Trade Unions and the Left

By Bickerton, Geoff | Canadian Dimension, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

Trade Unions and the Left


Bickerton, Geoff, Canadian Dimension


Recently I have been looking at some public opinion polls that looked at issues such as voting intentions, trade, public ownership, health care and education. On almost every issue trade union members are significantly more progressive than the other segments of the population. I suppose there are many reasons for this. Collective power probably gives union members the confidence to think more about the potential for changing things. Union education programs undoubtedly play a role. The democratic process of unions also requires members to discuss and debate issues.

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So it should not come as a surprise that gaining employment in a unionized workplace would promote some leftward political movement among a proportion of the members. Of course one can overstate the political development of union members. Unionists may be twice as likely to vote for the NDP than the new Conservative Party, but a majority of union members still choose the Liberals as their first voting choice.

What is surprising is how we on the socialist Left have been so spectacularly unsuccessful at convincing more than a small percentage of trade union members that the world would be much better off under a socialist system than under capitalism.

I suppose there are also lots of reasons for this. One might ask if anyone is even trying. Certainly the unions do not see this as their mandate. Most trade union education programs are good on critiquing capitalism and globalization but stop well short of opening the discussion of a socialist alternative. Although the union movement has embraced much more progressive political, economic and social policies there is little or no discussion of what it would take to for workers to truly wrestle power from capitalists. And while most of the current union leadership may be significantly to the left of the membership, the vast majority of their time and efforts are taken up in direct workplace concerns such as health and safety, bargaining, organizing, grievances etc. In terms of left labour organization the level of activity of the "Action" caucus has been largely restricted to activities at union conventions.

The job of bringing socialism to union members falls to socialists and our track record is sadly lacking. The logical source of socialist inspiration should come from Left parties. …

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