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OFL conflict: what's at stake?

Pam Frache

October 16, 2014

Conflict has re-emerged within the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). At a time when we need a united labour movement to build solidarity with workers who are fighting back on picket lines, to oppose provincial and national austerity, and to defend against anti-union legislation, some sections of the trade union bureaucracy have re-ignited another internecine battle among labour leaders that threatens to internalize and demoralize rank-and-file trade unionists.
The United Steelworkers (USW), the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and others unions are threatening to pull their per capita (the dues they pay to be affiliates of the OFL)—ostensibly because of alleged financial concerns and personality conflicts with OFL president Sid Ryan. But if financial concerns are at the heart of this latest round of conflict, then withholding per capita funding would only make it worse, restricting the funding the OFL needs to operate. More likely, this tactic is intended to handcuff the leadership of Sid Ryan, who has been a driving force in the Ontario labour movement’s concerted—and successful—effort to defeat Tim Hudak in the last election, and in beginning to rebuild labour’s capacity to mobilize from the ground up.
Partnering with local labour councils, the OFL helped organize mass meetings of hundreds of union activists in municipalities across the province, sounding the alarm about Hudak’s anti-union agenda and urging local unions to rebuild capacity among their members. The OFL’s Common Front initiative is part of that same strategy—to build and strengthen community-labour alliances and link union and non-union workers in common cause. Unfortunately, this new round of conflict among leaders threatens the provincial labour body's ability to build on this success (especially since layoff notices have been issued to most of the staff). Indeed, it may well be the prospect of an engaged and mobilized membership that is motivating some labour leaders to try to stifle further mobilization.
Bureaucracy and rank-and-file
As socialists, we argue that the central division within the labour movement is not between unions, or even between left and right, but rather between rank-and-file union members and the trade union bureaucracy—the fleet of full-time elected officers and union staff who may come from the working class, but who are no longer in a direct relationship of exploitation. As such, their material interests are slightly different from ordinary workers. For example, trade union officials end up spending a considerable amount of time with employers, a process that creates pressure on labour leaders to understand—and even identify with—employers’ views, as much as their members.
Furthermore, workers’ struggles actually increase the workload of union staff—a reality that can put the interests of union staff at odds with the members they serve. As the Fabian socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb described over a century ago when considering the role of trade union officials:
“Whilst the points at issue no longer affect (the union official’s) own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the (worker’s) life gradually fades from his mind.”
That doesn’t mean that all trade union leaders are the same or that their role is always sinister. In periods when struggle is low, many trade union officials work hard to mobilize members in defence of their contracts and in solidarity with other workers. But the bureaucracy is no substitute for the self-activity of workers.
Right and left sections of the bureaucracy
This is precisely why socialists are not indifferent to left-leaning and right-leaning union leaders. At a time when struggles are sporadic and not sustained, progressive trade union leaders can create space for more militant approaches and for workers’ self-activity from below.
Like the mass meetings that the OFL helped organize to oppose Hudak, such progressive initiatives can inspire and mobilize trade unionists who want to fight, but who may lack confidence to do so. But this kind of support is no substitute for the on-the-ground organizing that has to be taken up by rank-and-file activists themselves. It will require local activists and socialists to seize these opportunities and make them a success by building rank-and-file involvement. Nevertheless, such tasks are much easier when there is official support from sections of the official trade union leadership.
When divisions emerge between right and left sections of the trade union bureaucracy, they rarely line up clearly on one side or another and the real nature of the debate is often obscured or hidden. That’s because conservative sections of the trade union leadership are unlikely to campaign openly on the merits of a passive membership, collaboration with the boss, or the futility of strikes. Instead, the right wing of the labour movement is more likely to advance its agenda by deflating, demoralizing, and depoliticizing the forces that want to fight – such conservative leaders can be good at spewing radical rhetoric, but spend their time behind the scenes demobilizing members.
And what could be more effective in this regard than an internal fight over finances and personalities? By promoting internalized, personalized, and potentially paralyzing conflict, right-wing labour leaders can deflect attention from their own failures to lead a successful fight and bring down those who might offer an alternative. In fact, these goals are related: as long as a viable alternative to fight back is on the table, rank-and-file members can see the betrayals of union leaders who are all-talk-no-action, which is why they’re so keen to demobilize.
It is perhaps not coincidental that a similar internal battle has resulted in the resignation of the British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFL) President Jim Sinclair on the eve of its elections in November. In both the BCFL and the OFL situations, there is a distinct odor of “payback” from the Ken Georgetti camp, which was recently defeated when Hussan Yussuff won the presidency of the Canadian Labour Congress on an activist platform.
No trade union official is perfect—far from it—and, as must be obvious by now, the culture of the trade union bureaucracy rarely encourages leaders’ best and most progressive instincts. However, in Ontario, it has mattered that the president of the OFL has been prepared to fight. Sid Ryan’s willingness to go over the heads of the most conservative sections of the trade union leadership to the members has been a source of inspiration among members as much as a source of conflict among leaders. It matters that the OFL initiated mass meetings to oppose Hudak and kick start union mobilization. It matters that the OFL has been willing to build solidarity rallies with those on the frontlines from Steelworkers and Unifor to CUPE and OPSEU. It matters that Sid Ryan was openly critical of the New Democratic Party’s tepid provincial election platform and it mattered that he threw his weight behind the $14 minimum wage campaign in spite of the NDP’s silence.
“Strategic voting”
But trade union leaders—even the better ones—cannot substitute for the political and economic power embodied in a mobilized working class. Nor are they immune to the very real pressures they face from an uneven and vacillating labour leadership. For example, although Ryan has been a staunch, life-long NDP supporter (and a five-time candidate), Ryan did acquiesce to the pull of strategic voting in the last Ontario election, even though by all accounts no OFL resources were devoted to Liberal candidates. Ryan also found praise for the 2014 Liberal budget, despite the billions in cuts to public services embedded within it. This has left him open to charges by USW and OPSEU (who continue to withhold their per capita) that he sold out public sector workers and is disloyal to the NDP.
In fairness, the NDP’s pathetic election platform made it very hard for NDP stalwarts and union members, both facing the very real spectre of a Hudak victory and the decimation of trade unions, to call for a class vote for the NDP across Ontario, especially where NDP candidates were unlikely to prevail. Also in fairness, the OFL has long been split on the question of strategic voting—with Unifor, the teachers’ unions and the building trades among key affiliates who support (or have supported) strategic voting and have ties to the Liberals. In this sense, Ryan’s focus on opposing Hudak, while supporting strategic voting but devoting resources only to NDP candidates, is an example of a strategic compromise that contradicts his opponents’ accusation that he’s a maverick who can’t work with others.
Finally, it should be stressed that even leaders who want to fight are also constrained by the state of the labour movement. The weakness of rank-and-file organization itself limits leaders’ perceptions of strategic options and results in tactical errors. Building the capacity of ordinary workers to fight increases not only their confidence, but also the confidence of the best leaders, wherever they are situated. And even when labour leaders are confident enough to make all the right decisions, they simply can’t mobilize workers if they don’t have a base to back them. This is why the mobilization must be built among the rank and file.
Socialists understand that change comes from below and that workers need a united movement to create it. In this new round of conflict among OFL leaders, the biggest challenge for activists will be to help other trade unionists avoid the internalization and demoralization that the conservative sections of the trade union leadership are counting on. That means seizing opportunities to build a mobilized base of union members in every workplace and to generate real, lasting solidarity among workers, from picket lines to the fight to save Canada Post.
But it also means we can’t be indifferent to the machinations of the left and right within the trade union bureaucracy. A defeat for Sid Ryan will also be a defeat for his agenda of mobilization, of pushing the NDP, and of going over the heads of the leaders to reach the rank-and-file membership. It will also embolden the bosses who are, undoubtedly, delighted at the prospect of a labour movement that clips the wings of the leader most visibly associated with the fight against austerity.

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