Review in Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations

Canadian Labour in Crisis
Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

By David Camfield  

David Camfield’s Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement falls within the larger literature documenting the current state of labour movements in affluent democracies. Going beyond numerical analyses of union membership and density rates, Camfield’s text adds to the qualitative discussion by examining the internal and external power transformations of Canadian unions. Despite Canadian union density incurring a slow decline from its peak of 41.8 percent in 1984 to 29.5 percent in 2009, Camfield suggests that density does not translate into power (p. 14).

Camfield argues that Canadian unions “are becoming less effective for unionized workers and less significant for the working-class as a whole” (p. 6). This trend is concerning since workers’ movements, and more specifically union organizations, are an ethically crucial space where workers collectively pursue labour’s interests. Unions are a social good from the life-ground ethical perspective for Camfield, increasing the individual ability to acquire “life-requirements” based on physical, socio-cultural and “free-time” (p. 94). From these premises, Camfield supposes the importance of understanding the declining power of the Canadian workers’ movement.

The workers’ movement appearing insignificant in Canada results from the institutionalization and bureaucratization of unions and their subsequent detachment from workers’ interests. To address declining political power, Camfield urges the reinvention of the union movement from below, which would challenge: the increasing concessions made by union officialdom, decreasing democracy in unions, increasing distance from low-wage, non- unionized, private sector workers and workers of colour, few youth union activists and ties with political parties which do not oppose neoliberal restructuring.

Camfield points to contract business unionism as fostering union decline, which results in a lack of labour engagement and militancy by shifting focus to collective bargaining and a cooperative approach with employers. As a result of contract business unionism, there has been a lessening of collective action and an increase in individual grievances. Also, unions have become increasingly concerned with preserving themselves as an institution through concessionary relations with employers rather than prioritizing working-class interests.

The historical forces that Camfield cites in the conversion of unionism to a deradicalized bureaucracy are the loss of structures to effectively dissent, which began with the institutionalization of Canadian unions in the 1940s as a response to wartime strikes. These transformations include employer friendly “responsible unionism,” neoliberal capitalist restructuring, the decline of the left and the increase of neoliberal minded union officialdom. Indeed, as presently structured, unions do not facilitate the creation of working-class solidarity. Critiquing efforts to reform the workers’ movement from above, Camfield argues that this strategy further disengages workers. Reinventing the workers’ movement from below for Camfield is crucial, fostering democratic social movement unionism based on anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist, working-class politics.

Camfield’s text falls into the theoretical paradigm of the “neoliberal offensive thesis” by focusing on union destabilization due to neoliberal globalization. However, Camfield assumes causal links as lessening the power of the Canadian workers’ movement. For instance, Camfield argues that neoliberal restructuring causes a decrease in union power. However, no causal mechanism is established, while the particular usage of “neoliberalism” is not operationalized. Does the presence of neoliberal policy universally create a decline in the power of workers’ movements? And if so, what are the particular policies and mechanisms within neoliberalism that contribute to this decline? Examining the implementation of trade agreements, like NAFTA, would be helpful in pointing to actual linkages. The use of “neoliberalism” as a catchphrase obscures a nuanced understanding of the specific variables that may contribute to a decline in the viability of workers’ movements.

To thoroughly address the current position of the Canadian workers’ movement, Camfield’s text, which depends on qualitative statements of union officials, activists and anecdotal examples, would benefit from the breadth of empirical research which examines the varied impacts “neoliberalism” has on the power of labour unions. This would also be helpful in curbing the use of the term “neoliberal” founded on universal application and convergence, which Camfield’s text seems to suggest. Additionally, an examination of union decline based on sector and how union tactics differ accordingly would offer more specificity concerning the occurrence of how, where and the extent of union power decline.

Although I believe Camfield’s critique of the Canadian labour movement is well founded, Camfield over generalizes by homogenizing the workers’ movement. Conducting a comparative analysis between specific union practices would expose the differing levels of union power and worker militancy corresponding to their historical trajectories, union policies and campaigns. Moreover, to offer grand claims regarding the current state of the Canadian workers’ movement, aggregate level data and analysis are required to demonstrably measure the significant changes in power that Camfield professes. Finally, Camfield states that the interests of capital are antithetical to workers’ well-being. It is thus suggested that the workers’ movement employ an anti-capitalist stance, dismissing social democratic means to negotiating capital and labour relations as “futile and dangerous” (p. 137). It is necessary to flesh out this argument since its validity cannot be assumed and must be continually articulated through explicit reasoning and logic. Nonetheless, Camfield convincingly argues for the importance of the workers’ movement in Canada as a force that provides physical and social goods. The text points to significant factors within and outside unions that potentially contribute to the current weakness of the Canadian workers’ movement. Providing working solutions for the democratic, grassroots, worker-based revitalization of social movement unionism in Canada, Camfield’s accessible text is a helpful guide for activists and academics alike. - Alissa Mazar, McGill University

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