Unions are democratic alternative and challenge to business model

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My mind keeps drifting back to the recent Air Canada flight attendants' strike that never happened, as a result of threats from the Harper government. I know it's already mouldy in news-cycle terms but its significance, its potential as a teachable moment, only became clear with the spread of the Occupy movements and their demand for some genuine democratic experience, versus the sham versions we now get in most elections. So return with me now to yesterweek.

When the flight attendants voted down, for the second time, a deal negotiated by their leaders with Air Canada, it's the reaction that was so illuminating. Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said: "Maybe the union misjudged, maybe management misjudged, but to do it two times in a row is a warning bell ..."

Yet what had gone wrong? The members got the final say and used it. She should understand that and even embrace it. Her Conservative party has its roots in the Reform party, which advocated referenda, recall votes and above all, the responsibility of elected reps to their constituents. That rejection was a shining triumph for true democracy, not a warning bell.

Air Canada VP Duncan Dee said, "We are perplexed and disappointed." I like the honesty of "perplexed." Like many in our society, he may well have lost track of what democracy actually involves. I also liked the Winnipeg Free Press headline: "Flight attendants buck union, reject offer." Just a sec, now. Aren't the flight attendants themselves the union? You can't buck yourself, or not easily. This gives away the game: unions are not parallel versions of companies, which are hierarchical and authoritarian, because they're owned. Unions are a radically different form of human organization, belonging to their members, equally. They're an implicit democratic alternative and challenge to the business model, especially when you're looking for models that could work in politics.

I grant that alternative quality can often be hard to find in today's unions. Many union leaders (significantly called "bosses") can be as perplexed, disappointed -- and angry -- as Air Canada's veep if they meet internal opposition. But the sense of potential lingers. It's why some early radicals ("syndicalists") saw unions as the model for social and political transformation. It's why union culture -- especially the songs -- continue to make people feel warm and fuzzy. It's in the history: union sit-down strikes at factories in the 1930s were a model for the civil rights sit-ins of the 1960s, which lurk behind today's Occupy actions.

I think this simmering sense of potential is why unions have sluggishly risen to top of mind during the current crisis, both economic and political. The first stirrings of occupation/opposition in the U.S., came in Wisconsin, after efforts to demonize and destroy unions. Stephen Harper is threatening to end decades of relative labour peace, by ordering private sector strikers back, and proposing an overhaul of the Labour Code. Union membership is at a historic low but he seems to sense an underlying menace, and maybe he's right.

A backer of the business agenda like Neil Reynolds in the Globe and Mail, says, of public sector unions: "We could justifiably eliminate them. We could justifiably eliminate the right to strike." His libertarian impulse simply evaporates when the freedom that individuals choose to exercise is their freedom to join together to confront the lopsided might of corporations or governments.

For the first time in memory, two main contenders for the federal NDP leadership are from the labour movement. That party almost always opts for middle-class professionals, Rhodes scholars when possible. A third candidate (Thomas Mulcair) is defining himself, effectively, against unions.

I'm aware of the dangers of romanticizing here. The union movement of the 1930s won't be back. The nature of work has changed, for instance, with home work and telecommuting. Unions face a world of workers without workplaces, where sit-down strikes would look pretty odd.

But there are sources of inspiration even here. The old Industrial Workers of the World -- the Wobblies -- organized workers everywhere, anyone could join. Helen Keller belonged. (Yes, that Helen Keller.) They're still around, they try to unionize the occasional Starbucks. As Joe Hill, executed in a 1915 strike, might have counselled: Don't whine, organize ...

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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