The two-week strike by conductors and yard-service workers at CN Rail has had many economic and political repercussions. By the end of last week, Federal Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn had issued a back-to-work order, and was readying legislation to forcibly end the strike — an authoritarian but now routine government response. The strikers could return to work sooner, if the two sides can reach a voluntary agreement.

The chances of that happening were badly undermined, however, when Canadian union negotiators were removed from office by their U.S. parent: the Cleveland-based United Transportation Union (UTU). It’s hard to settle a strike when you’re not sure who’s on one side of the table.

Indeed, the U.S. leaders had argued (along with CN itself) that the whole strike was unauthorized and hence illegal — despite a 96-per cent strike vote by the actual members. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board eventually endorsed the legality of the strike. But the fact CN and the U.S. union leaders were both attempting an end-run around the Canadian union negotiators, wasted precious time and destroyed the bargaining.

The CN debacle has highlighted a still-simmering issue within Canada’s labour movement. Close to 30 per cent of Canadian union members still pay their dues to U.S.-based organizations, and hence are subject to the whims of their American leaders. Canada is the only major country where foreign-based unions play a significant role in labour relations.

The problem is most acute in the private sector, where U.S.-based unions represent a large majority of union members. (Public-sector unions, on the other hand, are as Canadian as maple syrup.) It is in the private sector that unions are under fiercest attack, thanks to globalization, hyper-competition, and hostile labour law. This is where unions must be most innovative, and most responsive to the needs and preferences of their members (and potential members).

Yet in the private sector, most Canadian union members are led from another country — one with a different currency, a different legal and tax structure, and a different political mentality.

Some U.S. unions have done better than others in respecting the rights of their Canadian locals. But the use of trusteeship, removal from office, and imposition of direct financial controls from south of the border is still outrageously common. Another recent example was last year’s removal of the elected leadership of Toronto’s Local 183 of the Laborers’ International Union, and the seizing of the local’s assets (including their members’ pension plan); the ousted leaders are now building a Canadian construction union.

The Canadianization of the union movement was a hot topic back in the nationalist 1970s, when labour activists linked their fight for economic opportunity with the desire for Canadian independence. A split in political and bargaining direction between Canadian unionists (who emphasized the broader social mandate of unions) and their American parents contributed to the tensions. Bob White led Canadian auto workers into their own union in 1985 — the highest-profile victory for Canadian labour’s independence. Meanwhile, the growth of public sector unionism contributed to a gradual Canadianization of labour.

In recent years, Canadian control has taken a back seat to other challenges — like trying to keep unions relevant and effective in the first place. In most cases (but certainly not all), workers are better off with an American union, than with no union at all — though in some cases the ineffective, undemocratic, and even corrupt actions of U.S. unions do more damage than good to the cause.

Some U.S. unions have pioneered innovative organizing and bargaining techniques — such as the current cross-border campaign by UNITE HERE to boost wages for hotel workers. On the whole, however, U.S. unionism is locked in a declining spiral (private-sector union membership there fell to just seven per cent of workers in 2006). If the labour movement in Canada is to have a more viable future, it must find its own voice, its own tactics, and be utterly responsive to its own members.

The CN strike didn’t start out as a battle over Canadian independence. And ironically, it is now rumoured that Canadian UTU members may leave one U.S. union for another one — the Teamsters, with an equally dubious democratic record. But the whole nasty experience has proven once again that effective unionism requires genuine Canadian ownership of both the bargaining process, and the unions themselves.

Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, and divides his time between Vancouver and Sydney. He has a PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York,...