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Union Domestication

The other day I attended, along with a small group of comrades, the local Canadian Union of Postal Workers [CUPW] solidarity rally in Toronto.  Due to my previous post, which was an analysis of my own union local's 2008-2009 strike, this rally possessed a synchronistic appropriateness, especially since some of the speakers mentioned that strike in their address to the CUPW workers.  The very same speeches performed by the union bureaucrats at this rally were presented, with marginal difference, at those solidarity rallies my local held in the strike days before we were ordered back to work.

(For those who are unaware of Canadian politics, I should briefly mention that the workers of CUPW are on strike across Canada.  The employer wants to gut their Collective Agreement [this is a strike against concessions] and there is collusion between the employer and the Conservative federal government.)

As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, trade unions in the centres of capitalism are no longer the primary sites of proletarian consciousness––and in those capitalist societies that are also defined by the contradictions of settler-colonialism, it is dubious as to whether they ever were spaces of potential revolutionary proletarianism.  After the historic compromise between organized labour and capital, trade unions became incorporated in a conciliatory capitalism that severely blunted the point of the union movement and resulted in a largely reformist consciousness.  Furthermore, this concession was mainly possible due to imperialism, which is apparently this is still a controversial point, for some ludicrous reason, but I still uphold Lenin's theorization of the labour aristocracy.  The point being: the core of the proletariat in the centres of capitalism is not the trade unionized working class, which are often more privileged economically than small shop-keepers, but a much larger strata of workers who are not unionized, may never be unionized, and upon whose labour many unions are dependent.

In What Is To Be Done? Lenin discussed the difference between "trade union" and "revolutionary" consciousness but I would argue that the trade union consciousness of today's workers in North America (and maybe also in Europe) is not even close to the trade union consciousness described by Lenin.  For Lenin still meant a consciousness that was proletarian that simply needed the involvement of the party vanguard to remove it from localized worker concerns and place it on a revolutionary level.  The trade union consciousness of today's North America is most often not a potential site for revolutionary organizing, biased as it is towards reformism.

Even if the unions in settler-colonial contexts possessed the trade union consciousness discussed by Lenin in the first place (and theorists like Sakai argue that this was more of an exception than a rule), this consciousness has, generally speaking, been severely eroded.  Before the compromise between labour and capital, for example, unions tended to operate in a more political manner: there was no professionalized staff that produced a disjunction between the membership and Collective Agreement; union dues were raised by stewards directly involving themselves with the members, thus forcing a culture of political organization, rather than being subtracted by a pay-cheque.  The latter point is very important: while some might argue that automatic union dues are important because they provide unions with a war chest with which to launch their strikes, those critical of this bureaucratic measure rightly argue that if a membership is not politically mobilized in the first place, then funding a war against the employer is less effective.

In any case, as a PCR-RCP article (that I discussed here) about the G20 argued, trade union spokespeople are like wolves that, after generations of domestication, have become the whining dogs of capitalism.  In these times of crisis they are unhappy with what they are being served but, no longer possessing the fighting spirit of the past, are confused as to how they can go about fighting against the anti-union culture that is being pushed by this ideology of "austerity."

Which returns me to the solidarity rally for the CUPW strike.  Here we have another union local that, due to the contemporary crisis, is faced with concessions and union breaking measures.  It is clear that the most politically powerful elements of the ruling class, because of the crisis, are no longer interested in Keynesian style reforms and are pursuing a monolithic capitalism––a fact that places unions, once partially incorporated under capitalism, under attack.  And yet, after years of being incorporated and promoting a reformist-capitalist consciousness, these unions are not prepared to struggle against capitalism.  And since the rank-and-file mainly wants to protect what they already have, the struggle is mainly defensive.

Even worse are the speeches and claims made by the union bureaucrats, those professionalized organized labour representatives whose jobs are dependent on conciliation between labour and capital.  And the speeches made that the CUPW rally were the same speeches made at the solidarity rallies of my local when it was on strike: we support you, we're in this together, you shouldn't be legislated back to work, let's talk about Irish or Ukrainian immigrant history around union movements in this country without any understanding that this is settlerist ideology, etcetera, etcetera… When it actually came down to back-to-work legislation, however, the bureaucrats who had spoken with so much eloquence did nothing.  Moreover, the local itself was unwilling to defy legality and stay on the picket line; it lacked the consciousness to do anything except stay within the confines of legality.

So how can the Canadian Union of Postal Workers fight this attack on organized labour when, like every union, its fight is fully determined by the limits of bourgeois legalism?  Unions are privileged sections of workers who are now being told, due to the "austerity" measures promoted by the crisis, that their privileges are going to be revoked.  But again, after generations of domestication how does organized labour––which is now organized around reform––even begin to resist these measures when all they know is domesticated reform?  Walking the legal picket lines for month means little if you are willing to accept back-to-work legislation.  Holding legal rallies in front of the employer's main office doesn't matter if you're doing nothing more than chanting and letting the same blow-hard bureaucrats prattle on about what they don't really believe and what they would never do.

Even more troubling is the discourse produced at these rallies where the current climate of anti-unionism is perceived as the only significant attack on the working-class.  The attack might be significant, but unionized workers are not the significant strata of the proletariat.  Since the majority of workers are outside of unions, today's anti-union policies are simply the culmination of anti-worker policies that have finally reached the most privileged sector of workers.

This is not to say, as I've argued before, that we should not be supporting strikes, arguing for the unionization of contingent labour, or fighting against this anti-union culture––if that was the case I wouldn't support my own union, nor would I have attended the CUPW rally in the first place!  Rather, my point is that, because unionized workers in this context are not the nucleus of the proletariat, and have been domesticated into a reformist attitude, unions are ill-equipped to lead the struggle against today's austerity measures.  Nor should we imagine that organizing non-unionized workers into unions, though necessary and important, is a revolutionary task when unions, by and large, have become spaces of reformist legality.

Like the majority of unions that have been ordered back to work, CUPW will go back to work when the legislation comes down from the government.  Unions will not put up a significant fight against these austerity measures just as they have not, for decades, put a significant fight for the working masses who are not unionized aside from trying to organize them here and there into union locals.  Austerity measures will not be defeated by a union rally filled with the same slogans and the usual speakers––many union bureaucrats who support the NDP and thus support the system that has domesticated union workers in the first place.


  1. what do you think of draper's idea of engaging with unions however reactionary they may be? do they represent a 'working class' in any way shape or form, and are they engaged in any sort of 'class struggle' that could concievably become more militant and anticapitalist than it is currently?

    draper's idea, as I understand it, was that a working class organization with wrong politics and bad consciousness is still better than the finest communist party (microsect) because it has an organic relationship to class struggle and not a contrived one (as in: let's come together and print a newspaper and give speeches is a much less effective means of attacking capitalism than shop-floor activism and hard bargaining with bosses).

    I don't want to come across as supporting uncritical defense of white-supremacist fake unions because 'they're better than the alternative' but I think these groups have potential and that the idea of unions generally is superior to most other ideas of communist organization in developed countries.

  2. Although I'm not a fan, and largely disagree with, Hal Draper, I do think it is still worth engaging with unions and union spaces (I indicated this tangentally in the article) because I do agree that they have potential. Which is why I don't think they should be abandoned as spaces of this potentiality––especially now when they are under attack and the workers there can see the limits of union reformism.

    Where I disagree with Draper, however, is in his belief that unions have some sort of ur-relationship with class struggle: this smacks of class essentialism, where the "working class" is conceived of as a unionized factory working class and is essentially "radical" simply because of its supposed point at production. While I agree that simply printing a newspaper and giving speeches is far from radical, I think that communist parties, I hardly think that the petty bourgeois consciousness of unionized workers at the centres of capitalism is in any more connected to class struggle.

    My point was that the proletarian core of Canada, upon which whose labour legal unions are able to exist, is not unionized – this is perhaps the organic relationship to class struggle because they aren't bought out like a lot of unions that have now become heavily bureaucratized and aimed only at getting better contracts and protecting what they have. And the "finest communist party" in my opinion would be organizing here, not simply with speeches and newspapers, but in direct involvement with the struggles of those sectors and would thus have vital links with these sectors, developing along with them.

  3. I think Toronto's CUPW local may be an exception, but one should look at the entire national union, and I think they are well to the Left of the local local, as it were. Even so, a comrade sent me this note:

    "A large number of CUPW working the lines this evening. Picket captains
    let members write on their own placards which produced some militant
    sounding slogans ("Down with Capitalism, I want democracy!"). Members
    are very upset with this legislation and have taken to calling the
    government the "Harper Dictatorship". They erroneously heard we had
    planned a rally, Sid Ryan was allegedly coming down but didn't, CTV
    was there with a reporter who presumably went live for the 6 o'clock
    news, and a cluster of bike cops hung around and harassed a black man
    in a wheelchair across the street. CUPW members were informed that
    Edmonton (90-95%) and Vancouver (unanimously) have voted for a
    proposal that resolves that
    "the membership of the Edmonton CUPW local call on all other CUPW
    locals and all levels of CUPW leadership to denounce the current
    bargaining framework being imposed by the Harper government as an
    unconstitutional farce and refuse to submit an offer to the

    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT CUPW leadership immediately begin
    advocating for a nation-wide general strike to be carried out by
    ourselves and our affiliates in the Canadian Labour Congress and
    Provincial Labour Federations representing over 3 million unionized
    Canadian workers should the Harper government refuse to back down."
    Copies of this resolution were circulated to CUPW members at Eastern
    along with a short pamphlet article by a member of the Edmonton local
    (Rachel Stafford) called "Postal Worker Solidarity Defeats Compulsory
    Overtime". Earlier in the day I visited the scarborough pickets at 70
    wynford drive and 120 Progress ave to inform them of the resolution
    and the potential for an action Tuesday along with others. They were
    very receptive and gave me contact info for their local leader and
    told me to get CAW to bring down the giant inflatable rat (a great
    idea). At Eastern our comrade gave an announcement regarding support
    work and a potential action on Tuesday which illicited applause. I
    took some contact info for those CUPW members interested in getting a
    spot on the bus with the understanding that a) bus yet to be confirmed
    and b) they may be ordered back to work that day."

  4. Yeah, I saw this document as well... I think the CUPW rank-and-file are pretty progressive, but this was more about the union movement surrounding it and the discourse at that rally (which was the same we heard at the rallies supporting our strike).

  5. I attended the CUPW rally in my hometown last week, the same day as the Toronto rally, and was shocked by how polite the whole thing was. We walked down the sidewalk of a busy street, crossing at crosswalks, and the march was just basically in a circle, ending where it began... we didn't go past any politician's offices or anything like that. I believe it was the first march I have ever attended in which we waiting for a green light to cross a street. There was very little chanting, and the most common signs were "Stop Harper" and "we want to deliver your mail; they won't let us".

    I talked to a few of the people from my local about this while we were at the rally... it just didn't seem to have a purpose to me, other than showing a few hundred cars that drove past that we were polite enough not to disturb their progress while driving to work.

    As the president of a union local which is rather likely to be on strike come September, this concerns me slightly. The last strike we had on campus slowed traffic down slightly and had a huge backlash. I do really feel that unions are under attack.

    I had a conversation just last week with some of my neighbours about union "tactics"... one person was commenting on how steelworkers (from Vale INCO) were a bunch of "thugs" because there were a few incidents during the last strike where illegal means were used... things like continuing a blockade when they were ordered not to or spray-painting the word "scab" on people's houses. I reminded them of how this compared to the means that were used historically to have demands met through strike action - in the 1970s, scabs who were flown in by helicopter were actually shot at and I couldn't imagine them ever letting a truck or bus full of replacement workers through the picketline, no matter what a judge said back then.

    I also agree with what you said about union jobs often being rather privileged (although members of my local are extremely low-paid), do you think this creates some kind of a false division between what could/should be a unified group? I have one prof in particular who would be outraged if I tried to make this distinction in a paper, insofar as saying that it was non-unionized working class that make up the core of the proletariat... I see merit in both arguments and think it would be an interesting debate.

  6. Thanks for the comment and the news from the CUPW rally in Sudbury. Also, the conversation about union "tactics" is telling because it reveals, yet again, an anti-worker attitude that is intentionally being fostered in this climate.

    I do think that the existence of unions in some sectors does create a false division between workers especially in the centres of capitalism. Your professor might be outraged, but there is a long history of this analysis and during the Third International every major marxist theorist believed in Lenin's concept of "the labour aristocracy": that is, sectors of workers at the centre of capitalism are bought-off due to the exploitation of workers elsewhere. Now this buying off might not always contribute, in these days, to pay (because I'm a low-paid unionized worker as well), but it does contribute to a certain culture and job security (which unions are now losing) that does nothing but produce a reformist mindset.

    The idea that the unionized working class is synonymous with "the proletariat" is actually a more recent idea that is more in line with Hal Draper's theory (which a commenter above mentioned) and was never the universal standard of recognizing the proletariat until, really, Draper came along because unions were bodies that came out of proletarian struggles (so the proletariat preceded the union - the union does not make the proletariat).

    When it comes to Canada we have to do a concrete analysis of class which is something a lot of people, especially academics committed to a Draper-style analysis (the "socialism from below" position that prioritizes unions), do not do. Union labour would not be possible without the labour of non-unionized (and racialized) factory workers, massive amounts of contingent labour, and migrant labour. (Not to mention reproductive labour... And Marx did point out, in Capital vol. 3, that although the proletariat was defined by its position in production, every worker whose labour was exploited was involved in this nexus of production.) If the proletariat is the revolutionary subject that: a) controls the primary means of production; b) has nothing to lose but its chains, then the majority of unionized workers in Canada and the US do not qualify because they no longer do the foundational labour that keeps capitalism functioning (which is why their factories can be shut down), and clearly have a lot more to lose than their chains.

    One of the reasons I was drawn to the PCR-RCP as a sympathizer, and support them where I have never been really interested in supporting other Canadian groups of this type, is because they have gone to great lengths to examine the structure of class in Canada, and have spent years examining how this class developed, and how it is composed and structured, rather than simply defaulting on the "well the working class must be the unions."

    None of this is to say that unions aren't spaces that should be reclaimed and fought for, especially in these times, but only to point out that they should not be considered the primary site of revolutionary ferment. Especially when there is so much evidence to the contrary and the very structure of the union in this context is a structure designed as reformist and to integrate into capitalism. Is it any wonder that the most radical activities of union bureaucrats is running for the NDP (which is hardly revolutionary) when they aren't spending their time trying to reconcile labour to capital (no matter what they say in their speeches)?


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