Unions and activists have work to do but opportunity too

by Gregory Beatty

We’ve been celebrating Labour Day in Canada since the 1880s — the first country in the world to dedicate a holiday to labour, thank you very much. Over the succeeding 130-odd years, huge changes have occurred in the political, economic and social landscape that organized labour, and workers in general, operate in.

Change is a constant in life, so that’s not unexpected. And as with pretty much everything these days, the pace of change is only accelerating. That presents challenges for labour — but also opportunities.

To get the lay of the labour landscape today, and how it’s evolved in the last 30 years, we consulted Charles Smith, assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s St. Thomas More College, and Andrew Stevens, an assistant professor in the University of Regina’s Faculty of Business Administration.

Politically, there’s obviously been changes in the world of labour over the years — both in Saskatchewan and at the federal level. What stands out for you?

CS: In Saskatchewan there’s been a decrease in the polarization of the parties between pro- and anti-labour. In the past, when conservative governments were elected they’d dramatically change the labour code. That happened in the ’60s [under Ross Thatcher’s Liberals]. Then when Allan Blakeney [of the NDP] was elected in 1971, he immediately changed the labour code to meet the requirements of labour. So there was a political alliance between social democratic parties and organized labour.

When Roy Romanow replaced Blakeney, that started to change. The NDP became much more open to neo-liberalism and the shifting economic winds across North America. When Lorne Calvert replaced Romanow nothing really changed, so when Brad Wall was elected in 2007 he didn’t have a lot of heavy lifting to change the labour code back to what his allies in the business community were demanding.

AS: Federally, some of the biggest changes, and the most direct assaults, have come in the last decade — particularly with the election of the Conservative government. There’s an ideological flavour that makes their confrontation with unions (and industrial relations in general) a lot more poisonous. One troubling change is government intervention in collective bargaining. Rather than have bargaining in the federal public sector happen between the managers mandated to govern that organization and the workers represented by the union, Treasury Board is going to be able to send a delegate to look over everyone’s shoulder. Back-to-work legislation is being levied against unions before a strike even happens. So there’s a massive prohibition against tens of thousands of workers exercising what is an internationally recognized right.

With its access to political power diminished, what is labour doing to compensate?

CS: Historically, labour unions were at their strongest when they were willing to strike and picket and challenge business and the state that way. We don’t see that nearly as much as we used to. So what’s left? Well, labour unions are one of the only social movements left with a steady income that can’t be taken away by the state, as we’re seeing the Harper government do with charities. Not surprisingly, they’re using that revenue to their advantage by raising Charter arguments in court and spending on advertising during elections and outside of those periods to raise awareness of their issues.

Isn’t one goal of the labour legislation that pro-business governments have been passing to limit that capacity?

CS: Both provincially and federally [governments are] tinkering around the edges of the Rand Formula [which requires workers who benefit from union activities in a workplace to pay dues whether they’re members or not]. Reporting requirements under the federal Bill C-377, for instance, are a way to shame unions and limit their ability to advertise and support political causes. Rand is a protection unions have — once you’re organized you have this steady source of income no matter how individuals feel about the union in their workplace. But even though Wall floated it in Saskatchewan and Conservative leader Tim Hudak did the same in Ontario, they both pulled back from going after Rand directly. I think that speaks to the fact that a mobilized, angry labour movement still has the ability to exert pressure on political parties.

The emerging global economy is another pressure facing labour, with transnational corporations able to outsource off-shore and governments entering into international trade and investment agreements.

AS: In the last 20 to 30 years, the big issue has been, “How does the structure of industrial relations exist in a climate of business-led globalization?” Not only is there increased competition, but also competition from economies such as China, where trade unionism is not free and fair as you would describe it here. Under the guise of free trade, and later austerity, that’s been used as a reason for forcing concessions and saying that we can no longer sustain a livelihood that was brought about, in part, because of collective bargaining. We can see that corporate profits are going up, massive cash reserves are being stockpiled, so there is growth in some sectors of the economy. But many workers are being forced to make concessions on wages and pensions.

CS: I sometimes wonder if we exaggerate the mobility of capital. Once it’s sunk into the ground, it’s very difficult to unfix. As Canada has shifted increasingly to a primary economy, multi-nationals have sunk billions into resource projects. Without that investment, there’s no projects. But too often the Margaret Thatcher argument that there’s no alternative, we just have to accept it, is made. Countries in Latin America are having discussions about their natural resources in a way we’re not. That suggests there are alternatives — we just need the political will to explore them.

The workplace is a lot different today than it was 30 years ago. In central Canada manufacturing has taken a massive hit. The digital economy has grown exponentially, and services are big as well. In isolated instances that’s created tremendous opportunities, but it’s also created hardship.

CS: When we look at the job numbers, even the OECD and IMF have said that increasingly Canada is looking like a part-time economy. Right now, there’s no political will from any of the federal parties to address that. If you ask why wages have been stagnant for 20-plus years, and why we’re seeing increasing levels of poverty, it’s not because there’s no jobs. It’s because the jobs people have pay terribly. It’s a Wal-Mart model, and labour hasn’t been able to break down that barrier. That’s not for lack of trying, but unions like RWDSU have failed miserably.

Where does that leave unions? The need would seem to be there, but do they have a future in a modern global economy?

CS: If you look at the mobilization that’s going on with young people, and the amount of women and people of colour who have been organized in the past decade in Canada and the US, there’s reason for optimism. Justice for Janitors is one example of an innovative campaign that’s been mounted. Aboriginal people are increasingly entering the labour force too, and in some cases are willing to join organized labour. That’s positive, and can help deal with some of the injustices in our society.

That said, organized labour has a job to do too. Do unions as they exist today — and the rights and entitlements they’ve won through years of struggle under the post-WWII labour relations model, where you organize a single unit and create a staff hierarchy, and collective bargaining happens divorced from the membership — still work? And is it effective to build the movement? Some people feel we need to re-think that model. UNIFOR, the combination of CAW and CEP, is an interesting model. It’s still leader-driven, though, so the question is: “How do we democratize and make our unions more inclusive?”

AS: I’ve started to look at migrant workers in Saskatchewan. When we talk about globalization, we should also talk about the importance of mobility for people. There could be a lot of promise in having a system where people are allowed to be mobile within a country or between countries. How does organized labour respond to that? How do our provincial regulations cope with temporary foreign workers and the exploitation they experience? For trade unions, it’s an exciting and potentially fruitful opportunity to look at more dynamic ways of organizing.

In the global south, there’s an incredible amount of organizing happening. In many respects, China is the most important. Technically, it has the largest unionized population in the world. Whether the character of its trade unionism is something we want to replicate is another question. It’s very state-oriented. If there was to be a massive upheaval in the number of [independent] trade unions operating in China, that would be a big change.

It’s a challenge, but it could make a huge difference if we see international organizing across supply and production chains. One approach that’s been taken is global framework agreements, meaning that a trade-union international might negotiate a loose framework, then those principles would affect the operations of a corporation like IBM or Wal-Mart in a local country. Ideally, it would stop the race to the bottom, and stop multi-national corporations from using workers in the developing world to get concessions from workers here.