- Paperback ISBN: 9781552664780
- Paperback Price: $29.95 CAD
- Publication Date: Mar 2012
- Rights: World
- Pages: 196
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Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada
Edited by Stephanie Ross, Larry Savage
Though the Canadian labour movement’s postwar political, economic and social achievements may have seemed like irrevocable contributions to human progress, they have proven to be anything but. Since the mid-1970s, labour’s political influence and capacity to defend, let alone extend, these gains has been seriously undermined by the strategies of both capitalist interests and the neoliberal state. Electoral de-alignment and the decline of class-based voting, bursts of unsustained extra-parliamentary militancy and a general lack of influence on state ac- tors and policy outcomes all signal that the labour movement is in crisis. Despite much experimentation in an attempt to regain political clout, labour continues to experience deep frustration and stagnation. As such, the labour movement’s future political capacities are in question, and the need for critical appraisal is urgent. Understanding how and why workers were able to exert collective power in the postwar era, how they lost it and how they might re-establish it is the central concern of Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada.
With essays from established and emerging scholars from a wide range of disci- plines, this collection assesses the past, present and uncertain future of labour politics in Canada. Bringing together the traditional electoral-based aspects of la- bour politics with analyses of the newer and rediscovered forms of working-class organization and social movement-influenced strategies, which have become increasingly important in the Canadian labour movement, this book seeks to take stock of these new forms of labour politics, understand their emergence and assess their impact on the future of labour in Canada.
”This book brings together a wide range of contributions about labour and poli- tics in Canada, some of them unprecedented. It is much needed: there is nothing like it available and the issues it deals with are becoming ever more important.”
— David Camfield, Labour Studies, University of Manitoba Labour in Canada Series
Watch editors Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage speak about the book here.
Watch contributor Bryan Evans deliver a talk called “The NDP in an era of Neoliberalism” here.
Watch contributor Simon Black discuss community unionism and the labour movement here.
Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada: An Introduction (Stephanie Ross & Larry Savage) • Part I: Contextualizing Labour and Working-Class Politics • Canadian Labour and the Crisis of Solidarity (Donald Swartz & Rosemary Warskett) • Business Unionism and Social Unionism in Theory and Practice (Stephanie Ross) • Part II: The Challenge of Electoral Politics • The New Democratic Party in the Era of Neoliberalism (Bryan Evans) • Québec Labour: Days of Glory or the Same Old Story? (Peter Graefe) • Organized Labour and the Politics of Strategic Voting (Larry Savage) • Labour and the Politics of Voting System Reform in Canada (Dennis Pilon) • Part III: The Prospects of Extra-Parliamentary Activism • Unions, Gender Equity and Neoconservative Politics (Amanda Coles & Charlotte Yates) • Social Unionism, Partnership and Conflict: Union Engagement with Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (Suzanne Mills & Tyler McCreary) • Canadian Labour and the Environment: Addressing the Value-Action Gap (Dennis Soron) • Community Unionism and the Canadian Labour Movement (Simon Black) • Anti-Poverty Work: Unions, Poor Workers and Collective Action in Canada (Kendra Coulter) • Organizing Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada (Aziz Choudry & Mark Thomas) • Labour, Courts and the Erosion of Workers’ Rights in Canada (Charles Smith) • Bibliography
About the Authors
STEPHANIE ROSS is an assistant professor and coordinator of the Work and Labour Studies Program in the Department of Social Science at York University.
LARRY SAVAGE is an associate professor of political science and labour studies at Brock University.
“Who are we/Who is the labour movement?” is the searing question that this refreshing book burns into the heart and mind of the reader seeking a critical understanding of labour solidarity and our labour movement. This question was best dramatized for me at a forum of labour leaders in the U.S., when a South African labour leader asked, “Whose interests do we serve?” “Our members,’ he was told. “All workers,” not just our members, he answered back.
Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada is organized into three parts: “Contextualizing Labour and Working Class Politics,” “The Challenge of Electoral Politics,” and “The Prospects of Extra-Parliamentary Activism.” The book’s central Concern, stated in the introduction, is the “unravel of the labour movement’s twentieth-century achievements,” and understanding “how and why workers were able to exert this collective power, how they lost it and how they might re-establish it.” But it is the unerring focus on the question of working-class solidarity that keeps the book together through the submissions of its 17 contributors.
As Donald Swartz and Rosemary Warskett write in their chapter, “Canadian Labour and the Crisis of Solidarity”: ”Defining solidarity lies at the very basis of labour movement politics. Clearly, the more inclusive the notion of solidarity the greater will be the notion of solidarity, the greater will be the capacity for struggle. Indeed, the construction of solidarity does not have to be limited to those who are currently union members…”
Our notion of solidarity defines who we are; but it also informs our agenda, what we fight for and what we try to build; it shapes/re-shapes, as well, our strategies, tactics, and campaigns of organizing and mobilizing, in and out of the workplace, within and without an existing “legal” framework, expanding or contracting the boundaries of what is “economic” or “political.” It can strengthen or undermine workers’ power, and thus weaken or empower our movement.
The book shows how solidarity narrowly defined restrict the growth of the Canadian labour movement, while a more inclusive definition offers exciting prospects, not only in terms of growth, but more so in its renewed capacity to transform, not just its members, but society as a whole.
Who is a worker? A worker is a worker is a worker? Maybe so, says this book. But workers also have different, unique, life experiences, based on whether they are a woman or a man, black or white, young or middle-aged. A worker is gendered, racialized, aged, abled/disabled, documented (or otherwise), sexually oriented, employed or unemployed, full time or part time, immigrant or locally born, retired or terminated. A worker may be unionized or not, or part of a workers’ centre or association, and organized nevertheless. They may be with or without a contract, but bargaining all the same with whatever tools are available at the moment. They may be inside or outside the house of “organized” labour, but without a doubt, they are part of a global dynamic, working-class movement.
Launching from this basic critique that a worker is not simply a “seller of labour power,” the book’s authors explore such timely – and for some, controversial–issues like migrant workers’ organizing, workers’ centres, union membership for the unemployed, direct action or political action outside of electoral campaigns, advocacy beyond simply lobbying, coalition agenda, organizing without necessarily increasing one’s union density, engaging in social justice campaigns that do not directly benefit the union, and union education that promotes critical analysis of both union practices as well as broad global issues.
All such developments have led not just to new ways of organizing, representing, or mobilizing, but also to various new possibilities in organizational structures, leader-member relations, cross-sector coalitions, and inter-union collaborations.
In its search for alternatives, the book offers two case studies that explore the dilemmas and contradictions of two approaches, without pitting one against the other. It compares the approach of UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers) with that of the Immigrant Workers’ Centre in Montreal, showing the limits of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to labour politics: the more institutional, legal, and workplace-based strategies, on the one hand, and the coalition-oriented direct-action approach of community unionism, on the other.
The authors (Aziz Choudry and Mark Thomas) could have gone further and suggested that there is indeed quite a contrast between the approach which positions the union (leaders and staff) as the “voice” and advocate of “poor workers,” and the other approach, which champions the principle of “self-organizing” and self-empowerment, and enables workers to speak and at for themselves. But that, perhaps, is a minor point in a book of excellent analysis and concrete examples.
There, however, lies the difference, the conflict, and ultimately, the answer to the crisis of solidarity that this book defines and dissects quite powerfully.
The book lays the blame for the slow demise of labour power on a solidarity confined to workplace issues and to a labour movement that developed, more and more, an “economistic” agenda: bread but not roses, wage gains without member empowerment, increases in union density unaccompanied by growth in class consciousness; a labour movement with strong legal and technical capacities that neglected community-based and collaborative approaches, and overlooked a broad-based social movement growing outside the workplace.
In my reading, Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada contributes well to the current discourse about what a labour union, or labour movement, should look like today, especially with its focus on workers’ solidarity, and its framework of the global workers movement against the corporate neoliberal agenda. It offers a language and a perspective that will invite the rank-and-file activist as well as the struggling labour leader to deal with the critical questions about labour’s agenda.
I do have a little quibble; the book is less than successful in its integration of racial equity into its overall analysis. It does speak about racialized workers’ realities and struggles and its discussion on organizing immigrant/migrant workers is strategic and substantive. However, the book does leave one with the impression that the struggle of racism can be reduced to a discussion of migrant organizing or that all (im)migrant workers are racialized workers, and vice versa. Its equity thesis would have been stronger, perhaps, if the editors had given a separate section to racialized workers, the way they offered on gender equity, and had it integrated more fully (not that it does not do so at all) the discussion of racialized women in the discussion of gender equity and the one on migrant/domestic workers and poor workers, many of whom are women and racialized. On the other had, the book’s section on union engagement with Aboriginal peoples is an important take on the racial equity agenda.
Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada is a serious and welcome read in a relatively small volume. Its narrative is accessible to activists and academics, alike. With deft strokes it has shown where labour has deviated from the path of solidarity, what led it astray, and how we can get back to the path which, by walking together, all workers can construct, on our shared journey towards social and economic justice.
As the labour movement struggles to maintain its political influence in the era of neoliberalism, Canadian unions urgently need a wake-up call.
Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage’s Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada, an edited collection of 13 innovative chapters from Canada’s leading authorities on labour and political activism, is a welcome contribution to this field.
As the editors assert, “since the mid-1970s, Canadian labour’s political influence and capacity to defend, let alone extend, [their] gains has been seriously undermined by the strategies of both capitalist interests and the neoliberal state.” Although the labour movement has challenged these strategies, contributors Donald Swartz and Rosemary Warskett rightly observe that “resistance should not be confused with success.” As a result, the labour movement finds itself re-evaluating traditional political strategies and exploring new ones in an attempt to ensure that their members’ voices are heard in the policy-making process. This book explores many of these strategies and critically evaluates their successes and failures.
In recent years, labour’s traditional electoral strategy has not provided unions with the results they had hoped for, even when so-called labour-friendly governments were elected to office. As Bryan Evans notes of the NDP’s time in office in various parts of English-speaking Canada, and as Peter Graefe relates about the Parti Québécois’ time in office in Quebec, while some modest gains were made a situation now exists in which the “politics of the centre-left now expresses little more than a moderate and pragmatic management of neoliberalism.”
The shortcomings associated with unions’ traditional electoral strategy leads to a situation in which labour is forced to explore alternative strategies of mass mobilization, community building, and strategic alliances in order to have its voice heard in the policy-making process. These strategies occur outside the formal confines of the ballot box and are referred to by the authors as “street politics.” The majority of the book consists of a thoughtful analysis of the diverse and often innovative strategies that the labour movement is increasingly forced to utilize.
The chapters contained in the final section of the book, “The Prospects of Extra-Parliamentary Activism,” are built on the concept of social unionism, or a “general commitment to social change beyond the workplace and beyond the unionized working class,” which is an important theoretical approach outlined by Ross. This section explores community-based alliances with various actors, including women, Aboriginal peoples, environmentalists, anti-poverty organizations, and migrant workers. The breadth of strategic alliances covered is a true strength of the book, reflecting the fact that “unions in Canada recognized the dramatic changes to both the working class in general and their membership make-up in particular, and have made efforts to broaden their appeal.” An understanding of the importance of a broader sense of unions, community, and the working class more generally is an essential ingredient in a challenge to neoliberalism and the revitalization of unions. These chapters provide an important commentary on current and future directions for labour organizing. For unionists looking to gain insight, some of these strategies appear beneficial (such as community unionism) while others appear to be rife with limitations and contradictions (such as a reliance on the legal system).
The book offers a sombre yet honest analysis of the current situation of labour politics. It rightly notes that by virtue of being “faced with dead ends in every strategic direction, an assessment of the politics, prospects and possibilities for the Canadian labour movement is urgently required.” The book does an admirable job of facilitating that discussion, and union leaders and rank-and-file activists should not overlook its innovative critiques and assessments. Ross and Savage have elicited a much-needed discussion of the current inertia of labour’s political program, and the book goes a long way in triggering a challenge of the status quo and offering various ways to move forward for those concerned with revitalizing the Canadian labour movement.
—Brad Walchuk studies the changing nature of the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the era of neoliberalism and is completing a doctoral degree in political science at York University.
—Briarpatch Nov/Dev 2012