The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - CHRISTO AIVALIS

Two of Canada’s most pow­er­ful unions have been de­fanged by a tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion. But this could be a bless­ing in dis­guise

Post­doc­toral fel­low in the his­tory depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Toronto and au­thor of The Con­stant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Or­ga­nized Labour, and the Cana­dian So­cial Demo­cratic Left

Canada has a long his­tory of union vic­to­ries that have de­fined na­tional events and made for a more just and hu­mane so­ci­ety, led by Canada’s most prom­i­nent unions. But some of those ma­jor play­ers have re­cently suf­fered ma­jor set­backs, in a span of just a month: On Nov. 27, the Cana­dian Union of Postal Work­ers – the union that made ma­ter­nity leave a main­stream ex­pec­ta­tion in Canada – was leg­is­lated back to work in the midst of a fight for job eq­uity and work­place safety. Mean­while, UNI­FOR – Canada’s largest pri­vate-sec­tor union – got news that they would lose at least 2,500 mem­bers in Oshawa when Gen­eral Mo­tors an­nounced it would cease pro­duc­tion there next year.

Not only do these set­backs high­light the chal­lenges of the labour move­ment in 2018 – one that has strug­gled to re­plen­ish de­clin­ing mem­ber­ships in tra­di­tional union sec­tors – they ex­pose the cen­tral, ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion that or­ga­nized labour faces: How will it adapt in the face of the con­tin­ued and in­ten­si­fy­ing chal­lenges pre­sented by au­to­ma­tion, out­sourc­ing and work­place trans­for­ma­tions?

Here, the his­tory of Canada’s labour move­ment of­fers us perti- nent lessons. Long ago, in the early 1900s, Canada had an es­tab­lished labour move­ment, but it looked dif­fer­ent than our own, dom­i­nated as it was by craft unions. These unions were rel­a­tively small, fairly ex­clu­sive and cen­tred on the iden­tity of be­ing a skilled trade per­son. The prob­lem, how­ever, was that the great masses of work­ing peo­ple were of­ten shut out, both be­cause there were few labour bod­ies geared to rep­re­sent what some called “un­skilled” labour – the sort of jobs that didn’t re­quire high lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion or tech­ni­cal train­ing – and be­cause some craft union­ists looked down at the un­skilled seg­ments of the work­ing class, deem­ing them un­suit­able for union­iza­tion. But early pi­o­neers started to chal­lenge this no­tion. Aaron Roland Mosher, for ex­am­ple, was deemed by skilled rail­way­men to be a lowly freight checker. But he had a bold idea: In­stead hav­ing a dozen or more rail­way unions rep­re­sent­ing sliv­ers of the work force, why not build one union to cover all those ex­cluded from the craft unions, and forge a united front rep­re­sent­ing work­ers across the breadth of the in­dus­try, be they skilled or un­skilled, blue- or white-col­lar?

This was called in­dus­trial union­ism, and it was seen as the next evo­lu­tion in trade union­ism. But change comes grad­u­ally, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion Mosher founded – the Cana­dian Brother­hood of Rail­way Em­ploy­ees (CBRE) – would be a com­par­a­tively rare in­stance of in­dus­trial union­ism at first. What re­ally turned the tide was the fact that work­ers couldn’t ig­nore the rise of au­to­ma­tion and the con­glom­er­a­tion of in­dus­try and cap­i­tal, which cre­ated cre­at­ing ever-larger busi­nesses us­ing cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to pro­duce their wares.

These trans­for­ma­tions rep­re­sented an ex­is­ten­tial threat for the es­tab­lished craft unions, whose mem­bers were es­pe­cially at risk of be­ing “deskilled” by ma­chines and assem­bly line tech­niques that at­om­ized pro­duc­tion into smaller, in­ter­change­able tasks, and peo­ple started look­ing for other or­ga­niz­ing mod­els.

In short, the cri­sis of the crafts­man was an op­por­tu­nity for in­dus­trial union­ism to build a mod­ern move­ment. The re­sult was the Congress of In­dus­trial Or­ga­ni­za­tions and the Cana­dian Congress of Labour, which sought to or­ga­nize work­ers on a wide in­dus­trial ba­sis. This is where many large pri­vate-sec­tor unions were born, and where the power within or­ga­nized labour shifted; while craft unions still ex­ist to­day, most unions or­ga­nize on the in­dus­trial model forged in a time when cap­i­tal­ism was trans­form­ing, and re­quired a ro­bust re­sponse if or­ga­nized labour was to re­main dy­namic and rel­e­vant.

Since then, how­ever, there have only been more changes. Not only has the Cana­dian labour move­ment be­come less in­ter­twined with or­ga­ni­za­tions in the United States, and more in­flu­enced by pub­lic sec­tor unions, it is fac­ing – and has been for some time – an­other rev­o­lu­tion in cap­i­tal­ism. Waves of out­sourc­ing and ad­vances in au­to­ma­tion, which have been rip­ping chunks out of in­dus­trial pri­vate-sec­tor unions since the 1970s – when union den­sity was high and their in­flu­ence on so­ci­ety was much deeper – may now kick into over­drive as tech­nol­ogy be­comes more so­phis­ti­cated.

And as our world be­comes dra­mat­i­cally more in­ter­con­nected, cor­po­ra­tions have be­come as pow­er­ful as ever, and cap­i­tal moves with rel­a­tively few re­stric­tions. Just as the in­dus­trial union­ism of the 1930s re­sponded to a new eco­nomic re­al­ity, labour or­ga­ni­za­tions must pre­pare to do the same to­day.

In re­sponse to busi­ness con­sol­i­da­tion, unions have acted in kind. Unions such as UNI­FOR grew out of a 2013 merger be­tween the Cana­dian Au­towork­ers (CAW) and the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, En­ergy and Paper­work­ers Union of Canada. Be­fore and be­yond this, Cana­dian unions have en­gaged in merg­ers to more ef­fi­ciently al­lo­cate re­sources and seek mem­bers out­side their tra­di­tional base to ad­dress de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship. But this has caused con­tro­ver­sies in some cases – some unions have been ac­cused of try­ing to poach mem­bers from other or­ga­ni­za­tions – and it hasn’t solved the prob­lem of or­ga­niz­ing in un­fa­mil­iar sec­tors for the labour move­ment, from ser­vice-sec­tor work­ers who many de­scribe as to­day’s “un­skilled” labour, to those in the bur­geon­ing tech in­dus­try who com­mand good wages but still face work­place is­sues which may be ad­dressed through col­lec­tive ac­tion. Sim­ply put, to­day’s unions need to find a way to bet­ter or­ga­nize the ma­jor­ity of Cana­dian work­ers who are with­out union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, be they in tra­di­tional or emerg­ing sec­tors.

Per­haps this is where the his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels are most help­ful. The old craft unions had achieved im­por­tant things, but did not rep­re­sent any­where near a ma­jor­ity of work­ing peo­ple. The in­dus­trial unions that rose to chal­lenge their old ways never achieved a full rep­re­sen­ta­tion of work­ers ei­ther, but they came closer. Now, many of those same unions are the griz­zled vet­er­ans, who must aim for a move­ment that rep­re­sents Cana­dian work­ers in all their diver­sity and com­plex­ity. While there is a lot that unions can do to bet­ter al­lo­cate re­sources to­ward or­ga­niz­ing in non-tra­di­tional are­nas, some of this re­quires a leg­isla­tive re­sponse. In­deed, it was the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Rand For­mula in the 1940s that en­cour­aged the union­iza­tion of mass in­dus­tries, re­quir­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches than the crafts’. In our own time, we need leg­is­la­tion that ac­knowl­edges the na­ture of the mod­ern work­place, and of­fers a path to­ward union­iza­tion that re­flects the will of work­ers, and lim­its the ef­fect of em­ployer in­ter­fer­ence. The card-check model – where sign­ing up a ma­jor­ity of work­ers au­to­mat­i­cally trig­gers a union with­out the need for an ad­di­tional vote, or sys­tems that rec­og­nize fran­chised and branch busi­nesses as one em­ployer for bar­gain­ing pur­poses – are just some po­ten­tial routes to take.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, these im­por­tant dis­cus­sions can­not be the hori­zon of labour’s fu­ture. Cer­tainly, or­ga­niz­ing work­ers in the here-and-now should be any union’s rai­son d’être – but the fu­ture of work and our econ­omy must be some­thing to which we all de­vote pri­mary at­ten­tion. In a time of grow­ing in­equal­ity, all Cana­di­ans need to think about the ques­tions unions face: At what point does the con­cen­tra­tion of eco­nomic power in the hands of mas­sive multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions limit work­ers’ abil­ity to re­spond through the tra­di­tional means of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing? At what point does this power threaten to control the des­tinies of en­tire com­mu­ni­ties and re­gions, ren­der­ing the demo­cratic will of Cana­di­ans, if not ir­rel­e­vant, then cer­tainly com­pro­mised?

And will en­demic au­to­ma­tion – even if it’s far­ther away than some peo­ple fear – only serve to dis­en­fran­chise the masses in favour of an ever-con­sol­i­dat­ing elite with more control than ever? These were the es­sen­tial forces that led to these set­backs for UNI­FOR – af­ter all, how could an Amer­i­can com­pany uni­lat­er­ally de­cide to gut a Cana­dian town, leav­ing both work­ers and gov­ern­ment hold­ing the bag? – but those is­sues will come to work­places and com­mu­ni­ties ev­ery­where be­fore long.

The na­ture of our work­places, how they are owned and how they re­late to their work­ers can­not be iso­lated from our po­lit­i­cal dis­course. In­dus­trial union­ism didn’t just rise from an era of work­place trans­for­ma­tion. That time – the Great De­pres­sion and Sec­ond World War – was one in which the po­lit­i­cal moulds of the past were dis­solv­ing, leav­ing cru­cial space for new ideas, move­ments and par­ties to take up their place in the spot­light. In our own time, changes in the world of work could chal­lenge the same kinds of un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions of our so­ci­ety, which could lead us in ex­cit­ing – or trou­bling – di­rec­tions.

When it comes down to it, we need eco­nomic sys­tems that re­flect the demo­cratic prin­ci­ples we so cher­ish, the ones through which we de­fine so much of our Cana­dian iden­tity. Unions have been a force for gen­er­a­tions, giv­ing work­ers at least some in­put into the op­er­a­tion of their work­places, and or­ga­nized labour will al­ways have an ir­re­place­able role in build­ing and pre­serv­ing a demo­cratic spirit that goes be­yond the bal­lot box. It is in all our in­ter­ests that unions suc­ceed in or­ga­niz­ing the work­places of the present and fu­ture, that our gov­ern­ments en­act poli­cies that as­sist in this process, and that we as cit­i­zens re­tain a skep­ti­cal eye to­wards the fur­ther con­cen­tra­tion of eco­nomic power in un­ac­count­able pri­vate hands.

If unions fail, our democ­racy may well be at stake.

When it comes down to it, we need eco­nomic sys­tems that re­flect the demo­cratic prin­ci­ples we so cher­ish, the ones through which we de­fine so much of our Cana­dian iden­tity.


Strik­ing mem­bers of the United Auto Work­ers of Amer­ica pose by a burned-out car out­side the Gen­eral Mo­tors Canada plant in Oshawa, Ont., on Oct. 18, 1984. The union was on strike against GM amid con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions.

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