Looking North for Labour Revival?

Canadian Labour in Crisis
Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

By David Camfield  

It isn’t news that the U.S. labor movement is in profound crisis, and has been for some time. Readers of this magazine are by now all too familiar with the symptoms: waves of concessionary contracts, eroding labor laws, vicious government and employer attacks, defeated strikes, the precipitous decline in union membership.

They are also all too familiar with the U.S. labor officialdom’s response: calls for labor-management “partnership,” often coupled with consternation at employers’ unwillingness to “play fair.” Entreaties to support labor’s “friends” in the Democratic Party, invariably followed by blustering but empty protests when those “friends” betray labor’s cause. Handwringing about union member apathy, combined with quick denunciations when members take action in ways that aren’t carefully scripted at union headquarters.

Facing such a dire situation, it is understandable that U.S. labor activists would look to Canada through rose-tinted glasses. After all, things do seem to be going much better up north labor-wise. Canadian unionization rates are now nearly three times higher than in the United States, at 30.8% versus 11.9%.

Designers of the failed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) explicitly modeled it on Canada’s stronger labor laws, which for them explained labor’s strength in that country. Canada also has an established labor party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has governed in five provinces and won status as the Official Opposition in the most recent federal election.

Throw in Canada’s single-payer health care system and overall lower levels of socio-economic inequality, and our neighbor to the north can indeed start looking like some sort of social democratic paradise to a beleaguered U.S. left.

David Camfield’s Canadian Labour in Crisis offers a bracing corrective to such views. While acknowledging that the situation south of the border is worse than in Canada, he paints a picture of the Canadian labor movement that will be eerily recognizable. Contract givebacks, defeated strikes, calls for labor-management “partnership,” weak and unimaginative labor leadership, unreliable political “allies,” and right-wing backlash all make an appearance.

Camfield’s book serves as a sharp reminder that as much as U.S. activists bemoan the fate of workers in this country, labor’s crisis extends far beyond U.S. borders. These similarities make the author’s analysis deeply relevant to U.S. readers. A Movement in Name Only

Camfield’s diagnosis of the fundamental problem in Canada should ring true to U.S. labor activists: the Canadian “labour movement” today is a movement in name only. He quotes a long-time Canadian union staffer as saying that “‘organized labour is not functioning like a movement at all,’ but as ‘individual, isolated organizations.” (4-5)

Camfield traces this phenomenon to the rise of “contract unionism” in the postwar period, a form of unionism “based on contracts, not direct action.” He carefully lays out how contract unionism was not inevitable, but was rather “the result of historic changes in labour law and the nature of unions that took place in the 1940s.” (10)

These changes, alongside the erosion of what he calls the “infrastructure of dissent,” i.e. “the infrastructure that fosters workers’ capacity for collective action” (69), capital’s renewed offensive starting in the 1970s, the decline of the left, and the strategies developed by top Canadian union officials in recent decades, have combined to produce the current crisis.

Moving from diagnosis to prescription, Camfield considers possibilities for reinventing the workers’ movement, as indicated in his subtitle. He looks first at “reform from above” strategies, as enacted by the Sweeney AFL-CIO leadership and SEIU here in the United States.

He criticizes this staff-heavy, growth at all costs model of “corporate unionism,” with its focus on building “market share,” as a failed strategy. On a more promising note, he identifies a minority trend towards what he calls “mobilization unionism” among Canadian advocates of reform from above.

As Camfield explains, “mobilization unionism involves a serious commitment to fighting for social justice, not just raising union density. Its supporters are more critical of employers and right-wing governments.” (113) He identifies the current incarnation of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) and the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) of the late 1990s as key exemplars of this trend.

It is no accident, however, that Camfield qualifies his characterization of the CAW by date. Throughout the book, the decay of the CAW over the past decade serves both as a bellwether for the general crisis of Canadian labor and an illustration of the limitations of mobilization unionism.

Since the CAW broke away from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1984 on a militant anti-concessions platform of “social unionism,” it has used its size and influence to shape the broader Canadian labor movement. For their part, U.S. labor activists have looked to it hopefully as an alternative to the U.S. labor officialdom’s strategy of partnership and concessions.

A quarter century later, Camfield sees that the CAW’s “social unionism” is in tatters. From the leadership’s embrace of concessions in the face of the 2008 auto bailout, to the “Framework of Fairness” deal with auto parts giant Magna that trades employer neutrality in organizing for a strike ban and no shopfloor representation, to the “strategic” electoral embrace of the lesser-evil Liberal Party, the CAW now acts very much like its U.S. business unionist counterparts. Democracy, the Missing Link

According to Camfield, the problem underlying the CAW’s decline is symptomatic of the problem with mobilization unionism: the lack of a culture of democracy within the union. As he argues, “if membership control is weak, changes can easily be reversed when official leaders decide to steer in a different direction.” (116)

For all its militant rhetoric and action of the 1980s and ’90s, the CAW retained the authoritarian internal culture passed down from its estranged parent union, including the one-party dictatorship imposed by the Administration Caucus. Once top CAW officials abandoned the mobilization model in favor of a more “pragmatic,” concessionary approach, there was no organized force within the union capable of stopping them.

How then to build a workers’ movement that is not only a militant advocate for social justice, but is able to stay that way? Here Camfield considers the alternative: reform from below. It starts with

“a simple idea: workers themselves are the key players in changing the working-class movement. People should try to change unions and other labour bodies by working from the inside and from the bottom up to promote democracy, militancy, and solidarity. The emphasis is on activism where the largest number of wage-earners can get involved and where they have the most potential power: in the workplace and at the level of the local union. This grassroots emphasis goes along with a vision of building a fighting movement of the working class for social change.” (118)

The goal is to get unions to stop functioning as “individual, isolated organizations,” and start functioning as a movement. That necessarily involves not simply bridging labor-community divides, but overcoming the very notion of divisions between “labor” and “community” groups. The challenge is to forge a common identity as organizations of the working class.

This is an admittedly ambitious agenda, but Camfield is not simply engaging in wishful thinking. Instead, he is able to close his book with a variety of recent concrete examples, small if taken individually, which nonetheless provide “seeds of hope” if viewed collectively.

If Canadian Labour in Crisis were simply a Canadian spin on the many critiques of business unionism and programs for labor revitalization that have appeared in recent years, then perhaps it would only be of interest to those wanting to gain insight into the specifics of the Canadian labor movement. But Camfield’s crisply written, deceptively slim volume offers not only an explanation of what’s wrong with the Canadian labor movement and how to fix it, but a view of the historical roots of today’s problems, a moral and political rationale for why these problems are worth fixing, and a vision of how to do things differently.

In this, the book is of use to all who want a deeper understanding of what the working class is, why it (still) matters, and how it can help to create a new, more deeply democratic society. Although now a university professor, Camfield brings to his subject years of sustained activism in several working-class organizations. Through this work he developed a dense network of organizers and leaders at all levels of the Canadian labor movement, whose insights and analysis give the reader a unique perspective into what the movement actually looks like on the ground, and how it has changed in recent decades.

At the same time, Camfield combines this connection to the grassroots movement with careful, erudite thinking about the big picture. It is rare to find a book that lists both shopfloor reports by rank-and-file autoworkers and meditations on ethics by academic philosophers in its bibliography. Camfield deftly negotiates between the concrete and the abstract aspects of his argument, discussing complex ideas about the nature of class, defining what is good, and more, always in clear, accessible language.

Of course, the book necessarily has limitations, given its size relative to the issues it seeks to address. Some will undoubtedly take issue with certain historical interpretations, or critical struggles left unmentioned. Others might find the theoretical analysis overly simplistic. But overall, for what it seeks to accomplish, Canadian Labour in Crisis does so admirably.

All too often, books seeking to diagnose labor’s ills can read like extended case reports, stringing together anecdotes about this successful campaign or that failed initiative, and tying it all together with a neat list of recommendations at the end. At the same time, academic treatises on class struggle and the nature of exploitation under capitalism, while (sometimes) useful, tend to be ponderous, opaque, and inaccessible to anyone without several years of graduate-level training.

Camfield’s book moves beyond case studies to articulate a broader social vision, while avoiding opacity. Moreover, it dares to think about labor and working class movements in terms of ethics and morality.

For Camfield, workers’ organizations are important not only because they are strategically positioned to create social change. They are important because they “preserve and enhance human life,” allowing “people to have better access to what they require to meet their needs and flourish as human beings.” (5) In reminding us of the broader visions of workers’ movements, Canadian Labour in Crisis does in fact make it worthwhile to look north for labor revival.

–Barry Eidlin, Against The Current magazine, Nov/Dec 2011

November/December 2011, ATC 155

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