Leading a union in today's environment of declining union numbers is not a job for the timid.
Last week's announcement of a proposed merger between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) is certainly a bold move. Choices had to be made whether the future of unions rested in focusing on the nuts and bolts of grassroots collective bargaining or by taking on the bigger social questions of the day.
The proposed merger's "social unionism" is promoted as a strategic response to the challenges of "neoliberalism." The document portrays the labour movement as "part of a broad movement for social change". Local workplace issues are given their appropriate nod but are clearly lower on the priority list. The proposed new union will dedicate 10% of its revenue to new organizing (compared with the present 2-7% for the CAW and 8% for the CEP) and will focus much of its resources towards broadening the reach of the labour movement. The new union's priorities will include finding ways to organize students, the self-employed, and contract workers. Solidarity is based on a "class consciousness" that can "spark waves of hope and optimism," with the popular support for the Occupy Movement and the Quebec Student protests cited as evidence that the public is ready to embrace this vision.
The proposed statement of principles and objectives highlights the comprehensive nature of the vision.
We form our union in the determination that equality and social justice will be achieved, that our young will have a brighter future and that through our actions, our world will be made a different and better place.
We form our union in the commitment to fight for all of that, and more. And we form our union in the determination to succeed.
It is through our union that we come together and become more than employees. It is through our union that we find our strength and build our power. It is through our union that we express our common goals, support each other, and develop lasting bonds of friendship and solidarity. It is through our union that we protect and advance our interests and build our capacity to act for ourselves and with others.
Even allowing for the inevitable rhetorical flourish that such documents always entail, the choice to define unionism in stridently ideological terms is jarring. There are the requisite call-outs to democracy and diversity but it is clear this is not about genuinely engaging diverse points of view as much as it is ensuring that people who look different from each other are seen to be involved in promoting a singular vision of what prosperity looks like. For those who have different perspectives on life, the document promises militancy and a commitment to seek power to impose a better perspective on society.
Some labour enthusiasts celebrate this as a step that will "reinvigorate the labour movement." The proposed merger document, still subject to formal ratification over the next several months, points out how the "brand" of unions has changed over the years. Today, many non-union workers see unions as a vested "special interest" rather than a broad-based workers movement. The report notes with some irony that strike frequency has declined by over 90% since the seventies, with most work stoppages these days resulting from employer lockouts seeking concessions rather than from union strikes seeking improvements.
There was another choice to be made, a less ideological choice that recognized the importance of worker-representative institutions and sought to rebuild union credibility from the bottom up. Labour relations and politics overlap but should not be conflated. There are such things as workers' interests that are distinct from employers' interests and strong representation is good and often necessary for fair outcomes. Unfortunately, this new union project seems to be about retrying what already has been tried, only this time with combined efforts and some more flexed muscle. Not as reinvigorating as it is made out to be.