by Gene McGuckin
Trade unionists across Canada should feel shame in the wake of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ totally predictable crushing defeat by the jubilant Harpies (“The Conservative benches erupted in cheers and backslapping as the final vote was held Saturday night”–Winnipeg Free Press) .
And we should finally feel a cold shiver of fear.
Because, with tragic historical symmetry, the posties return to work signals not only a crippling setback for the union that was key to winning the right to strike for federal public sector workers–through defiance of unjust laws. It also signals the effective abolition of that right.
Provincial public sector workers are staring at their own short-term-to-medium-term futures.
Private sector workers will be close behind. The Harpies and their ilk have toyed for decades with the idea of using strike-breaking legislation in key industrial and resource-extraction sectors with the rationale that they are “essential” to the economy.
So, why are we in this situation?
If he were given the historical background, my five-year-old grandson would have known a year ago (or earlier) that a Harpy majority in Ottawa would mean all-out war on unions.
Months ago we all knew that CUPW was the first big battle (no offense to the equally abandoned CAW members). And we prepared by doing nothing.
CUPW, despite its heroic history, could not have won this battle by itself through defiance of Bill C-6. As its National Executive Board explained in their unanimous decision to capitulate, the $1,000-a-day fines to defiant members would have destroyed the union.
Much oohing and aahing was dutifully directed at the 58-hour filibuster of C-6 by the officially and loyally oppositional NDP. But even my unborn great-grandchildren would know that CUPW received absolutely zero game-changing reinforcement from this charming bit of parliamentary theatre masquerading as democracy.
So then, there was nothing we could do, right?
Unless we gave a moment’s thought to why trade unions came into existence and how they achieved a durable existence, to the very meaning of “union”: individual workers and small groups of working people organized to fight powerful enemies by joining together in bigger groups.
So, given our universal foreknowledge about the fight CUPW would face and the stakes involved, why did we trade unionists not unite across this country–and not just to send letters to the editor, cheer on the NDP, and take donuts and sentiments of solidarity to the posties’ picket lines?
Why did we not prepare millions of union members across the continent with discussions in locals, labour councils, and labour federations? In news letters and at support rallies? Why did we not unite–as BC unionists did in 1982 to support telephone workers–by holding escalating regional general work stoppages across the continent?
What an impact the NDP filibuster would have had with that going on outside the hallowed halls of Harpyland.
Why were we not willing and able to carry the fight, if necessary, to the point of a national general strike?
And why do our labour leaders continue to ignore this option and quash any discussion of it when it arises among the members? Their alternative, their next-year-in-Jerusalem quest to elect the NDP to national government, is not going to happen. And the second-best elevation of the party (temporarily) to official, loyal opposition, has graphically demonstrated its shortcomings in this battle.
“Union” means nothing if we continue to avoid “uniting” to fight back against our attackers. It would be far better to change this pattern earlier rather than later–when it might no longer matter.
Gene McGuckin is a retired BC paperworker