The three recent high-profile strikes in the public service sector (postal workers, Toronto transit workers, and the federal public service employees) have once more demonstrated the bankruptcy of collective bargaining in Canada.
The turmoil surrounding these strikes has resulted in quite a muddle with many conflicting viewpoints and everyone mad at everyone else. The public is angry at the striking public service workers whose actions created hardships for businesses and individuals. Unions are angry at governments, especially at the Mulroney government, which stands at an all-time low in public esteem.
The muddle is further aggravated by a recession that has wiped out thousands of jobs and a political climate in which the break-up of Canada is at least a possibility—if not a probability. What has gone wrong with our country?
Obviously, there are many factors that have contributed to the widespread unhappiness that now prevails in Canada. Here I want to restrict myself to a brief discussion of the background of the discontent in union ranks, which has even led to some ugly and violent confrontations between strikers and non-strikers and police and picketers.
Unionism as Politics
One important factor in the current unrest on the labour scene is that for many the expectation of a rising standard of living has not been realized. The limits of human and material resources, the globalization of production and marketing, severe international competition, profound and even dramatic shocks in the international political arena, and rising taxes all conspire to depress our standard of living. The dispute is now often not over the distribution of a growing pie but of a stagnant and even declining pie. The result of years of deficit spending have made matters much worse. In the face of all this, hard decisions must be made also by governments. When they do, however, they encounter a chorus of angry opposition and court disaster at the polls.
It is relatively easy to distribute the wealth created by an expanding economy, but it is extremely difficult to adjust to the reality of a stagnating economy. This is especially true for unions that have put all their emphasis on their ability to deliver maximum dollars-and-cents results. When they can no longer deliver on that expectation, they feel their very existence threatened—and they act accordingly.
Another reason for the growing militancy and anger displayed by certain prominent unions is the fact that their leaders have adopted and systematically promote a kind of class-conflict view of society. Thus, conflict between workers and management is not seen as something that occurs at times and can be reconciled by reason and compromise. On the contrary, it is assumed that “labour” is a category (class) that by definition is in a conflict relationship with management. Labour relations are seen as a power struggle in which the object is to maximize power and control at the expense of the “enemy.” (This explains why the current controversy over the proposed labour law reforms of the Ontario government are not debated in terms of the principle of justice but in terms of a balance of power between two competing interest groups.)
The materialist and class-oriented ideology trumpeted by the Canadian Labour Congress leadership and its major affiliates has led them quite logically to adopt a politicized view of society and themselves. They do not consider their primary role to be in the day-to-day improvements in the workplace and in the jobs of their members. Instead, they view politics and the mastering of political power as the desired means to reshape society and the workplace. The trade union movement is a significant ally of the socialist party in bringing this new society into being. (The New Democratic Party was established in 1961 as a joint endeavour of the old CCF Party and the Canadian Labour Congress.)
This politicized reconstruction of the role of trade unions is nevertheless carried on under the umbrella of righting the wrongs of labour-management relations in the workplace. However, this workplace focus and activity is a means to further a much larger and thoroughly political aim of the trade union movement. This does not mean that every member supports such a program. Only a strong and ideologically committed core group of trade union leaders and articulators are united in their long-term goal of reshaping Canadian society according to the socialist blueprint. They view the day-to-day union activities in the workplace, especially dramatic confrontations with employers, not as an end in themselves. Such struggles form an effective focus around which the membership is mobilized and motivated in pursuit of the political reconstruction of Canadian society.
To be sure, this is not an argument against the legitimacy of the unions’ role to protect their members’ interests and concerns. Indeed, such concerns belong to the essence of trade unionism. But unions which have become in reality agents for political change or revolution should be judged not on their “trade union” character but on their political ambitions and activities.
The Politics of Anger
The Canadian labour scene is now further muddied by recent conflicts that have pitted labour unions directly against the government as employers and legislators. The moral authority of a government, which insists that the cupboard is bare and that a zero-wage increase is now warranted, is of course seriously undermined when it hands large increases to top income earners on the government payroll. But such instances of ineptness and hypocrisy, though regrettable, are not the real issue in the current dispute between the federal government and the civil servants or Canada Post and its employees. To really evaluate the activities of these unions, they should not be judged only on their televised performance as moral crusaders for the downtrodden workers. What should be subjected to careful scrutiny is their ideology and especially how they seek to instill this ideology in their members.
A revealing example of militant, left-wing ideology is provided in the constitution and related documents of the strike-prone and angry Canadian Union of Postal Workers. CUPW has adopted a set of national policies in which the employer is systematically depicted as the personification of evil. The union is presented as the valiant and hard pressed defender of the “class interests of its members.” CUPW sees the government as “the agent of the employer” while it commits itself to “transforming the present social and economic order to make it consistent with the interests and aspirations of workers. In so doing, CUPW rejects all forms of trade unionism that fail to pose the basic division between the interests of workers and the interests of the employer.” All forms of cooperation and partnership between labour, governments, and employers are condemned as employer schemes to weaken and destroy the workers’ movement. CUPW wants to promote “a militant and combative front with which to oppose any form of collaboration with management and government serving management’s interests.” It wants to widen the right to strike and to support all unions on strike “whether legally or illegally.” This union is after nothing less than “workers’ control of the workplace.”
And so it goes. This Marxist-inspired document is an angry tirade that goes a long way in explaining the problems of Canada Post. To be sure, there are indications that the post office management has suffered from serious cases of incompetence and bureaucratic highhandedness. But this CUPW document, as well as its leaders’ public statements and the goon-type activities of certain members, make it abundantly clear that this union thrives on hatred and confrontations between labour and management. As long as that mentality prevails, there is no hope that peace and civility will return to this essential public service.
One question should trouble all who are convinced of the destructiveness of Marxist ideology. How is it possible that CUPW has encountered plenty of controversy but virtually no substantial and clearly articulated opposition to its Marxist ideology and practices? The assumption that there is no enemy on the left is alive and well in Canada.
A Future that Won’t Work
A second significant trade union document that clearly shows a political bias is the study paper “A New Decade: Our Future” issued by the Canadian Labour Congress at its 1990 convention. This wide-ranging paper is now being studied and debated by all CLC-affiliated unions to be discussed and adopted at the CLC’s 1992 convention.
“A New Decade: Our Future” can be summarized as a socialist-inspired denunciation of labour’s enemies: the unholy alliance of government and business. This document exhorts trade unionists to end big business control of Canada’s political life and to remove pro-business governments (accused here of deceiving the public and destroying Canada) from office for the purpose of installing a pro-labour government in Canada. In doing so, the CLC extols the virtues of government intervention, state planning and control, monopoly trade unionism, and all the other “progressive” causes so dear to the political left. The overall effect of this document is to create the impression that Canada is rapidly descending into a state of government and business-orchestrated corruption and oppression. Only the New Democratic Party and its trade union and other “progressive” allies can save us.
Anyone who wants to make sense of the current confrontations between labour and management must see beyond the declarations of moral indignation issued by militant labour leaders. They need to interpret those declarations in light of the unions’ determination to reconstruct Canada into a class-based and statist society.
Searching below the surface phenomena of our time confronts us with a profound spiritual disorder. That disorder can be described as a case of spiritual and moral bankruptcy. It consists of a repudiation of the Judeo-Christian foundation for society and replacing it with a completely human-centred and atheistic worldview. The irony of the kind of labour leadership discussed here is that it still clings to a Marxist-inspired class-conflict view of human relations that has wrought untold suffering and that now stands exposed as an utter fraud. Except in Canada.
At times like this, lamentations are in order, but they are not enough. Those who treasure freedom, the limited state, and civility in public debate need to speak up for their beliefs. The workers of this country deserve much better than what their leaders are dishing out to them.