Two major unions in Canada, now in merger talks, want to include workers who lack collective bargaining rights.
Is it a step forward, a way to reverse decades of decline, or just a cynical move to make bureaucrats look good?
The 195,000 member Canadian Auto Workers union and the 120,000-strong Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, both of which have lost thousands of members since the 2008 economic crash, are exploring ways to include temporary workers, contract workers and the unemployed in their ranks.
This is the return of a good, old idea. In the 19th Century, when modern unions began, they first offered tangible benefits like burial insurance and summer camp for kids. They sought also to engage the widest layers of the working class in mass action for progressive social and political change.
That led to union-based political parties like the CCF and the NDP in English Canada. But it morphed into an arbitrary division between economic (union) action, and political (party) action, along with the abandonment of non-unionists by a largely co-opted and conservative labour bureaucracy.
That CAW and CEP leaders now express a desire to incorporate unemployed, laid-off, part-time, and young workers may be a sign that they want to overcome the prevalent image of unions as distant or privilege, and that they see Labour as a social movement.
But how does that square with concessions bargaining and with backing for Liberal politicians by these same unions, among others?
And what rights will non-bargaining unit members enjoy for the modest dues they will pay in the merged union? Will they be an active, democratic influence on the direction of the organization, or just campaign cannon fodder?
The truth is, for any good tactics to be fully realized, good leadership is required. That means leaders who are accountable, and committed to class struggle policies. Qualities like those will come only from the bottom-up. So beware of schemes and panaceas from the top-down. Without workers’ control, they aren’t worth a tinker’s damn. — BW