by Nick Fast
The June 22 announcement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed former Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff to the non-elected Senate sent shock waves through the Canadian labour movement. This occurred mere days after the CLC – an organization ostensibly designed to build workers’ strength against the power of Capital – elected a new executive, comprised of the Team Unite candidates, and barely reaffirmed labour’s commitment to the NDP (by a margin of 57% to 43% in favour). Moreover, it appears that Yussuff is following a tradition of former CLC presidents accepting government appointments from anti-union prime ministers. (See Dennis McDermott’s appointment as ambassador to Ireland, after his CLC presidential term ended in 1986, by then-PM Brian Mulroney).
A major reason for this pattern is the catastrophic shift of Canadian labour to the political right since 1945. With the passage of Privy Council Order 1003 in 1944, and the Rand Formula in 1946, the Canadian state blunted the power of the working class in what historians dubbed the “post-war compromise.” However, a compromise needs both parties to give up something to reach an accommodation. In the case of Canada’s post-war “compromise,” capital recognized the right of workers to organize, gave workers a slightly larger portion of the economic pie, and agreed to dues check-off, while labour agreed to adhere to collective agreements and not strike when they were in place.
At that historic moment, it is clear why labour leaders took the deal. For almost seventy-five years workers had been struggling against open-shops and for the minimal right to union recognition from business and government. Here, the federal government presented labour leaders the coveted prize of recognition, and a larger share of the post-war economic prosperity. Finally, unions – so labour leaders thought – would have a say in the economic future of Canada.
But at what cost? Automatic dues check-off and the closed shop were ways to ensure union presence in a workplace, but the network of stewards that linked workers to the union were no longer needed. Instead, stewards were replaced with full time employees tasked with tracking accounts rather than developing the workers’ capacity. Workers on the shop-floor were less exposed to union power and to knowledge of the struggles that the working class endured in eras past.
As historian Don Wells argues, labour leaders became focused on their share of the economic pie rather than the defining feature of the working class: its relationship to the means of production. By emphasizing money, contract negotiations are increasingly about wages, pensions, and benefits instead of on the production process, where workers have the most potential power. Despite a steady improvement of wages into the 1970s, de-skilling has seen worker power decrease rather than increase, while capitalists today are posting record profits.
Finally, and most critically, was the enforcement of the collective agreement. Wildcat strikes from radical labour leaders until 1945 were the most effective ways to assert workers’ power inside and outside of the workplace. Don Wells writes that by agreeing to complicated procedures of arbitration, and foreswearing strikes while the collective agreement is in effect, union leaders became more accountable to employers rather than to rank-and-file members. As such, labour leaders made a calculated decision to appease employers to secure their positions of relative power and privilege.
Clearly, the appointments of Yussuff and McDermott to government positions by anti-union Prime Minsters, twenty-five years apart, is far from a mere coincidence. Their policies and appointments were products of a framework that was designed to cost business as little as possible – in that they still controlled the production process and conceded only a tiny fraction of their wealth – while stunting the radical potential of the working class. Hardly a “compromise”, if you ask me.
What can workers do to ensure a more progressive labour movement? Talk to your co-workers; get involved in your union; push for socialist policies and mass action at your meetings. Join the Workers’ Action Movement and establish a local chapter. And before the next CLC convention, make sure your union is voting for radical change.