Friday, September 28, 2012

Canadian labour at the present

Richard Seymour has published one of his occasional "big picture" analyses entitled "A few points about the conjuncture in Britain." The read is a bit dense and filled with a Marxist and Gramscian language that is hard to handle for those not familiar with it. That said, there are plenty of insights that are not only informative for outside observers of the situation in Britain, but also thought-provoking for anyone trying to grasp the situation in Canada (and especially those of us not in Quebec).

Two passages in particular are worth highlighting as they help us come closer to grasping the situation of Canadian labour.

There have been important wildcats and creative workers actions since the Harper majority was elected in May 2011: the Tory MP office occupations during the postal lockout, the Ingersoll train blockade, secondary pickets at Cat dealerships, the Air Canada ground crew wildcat and pilots sick-in, the Vale Long Harbour wildcat, and the Marystown OCI blockade/occupation. However, the passage below is true of Canada and even Quebec given the active failure of organized labour to respond to the student strike's call for a wider "social strike".
"The only serious, national resistance to the Tories' programme is coming from the trade unions. It is not being led by the rank and file. Rather, the rank and file pressures the union bureaucracy for action, but remains dependent on the bureaucracy to actually take the initiative."
No unions within Canada have established, coordinated rank-and-file-driven reform networks capable of shifting a union leadership over the short-term, let alone the long-term. Observers of the Chicago teachers strike will note the importance of CORE - the Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators - in shifting the union towards a highly democratic, highly mobilized, highly educated union with a strategy of organizing community alliances. This does not exist in Canada, which also means that there is no rank-and-file network spanning unions either. For example, Ontario's Teaching Assistant unions are almost all CUPE locals with the exception of three PSAC locals. Not only is there no rank-and-file/reform network amongst the CUPE locals, but there is no coordination between CUPE and PSAC locals (CUPE's OUWCC has this potential but it is a resolutionary, resource-sharing body, not an activist network)

Why do such networks not exist? Why the dependence on the leadership? This is a deep historical question that has hardly been asked let alone answered by Canadian labour activists, researchers and academics. Yet, the following passage helps us to begin thinking about why:

"No one has the confidence after decades of neoliberal assault and diminishing strength and influence, to risk everything in a big set-piece dispute with the government. This isn’t the 1980s but, alas, everyone still remembers the Miners. The result is that strikes are seen by the union leadership as a bureaucratic manoeuvre to force the government to soften its bargaining stance."
Canada has no one single Miners strike in which the defeat of labour can be traced. Instead, we can look to labour's defeats in Ontario during the first term of the Harris government, or to the aborted struggles of BC teachers and hospital workers in 2003-4. Both these provincial labour movements have since slipped into a long-term period of demoralization, defensiveness and defeats. Where political constellations were different, labour in Saskatchewan and Quebec made large efforts to elect social democratic governments during the 1990s following hard struggles against first-generation neoliberals in the 1980s. However, both the Saskatchewan NDP under Premier Romanow and the two terms of the Parti Quebecois between 1995 and 2003 witnessed social democracy turning to neoliberal fiscal policies. This generated labour opposition which broke the electoral alliances in both provinces, and paved the way for more committed neoliberal regimes under Brad Wall in Saskatchewan and Charest in Quebec.

Last but not least, while Canada's IR regime prevents strikes during the life of a contract, we should treat the last sentence in the passage above as including protest actions too. This would include the Hamilton US Steel rally in January 2011, the EMD London rally in January of this year and the OFL Queen's Park rally in April. All these protests pulled at least ten thousand, but this seems to be the ceiling for such actions which are not, as the Days of Action were, part of a wider campaign.

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