Is Labour Doomed?

Last week (Feb. 2nd) I drove up to London, Ontario, to shoot some film footage of the locked-out workers picketing outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant for a documentary I am working on. The company, the only one to make locomotives in Canada, is owned by Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest equipment manufacturer. They’d locked out the entire workforce of 450 workers on New Year’s Day after demanding wage cuts as high as 50%.

While we stamped our feet in the cold, I spoke to Bob Scott, the plant chairman for the CAW Local 27 unit that represents the workers. A pleasant, middle-aged fellow, Scott said  the company always planned to lock them out and refused to negotiate after the gates were padlocked. Scott seemed  stunned at how Caterpillar had thrown out all norms of labour relations. He explained the company had opened a plant in Muncie, Indiana, and the Canadian workers were told they had to compete with the shitty wages Caterpillar was paying its American workforce.

The day after my visit to the picket line, the really bad news hit: Caterpillar was closing the Electro-Motive plant in London for good. It was no accident this occurred just as Indiana was announcing it had become a right-to-work state, making it almost impossible to organize unions there.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, Toronto’s right-wing thug of a mayor, Rob Ford, laid down an ultimatum to the city’s 6,000 outside workers, saying nearly all of their seniority rights would be stripped. It was a take it or leave it deal. CUPE Local 416 caved in and accepted much of what Ford was demanding, allowing him greater ease to contract out jobs.

These are just two recent examples of how capital and its right-wing political minions are determined to eradicate what’s left of organized labour. And it begs the question – is the labour movement, as we currently know it, about to be wiped out?

Unfortunately, it’s not looking good. Labour had been losing ground for decades. In the US, only 11.4% of the entire workforce is unionized, and less than 9% of the private sector. In the 1950s, 36% of American workers belonged to unions. In Canada it’s down to 27.5% of the entire workforce being unionized, with only 17% of workers in the private sector holding union cards.

The current recession and political climate have clearly emboldened capital to finish off what is left of the labour movement.

Unions have been hard hit by a number of forces they’ve been ill-equipped to respond to. In North America’s private sector, free trade deals and new technologies allowed corporations to transplant manufacturing facilities offshore to low-wage, developing-world havens such as China, India and Latin America. National unions like the CAW can do very little but watch as the likes of Caterpillar shut down plants in Canada and move production across the border to the US or Mexico where they can offer desperate workers there wages at half the cost. And do so while reaping huge profits, as Caterpillar is.

While industrial unions were once the backbone of the labour movement, having mass memberships in large assembly plants, automation reduced those workforces to a shadow of their former sizes. Now unions like the CAW and USW have more security guards and stewardesses as members than autoworkers and steelworkers.  Meanwhile, with the rise of the service industry, which is usually made up of small workplaces, unions have generally failed in making inroads into that sector (Wal-Mart, for example, remains steadfastly union-free, despite being the world’s biggest retailer). Organizing McDonald’s or Starbucks, even though they are multinationals, is difficult, given the small and transient workforces in such retail outlets.

But labour has been its own worst enemy, too. What we are  witnessing is the consequence of embracing the so-called “business” model of unionism – the form of trade unionism that sprang up in the 1950s as a result of the anti-communist hysteria of that era. Back then, unions, which had been organized mostly by radicals, adopted a corporatist, Red-baiting mindset that claimed what was good for the company was good for the union. Unions got into bed with capital and embraced the “motor league” approach to unionism, whereby workers are serviced by staff and not encouraged to embrace more radical notions of workplace activism.

Consequently, workers now judge unions on how well they’re serviced, and dissuaded from taking matters into their own hands. Shopfloor militancy in the form of wild cat strikes and plant occupations disappeared. Instead, grievances are funnelled through the legal process, entailing lawyers and labour boards. Unions have become less and less of a presence in the lives of most workers, which is one reason unions are reluctant to call strikes: they can’t be sure their own members will walk out onto the picket lines.

During the nine years I worked at the CBC, I was a member of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The CMG is not a terrible union per se, although it’s a pretty useless one. The Guild displayed all the problems associated with the current union model. For example, I never knew who our shop steward was or even if we had one. In all the years I was there, not once did a union rep come by our offices to introduce themselves and talk about the union and encourage us to get involved – despite the hefty union dues we paid. The CBC was adept at getting rid of people by isolating and picking them off one by one. And the CMG was pretty adept at not being able to stop them from doing so.

In 2005, the CBC locked us all out in an effort to ring concessions, specifically by contracting out full-time jobs. The Guild, after two months on the picket lines, eventually caved in and signed a concessionary contract, and then proudly proclaimed it as a victory. It is was far cry from the days when Bob White was refusing to swallow concessions demanded of him by GM, Ford and Chrysler. Today, unions seem to protest feebly – before meekly accepting their employers’ demands for rollbacks.

I would dare say what I saw with CMG is pretty typical of the experience most workers  have with unions. You pay your dues and the union only becomes of interest during contract time, or on the rare occasion you might strike, or should you need to file a grievance. Otherwise they don’t have much of a foothold on the shopfloor.

Which is why unions are now so vulnerable to the onslaught launched against them by corporations and governments.

I predict unions will increasingly become irrelevant as long as they retain the old form of union structure and mentality. A return to a more militant, action-oriented and community-based form of unionism will be the only long-term remedy to the labour movement’s survival. Otherwise, what happened to the Electro-Motive and City of Toronto workers will become the norm and unions will become even more anachronistic than they already are.

(My  exposé of the crimes of Canada’s financial industry, “Thieves of Bay Street” is being published by Random House Canada in mid-April. You can read about it here:

Or pre-order it here:


  • ditto with my union, Canadian Association of Profession Employees.

    There is a large cultural question that the unions are losing badly on right now- the local presence. The bread and butter- with all due respect to my fellow trade unionists, but unless we see a revolution in unionism at the local level, we will see exactly what Bruce is predicting.

    I know it is wonderful to go global and think global, but we just have been attacked too long at the local level, it has been a culture war we lost a long time ago.

    Now I am not talking all locals as there are some great examples of well functioning local, but in my quest to create a survey of local unions in Canada, after conferring with many IR experts in some key places, the idea was, we need to understand the position of the local. And I think one of key areas of concern was to find out just how hollow the local is. It starts at the roots, and I do think most of labour understands that, as every major document I have seen in the last 10 years regarding labour has the works- renewal, rebuilding, starting over, etc in the title.

    Lets take the next generation of trade unionists. They will be online communicators, yet the standard union model of making use of the internet is totally mirroring the corporates world of use of the internet- one way information- top down.

    From health and safety, to work injuries, to many of the day to day workplace needs, I find the local is further an further removed from its position of relevancy and a rebirth is needed. And please don;t say to me it is a matter of resources- as with the internet here, all sorts of new opportunities have arrived like 10 years ago and if you look, not much in the way of breathing in this tech and using it to preserve unionism has been looked at seriously.

    I have worker on Labourstart for 3 years and I have been inside the tech labour circle to see just how underfunded, not used and the politics behind it all. I think nationals have got to get over their fear of the local and breath in the members. The current course, especially during these stormy times is like driving straight into an iceberg.

    Sorry but Bruce hit a soft spot in me and I have to say I am not one bit impressed with local unions or the national support of them. Forget high priced biennial conventions, they suck up all the cash and are just so 1950’s. We have got to move forward and we need some new vision here.

  • Unions are supposed to be democratic organizations.

    People vote in pro-business governments. It shouldn’t be surprising they vote in pro-business union leaders.

  • Unfortunately, “a return to a more militant, action-oriented and community-based form of unionism” might be a Catch 22. The current legal structure for labour relations in Canada highly favours the business model of unionism. Wild-cat strikes are prohibited, so are work to rule campagins and political strikes. This legal structure has to be changed to give unions and union members greater freedom in picking their tactics. Unfortunately, for the legal structure to change, workers are going to have to be more effective in organizing, agitating and making demands of government.

  • Christopher Albertyn

    There many dimensions to advancing and promoting unionization. Some are as described. But part of the vulnerability of workers in individual plants is the atomized model of bargaining that characterizes most of North American labour relations. Where bargaining is centralized, across industry or across a region, the union (and the workers) has much greater leverage. We see a form of centralized bargaining in the auto sector, through pattern bargaining where the CAW has substantially maintained decent working conditions, despite the massive financial assault on that industry. Where bargaining is centralized, as in Germany and northern Europe, union participation rates are much higher and unions are part of tripartite processes (government, employer, union) able, to an extent, to influence macro economic issues. We have very few structures of centralized bargaining in Canada and the law does not generally support it. Construction unions are strong precisely because they bargain across their trades and so can set the conditions for the whole sector. One aspect of the complex issue of how to revive unionization and workplace democracy is how to promote centralized bargaining. The law needs amendment to enable this to occur. So, for example, if there were centralized bargaining with binding agreements for an industry, Walmart could be required to abide by the retail industry rates and conditions negotiated, rather than having all compete to drop to its level.

  • Caterpillar was quick to move their manufacturing facilities down south. How about some help from our provincial and federal governments with legislation to prevent Caterpillar from selling their products here? Quickly.

  • One problem I frequently hear about unions is petty or not so petty favoritism where members who didn’t support the current regime are frozen out.

    That’s the kind of problems government mostly fixed decades ago, like where the local postmaster would change when the government changed.

  • Just wanted to add something on locals. I have seen some very good locals in terms of functionality. Democracy at work and worker right, can only be wholly attained through a well functioning collective of worker interests, and that is the fuel that unionism was born upon. We need to get back to that. There is no better communicator on the value and benefits of a union, than a well functioning local. Nationals can campaign and try and fight the culture war that the right launched decades ago, but the best way to combat the decline of unionism is to focus on the locals- back to basics. But it has needs to be a rebirth that uses resources wisely and effectively.

    Take my own union- the national is so paranoid of members and locals, that they actually disbanded CAPE local 503 and all its executive at Statistics Canada for representing members like myself. My own local president and all the executive was banned for life from the union because he was actually representing members- no Joking itw as the most sickening display of unionism I have witnessed in my long days of Labour Studies. Clayton T. is such a grand man and a local president that was active and in the ball, and because he came in second in the national race for presidency, the current regime, rigged it up to ban him and his executive for life. I digress, sorry.

    But I have seen locals like one in Brockville CEP local 510, so actively representing its members, at a massive specialty Phillips Cable Plant. Like Caterpillar CAW local 27, Phillips was closed down and all the equipment moved to Marion Indiana in 1998. Not sure what is up with Indiana but it seems like a place for Canadian branch plants to be moved. Anyway I spent 3 years studying that local and several around the Kingston Brockville area and seen quite a few effective industrial unions locals. The very heart and soul of unionism and it was passion, intelligence, and membership oriented that kept these locals strong and then whipsawed or closed down and yes, that is when a global response or legislation of some sort would help.

  • I think it’s no accident that much of the remaining unionized workforce is public sector. It’s difficult and would be pretty bad optics for the government to have its work done in India. Globalization has far less effect on government services, although we keep seeing attempts to change that (and to get around it with privatization).
    In the private sector, unions have been eroded seriously for many reasons, but globalization and “free trade” is perhaps the biggest. Workers have little bargaining power if the employer can simply move the work somewhere lower wage with different rules. The race to the bottom is very real. Both the workers themselves, unionized or not, and the frameworks (legal etc.) surrounding them will come under great pressure to move downwards to match “lower” jurisdictions they trade freely with.

    But globalization and free trade are not natural disasters, nor the products of relentless technology change. They are the products of regulatory decisions. If we want recovery for workers and room for legal and institutional environments that help labour, what’s needed, quite simply, is protectionism. The knock against protectionism was always that it resulted in goods being manufactured and services provided within the protectionist country when it would be cheaper to buy them from elsewhere. To which my basic response is yeah, so? That’s another way of saying protectionism used to force employers to deal with workers who were all on a level playing field, which often resulted in decent wages. It is often objected that this was “less efficient”, but that’s only true if you define “efficiency” as “the maximum possible extraction of surplus from the workers for the owners”. But if that’s what “efficiency” is, then a maximally efficient economy would by definition be one in which nearly everyone is in extreme poverty. Perhaps we’d be better off with a different goal.

  • “There is a large cultural question that the unions are losing badly on right now- the local presence. The bread and butter- with all due respect to my fellow trade unionists, but unless we see a revolution in unionism at the local level, we will see exactly what Bruce is predicting.”

    That is an extremely good point. Unions need to start being part of the public, hold public breakfasts and don’t let them be co-opted by any other group regardless of its cause. People need to associate unions with good things not the lies they are told. One thing that could be very useful is for unions with a big and strong member force start patrolling their local neighborhoods to discourage crime and be visible, get to know locals. This could lead to an end to the sort of pro-authoritarian government/cop worship that leads to people with a 40k a year income vote conservative because they are tough on crime and other associated horseshit.

    “Unfortunately, “a return to a more militant, action-oriented and community-based form of unionism” might be a Catch 22. The current legal structure for labour relations in Canada highly favours the business model of unionism. Wild-cat strikes are prohibited, so are work to rule campagins and political strikes.”

    Frankly, those who work against unions do not give two shits about the law unless it helps them. Unions do not need to be and are not like that but there is such a thing as an unjust law. It is important for members of unions, especially where less higher education is common that they have reached a point that if they do not start to regain some power on their side they can and will find themselves down to poverty level wages or find themselves jobless on the streets very quickly and neither the all but dead social safety net or going to Fort Murray, since we can expect hordes of guest workers poring in from the U.S. as it tears itself apart, and elsewhere, can save them. Breaking the law cannot be done as a strategy in of itself but it neither can it be reason in of itself for not taking an action

    This can sound extreme, reckless or like dirty, filthy communism to some but we live in difficult times. .

  • I wish economists and unionists would make a bigger issue out of the Scandinavian countries insanely high rates of unionization (over 50%).

    That sort of rate is spectacular (by our standards). It’s especially worth bringing up OVER & OVER again because those nations have highly competitive economies & high standards of living.

    I remember conservatives holding up nations like Ireland & Estonia as these great foreign examples. Okay, they collapsed…but not before the cons sold the message that Europeans without labour-protections fare the best.

    Here we are, post-crash, and it’s those Scandinavian countries doing just fine…unions and all. Yet progressives rarely mention our viking brethren.

    We should be hailing them any chance we get. People need examples of unionization other than Detroit.

  • I have been associated with the Canadian Media Guild and its predecessor unions for more than 38 years, some as an elected official and some as staff. I can say that if Bruce Livesey was a member of the Guild for nine years he was invisible. I can’t recall a single sign of activism on his part and he certainly never stepped up to represent his colleagues as a shop steward, local officer, on the bargaining committee, benefits committee, grievance committee, etc.

    It is true that the union movement needs to regenerate itself. We need to be more present and more active to defend the rights of members and all workers, especially in the current climate. But that won’t happen when union members believe it’s enough to pay dues and let someone else do all the work. Hundreds of employees at CBC/Radio-Canada are active in their union, making personal sacrifices of time and effort over and above their work and home responsibilities. But we would be better off if hundreds more got involved, too.

    What Livesey has written is an insult to those who fight for the wages and working environment he benefitted from for nine years. Does he think these fell out of the sky? No fella, someone had to fight for it, and we still do.

    The contract we signed in 2005 was not a concessionary contract. We were fighting a wish by the employer to be able to hire all future employees on a non-permanent basis. In fact, we’ve had to fight that tendency for years and in each contract – including in 2005 – we improve the rules in favour of a permanent workforce. In the broadcasting business there will always be a need for some non-permanent employment. The show must go on, even if a host, technician, reporter or producer is sick, has a baby or goes on an extended leave to pursue an outside interest. Today, more than 90-percent of all staff at CBC are permanent full-time. Compare that to many, many other employers. CBC employees also enjoy decent health benefits and a defined-benefit pension plan.

    Yes, union leaders could do a better job introducing themselves to members and personally inviting them to participate. But that does not exempt from all responsibility members who benefit from the largely volunteer force that looks after negotiating collective agreements and defending workers’ rights.

  • Labour is not doomed…this current is about to sow the seeds of a widespread global labour revival…

    long live the middle class…now but not out!

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