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Changing the Political Culture of Unions

The Economy, Labour and the 2015 Canadian Election

by MURRAY DOBBIN

With the formation Unifor, a “new kind of union” and the country’s largest private sector union, there is at least a chance that the long slumber of the labour movement is over. An organization that big, with a radically new mandate, cannot help but influence developments elsewhere in the movement. The largely complacent leadership of other large unions will ether be inspired by Unifor’s approach, or be forced to recognize that change is in the offing – which might just mean their replacement.

One key part of that mandate is the idea of community chapters, consisting of any workers who want to join and focused not just on the workplace but on the community. While dramatic membership declines in the private sector union world is clearly a motivating factor in Unifor’s founding, a core part of the response to the crisis is to up the ante regarding social unionism – that tradition of unions engaging in the social and political life of the country.

One of the strongest motivating factors behind Unifor, and a wide variety of other initiatives being undertaken, is the desire to rid the country of the Harper government in 2015. If that is indeed a key objective – and it must be – then perhaps the most important element of this social unionism needs to be to focus as much attention on the economy as possible, to engage the media, the public and political parties in a broad discussion about the catastrophic economic policies of the Harper government.

There are two good reasons for this suggested focus. First, the economy simply isn’t working for working people and hasn’t been for almost thirty years. Wage (and salary) earners have suffered enormously since the so-called free trade deal with the US. Incomes have been literally flat since even before manufacturing jobs began to disappear. A high-wage, value-added economy focused on building resilience and addressing climate change could turn things around over time.

There is a second reason for Unifor and labour in general to focus on the economy. It is Stephen Harper’s only card heading into the 2015 election. It is stunning that Harper still gets the highest polling marks for economic management given what his policies have done. But that is exactly why he has spent over $100 million of taxpayers’ money drilling “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” deep into people’s consciousness. Even people living in or facing poverty have been brainwashed into accepting this absurdist conclusion.

Take away Harper’s advantage on the economy and he has virtually nothing to replace it to get elected. His agenda is one of dismantling, not building. He is unlikeable. The senate scandal has hurt him badly. People do not trust him.

In fact, Harper doesn’t actually have what would conventionally be called an economic policy. With the exception of three areas of the economy – military spending, the resource sector and real estate – Harper is an economic libertarian who would rather jump off a bridge than implement an industrial strategy. Maximizing the extraction of resources (mostly oil and gas) promoting a permanent war economy, and manipulating real estate. That’s it. If you aren’t a part of any of these sectors, then consider yourself and your employer on your own.

Harper is extremely vulnerable in all three of these areas. On resources, especially the tar sands, the Dutch disease is real. Despite desperate efforts by right-wing think tanks and other Harper stooges to deny it, the billions invested in the tar sands have affected manufacturing. While its effects have moderated with the recent decline of the dollar the hell-bent-for-leather development of the tar sands distorts the economy and the allocation of capital.

In 2006 Harper immediately upon his first mandate started shifting billions into new weapons systems. His 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy revealed a staggering $500 billion military expansion over 20 years – a build up that includes stealth fighters, tanks, drones, military satellites and ships. Part of this strategy is to create a huge military manufacturing base to supply weapons to the world. Aside from the repugnant moral implications of selling stuff designed exclusively to kill people and destroy things, this is one of the worst way to create jobs. A US study revealed that a billion dollars spent by government on the military created 11,200 jobs compared to 16,600 for clean energy and 26,700 for educational services. One reason for the disparity is that a large percentage of military spending is spent outside the country while virtually every education dollar is spent here.

Harper’s principle Action Plan for the economy is praying that the real estate sector doesn’t implode. But implode it will and it could come before the 2015 election. Seventeen percent of mortgage holders will be in default of their loans if interest rates rise just 1.5%. While Harper and his finance sidekick Jim Flaherty continue to take credit for “cooling down” the market it was Flaherty who set it on fire in the first place with 40 year, no down payment mortgages. Relying on this sector is tantamount to playing high stakes poker – and no one wins forever. Moreover, promoting this sector is what has driven millions of Canadians into record levels of housing debt – once again, distorting the economy.

A revitalized labour movement needs to challenge all these policies but it has a unique role to play in exposing another set of policies implemented by both the Liberals and Conservatives: so-called labour flexibility. It is this bundle of policies that account for much of the gross income inequality (now matching that which existed in 1928) and the labour movement seems to have long since quit addressing them. It is time to get back to defending all working people – and the Unifor model has great potential for doing just that. Labour standards, minimum wage rate, welfare, EI, pension erosion, and the threat of three more corporate rights agreements about to be signed should all be on the agenda.

Dramatic cuts to EI and social assistance since the mied-1990s has severely weakened the bargaining power of individual workers. Labour standards are now rarely, if ever, enforced by business-friendly governments. Maybe Unifor should re-start the fight for the 40 hour week – a thing of the past for over half of Canadian workers. Gutted EI and welfare means workers are obliged to put up with intolerable working conditions and abusive bosses. Perhaps Unifor’s community chapters could picket particularly nasty employers – while at the same time taking up the cause of ending poverty in Canada by demanding that the minimum wage meet the standard of a living wage and that EI and social assistance be restored to their former levels.

Unifor says it will spend $50 million over 5 years to organize more workers into unions. That’s an amazing  perhaps unprecedented commitment. Combined with a public campaign to promote high paying jobs and an appropriate industrial strategy such a drive could have a real impact. But as unions already know, the impact of Liberal and Conservative economic policies has been the loss of such jobs and their replacement with low-paying, part-time, temporary jobs in the service sector (Canada has the second highest proportion of low-paying jobs in the industrialized world – behind only the US). These are the positions that are the hardest to bring under the conventional collective bargaining umbrella.

If unions don’t address the economic policy front in their struggle for a more equal society, they will be faced with trying to organize workers in ever more low paying jobs. I wonder if taking $10 million of that $50 million and educating/mobilizing Canadians for a high-wage economy might make the $40 million remaining more effective.

Perhaps the toughest task facing a revitalized labour movement is changing the political culture regarding the role of unions. While many workers, especially young ones, want to join a union too many others have been sucked into the race to the bottom mentality – attacking public sector workers along the lines of “I don’t have job security or a pension, why should they?” Labour has to work overtime on reversing this self destructive mind-set.

Workers don’t need to be told they’re being screwed. They know that.

They need to know who is doing it to them. A sustained, highly public, well-financed campaign could help accomplish that – and create line-ups at the union door.

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca