Transforming unions today to represent the workers of tomorrow
Socialists understand better than most that regular people do not control or drive the current economy. Every day, social justice activists are struck with the realization that the economy is changing in a way that makes it harder to advance democratic interests. On one side, we have techno-Utopians who think App Innovation™ will foster a new, better and more efficient world. On the other side, elected officials act as cheerleaders for this economy – an economy based on exploitive precarious employment instead of democratic and sustainable regulated workplaces.
It can be frustrating.
In the day to day struggle, the collective responsibility is to understand the political and economic challenges as they are, not only as we wish them to be. It is important to revolutionize our strategies and tactics to fit these new realities and look to institutions for ways they can be effectively retooled.
How will democratic industrial unions restructure so that they can expand into areas of worker representation where craft unionism might be more appropriate – say for representing precarious workers?
There are two possible directions to explore in answering this question. One is rooted in the structure of the workers' association – such as workers' action centres. The other moves in the direction of restructuring industrial unions themselves, similar to what happened when craft unionism was replaced by industrial unionism in the early 20th century.
To determine which direction will be more effective, it is important to understand the distinction between unions and non-union workers' associations. These differences are defined by the laws that govern them, but also by their unique histories and relation to the working class. There are essential differences between associations of individual workers and industrial unions and it may not be possible to bring their purposes closer together.
Unions act the way they do as a result of their funding mechanisms and mandated responsibilities – but that is not the whole story. It is true that, if funding and state-defined responsibilities are removed then the political and social purpose of the union changes dramatically. This is easily seen as Right-to-Work legislation weakens union social activism. However, even when this happens, unions are not reduced to some sort of non-profit associations or club of individual workers. This is because the historical character of unionism is not simply as an advocate or legal support organization. Unions primarily exist to facilitate the disruption of production through their members' collective action against capitalists as a means to advance their rights at work. Said in another way, unions – unlike all other organizations – exist to advance workplace democracy.
Unlike unions, workers' action centres do not exist primarily to advance workplace democracy, but instead they help (usually non-union) workers actualize their rights under law. A noble and necessary mission given the low rate of unionization, but not one that easily expands to industrial-level support.
If the goal is to advance workplace democracy within the new economy, then it seems (in the current Canadian context) that the focus should be on reforming union structures. For the sake of argument, call this new extension of the union structure to represent precarious workers “Sectoral Unionism” (contrasted with Industrial Unionism or Craft Unionism).
There are two questions that face union activists:
How best can “Sectoral Unionism” facilitate industrial-level action in a way that affects production?
How can “Sectoral Unionism” easily build worker power (that is, self-financed) to the point where it can be effective against capital and result in advancing workplace democracy – even when the industry is spread across many workplaces?
This debate must involve both theory and the trial of that theory in everyday work. It may not be possible to get the correct structure right away, but for the movement to survive and thrive there is no other choice but to test these ideas in practice.
Follow What’s Left as we bring you the ongoing debate and report on the successes and failures of these trials.
Internet for all: why bridging the digital divide is about equal opportunities
Life without the internet has become a distant memory for most of us, but for low-income earners in Canada, the internet remains an expense that is difficult to justify. A new study published this week reveals that low-income earners routinely take money out of budgets for food, recreation, and rent in order to pay for internet services. The call from ACORN, who published the report, is to get a $10-per-month high-speed home Internet for families and individuals below the low-income measure identified by Statistics Canada. Given that the Internet allows people to access education, employment, government services, and engage in the ins and outs of the world wide web, this call is one to provide equal opportunities to those facing economic injustice.
Black community leaders speak out on what they envision for the future
#BlackLivesMatter started as a hashtag and in a few short years, it has become a global movement. To mark Black History Month, CBC’s Asha Tomlinson speaks to three young community leaders in Toronto to find out what black activism means to them and what they envision for the future.
Housing crisis requires action sooner or later
Despite the welcoming generosity with which recent Syrian refugees have been greeted in Canada, their needs have exposed the long-standing crisis in housing. Hundreds of refugees are currently staying in hostels and hotels, with very few housing prospects that they can afford. The challenge they face is not a new one, and continues to be faced by countless Canadians looking for a place to stay. The issue, of course, is that federal funding for affordable housing has decreased by 46% over the last 25 years, leaving new-comers and low-income Canadians with grim (and over-priced) housing options.
TPP and the Liberals
The federal Liberals have signed on to the most anti-worker, anti-social free trade agreement yet conceived by the international business elite – without any public debate. Over 60% of Canadians still do not understand what the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is. It is a move very reminiscent of the Harper Conservative government. With the agreement’s signing, it is time to end the Liberal Honeymoon and call out this betrayal of Canadian workers.
Greece, Portugal, and the European Union
Victories of the Left in Europe are hobbled by the European Government’s undemocratic structure. National governments have the obligation to submit their budgets to unelected European authorities (technocrats) for review and revision before parliaments can vote on them. The Greek government found this out after they had promised much needed anti-austerity budgets. Friday saw massive strikes in Greece against the (mostly European Union imposed) austerity.
Now Portugal is facing a similar issue. The new broad left coalition government is in an absurd position of trying to pass a budget their population voted overwhelmingly for, but EU technocrats have used their powers to block the budget process. The strange part is that most capitalists also agree that Portugal needs the government to invest in the economy, but the unelected ideologues in Europe are standing firm in their ridiculous position.
It has become clear that democratic reform is needed in Europe and ex-finance minister of Greece, Varoufakis, is leading the charge. In a recent editorial he outlines the issues and announces the birth of a new pan-European movement named DiEM25 calling for democratization of their institutions. Bold calls for action are his style, but this call could actually result in progress.
20 Years of Rail Privatization in the UK
Two decades of rail privatization in the UK provides a stark reminder of what happens when public services are privatized. Railways in the UK are 40% less efficient than other networks and passengers have been saddled with some of the highest fairs – around six times the cost than elsewhere in Europe. It is worse when you realize that most people who take rail need it to get to work – because of the high costs of living near city centres where there is work.
So what can be done? RMT, the rail workers union, is calling for massive reforms and re-nationalization of rail. If the private sector is incapable of providing an essential economic support service, then the state needs to step in. They seem to have support as 62% of the public have called to bring rail back under public ownership.