Review in Labour/Le Travail

Canadian Labour in Crisis
Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

By David Camfield  

Many who read this book will feel uncomfortable with how unions and the working class movement are portrayed, but few will disagree with Camfield’s assessment of the cirisis the labour movement faces. Given this reality, the message Camfield brings is important: unions are “necessary” to the success of a working-class movement, yet today they are “profoundly inadequate.” The inadequacies of unions in the face of corporate power are evident in major conflicts taking place even as I write this review. In St. Thomas, Ontario, 1,200 Ford workers and CAW members are losing their jobs. Once the company decided that the Ford St. Thomas plant was redundant, the union simply lacked the weapons to launch an effective resistance to this decision. In Hamilton, U.S. Steel has locked out its workers, members of the USW Local 1005, for nearly a year, for demanding major changes to their pension rights. While the effort to resist management demands is to be applauded, the company has just returned to the bargaining table with basically the same offer it made at the beginning of the conflict.These are real signs of the very crisis that this book seeks to explore: Why doesn’t the Canadian labour movement feel much like a movement, and what can be done to restore the labour movement as an agent of change for working people?

The raw material for this book comes from Camfield’s own experience working with unions and with other components of the working-class movement, plus from a number of targeted interviews with labour leaders and activists. While there is some dicussion of the academic literature in this field, it is not the dominant focus of the book. The end result is a rich and compelling account of what is happening within unions in Canada and Quebec, and a detailed agenda for a new kind of working class movement. This should be read by anyone concerned with the future of unions in Canada and Quebec and would be a useful text in a union course or an introductory university course on unions.

The first section describes the different components of the working-class movement, focusing mainly on formal unions, but also discussing some of the informal and non-union components of the movement. Chapter One begins with an overview of unions and collective bargaining in Canada. It tells the familiar story of unions as enforcers of contracts, the growing distance between union officials and the rank and file, the weakening of working-class militancy and the growing inability of unions to defend their members’ interests.

Chapter Three looks at life inside a union, examining the role of staff and issues of union democracy. Camfield lists numerous problems with how unions are organized and how government legislation limits their capacity to represent their members. While few of these concerns are new, together they give substance to the claim that unions are in crisis. Of profound importance is the observation that, despite their relatively democratic structures, unions find it difficult to tolerate internal debate and dissent. Organizing union activity around defending a contract and sectional interests limits the capacity of unions to act as broader agents of the working class or to pursue class goals.

Having identified many of the problems within unions, the volume goes on to explore how we got to this state of affairs and what we might do to improve the situation. The rise of “responsible unionism” after World War II narrowed the focus of unions to collective bargaining and limited their ability to act in solidarity with other workers. The inability to act collectively has been compounded by the disappearance of spaces where workers can gather to exchange ideas, what Camfield refers to as the “infrastructure of dissent.” The end result is a working class movement both unwilling and unable to challenge neoliberalism. Nor does Camfield believe that the current New Democratic Party might offer a solution, as the party has increasingly come to accept the status quo in its search for electoral success and has larely abandoned policies that might significantly change workers’ experience at the workplace.

How can unions and the working-class movement be revived? Camfield argues that what is needed is not a revival of the exising working-class movment but rather its reinvention, something that has happened several times in the past. He provides a long list of possible actions including making unions more democratic, increasing the number of activists and equipping them with the knowledge needed to promote fundamental change in society. Workers need to learn how to be more militant and to understand that their interests are not the same as their employers. Unions need to expand their organizing efforts to more of the working class. A culture of solidarity among unions needs to be constructed paving the way for a more radical challenge of the existing social structures.

Camfield doubts that this change can be effected from above, pointing to the limitation of movements such as the “Change to Win” in the United States.

In Canada, the efforts by the CAW in the 1990s and more recently by the Toronto York Region Labour Council to make significant change have come up short. The proposed alternative strategy is one led by workers themselves, a process of change from below. He gives numerous examples of such action. It is argued that as unions become more democratic, the members gain more confidence and capacity to organize, and the goals of the union align more clearly with the members. Success at the workplace can then lead to success in making changes outside the workplace. The book ends with a call for new political institutions to provide a forum for the larger debates that are needed to make the transition to a fairer society.

Camfield has provided those concerned with the current direction of our society and those dreaming of a more equitable world a significant service: the courage to engage the debate. It is important not to underestimate the challenge facing those seeking a more effective working-class movement. Democratization of unions is almost certainly a necessary step, but unlikely to lead to a more equitable world without setbacks and disappointments. The questions that remain unanswered are how can democratization be nurtured and, more importantly, once in place how can it be shielded from the other forces in society that have so effectively transformed the working-class movemtn into the relatively ineffective movement it has become today.

In answering these quesitons, perhaps more credit should be given to unions as agents of this process. Camfield focuses on the role of uions in improving wages, reducing employment insecurity and promoting healthier work. Less attention is given to other fundamental contributions of unions including their role in advancing the dignity of labour by challenging a rules-based workplace culture backed by a grievance and arbitration process. As ineffective as unions have become in challenging the power of employers, they are still one of the few organizations in society offering a collectivist (if sectional) alternative to the rampant individualism promoted by neoliberalism. Unions help generate a sense of community and collectivism, and without this alterniatve vision, dreams of a more powerful working-class movement are but dreams.-Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University for Labour/LeTravail 69, Spring 2012

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