Review of Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity in Work, Employment and Society

The editors’ opening sentence, that ‘Public sector unions across the advanced capitalist world are under attack’ (p. 9), sets the tone of this short collection of essays on the state of Canadian public sector unions in the age of neoliberal austerity. Working with a broad definition of the public sector that includes para-public organizations, Crown corporations and the nonprofit social services sector, the book explores throughout 10 chapters the paradoxes, challenges and strategic possibilities facing public sector unions in Canada. Due to the short chapters and avoidance of jargon, this book is particularly well suited for a general audience and for teaching assignments in the fields of labour studies and history, the sociology of labour, legal studies and political science, including Canadian politics, public administration and comparative politics. The book opens with two chapters, by Bryan Evans and by Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz, on the specificity of public sector labour relations. Evans interrogates the dual role of the state as both employer and legislator for public sector work, arguing that the capitalist state is uniquely capable to intervene in the bargaining process between workers and their employers in the public sector. The exacerbation of this paradox under neoliberal austerity represents a shift toward coercive rather than consensual public sector labour relations, which Panitch and Swartz term ‘permanent exceptionalism’. The flexibility of legal reasoning in the wake of neoliberal restructuring, they argue, has provided governments with the right to impose the terms of new collective agreements and costly penalties for noncompliance, as well as temporarily suspend union rights through back-to-work legislation. Three chapters on public sector union responses to neoliberal austerity follow, by Larry Savage and Charles W. Smith, by Stephanie Ross and by David Camfield. While the shift from public sector employees as nonpartisan servants of the government to workers with rights represents an important legal victory for public sector unions, Savage and Smith, cognizant of the dual role of the state, argue that they ‘must recognize that the election of a political ally is only the beginning of the struggle for social change’ (p. 54). Stephanie Ross develops this idea further by looking at the strategic contribution of social unionism to increasing Canada’s public sector union power. Due to the fact that it ‘entails a broader view of workers’ interests (beyond the economic) and of the strategies necessary to achieve union goals (beyond the workplace and collective bargaining)’ (p. 57), social unionism has the capacity to broaden the terrain of struggle and influence decision-makers. For David Camfield, however, social movement unionism, because it is a more militant, democratic and solidaristic mode of praxis than social unionism, is better equipped to resist public sector downsizing and retrenchment and rebuild public sector unionism. The final five chapters tackle public sector unions’ different responses and strategies and problematize how demographic and occupational aspects shape union resistance and struggles. Exploring the growing nonprofit social services sector, Donna Baines shows how nonprofit union activists have mobilized a ‘moral economy’ of care, altruism and social justice through a variety of means, including community mobilization and service users’ empowerment, to fight against precarious work and encroaching managerialism. Similarly, Linda Briskin investigates the ‘politicization of caring’ as a militant discourse and an ethics of striking among nurses. Successfully challenging the state’s ownership of the ‘public interest’ discourse and reclaiming the value and expertise of their work, nurses’ strikes and militancy have gathered strong public support. Andy Hanson argues that because public education has the dual yet contradictory task of forming educated citizens on the one hand, while training disciplined workers on the other, the control over teachers’ power has been central to the neoliberal project. Building on Hanson’s developments, Larry Savage and Michelle Webber tackle the question of professionalism more systematically and demonstrate that the state’s intransigence, in attacking professional identity and historical class privilege or status, has forced professional workers into historically less ‘professional’ strategies and tactics. Finally, Rosemary Warskett argues that union and collective bargaining structure have important impacts on militant action and the ability to build power, solidarity and strategic capacities in the fight against austerity, thus bringing the political issue of union constitution and structures back to the fore. All in all, the book offers an important and accessible contribution to a generally understudied aspect of unionism and labour relations. Although a more systematic and comprehensive approach to the municipal public sector would have been welcome, the book is commendable for its ability to highlight the specificity of federal and provincial governments’ public sector unions and explain how the rise of neoliberal capitalism marks an important shift in public sector unionism in relation to the postwar Keynesian order. In this respect, the book provides a broad historical perspective within which to assess the age of austerity, while critically reflecting on more than three decades of public sector unions’ resistance and struggles for a just, equitable and progressive public sphere.

— Sébastien Rioux, University of British Columbia for Work, Employment and Society 29(1) Feb 2015

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