Rebuilding the Labour Movement One Worker at a Time

The crisis of labour has to be seen not only as a structural issue of the functioning of organized labour and how unions have become insular looking and defensive. It needs to take account of the changing nature of the working class as well. Not only have large corporations out-sourced much work, they have also moved towards in-sourcing, the use of temporary placement agencies, and migrant workers. In Montreal, every morning at any metro-station, you can watch immigrants waiting for buses run by day-labour agencies, which ship them to warehouses and farms where they work for less than minimum wage. The number of precarious workers in Quebec has reached 450,000 according to the Quebec Ministry of Public Health. In Canada, according to the Canadian Labour Congress, almost one quarter of all jobs are temporary, precarious and part-time. Many of these workers are women and recent immigrants. 

The fact that these issues are intrinsically tied to capitalist restructuring make them class issues. There has been a gap in the analysis even on the left within or working with the labour movement. Unable to adapt to this reality, many have dismissed it, failing to see its centrality to promoting labour’s interests. Instead, we need to build a class-based solidarity that can stop the divide-and-conquer tactics and build a more inclusive union movement that is relevant to this growing part of the working class. 

One critical aspect of forcing of labour on the defensive is the creation of the perfect “neo-liberal worker.” The issue of migrant and immigrant workers is profound and goes hand-in-hand in the changing nature of work and de-industrialization. Migrant workers are insecure without permanent status, and their visas are tied to their employers. According to economist Jim Stanford, between 2007 and 2011, a third of all jobs created went to those the government calls “temporary foreign workers.” Currently there are over 338,000 temporary foreign workers, and another 250,000 to 400,000 undocumented workers in Canada. 

It is clear employers are deploying this strategy to use precarious migrants, in order to create precarious low wage jobs, in order to undercut gains of organized labour. Yet the response from the labour movement has been, to this point, mixed. Protectionism and xenophobia are common responses. This has resulted in scapegoating migrants, as we saw with the uproars in the media around McDonalds hiring temporary foreign workers. The labour movement joined in the choir of conservative voices aiming to shut down the program, and “protect Canadian jobs,” when it should have been targeting the companies that are lowering wages through the temporary foreign worker program, calling for status, and organizing these workers. Yet there are unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the Confederation des syndicats nationaux (CSN, the Federation of National Trade Unions) in Quebec, who are building new models of support for migrant workers and organizing them to fight for changes in the program. While this has been a struggle of migrant justice activists for many years, there are now signs that the labour movement is taking it on as a labour issue. 

Rebuilding leadership of the workers involved in struggles is critical 

As the authors suggest, the crisis of labour is not simply a question of building more union density to offset the decline in membership. On the surface this may seem like the correct strategy: the more members a union can sign, the stronger the movement. This approach, however, may not build an effective labour movement. Some unions are attempting to grow through presenting a conciliatory tone with employers, such as agreeing to no-strike clauses, or watered down collective agreements. Also major unions organize “blitzes”-parachuting organizers into a workplace to sign up as many members as possible, shortcutting the lengthy process of building worker democracy, learning the workplace issues and building worker capacities. Instead of building an organization of those workers to defend their own dignity in the workplace and beyond in the community, union blitzes simply offer insurance and services. Many times members don’t even see their collective agreement, nor do they have a shop steward. 

Yet for those who see the necessity of reinventing the labour movement, the current juncture has great potential. Do we build new forms of worker organizations that can build worker democracy and reflect the current reality in order to be better placed to combat it? Or do we push the labour movement to change the way it relates more broadly to the working class? I believe we need to do both. The fact that so many different kinds of low wage workers are left out of union structures and bear the brunt of an extreme inequality can lead to openness in sections of the working class to build new mass-based radical organizations with roots in working class communities, particularly those of immigrant and migrant and racialized workers, women and Indigenous people. Although it can be a painstaking task, and is unlike more traditional event-based activism, or organizing that only looks at the issues at hand and doesn’t focus on building a political base, this groundwork is necessary. 

The Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in Montreal, where I have been an organizer for the past several years, is attempting to build a new type of organization, one that contributes to reinventing the labour movement. Our organizing focuses beyond workplaces, and emphasizes the building of working class leadership, organizers who are from temporary foreign workers, low wage immigrant workers, and placement agency workers-those who reflect the new reality of the working class. 

At the same time, we focus on broader campaigns around changes to the laws regarding precarious work, a living wage, temporary foreign workers access to permanent residency, and access to labour rights regardless of one’s immigration status. Rather than treating precarity as something abstract, disparate groups of workers and migrants are building a grassroots working class response to precarity. 

The other main priority for the IWC has been leadership development, which is a crucial element of the organizing if the IWC is to remain rooted in working class communities, and to build more activists and shift the way we think about our activism. Our goal is not simply to act on our own, but to facilitate the ability of working people themselves to shape the struggle. Although it remains a priority it is never an easy task. It takes time, resources, and patience to build relationships and identify those leaders. So our work may not always be about building a large movement. It is sometimes about facilitating the capacities of working people, one organizer at a time. 

We are also trying to overcome the limits of sectionalism. Alongside more low-wage, immigrant and migrant based community unionism such as the Workers Action Centre, the Immigrant Workers Centre, Migrante, Justicia, and Migrant Workers Alliance, we see new  formations, such as Solidarity Halifax, as well as the renewal of radicalism at labour councils-all aimed at  building broader working class campaigns and, at the same time, a new base. 

How do we relate to unions to go beyond this crisis of Labour? 

Reinventing a labour movement also means being able to support those inside organized labour who are in crisis, and facing a wave of attacks that affect us all. We have to go back to building those activist networks outside of the current union structures. When I first became politicized and active in movements there was a strategically useful model of flying squads. These dated back to the Ontario Days of Action (a series of day-long labour- and community-based protests in the late 1990s), and were effective models of bringing together rank-and-file activists beyond the locals or national structures. Flying squads existed in many locals (including those from the Canadian Auto Workers and Canadian Union of Public Employees). They mobilized union members for solidarity pickets and actions around other movements and strikes, not waiting for meetings and approval from the regional offices. They mobilized around actions organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, housing struggles, and cuts to welfare by the Harris government. 

Now the same kinds of efforts are re-emerging. In Quebec, many different fronts-including labour activists and community members involved with the autonomous popular assemblies-have organized autonomously of the union to stand in solidarity with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). One recent action took place inside a Montreal Canada Post plant, supporting a union that has been on the guillotine of the Conservative government and desperately needs our solidarity. Similarly, in 2010, community solidarity actions supported the CUPW strike and lockout. At a certain point a line has to be drawn in the sand. Cutting home delivery of the mail and the loss of work for 5,000 CUPW members would have a grave impact on us all. It is not just the concrete reality of the loss of another public service. The defeat of a radical union in such an open manner by the Harper government would be a major defeat to the labour movement as a whole. 

Other recent examples of solidarity include pickets organized by activists outside of the local supporting the Porter Airlines workers strike in 2013, and solidarity pacts inside the airports between UNIFOR 2002 and other union locals. These show a way of building more grassroots structures of union members alongside the formal structures. Rebuilding our labour movement means taking concerted action regardless of the internal dynamics within unions and their leadership. We need to reclaim a labour movement whose impact, particularly within the public sector, is felt well beyond its membership. It is in action and solidarity that workers would be attracted to another type of unionism. 

What David’s and Salmaan’s article does is open a critical conversation for all of us concerned about reinventing the labour movement and building an effective challenge to the system at its roots in capitalism. The questions of how we do that and how we relate to the current state of the labour movement are not simple. As much as we can hope that there would be a labour movement that is inclusive, democratic and radical, it is not on the table in the upper echelons of the mainstream union leadership. Yet is this crisis due to the inherent structural issues of unions themselves, coupled with the impact of neoliberal capitalism and the sustained attacks against unions for the past 30 to 40 years? 

If that is what is placing unions on the defensive and making workers complacent in the face of so many attacks since the crisis of 2008, then reinventing the labour movement has to mean both building a culture of solidarity and rank-and-file activism. It’s not enough to focus on simply denouncing the larger leadership and bureaucracy. Just as crucial is building new forms of workers organizations-organizations that are mass-based, more radical, and grounded in working class communities, with a broader, more inclusive vision of the working class. I believe these two strategies, hand-in-hand, can help reinvent the labour movement into a broader working class movement that can both challenge the short-term attacks and become a true social force to fundamentally challenge the roots of our exploitation. This will not be a quick solution to our issues, but it takes revolutionary strategies of organizing and understanding the urgency of what we are up against, and of developing the patience to truly understand how we organize to make change in the long run. 

The introductory piece “Reinventing the Worker’s Movement” by David Camfield and Salmaan Khan can be found here

Mostafa Henaway is a long-time organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal