Sunday, June 16, 2013 4:33:16 EDT PM
(left) Mike Kolhoff, Michigan Workers Centre, and Bryan Palmer, Trent University. Union members met at the CAW Hall on Bunting Rd. to discuss future actions that the union may take to battle various issues, including the Right to Work bill, on Saturday, June 15, 2013. Julie Jocsak/ St. Catharines Standar/QMI Agency
For those who are invested in the labour movement, in unions and the politics they are associated with, there wasn’t a lot of good news in St. Catharines Saturday.
During day long conference about 150 local labour activists, academics, and politicians heard the same message again and again: the labour movement is in crisis and needs to be reborn or it will simply die.
The "Niagara Fights Right-to-Work" conference, held at the Canadian Autoworkers hall on Bunting Road, featured several speakers who drove home what they saw as crisis in unions. Squeezed by a hard economic climate, under attack by governments, hurt by disenchanted members and corruption from within and an unsympathetic public from without, unions are on a slow march to the grave.
"We have to be more about dues and numbers," said Sam Gindin, past director of the CAW research department, who urged unions to reach out to the community at large to address labour issues important to people, even if those people are not members of a union.
Bryan Palmer, a Canadian studies professor at Trent University, said the economic and political climate facing labour in 2013 is not that dissimilar to what happened in the 1920s, when foolish economic behavior lead to the Great Depression while labour was simultaneously weak.
Palmer said the recession of 2008 could be similar to the stock market crashes that held up to Black Tuesday and the depression, opining a worse economic crisis is looming.
He said for a time the labour movement was strong and supported by an alliance between "leftist" groups, including trade unionists, social democrats, communists and anarchists. That alliance began to fall apart, he said, in 1950s during the Red Scare and has never effectively been rebuilt.
Unions are no longer forces for political or social change, Palmer said, but are agents that exist only to try and limit concessions during collective bargaining with an employer.
Palmer said while unions have struggled internally, they are under pressure externally in North America with the passage of "right-to-work" legislation, which is common in the United States and proposed by conservative parties in Canada.
Despite its name, right-to-work legislation is not an guarantee that those seeking a job will have one. Rather, it is a regulation that limits the rights of unions to demand dues from employees. At the same time, employees who do not pay dues can still take advantage of collective bargaining deals.
Palmer said if passed in Canada, right-to-work legislation will cause friction in workplaces where dues-paying employees subsidize their peers who do not.
The CAWs Gindin said right-to-work is a threat to unions, but unions are not doing themselves any favours by becoming increasingly detached from the common citizen. Even union members are apathetic, he said, "because they ask what has the union done for us, and all they get are concessions (to employers in bargaining.)"
Since unions are mostly focused on dues, membership numbers and bargaining, Gindin said they have lost much of the social relevance they once had. Unions need to reorganize, he said, to become more socially important, and that means becoming relevant to people in the community who might not be in a union.
Gindin suggested the formation of community assemblies that brought together union and non-union members alike, much like the old leftist alliance that powered the labour movement.
However, he was not certain what forum would be best for those assemblies.
"I’m not certain it can work," he said. "Labour councils would seem like the ideal place to start, but the problem is that labour councils are made up of and are for union members."