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Is organized labour doomed?

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Last week, on Feb. 2nd, I drove up to London, Ontario, to shoot some film footage of the locked-out workers picketing outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant for a documentary I am working on. The company, the only one to make locomotives in Canada, is owned by Caterpillar Inc., the world's largest equipment manufacturer. They had locked out the entire workforce of 450 workers on New Year's Day after demanding wage cuts as high as 50 per cent.

While we stamped our feet in the cold, I spoke to Bob Scott, the plant chairman for the CAW Local 27 unit that represents the workers. A pleasant, middle-aged fellow, Scott told me the company had always planned to lock them out and refused to negotiate after the gates were padlocked. Scott seemed stunned at how Caterpillar had thrown all norms of labour relations out the window. He explained the company had opened a plant in Muncie, Indiana, and the Canadian workers were told they had to compete with the shitty wages Caterpillar was paying its American workforce.

The day after my visit to the picket line, the really bad news came down: Caterpillar was closing the Electro-Motive plant in London for good. It was no accident this occurred just as Indiana was announcing it had become a right-to-work state, making it almost impossible to organize unions there.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, Toronto's right-wing mayor Rob Ford, laid down an ultimatum to the city's 6,000 outside workers, saying nearly all of their seniority rights would be stripped. It was a take-it-or-leave it deal. CUPE Local 416 caved in and accepted much of what Ford was demanding, allowing him greater ease to contract out jobs.

These are just two recent examples of the growing evidence that capital and its right-wing political minions are determined to eradicate what's left of organized labour. And it begs the question -- is the labour movement, as we currently know it, about to be wiped out?

Unfortunately, it's not looking good. Labour had been losing ground for decades. In the U.S., only 11.4 per cent of the entire workforce is unionized, and less than 9 per cent of the private sector. In the 1950s, 36 per cent of American workers belonged to unions. In Canada it's down to 27.5 per cent of the entire workforce being unionized, with only 17 per cent of workers in the private sector holding union cards.

The current recession and political climate have clearly emboldened capital to finish off what is left of the labour movement.

Unions have been hard hit by a number of forces they've been ill equipped to respond to. In North America's private sector, free trade deals and new technologies allowed corporations to transplant manufacturing facilities offshore to low-wage, developing-world havens such as China, India and Latin America. National unions like the CAW can do very little but watch when the likes of Caterpillar shut down a plant in Canada and move the production across the border to the U.S. where they can offer desperate workers there wages at half the cost. And do so while racking up huge profits, as Caterpillar is.

While industrial unions were once the backbone of the labour movement, having mass memberships in large assembly plants, automation reduced those workforces to a shadow of their former sizes. Now unions like the CAW and USW have more security guards and stewardesses as members than they do autoworkers and steelworkers. Meanwhile, with the rise of the service industry, which is usually made up of small workplaces, unions have generally failed in making inroads into that sector (Wal-Mart, for example, remains steadfastly union-free, despite being the world's biggest retailer). Organizing McDonald's or Starbucks, even though they are multinationals, is difficult, given the small and transient workforces in such retail outlets.

But labour has been its own worst enemy. What we are also witnessing is the consequence of embracing the so-called "business" model of unionism -- the form of trade unionism that sprang up in the 1950s as a result of the anti-communist hysteria of that era. Back then, unions, which had been organized mostly by radicals, adopted a corporatist, Red-baiting mindset that said what was good for the company was good for the union. Unions got into bed with capital and embraced the "motor league" approach to unionism, whereby workers are serviced by staff and not encouraged to embrace more radical notions of workplace activism.

Consequently, workers now judge unions on how well they're serviced, and dissuaded from taking matters into their own hands. Shop-floor militancy, wildcat strikes and plant occupations declined. Instead, grievances are funnelled through the legal process, entailing lawyers and labour boards. Unions have become less and less of a presence in the lives of most workers, which is one reason unions are reluctant to call strikes: they can't be sure their own members will walk out onto the picket lines.

During the nine years I worked at the CBC, I was a member of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The CMG is not a terrible union per se, although it's a pretty useless one, especially given how much money we gave it. The Guild displayed all the problems associated with the current union model. For example, I never knew who our shop steward was or even if we had one. In all the years I was there, not once did a union rep come by our offices to introduce themselves and talk about the union and encourage us to get involved -- despite the hefty union dues we paid. The CBC was adept at getting rid of people by isolating and picking them off individually. And the CMG was pretty adept at not being able to stop them.

In 2005, the CBC locked us all out in an effort to ring concessions, particularly by contracting out our jobs. The Guild, after two months on the picket lines, eventually caved in and signed a concessionary contract, and then proudly proclaimed it as a great victory. It is was far cry from the days when Bob White was refusing to take concessions demanded of him by GM, Ford and Chrysler. Today, unions seem to protest feebly before accepting their employers' demands for rollbacks.

I would dare say what I saw with CMG is pretty typical of the experience most workers have with unions. You pay your dues and the union only becomes of interest during contract time, or on the rare occasion you might strike, or should you need to file a grievance. Otherwise they don't have much of a foothold on the shop floor.

Which is why unions are now so vulnerable to the onslaught launched against them by corporations and governments.

I predict unions will increasingly become irrelevant as long as they retain the old form of union structure and mentality. A return to a more militant, action-oriented and community-based form of unionism will be the only long-term remedy to the labour movement's survival. Otherwise, what happened to the Electro-Motive and City of Toronto workers will become the norm and unions will become even more anachronistic than they already are.

(My exposé of the crimes of Canada's financial industry, Thieves of Bay Street, is being published by Random House Canada in mid-April. You can read about it here:

This article was first posted on the Progressive Economics Forum.

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