2005 and Beyond

By Bickerton, Geoff | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

2005 and Beyond


Bickerton, Geoff, Canadian Dimension


In a few months the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) will hold its national convention in Montreal. Already many activists are considering the content of potential policy and constitutional resolutions and there is considerable discussion of whether there will be a leadership challenge to CLC President Ken Georgetti.

Conventions usually reflect the movement more than they change it. Labour militants usually don't wait for conventions to take on new struggles. So, conventions often end up ratifying the new realities as opposed to initiating them.

I hope the upcoming CLC Convention will be different. The labour movement needs to take a hard look at its structures and its leadership. Anyone looking at developments in Canada and around the world can see that there is a very fundamental challenge being placed before the union movement by employers and governments. Major post-war gains of the working class are being attacked. Go to the website of any major union and you will see the majority of strikes are being fought to preserve rights and benefits as opposed to making breakthroughs.

Consider the trend lines. Massive concessions have been imposed and, in some cases, negotiated in the public sector in British Columbia. Air Canada has seen wage cuts and takeaways. The attack on benefits appears at almost every bargaining table. Retiree benefits are a special target, as many employers have not put aside funds to meet their liabilities. Many pensions are in a mess. Major employers, like Stelco, are trying to walk away from their pension obligations. This trend will only worsen if we move into a recession.

Whereas private-sector unions are faced with threats of relocations and closures, public-sector employers continue to use privatization as a sledgehammer against the unions. When outright privatization becomes politically unacceptable, right-wing governments embrace the new mantra of public-private partnerships. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Wage cuts for the workers. Internationally there is a concerted effort to increase working time, either on a life-time basis by increasing the pensionable age or on a weekly basis by increasing the work week.

Of course, this is not the first time that the Canadian labour movement has been under a concerted attack. And we can learn some valuable lessons from our past.

During the 1981 recession there was also a tremendous assault against the union movement in North America. Powerful unions like the American UAW, the forestry unions, the Machinists and the United Steelworkers were forced to sign concessionary agreements. …

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