Should Radicals Care About Unions?

Turning back attacks from the likes of Stephen Harper, Christy Clark and Rob Ford is going to take a lot more than eloquent speeches, rational arguments and placid marches. Anyone who recognizes this has good reason to be critical of what most union officials are doing to respond to cutbacks and moves to privatize. The austerity drive isn’t going to be stopped by mailing postcards to politicians or channelling money into ad campaigns about the importance of public services. Nor will it be stopped by encouraging people to go to the polls to vote for union-backed candidates who accept the balanced-budget dogma of neoliberalism.

Some people who understand this draw the conclusion that unions are simply a conservative influence. After all, most union officials are opposed to forms of direct action like occupations of the offices of parliamentarians or marches that confront police lines outside government meetings. Most refuse to contemplate workplace action that defies the tight legal restrictions on when and for what purpose unionized workers are permitted to strike. In short: unions aren’t engaged in militant action.

Another line of criticism is that unions have offered little or no support to mobilizations like those against the Vancouver Olympics, in support of the demand for status for everyone living in the country without legal status or in solidarity with indigenous people trying to resist corporate incursions on their lands. Unions aren’t critical of capitalism itself, or of Canada’s colonial foundations.

No matter how much union leaders talk about unity, most are concerned only with their own union and aren’t doing anything to unite the entire working class (roughly, everyone who is compelled to try to sell their ability to work to an employer and doesn’t have a lot of managerial authority, and unwaged people who live with them). To put it simply, unions aren’t committed to radical goals.

These two kinds of criticism reflect real features of unions today. But radicals who dismiss unions often don’t fully understand these realities. From faulty analysis people often draw poor political conclusions.

Timidity and Militancy

One of the most common mistakes is to equate high-level union officials — people who are full-time union offices or staff — with unions. Unions are more than their official leaders: they are organizations with mass memberships. It’s true that many unionized workers vote Tory, accept the idea that cuts are necessary and oppose the demand for status for all — just like many non-unionized working-class people (in part, this reflects how ruling-class success in implementing their agenda has lowered people’s expectations and undermined the belief that collective action can make a difference). But it’s also true that in many unions there are often at least a few members who disagree with the timidity and conservatism of the officials at the top of most unions today.

Even more important, unionized workers who don’t hold official positions that take them away from the workplace on union business all or much of the time aren’t affected by the same pressures that tend to make union officials oppose militancy. Full-time union officials depend on the existence of the union as an institution. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to be union officials. So preserving the union regardless of what it means for workers becomes an end in itself for the union officialdom as a whole (there are individual exceptions). Labour law also makes union officials responsible for disciplining their members, making sure workers obey the law and the collective agreement between the union and the employer.

There are many reasons why workers may not be militant at a particular time. For example, fear of losing one’s job is no small thing these days. The notion that rank and file workers always want to fight but are held back by treacherous leaders is absurd. But when rank and file workers do start to struggle in a serious way, they aren’t weighed down by the forces that make full-time union officials oppose militancy or keep it under tight control. This was clear in the law-defying 2004 strike by the Hospital Employees’ Union in BC and the solidarity strikes that broke out to support it.

The greatest power of workers lies in the workplace. Shutting down services in the public sector or the profit-making of private firms by walking off the job has a lot more impact on governments and employers than marching in the streets (or smashing the windows of a Starbucks). Labour laws may restrict unions, but aggression by employers and governments can push unionized workers who never previously considered defying the law into doing just that. For example, in February 2011 teachers in Wisconsin responded to the anti-union bill tabled by the state governor by taking “collective sick days.”

So we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that people who aren’t willing to take militant collective action now never will. Most unions have the potential to be organizations through which workers take action to defend themselves (the more democratic the union, the more this is true). It’s also possible to mobilize union members to support the struggles of others who are resisting or fighting for change.

Toward Radical Change?

Today in most unions there aren’t a lot of rank and file union activists committed to a more militant fight-back and broader solidarity. There are few consciously anti-capitalist leftists in unions. There are more left-wing unionists who aren’t anti-capitalist but who do oppose all manifestations of neoliberalism — privatization, cuts to social programs and so on — and support progressive struggles in general. But there’s no doubt that the radical left in the unions is weak and scattered.

This influences how radicals who really only want to work with other radicals — an elitist and self-defeating habit that plagues the small and marginal radical left we have today — relate to unions. Sometimes unions are treated as nothing more than a possible source of funding for activities radicals are involved with.

For those of us who realize the absolute necessity of working with people who don’t yet agree with us about some or even many things, the weakness of the labour left is a challenge, but not a reason to ignore unions.

The key question for radicals is this: do unions have a place in a strategy for social transformation? Or are they only organizations for workers to defend themselves and try to improve their conditions within an unjust and unsustainable capitalist order?

This short article can’t dig deeply into the issue of what strategy is most effective in pointing us towards the goal of moving beyond capitalism towards an ecologically-rational and truly democratic society in which goods and services are produced to meet people’s needs, not for profit. However, two points are essential here.

If the history of past struggles teaches us anything, it’s that the collective action of masses of people acting for their own liberation is necessary to make far-reaching progressive change. Small minorities of people who are dedicated activists can play vital roles in mass social upheavals. But substituting the actions of a minority — whether a political party, armed fighters or any other group — for those of the majority can only take us to an outcome in which a small group rules over the majority.

Also, it’s only through directly participating in changing society that the majority of people can themselves start to change. Active involvement allows people to gain the confidence and abilities needed to govern themselves and unlearn the passivity, divisions and narrow outlooks fostered by capitalism and oppression. Social transformation for freedom must be a mass affair.

The other important consideration is that capitalism’s weakest link is in the places where people work for wages. When we withdraw our labour, the flow of profit — the lifeblood of the system — seizes up. When workers take control of their workplaces and begin to practice self-management, they are starting to create economic democracy and proving that we don’t need bosses. Anti-capitalists should never forget that the workplace is capitalism’s Achilles heel.

These two points suggest that a process of truly radical social change would have to involve the activity of immense numbers of people and also break capitalist power in the workplace (it would have to include other things too, including autonomous organizing by women, people who experience racism and other oppressed groups). In other words, working-class struggle — mass direct action inside and outside the workplace — would be crucial.

It’s for this reason that unions must have a place in any strategy for radical change. It’s only through struggle that the working class can change and develop the high level of self-organization and understanding needed to change society. In societies like ours, class struggle takes place through unions (as well as through workplace actions outside of union structures and through other organizations, such as community fight-back coalitions and groups created by immigrants, poor people and others).

We can expect that in future struggles workers will try to change unions, challenging the bureaucratic version of unionism laid down by labour law in Canada in the 1940s. We can also expect to see efforts by workers to develop new and more effective organizations, just as they have in the past.

Certainly unions as they exist today are not well-suited for resisting capital’s offensive, let alone changing society for the better. But so long as workers use unions to act together against employers and governments, they will be important for people who appreciate that class struggle is key for any hope of deep-rooted social change. How such people should be active with and within unions today is another question altogether [1].

[1] For some ideas about this, see the interview with Katherine G, “The Contradictions Facing Young Radicals in Union Staff Jobs,” in New Socialist 60 and chapter 8 of my book Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.

David Camfield is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine.