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Why have unions failed in this recession?

by Barry Weisleder


Why have unions failed during this recession? by Barry Weisleder Two recent concessionary labour settlements – one in which the United Food and Commercial Workers bureaucracy agreed to let Loblaw Cos. Ltd. convert more of its outlets in Canada into superstores that will pay up to 30,000 grocery workers lower wages; and another deal in the U.S. where the United Auto Workers consented to General Motors cutting wages in half for about 40 per cent of its workforce at a sub-compact car plant in Michigan – prompted a left-leaning Toronto Star columnist to write a piece, with a headline similar to the one above, that has activists talking. The Star's Tom Walkom posits that the difference between the 1930s and the present recession is that unions were once “seen as the way forward” and represented the majority, whereas now unions are “viewed as bastions of privilege” and “exist only to protect the lucky few”. Unfortunately, Walkom identifies only a symptom of the problem -- the complacency of unionized workers. He does not identify the deficiencies of union leadership that fostered this attitude, and the lack of an alternative which can come only from a class struggle cross-union opposition to the existing pro-capitalist union leadership. In both Canada and the USA, unions have never physically encompassed more than a minority of the working class. But under the pressure of an organized militant left wing, and the example of very powerful (though terminally bureaucratized) workers' states abroad, union leaders felt obliged to mobilize the ranks for gains (and to resist concessions). Consequently, bosses felt compelled to give workers some of what we demanded. That is what forced arch-Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett “to belatedly embrace leftish ideas such as nationalization” and why PMs King/St-Laurent/Pearson legislated social welfare measures. They feared a socialist alternative. Unfortunately, over the past thirty years most union leaders put their members to sleep with tales of class cooperation and reliance on 'fair' legislation. Unionized workers, for the most part, only followed the lead of their union officials. They focused on bread and butter issues (economism). Some rank and file workers who tried to fight for more than bread and butter (i.e. for international solidarity, union democracy, organizing the unorganized, improving the social wage, winning rights in the work place, for quality services and justice for all) were often red-baited, targeted, penalized, and bureaucratically excluded by union officials. Now the rank and file, increasingly scambling for basic bread and butter due to the subservience and shrinkage of the labour movement, which resulted from passivity and acquiescence to the disastrous practices of the labour bureaucracy, can begin to see the need for a change of direction. Unfortunately, Walkom neglected to address this aspect. Certainly, the seismic shift in economic activity from commodity production to service providing is part of the picture of union weakening, but only part -- unless you assume that the working class is merely malleable stuff, which would make its past gains inexplicable. Without looking at the role of leadership it's impossible to assess the larger political context, including the retreat of the labour-based New Democratic Party towards bourgeois coalitions (whether in the outgoing Toronto municipal government, or potentially, at the federal parliamentary level). The problem is one of working class leadership, and the lack of a class struggle fighting opposition, one which challenges the right wing in union elections. Those who argue that the current struggles of working people should not just be about defending the gains of the unionized sector, are correct. But if we are to advance respect for the value of public services, along with a belief that a better world is possible, we will succeed only if past gains are defended. Undertaking that simple but weighty task will require nothing less than a radical and sweeping change of the present union leadership at almost every level. Join in building the Workers' Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition. Fight for a Workers' Agenda! What led to Rob Ford's win? B.W. The 'realistic left' at Toronto City Hall blew it. Thanks to them, the municipal election was a write-off. By pandering to big developers and the rich, by targeting civic workers instead of tax-withholding banks, by hiking user fees (and politicians' perks) while slashing community services, David Miller and company pushed tens of thousands of working people into the boa constrictor-like embrace of Rob Ford and George Smitherman. Joe Pantalone, the hapless apologist for the Liberal-NDP coalition government, Joe 'Pants', the Bob Rae of City Council, alienated his base and deprived voters of a principled, independent working class alternative to the big business right wing, right from the start. Many unionists and progressives in Canada's biggest city were stunned by the scope of the victory of right wing populist Councillor Rob Ford in the race for mayor. Equally disturbing, an increased number of Ford-like labour-haters captured seats on Toronto City Council on October 25 -- possibly enough to fashion a voting majority to implement an agenda of severe social and culture cuts, plus privatization and contracting-out measures. The turnout of 52 per cent of eligible voters, compared to 39 per cent in 2006, rewarded candidates who promised "change". Ford received 47 per cent of the votes cast. Former Ontario Liberal Health Minister George Smitherman, running on a similar programme of austerity and privatization, got 36 per cent. Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, propped up by a disintegrating band of labour tops and fellow Councillors, came third with 12 per cent. Pantalone helped to steer the informal Liberal Party-New Democratic Party coalition that ran Toronto City Hall for seven years. That regime not only raised taxes and user fees while reducing public services. It forced 30,000 municipal workers into a bitter 40 day strike over wages and pensions. It abused workers and whetted the appetite of the corporate elite for more labour concessions. A stormy period of clashes over the fate of city jobs and services is now in store. Hopefully, there will be mass resistance to the corporate agenda. If there is, it may hasten the realization that unions must break with the Liberals and fight for an up-front NDP-Labour slate of candidates committed to socialist policies prior to the next municipal vote in 2014. How can this be done? Long before the next city election, after voters have digested the bitter fruit of opportunism, it will be time to return to the future. Labour and the NDP should convene a broad, mass, participatory convention to fashion a socialist platform and select candidates who can be held accountable to it, to run for all municipal offices. Just like the NDP and labour used to do in the 1960s and 70s, before the left-populism of Sewell and Crombie dulled our senses and muddled the class line at City Hall, it can be done again. Union activists: Demand that independent working class party politics be reintroduced to the municipal arena. Fight for electoral reform, including preferential ballots. Give workers a real choice. Otherwise, the tragedy of October 25 will become a permanent farce – at the expense of the working class and our urban environment.

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Barry Weisleder (Barry Weisleder)
Toronto, ON
Member since July 2010

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