It's time to organize: Labour movement needs to capture the popular imagination

Unions are stuck in a rut that seems to be getting deeper every day. We are losing members to layoffs, plant shutdowns and to bankruptcies that are the result of a worldwide financial crisis. Our membership and influence are shrinking at exactly the moment when union power is needed to protect millions of workers from wage rollbacks, outsourcing, unemployment and the devastation of entire communities dependent on single industries.

But, aren’t tough times good for union organizing? Unfortunately the answer, so far in this economic crisis, is no. So far there has been no rush to join unions, no mass mobilizations of the unemployed and no growth of militancy of any kind. Perhaps if the crisis continues workers will once again become militant, just like in the Depression of the 1930s when it wasn’t until five years into the economic crisis that there was an explosion of organizing, which included sit-down strikes, factory occupations, mass political movements and the creation of huge new industrial unions.

But it won’t happen without hard work.

The truth is the Depression only became “good times” for union organizing once millions of workers had lost faith in capitalism. The truth is unions grew along with political movements that claimed to offer alternatives to capitalism. And there is every reason to believe the same will be true today.

Why is this so? Because if workers believe in capitalism, or are satisfied by their personal situation under capitalism, they are more likely to buy into the ideas of capitalism. And joining a union is not at the top of the list of things recommended by Ayn Rand or the Wall Street Journal. In fact, ideologues of the system usually claim unions and collective bargaining to be an illegitimate interference in the “proper” working of capitalism.

In other words, organizing a union is seen as a challenge to the rules of capitalism. This is true despite the motivations of actually existing unions, some of which claim to be “just part of the system.”

The key to most successful union organizing drives is motivated members, both in the organizing target and in the larger union. History and common sense tell us that the number of people committed to union organizing rises and falls in inverse proportion to popularity of capitalism. The more people are dissatisfied with capitalism, the more people believe another economic system is possible and unions can help bring about change the more people will be motivated to put themselves on the line to build unions.

In other words, if we want to grow our unions, if we want to organize the unorganized, we need to focus on the flaws of capitalism and begin defining an economic system that is a realistic and attractive alternative.

The good news is there seems to be a vast and growing discontent with the existing economic system as shown by the recent opening of Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story and the popularity of books such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

The more difficult task, however, will be describing an alternative that is both attractive and realistic. We need to develop a vision of a better system that can be a powerful motivation to do the hard work that is necessary to create a better society.

If people think capitalism is the best that is possible, of course they will continue to follow the true believers in the system. If people believe there is no better way, disenchantment with the existing capitalist system will breed nothing more than cynicism and a retreat to private spaces. In fact, that is the result purveyors of capitalism are banking on.

It is time for unions and our allies to offer hope that a better world is possible. Professing loyalty to a sick system that glorifies greed and promotes war will only make the rut we are in deeper.

It’s time for unions to regain their momentum by offering a vision of society in which one person one vote is the basis of both our political and economic system.

It’s time for economic democracy.

Gary Engler is vice-president of Local 2000 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, B.C.’s Media Union.

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