Review in Labor Studies Journal

Canadian Labour in Crisis
Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

By David Camfield  

David Camfield’s Canadian Labour in Crisis is an important and controversial contribution to current debates concerning union renewal. What makes the book important is its critical analysis and sober assessment of the Canadian labor movement.

In part one of the book, Camfield comes out swinging against the “union officialdom” (p. 4), a term he uses to describe the layer of union leaders and staff members who control and direct the labor movement’s agenda. According to Camfield, the labor officialdom’s obsession with legalistic forms of contract unionism, its propensity to weaken rather than strengthen union democracy, its discouragement of both union militancy and radicalism, and it failure to represent the diversity of the working class have rendered Canada’s labor movement weak and increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of many workers. Weak and ineffective unions, argues Camfield, will do nothing to reverse the downward trend in union density or help to restore worker power vis-a-vis increasingly hostile employers and governments.

Camfield is almost certain to ruffle feathers with his stinging indictment of Canada’s labor leadership. However, union leaders would be unwise to dismiss his contribution as the radical rant of a disgruntled leftist. The questions Camfield raises about labor’s commitment to internal democracy, equity, and militancy are central to debates concerning union renewal and his proposed prescriptions, outlined in a later chapter, deserve the labor movement’s attention and consideration.

While Camfield does not pull any punches in the earlier part of the book, he adopts a more optimistic outlook in its second half. Employing a life-grounded ethics approach, Camfield argues that what is good for working people is what maintains or enhances life. Unions, according to Camfield, are a force for good because they increase the purchasing power of workers and enhance the standard of living for all by pushing governments to address issues of both social and workplace inequality. After laying the foundation for why unions are an important and positive force in society, Camfield makes the case for how the movement needs to be reinvented in order to ensure that organized labor can live up to its potential.

Camfield categorically rejects leadership-driven proposals for reforming the movement which are imposed “from above.” Instead, Camfield argues that the workers’ movement must be reinvented from below. In a section of the book called “Seeds of Hope,” Camfield uses examples from across Canada (ranging from plant occupations to “activist sessions” for rank-and-file workers) to demonstrate how the “from below” approach has successfully been employed (p. 128).

Herein lies the controversy. Implicit in Camfield’s analysis is the idea that the union officialdom acts as a force to constrain or even suffocate the potential militancy and radicalism of the rank-and-file. However, the dichotomy Camfield establishes between strategies “from above” and “from below” in some ways oversimplifies the relationship between the union leadership and the union rank-and-file. Camfield’s examples tend to portray the rank-and-file as more militant and radical than the union officialdom, but this is certainly not always the case.

To offer a counter example, when the leadership of the Ontario Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) threatened an illegal political strike in an effort to gain changes to the governance structure of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System pension plan in 2006, many rank-and-file CUPE activists resisted, creating internal union divisions that ultimately forced the President of CUPE Ontario to back down from the radical and militant action he had proposed. The same union leadership’s effort to demonstrate solidarity with human rights struggles in Palestine through vocal support for a campaign of boycott and divestment against Israel also prompted a rank-and-file backlash within CUPE. Although delegates to CUPE Ontario’s 2006 convention endorsed the boycott campaign, the union leadership’s decision to actively promote the campaign prompted several locals to cut ties with the Ontario Division.

In these high profile counter examples (which Camield does not address in the book), a union leader promoted positions and actions that triggered a rank-and-file backlash from those members who saw the leadership as too militant and too radical, indicating that the orientations of (and relationships between) the union leadership and the rank-and-file are far more complex than Camgield’s approach suggests. These counter examples also force us to ask deeper questions about whether or not strategies “from below” will necessarily lead to more radical political approach for labor.

Overall, Canadian Labour in Crisis is a must-read for union activists who are frustrated with the state of the workers’ movement and eager for new approaches to its reinvention. The book is well written, highly accessible, and unapologetically frank in its critical assessment of the current direction of the Canadian labor movement. Readers may not agree with everything Camfield prescribes, but his engaged analysis will force them to reevaluate whether existing strategies to renew the labor movement are capable of breathing new life into a union movement that finds itself increasingly on the defensive.-Larry Savage, Brock University for Labor Studies Journal 36(3)

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