Toward a New Labour Politics

As I write this review, postal workers and community allies in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg are occupying Conservative Party MP offices to protest back-to-work legislation tabled by the Harper government. I didn’t learn about the occupation and the call for support from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) website, or from the local labour council, but through networks of grassroots labour and community activists.

This exemplifies some of the issues raised in David Camfield’s new book on the Canadian labour movement. The book is critical of labour’s lack of internal democracy, failure to support extra-parliamentary action, and inability or lack of interest in mobilizing workers. There are also some hopeful examples in the book, mirrored by CUPW occupation — actions where worker and community activists have collaborated outside of union hierarchies.

David Camfield has been an active socialist for many years. He teaches Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba, and has published various articles on labour activism. This book is structured in two parts, including an overview of challenges facing labour, and a discussion of how the union movement might be reinvented “from below.” A strength of the book is Camfield’s ability to weave in comments from labour and community activists that ground the book in the daily reality of grassroots activists.

Part 2 of the book explains why we need a labour movement, and why people “should try to reinvent it by reforming unions from below and building new workers’ organizations rather than by taking a reform from above approach.”

Canadian Labour in Crisis is a good summary of debates that I’ve heard over the years on picket lines, in pubs, and at community meetings, and as such is relevant for community and labour activists who want to continue the discussion on how to revive the labour movement.

“Obey now, grieve later”

Some of the challenges posed in the first section of the book include:

  • an inability to effectively respond to concession demands from employers
  • lack of democracy within unions
  • lack of representation of people of colour, indigenous people, women, and youth on union staff and executive boards and a failure to deal with issues of oppression
  • political action that is largely about backing political candidates and not about extra-parliamentary action.

Camfield starts his analysis with a critique of grievance and collective bargaining processes, especially the “obey now, grieve later” principle. He quotes a CUPW activist: “in most cases, it [the grievance procedure]…doesn’t build a militant union in a workplace….and it doesn’t build a participatory union because people start relying on the grievance procedure to solve their problems for them, rather than saying the group of workers in that section have to solve their problems for themselves. And that’s the only way a union can really build itself, and that’s the way CUPW used to do things.”

Camfield looks at some of the other activities of unions: organizing un-organized workers, alliances with community groups, international work, political action, education, and working for equality. He outlines some of the problems with how unions currently approach these activities, and highlights some positive examples.

Infrastructure of dissent

Chapter 4 looks at other working-class movement organizations that together form an infrastructure of dissent, such as the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups, Justicia for Migrant Workers, and No One is Illegal. Although it’s a strength of the book that these groups are included as working-class movement organizations, more discussion of these and other groups would be very useful, as many of the groups are taking a leadership role in reinventing the labour movement. It would also have been very useful to include ideas for the way forward from working class organizations such as these.

I found the discussion of the concept and the crumbling of the infrastructure of dissent very useful. Camfield chronicles some history of the infrastructure of dissent — using examples of community spaces where workers were able to meet up for socializing and political discussion. He quotes Alan Sears: “The infrastructure of dissent…developed a community of activists with many who could think their own way through strategic and tactical questions, and take initiative to pursue struggles and organize effectively.”

Camfield notes that “Today, infrastructures of dissent are very weak or absent altogether. There are very few caucuses or informal groups of activists within unions who come together to advance their kind of unionism….There are fewer places where people from different workplaces, unions or other organizations can get to know each other face-to-face.”

Missing in this section, however, was a discussion about the role of arts and culture in maintaining the infrastructure of dissent. Events such as Mayworks (a festival of labour and the arts) and others are important spaces for radical labour discussion.

Seeds of hope

“When the change comes, it’s going to come very  much from the rank and file, which means it’s going to come from people who are, at the present, going to work and probably don’t even attend union meetings… people at the moment who think it’s all bullshit” — John Clarke

If we are to reform the labour movement from below, and by creating new organizations, then a particularly useful section of the book is “Seeds of Hope” which lists examples of “moments when people are able to do things in ways that are quite different from how they are usually done in the movement.” Examples such as these can be key sparks to workers who are looking for other ways of taking action.

Sharing such examples through horizontal networks (since they are unlikely to be broadly shared through official union channels) is one way of agitating for a reinvented workers’ movement. The resource list at the end of the book could have been made more effective with updated resources, including websites of organizations working on revitalizing the labour movement from below.

Camfield calls for a new politics that addresses the financial crisis, and engages workers in big political questions. But he notes that “for alternative politics to be truly useful for people who want to reinvent the movement, they cannot be politics that simply seek to mobilize and unite workers to change society. What is needed are politics that seek to combat all forms of oppression as part of developing the working class into a political force.”

Camfield provides a useful summary of current debates about labour, and examples of how the labour movement could be reinvented. The book, and especially the “Seeds of Hope” section, could be a springboard to further discussion. It would be useful for the author to develop some suggested discussion questions to complement the book, and encourage debate amongst activists.

Questions might include: How do workers develop and maintain communications networks that are independent from unions so that support can be mobilized for militant actions? What is the role of radical staff and elected officers in reinventing the labour movement from below? What current struggles (such as the CUPW strike) provide an opportunity to develop our networks?

Maryann Abbs lives in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory. She was a local shop steward at Vancouver Hospital for 3 years, and worked as union staffer for 13 years.