Activism is still the bedrock of the labour movement

(Oct 26, 2007) -- 'Union activity is an integral part of democratic civil society. Our problems are social and economic, but the solution remains political.'


While driving the other morning I was listening to CBC radio. It was a panel discussion that was ostensibly about the news that the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Magna Corp. had entered into an agreement that, among other things, denied workers the right to strike or grieve their conditions of work. In passing, the discussion referred to our campaign in Nova Scotia to protect the right to strike for health care workers.

If you didn’t hear the radio discussion, you missed little. It turned into a rant about public sector strikes. One panelist actually wanted to juxtapose the wages of trade’s workers in the public sector with others in the public sector who had greater formal education, degrees and so on. Those without formal education she said deserved less. Her attitude was that unions had a role at one time, but now they aren’t needed because workers’ conditions are better today. Previous Commentaries

Under assault for 25 years

While stuff like that makes my blood boil, I must admit that it is typical fare these days. The combination of easy credit and inexpensive offshore consumer goods lulls people into believing they are getting ahead. Yet all analysis indicate that the wealthy are getting wealthier and the rest of us are at best treading water or in most cases falling further and further behind.

This phenomenon coincides with the fact that labour in this country and around the world has been under assault for over 25 years. The neo-liberal agenda, which includes the denial of workers rights and dignity, coupled with a relentless assault on the role of the state and public services, has meant that unions and unionists in every part of the globe are often fighting for existence. Who would have thought in the 1970s that workers and their unions, which were recognized post World War II as an integral part of any democratic society, would now be reduced to being viewed as redundant in any given country’s march to prosperity. What a pyrrhic victory for the corporatists.

In that sense, the CAW-Magna Corporation deal must be viewed as a reflection of our times. The labour movement is struggling. Union density in Canada continues to drop. Unions are scrambling to hold their membership numbers so they can service existing workers in the face of overwhelming change. As a result, some unions raid the members of other unions and enter into recognition agreements that would otherwise be unheard of. Soon the “go it alone” attitude prevails and we all end up in a long dark tunnel; a tunnel that produces isolation and fear.

Labour rights are human rights

I think the times call for us to remember the old adage: “Our problems are social and economic, but the solution remains political.” There needs to be recognition in this country that labour rights are human rights. A recognition that there is something fundamentally wrong when 97% of every labour law changed in Canada in the last 25 years has diminished or abrogated the rights of workers, and at the same time inequality looms ever larger.

NUPGE has been campaigning for a few years now on this fundamental problem. We’ve been saying that Labour Rights are Human Rights. Allow us to organize and bargain collectively we say. It’s a cornerstone of any democratic state. It’s good for our workplace, families, communities and our country. Unions democratize the economic life of a country and its peoples, says the United Nations and OECD among many others, including most recently the Supreme Court of Canada.

Why wouldn’t every local of each union, every labour council, every federation of labour and the CLC with the full and uncompromising support of each affiliated union and the myriad of social justice NGO’s that labour supports, make the restoration of a worker’s right to join a union and engage in open collective bargaining be their number one priority. Clearly it’s not an easy task. But I’m reminded of Tom Kozar. Tom, a social justice activist and life member of our union (NUPGE/BCGEU), died unexpectedly early this month. He was a wonderful Canadian. He was fond to point out that issues of social justice are not won by sprinters, but rather by marathoners, with tenacity and courage of conviction.

Tenacity the key

Yes, the labour movement in Canada is at a crossroads. Yes, there will be deals like the CAW-Magna Corp. They will be endured until the movement coalesces around a central rallying point. NUPGE and the UFCW, among others, humbly suggest that reversing the legislative assault on workers and their unions is the place to start. Polls consistently show that workers want to join unions. The main impediments are the rules that corporations, like Magna, through their lobbying, have enacted in legislation. We need to challenge this and can succeed if we follow the Kozar maxim — tenacity and principle over time.

The reason I’m excited about getting our act together is because we have such a rich tradition to call upon and brilliant activists in our midst. Think for a moment of the women and men in your union. Think of your co-workers who get it. They have families, friends, and their jobs and yet they make union work a significant part of their lives.

They believe that union activity is an integral part of democratic civil society. Let’s engage them, engage the thousands of social justice NGO’s that labour supports and engage all open minded citizens in this struggle. Then and only then will union raids and union-employer sweetheart deals for recognition drop from the pages of our newspapers and fall into dustbins marked yesterday.

Let’s not walk backwards, but rather run headlong, full of urgency, towards a community and country that has, as a fundamental characteristic, social and economic justice for all.

James Clancy
National President

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