What Does Labour Want?

Now that Canada is living in the post Harper era, in a land of “sunny climes,” some of the most targeted groups such First Nations, environmentalists and trade unionists are feeling a little less on the defensive. It is time, while the windows of opportunity are at least half opened, to step forward and state not only what needs to be turfed, fixed and amended from the past ten years of Conservative misrule but to go beyond. We need to develop a vision of the Canada that could be, and should be, if we want to prosper or even survive as a society.
So what does Labour want? First we need to define who Labour is. There are 18,000,000 workers in Canada and roughly 32% of them belong to a union. If you ask any one of those 5,000,000 workers, most might say – a safe and secure job where I am treated with respect and am paid enough of a wage to support me and my family. One of the primary reasons people formed unions in the first place was to fight for those things.
If you asked the activists or the leadership of the hundreds of unions across this country they would all agree to the basic function described above but beyond that we would get a multitude of responses. Despite the media’s portrayal of Labour as a monolithic entity the range of organizational models, and political ideologies that frame those models, is varied. There are conservative business unionists who believe unions should be strictly contract negotiators and grievance handlers. This was a more common view when the union movement was mostly white, male and craft (‘skilled’) oriented.
Social unionists see the labour movement as not just representing their members on the work floor but also in their communities and in the political arena. This model became more prevalent as more and more public sector workers who had been previously prevented from unionizing, were unionized in waves in the 1960’s and 70’s. Since they negotiated directly with government paymasters they knew what could be bargained in good faith one day could be legislated away the next day. So they took a much broader view of unions in society.
Then there were the revolutionary trade unionists, both Marxist and Anarchist. Today in Canada and the US they are a very small segment. Prior to the red scare purges of the 1950’s McCarthyism, they were much more influential because they did a lot of the ‘on the ground’ organizing and they had a vision of one unified workers’ movement, especially in the industrial and resource based industries.
Labour activists across the political spectrum would give you widely differing views on what Labour wants so maybe we should step back in time. In 1893 Samuel Gompers, one of the leaders of the old American Federation of Labour which at the time was composed mostly of white male craft workers, gave an influential speech before the International Labour Conference. There is an oft quoted section from this speech called “What Does Labour Want?”
“We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures..”
While that was 123 years ago the sentiments still hold true today .However Labour wants more today. Primarily we want a more equal world and a genuine democracy.
One of the tenets trade unionism is based on is solidarity; that is a unity of feeling or action that leads to mutual support. Anything that weakens solidarity weakens the Union so unions have often been at the forefront of fighting for human rights. Racism, sexism, homophobia and anything that causes people to fear and hate their fellow workers allows employers and politicians to keep us divided. Now unions are far from perfect and we have not always lived up to our own ideals. As Phil Ochs sang in ‘Links on the Chain: “And forgetting what you stood for, you tried to block the tide.” However if you look at our history, from the work of the Industrial Workers of the World against racism at the turn of the previous century to unions addressing sexual harassment with contract language and education in the 1970’s to marching in Gay Pride parades in the 1990’s, unions have been there long before many other organizations.
We live in a democracy. Each citizen has the right to vote, to hold office and to express their own opinion. Is that the extent of our freedoms? What about the fact that for many of us, almost a third of our lives is spent working in a place where we have little or no voice and even less control.
. As Elaine Bernard of Harvard puts it in an article ‘Why Unions Matter”: “As power is presently distributed most workplaces are factories of authoritarianism polluting our democracy. Citizens cannot spend eight or more hours a day obeying orders and accepting that they have no rights, legal or otherwise, to participate in important decisions that affect them and then be expected to engage in robust critical dialogue about the structure of our society. Eventually the strain of being deferential servants from nine to five diminishes our after hours liberty and sense of civic entitlement and responsibility.”
One of the purposes of unions is to give workers a voice and to exert more control on their work environment. However the employers and the governments of the day jointly make that very difficult. In fact one of the primary reasons neo-conservatives are so consumed with their anti-union animus is because corporations do not wish to share power with workers in the workplace or with citizens in our society.
So short of a revolution with a capital R , labour wants a lot but not just for ourselves. As the BC Federation of Labour motto states ‘What we desire for ourselves we wish for all’