Universal and Public: A union's role is to fight for expanded public services, not to replace them.

With the neo-liberal program still in full swing after nearly fourty years, some on the political left fall victim to cynicism. Some even start to question labour's ability to win victories or even hold ground. They advocate for unions to take-up services dropped by the state such as unemployment support. Unfortunately, the promotion of this analysis is ahistorical, leads to short-sighted insular politics and undermines the longer-term project for working-class power.

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Contrary to the position advocated by cynics, the victories of organised labour and the working class have not all disappeared or been undone by neo-liberal governments. Indeed, there have been many victories won by unions and working people over this period. We must be careful not to fall into despair and insular rear-guard thinking, instead we should continue to advance and fight for our alternative agenda.

Throughout the history of the union movement, cynics have advanced the idea that labour unions should provide the services that the state, at the present time, is unwilling to offer. Historically, these services included unemployment support, retirement support, health care and even special deals from businesses.

The cynic’s argument for this position are three-fold.

  1. That the working class will not win (or has lost) this state service (forever).
  2. That in the absence of union-provided services, the private sector will likely provide them at not a full benefit to the membership.
  3. That unions would increase their member rolls if those services were a benefit only of membership.

While it is not bad, in and of itself, to provide any of these services to members – a union can provide whatever services its membership feel necessary. It should not, however, be the goal of the union movement to replace the welfare state and remove itself from the fight for universal public services.

Universal access to state-administered social programs is a union fight

It is not in the interests of the working class as a whole or of their members for unions to provide social services that are either unprofitable or seen as too expensive for the state to deliver.[1] Throughout history, we can see these goal of universality is undermined if the union organising model is tied to the delivery of niche services to its members.

Historically, retirement support and services for the unemployed were both programs that were offered by unions as a benefit of membership. At the time, the nationalisation of these programs was opposed by many inward-looking labour unions because of the perceived loss of a benefit of union membership. It took principled, forward-looking unions and workers’ political parties to win the fight for state-sponsored social programs.[2]

Today, unions have adopted a more social unionism approach. The progressive struggle of the union movement through the Canadian Labour Congress for the expansion of the Canada Pension Planand the “Scrap the Changes” to Employment Insurance campaign are perfect examples of unions advocating for the interests of the broader working class.

Unions are also much smaller than the state. Providing these services becomes expensive and market-oriented instead of based on solidarity where you can maximise economies of scale. When a service like unemployment insurance are run by unions, it is essentially privatised. With privatisation comes a process of marketisation which eventually reduces access and benefit and causes contradictory interests within the union.

What should be clear from the success and implementation state social services is that a return to a “Walled Garden” approach for unions will only undermine a long-term interests of workers.

Building Union Membership

Union services do not solve the issue of declining membership or organising new members. There are already many benefits to belonging to a union, providing one or two costly services is not going to be the answer.

The benefits of union membership come through the gained collective power and enforcement of the collective agreement. Fear of losing access to a benefit scheme like unemployment support in the past lead to regressive systems where unions would regulate and police their own members in job search and acceptance.[3]

Some have pointed to the European models of two-tier unemployment insurance as a working model for high union density through providing services. However, such a system would be as hard to implement in Canada as a (more desirable) fully socialised state-run system of unemployment benefits (like we have now).

In Europe, the unions have been granted monopoly service rights by the state, a victory won in the post-war period when labour’s strength was at a high. Labour’s power was expressed in the workplace, but also in the legislatures and labour parties were able to implement many these social reforms.[4] It might be that the European model is tolerable because their unique sector-wide bargaining system and resulting high rate of union density. However, it still establishes a two-tier system of access to benefits, undermining the social union model. It leads to self-serving interests on behalf of organised labour and the ability, as seen recently in Sweden, of the state downloading costs of this service through increased membership fees.

The interests of the labour movement are the interests of the working class as a whole, not just its members. As such, the project of organised labour is to fight and defend the interests of the working class both in the workplace and at the level of government. It is not to provide substitute programs to fill the void left by capital and the state because capital does not see it in their interests.

Current lower union density in North America is caused by a changing economy not by lack of services offered by unions. Globalised capitalism means that a larger project of solidarity is needed, not a smaller one. The growth of the service industry, global competition for wages and globalised production has challenged the old union organising model. We will only be able to expand union membership and solidarity among workers if we start innovative projects to organise the the traditionally unorganised service sectors such as retail.[5]

The reason that the workers’ movement started labour parties was to ensure that workers could have representatives advocate for and promote public services in their interests. Right-wing and neo-liberal governments are reducing state support for serviceslike Employment Insurance. In response, it is not the job of organised labour to take up providing these services in a organisationally self-serving way. However, it is for the labour parties, working with the labour movement and other social justice actors, to fight back for all workers.


[1] There are those that advocate for unions and cooperatives of workers to build entire parallel structures to the state. This line of thinking suggests that these structures could eventually take-over the role of providing services, to the benefit and control of the working class.

Unfortunately, this program has been exposed as rather Utopian. The forces that support the current capitalist state do not just sit idle and allow a parallel structure to form that undermines their power and privilege. Rather, history has shown Capital mobilises and either takes-over this new cooperative space through aggressive competition or just bans their growth. This leaves the only places for cooperative growth in niche areas where there is limited profit to be made or in charitable support for the poor.

[2] Georges Campeau’s From UI to EI: Waging War on the Welfare State, UBC Press (2005) outlines the complex history of the fight for unemployment insurance in Canada. Part of that history is the contradictions of unions providing unemployment insurance to their members while some more progressive union also advocating of a universal, state-administered unemployment supports. Also see CUPE’s Research Advisory on Changes to Employment Insurance.

[3] As Campeau outlines, the broad history of union-sponsored and administered unemployment insurance in North America is not particularly progressive. Unions at the time had some socially regressive policies towards unemployed members (arguably based on the religious maxim “he who will not work shall not eat”) as well as the realities of small and over-stretched unemployment funds during economic down-turns. While union-supplied unemployment insurance provided some supports for those unjustly terminated, it was short-term, limited and could be used as a political weapon by employer collaborationist unions. With the advancement of macro social and economic understanding of unemployment under advanced capitalism attitudes have shifted, but the contradictions and limits of such a union-services system remain.

[4]From Sweden’s government’s website to show the difference in the state’s attitude towards unions in Sweden and Canada (my emphasis): Unemployment pay


If you lose your job, and are a member of an insurance program, you have the right to unemployment benefits linked to the pay from your previous job. However, it is your responsibility to become a member of an unemployment insurance program (arbetslöshetskassa). These insurance programs are administered by the trade unions. Your fees and benefits will depend on your field of work and on the insurance program you choose.


While Sweden’s unemployment insurance programs are relatively generous, they are designed to cover your living expenses while you find a new job. To be eligible for such benefits, you have to be actively looking for a new job and willing to apply for jobs suggested by the Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen).


Since this pay is limited to a very basic level, it can be a good idea to join a union, which can provide additional insurance more closely matched to your previous salary. Whichever insurance you choose, there are limits to how long you are entitled to claim unemployment benefits. The payments you receive are taxed in the same way as a normal working salary.


Further references (from the Wikipedia list of reference on Sweden’s unemployment system found August 2013):


[5] See the Community Chapters approach advocated by the new Unifor union in Canada. Also, see AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talking to USA Today about the need for a new union organizing model.