’t necessarily mean that all is well in the labour movement.
Strike statistics
There has still been no recovery from the decline in strike activity and working-class resistance at the point of production since the mid-1980s. From the high point of 1976 to today, there has been a tremendous drop in not only the numbers of days lost to strikes, but also the number of strikes and workers involved.
Starting in 2006, the number of strikes each month started to dip more frequently into the single digits, and the number of workers involved began to fall from the tens of thousands to the thousands. This shows that the unrelenting attack on workers’ conditions has had the effect of discouraging workers from going on strike in a bad economic climate. In addition, union leaderships have become far less inclined to support strikes, and far more ready to settle for the status quo (at best) or for concessions without a fight (at worst). Despite the severity of these attacks, and the general decline in strike action, the employers’ offensive has not been as successful as elsewhere.
Union membership
Union membership has actually gone up over the past several years, primarily due to an expanded public sector, but also due to an increase in organizing by private sector unions. There are now 4.3 million unionized workers in Canada.
Density has fallen to under 30 per cent of the total workforce, and to around 16 per cent in the private sector. This is cause for alarm, but it hardly means that private sector unions are a spent force—as some observers, on both the left and right, like to argue.
If one looks at the levels of density by broad job category, a more nuanced view emerges about union density in Canada. Close to 70 per cent of the public sector is unionized, including universities, hospitals, schools and many government workplaces. Warehousing and transportation—strategic job categories, as shown by the CP rail strike—have a unionization rate of 45 per cent. Construction is unionized at 30 per cent and, surprisingly, manufacturing is still at least 25 per cent organized, despite plant closures and layoffs at unionized manufacturing firms.
However, private sector union density drops dramatically when it comes to food and accommodation, finance and insurance, and professional and other trades. Many of these categories have never been unionized, but have grown in importance and size due to changes in the economy.
This is a rather different picture from what typically gets generalized by political pundits—that private sector unions are irrelevant and a thing of the past. It also belies the argument that unions can only grow by turning to “precarious” or “low-wage service workers.”
These numbers show that, in some very important sectors of the economy, unions still have sizable memberships, much more than a toe-hold. But it also shows that, if the labour movement is to reverse the decline in its power, unions still have a lot of work to do to help organize workers in traditional industrial fields.
Upcoming battles
The proposed merger between CAW and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) is happening in the lead-up to what could be the toughest negotiations that CAW has faced with the Big Three automakers. Soon after Labour Day, the target company will be chosen to set the pattern, and there is no soft target this round. All three automakers are pleading poverty in Canada, despite all being profitable.
In Ontario, thousands of workers at colleges, school boards and nursing homes could soon be in strike positions. All these disputes will raise the question of who should pay for the economic crisis, and who decides the priorities in society—education and care for the elderly, or more money to enrich Bay Street and corporate executives.
Contracts will also expire in the fall and winter months for teachers in Newfoundland and Labrador; Dalhousie teaching assistants in Halifax; Provigo workers in Quebec; BC Ferries workers; aluminium workers in Bécancour, Quebec; Saskatchewan government employees; and VIA, CP and CN workers from various crafts and trades.
Again, the potential for strikes is no guarantee that strikes will actually happen, but activists should nevertheless remain on watch for workers who do go into struggle. Furthermore, labour militants should start discussing now all options for possible intervention before strikes happen or deals are made. In the process, there will surely be occasions to raise the political level—for solidarity with Quebec students, support for other workers, “peace and prosperity, not war and austerity,” and so on. These questions always helps workers face up to the tough questions posed by the class struggle.
Class anger
In the five years since the start of the financial crisis, there has been a slow-burning fire inside millions of working people and students. It has erupted most spectacularly in Egypt, Greece and parts of Europe, although there have also been signficant eruptions in North America, from the Wisconsin labour battle, to Occupy Wall Street, to the Quebec students strike.
At every rally or picket line, there is a minority of workers struggling to make connections between their fight and those of other workers. During the CP rail strike, many workers (especially younger ones) drew the link between their struggle and the fight against EMD in London, against concessions by Air Canada workers, and against tuition fee increases in Quebec—all the while raising the slogans of the Occupy movement. Beyond that minority, the same sentiment exists. Inside the organized working class, there is a growing sense that something has to give.
Role of socialists
This creates an opening for revolutionary politics that socialists need to take seriously. In moments like these, however, there are two responses on the broad left that usually dominate: one of pessimism that often leads to predictable denunciations of both union leaders and activists for not being militant enough, or one of desperation that often leads to over-the-top praise for any (and every) leftish statement or gesture from the union leadership.
As revolutionary socialists, we argue that labour activists need to be both “with and against” the union leaderships—with them when they act to defend and support workers, and against them when they don’t.
We also have to understand that many of the struggles emerging now are part of a longer-term process, not just one-off events that are isolated or make or break the class struggle. We have to relate to these struggles and the workers engaged in them, not as the “Popes of class struggle,” who will either bless or condemn their actions, but as their unconditional allies, showing solidarity and support, regardless of the strategy, and always arguing for a clear way forward and generalizing the experiences of other workers.
A crucial aspect of our role as allies must be staying in touch with workers we meet from various struggles, helping to continue and deepen discussions after every action they take, and in a way that recognizes and appreciates the difficult terrain workers face.
Socialists should always be honest about the depth of the economic crisis and the weaknesses of the left and labour movement. At the same time, they have to avoid falling into the usual pessimism of the left. What is developing in the broader working class represents a shift in consciousness and a desire to resist. It isn’t an upturn in union struggles, but it isn’t a one-sided battle, either. We can play in a role in generalizing the lessons of some of these struggles and in helping shape the debate about how we can move forward. In the process, we can also win people to a revolutionary perspective and to the need for revolutionary organization—our fight is not just to win this or that labour struggle, but to help build a bigger movement that can get rid of capitalism, once and for all.


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