Rising inequality, US anti-union laws crushing organized labour south of the boarder, and the slow unrelenting decline of union density here in Canada has renewed the focus on labour union organizing. The response from the leadership of the movement has been focused – rightly – on changes to law regulating labour unions that make it harder to organize.
Changes and limitations in labour laws like mandatory votes, the exclusion of most anyone considered a “contract worker”, the exclusion of farm workers, and no protection for workers when contracts are shifted from one outsourced company to another (contract flipping) have limited the percentage of workers who can legally organize and negotiate collective agreements. Demanding an update to these laws is an important step to addressing both political and economic inequality.
However, changing labour laws will not undo the slow decline in union density alone. Unions will also have to actually go out and talk to workers, sign them up, establish a local, bargain a first agreement, and enforce those terms.
And, we must do this at the same time as we are fighting for changes to labour law.
Has the meaning of “organizing” been forgotten?
In Canada, fundamental laws that protect workers' rights have been fought for an won piece by piece over decades. Indeed, unions have become part of a normalized legal process to establish working conditions through collective agreements, arbitration, and upper court challenges. Most collective agreements are negotiated without large threats of strike or lockout and union budgets are mostly spent on servicing – a rather legalistic process. Working within these laws tend to mask class divisions except when negotiations are not going well.
There is nothing underhanded happening here, but it does mean the fundamentals of class conflict is only experienced when there is real possibility of strike or lockout. But, even as bureaucratic and legalistic union day-to-day processes can get, unionists understand that their union is the mainly the structure that facilitates workers' ability to strike (or withstand a lockout). This is baked into union policies and actions.
So, why is this fundamental class division expressed when it comes to bargaining, but not when talking about organizing?
Current union policies that deal with organizing tend to not make reference to the fundamentals of how or why organizing happens. Instead, union organizing is discussed as a process where workers seeking higher wages, workplace-orientated benefits, and respect. While effective union organizing drives do yield these results, there is a lot more happening than just the creation of a new bureaucratic union structure.
For socialists and union organizers, organizing exists in a context that is explicitly adversarial with capital in both a theoretical and practical sense. Organizing, even more than bargaining, is where the class divisions between workers and owners are fully and most clearly exposed. It is a time of considerable and rapid raising of consciousness.
Successful organizing is built upon the struggle for establishing workplace democracy, raising class consciousness among workers, and establishing real existing solidarity. It is also why it is the most fun and rewarding activity you can engage in as a socialist.
Organizing and Labour Laws
Most unionists understand they should not cede control of their side of the bargaining process to government or some other group. Government is never “independent” from the outcomes of bargaining. However, when it comes to organizing, many union policies and recent discussions of union density and labour law reform rest on a notion that government is an independent arbiter between workers and their employers. Most of the recent discussions around union organizing are focused on restoring balance to labour laws and how the government should make them fairer to workers.
It is true that labour laws have become more regressive over the previous four decades. Aggressive anti-worker laws is easily seen in US “right-to-work” legislation that starves unions of resources. However, the primary obstacle to organizing workers are employers operating under an aggressive, anti-worker form of international capitalism, not just regressive labour laws. While we should obviously be working to promote a progressive labour legislative agenda, the labour movement – especially public sector unions – should always assume that the government is not only not independent, but that it can and will act against workers' interests.
It is also important to understand that a growing or declining union membership is a measure of general worker power in society, not just a direct measure of union “effort” in organizing. Laws that make it harder to organize were passed because capital had the power to do so. Current union density decline is the product of a historical decline in worker power in relation to capital.
The main tool unions have to respond to this is by actively increasing resources allocated to build worker power through organizing.
Recommendations for socialists
Here are some things to keep in mind during discussion on restructuring and building union organizing programs.
- Separate the desire for change in labour legislation from discussions of union organizing. The strategies and tactics to change laws are as unrelated to organizing as anything else that impacts the economic and legal positions of workers.
Although existing legislation prevents some groups from joining a union, it is not the case for the majority of unorganized workers. While organizing is impacted by labour laws, there is a greater impact as a result of employer abuse of legal and political systems. To win political change for workers and change laws to allow legally exploited to join unions, we must win worker power.
Question the notion that “sector agreements” are a cure-all. Demanding state-lead intervention into the structure of bargaining has broad (and probably negative) consequences. It is doubtful that sector-wide certification would make it any easier to organize these workers into democratic unions anymore than raising legislated employment standards. While broad floor-raising legal changes should be fought for, to think it will automatically lead to organizing is unjustified.
Outline the contradiction of being at a fifteen-year high point in worker attitudes to unions and the desire for massive ad campaigns aimed at building public support for unions. Money spent advertising is better spent organizing. This should be obvious when it is widely acknowledged there exist many workers who want to and are able to join a union.
Unions have many members in non-standard work, casual, and part-time employment in the private and public sectors. The active, public defence of these agreements leads to organizing opportunities. Any money spent on public campaigns should be about celebrating workplace victories through strike action in unionized workplaces (and not just for wages). This is the most useful propaganda for organizing.
- Stop talking about giving access to “Internet voting” as a way to make it easier to organize votes. Labour has been advocating for this process without acknowledging the issue of security and privacy of the voting process conducted by labour boards – currently not secure or private – or understanding the drastic changes it creates during the vote. Organizing, Research, and Legal branches of unions have all outlined why online votes are not a good option unless the support for the union is so high (above 80%) as to be obvious.
Alternatively, unions should be advocating off-site voting and more resources for labour boards to conduct in-person votes. Arguing for online votes undermines and conflates the arguments to eliminate the two-vote system and return to card-check for all workers.
- Abandon the provocative trap of advocating EU-style, tripartite Sector Councils. These structures sound rational and apolitical, but necessitate state involvement and the ignoring of class divisions.
If we reject the notion of the state being an independent third party when it comes to workers and capital, then we must reject tripartite structures under capitalism. Unions would not be asking for them if we thought workers had the upper-hand in the class conflict. And, capital would not be interested in negotiating them if it undermined their power. For a union to suggest anything else is odd. That is why unions exist.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith has had a long, creative life as a singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist. In Just Kids, she writes the memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She dives back into the New York City of the 1960’s and 1970’s when both of them were young, emerging artists and just getting started in their life-long artistic journeys.
The book begins with Smith’s arrival in New York, where she wanders without fixed housing for some time. She eventually begins working in a book store, and details her first meeting with Robert. They begin a romantic relationship: they don’t have much money and sometimes struggle to eat and make do. They are both driven by a need to create and develop their art, and much of their early time together is spent working on their various projects.
Patti Smith has immense literary references that infuse all her work. She is obsessed with French authors and will spend some time travelling in France inspired by the bohemian artist lifestyle. When she returns to New York, Robert is sick and she manages to find them a room at the iconic Chelsea Hotel. They will stay there for some time, sharing moments with many artists and musicians who hung around.
The book chronicles both Patti’s and Robert’s development as artists, the methods and mediums that they each chose, and how they would work together or apart. Through the chapters, they evolve through their first shows, their first hits, through the major choices that will shape their lives. While their romantic relationship had some highs and lows, their artistic commitment persisted. Robert died in 1989 at the age of 42 from AIDS-related complications, and that’s when Patti promised him that she would tell their story, someday.
The strength of Just Kids is in Patti Smith’s pen: her writing is delicate, poetic, and heart-felt. It is easy to get roped in to the vibrant Manhattan scene of the 60’s and 70’s, especially given the number of references she makes to the time’s artists and musicians. Her stories of Robert read a like a love letter. It is obvious she reflected many years after his death in order to convey the moment in time they both shared.
For those who know well the work of Patti Smith, or for those who want to know her better: Just Kids is a great read.
“WHAT WE SHARED THIS WEEK”