CLC Convention

The Canadian Labour Convention   

 

George Hewison        Political Economy Newsletter           June 2014

 

To properly assess the recently-concluded Canadian Labour Congress Convention (CLC) it may be useful to step back from the immediate, and situate it over a longer trajectory. Representing over 3 million organized Canadian workers, the Congress has always had the potential to be the most important instrument to shape the kind of Canadian (as part of a global) society we all desire. While it got precious little coverage in the mainstream media, the Convention deliberations were important for every social justice-minded Canadian. Placing this Convention in perspective and avoiding “absolutes” (as in victory or defeat) is to frame the path “going forward”.

 

The 2014 Convention is not the same CLC, as that emerging from its first Convention in 1956 that had hoped to end internecine competition between two labour centrals, both emerging from the shadow of McCarthyism; and looking to build a strong, united, made-in-Canada movement. This was still a time where the majority of Canadian unions had head offices in the United States and political policies of the U.S. State Department played a major role in Canadian labour’s internal affairs, as did many links to bosses’ political parties in Canada.

 

Important steps were taken in the first two years of the new CLC. As if to inform our difference with our American working class cousins, an exciting debate led to marriage between the Cooperative Commonwealth Party (CCF) and organized labour that resulted in the NDP. Left voices within labour, while dissatisfied with the final structure of the New Party, nevertheless saw it as an important marker for labour in breaking labour from U.S.-imported Gomperism and the old line parties of the boss.

 

It isn’t the same CLC Convention as 1974 in Vancouver where a Left perspective (weakened by McCarthyite attacks) combined with an emerging public sector and Quebec leadership (fresh out of prison for their Common Front activities) were able to lead a struggle to ensure that the House of Labour stayed organizationally united as between public and private sector unions.

 

This wasn’t 1976 where a proposal to change the structure of the Congress to alter the rank and file character of Convention was defeated. It isn’t the same as the Conventions of 1978, 1980 or 1982 in which the fight against tri-partism and quality circles was fought out and defeated. Compared to today, a much weaker Left perspective could usually win resolutions on important domestic issues (implementation after Convention was always a problem), but often ended up with bad policy involving workers in struggle in other countries, e.g. SACTU Solidarity or even the Vietnam War.

 

Looking at this Convention with the benefit of hindsight, there were a number of important firsts. It marked the election of the first racialized President of the Congress, and is a powerful signal to Canada, and especially to the changing demographics and working class of our country.

 

That it came along with the first-ever defeat of an incumbent president is all the more significant.

 

In the past, the slate system guaranteed arrangements worked out by the incumbent executive. Caucuses controlled by incumbent leadership, a carryover of Cold War and pre-Cold War politics inside the House of Labour were important instruments of control. The unity at the top in times past was based on a relatively unified view of the world and the country on how to position organized labour, despite the ubiquitous internal disputes (often petty) and dynastic aspirations of leaders.

 

The slate system virtually guaranteed (except in exceptional circumstances) the division of Executive posts as it had been worked out by the leadership of CLC before delegates even hit the floor of the Convention. Any challenge to this arrangement would be met by fierce back-room lobbying and, if needed, busloads of last minute “delegates”, to guarantee the outcome.

 

CLC delegates, for the most part, are the most politically advanced workers in their unions. But, because of the role their union plays in their lives, they usually trust the judgment of their leaders. Thus in union caucuses, it should not be surprising that the slate recommendation of the leadership became the dominant factor in the individual delegate’s decision about who to vote for.

 

Many aspirants for a position, not just in the CLC, but throughout organized labour, have learned about the slate/caucus system the hard way. Most often, it can’t be defeated! Individual union leaders, including local union leaders, had/have to weigh up possible ostracizing, not just themselves, but their members and the effectiveness of their locals and unions if they buck existing power structures. This is not an insignificant consideration, given that collective bargaining and tough struggles with employers is a constant feature of our labour relations (and getting much worse).

 

So the defeat of an incumbent president is a remarkable event in and of itself. Something has changed to bring about such a tectonic shift.

 

Clearly the stakes for those who supported the various candidates were much higher than at any time in decades, if ever. A main factor for change was the breech in unity at the top. Underneath the shifting alliances atop the CLC are the relentless neo-liberal attacks on labour. The seventy year old “historic” compromise between labour and capital known as the Rand Formula is now on employers’ and their political hacks’ agenda and has a global dimension. The lack of coordinated response to the attack and the rumblings of intense dissatisfaction by the most advanced fighters in the trenches against the corporate assault underlie dramatic events at the CLC. The defeat of an incumbent president of the CLC is therefore important for a Labour Movement opting for change.

 

But to conclude that the Canadian Labour Congress has completely abandoned a sixty year trajectory in one Convention would be naïve and dangerous to much-needed unity in the immediate aftermath of the Convention. The closeness of the election for President should be all the evidence required. The bussing of last minute delegates (more than 4600 delegates voted) still occurred. The caucus system, while looser than usual, still played an important role in the outcome. There will be the need for considerable mending of inner and intra-union fences that will hopefully heal as the attack on labour continues unabated. The changes in all unions that are necessary to effectively thwart the attack are a process and there is no magic wand to speed them along. A lot of hard work lies ahead for leadership of all kinds (those elected as well as those in the rank and file).

 

Yes, there is still a problem with leaders reared in a decrepit 80 year old practice of machine politics that frustrates the democratic instincts of workers wanting to get on with the fight. But eighty year old tactics and the problems for labour are not overthrown as simply as changing leaders, or unions (or labour bodies, for that matter). Experience in struggle is a great teacher. There’s yet another problem. It is the idea that leadership, up to their armpits in a new kind of struggle and against most powerful and resource-laden opponents, must somehow have all the solutions.

 

Various parts of the working class see the world from their own widely-varying vantage points. People who are elected to lead a particular union get new opportunities to see the world totally different from their days of punching a time clock or under the thumb of an individual boss. But as the struggle intensifies, most leaders will increasingly feel the tension as they spend much of their time putting out brush fires inflicted on their unions and memberships. One of the downsides to the historic Rand Formula compromise is the perception that the Union is identified ONLY as the leadership; and members are passive, except for bargaining and other crisis points (e.g. lay-offs, etc.). Some business unionist leaders have actually contributed to that perception, and wish to limit what their unions and labour bodies do. In the “good old days”, members paid their dues and “contracted out” to their leaders to look after their jobs, grievances, and security.

 

That is what is changing and organized labour must change also. The global corporate assault on labour means we all must learn some new lessons. The first is that no leader or small group of leaders, no matter how brilliant or talented, can match up against the folks calling the politico-economic shots. But collectively the working class has incredible intellectual and organizational resources to successfully cope with international-repeat INTERNATIONAL- capital’s attack. The organizational slate/caucus system will prove, through the struggle, an impediment to labour’s advance.

 

Most leaders in today’s labour movement already have their feet in the fire. And with precious few exceptions, are desperately casting around to try to save their unions and memberships from the fire. Some believe in hunkering down rather than reaching out to potential allies and increased unity. Some believe labour has to do a better public relations job. Some are trying to maintain capacity through raiding of other unions. Some are turning their back on the various federations and labour councils precisely at a time when all-out unity is required. Some are placing much if not all of their faith on electing what has been the “political arm of the labour movement”, the NDP, while others are worrying about the centrist drift of  some NDP leaders. Some are experimenting with new forms of organization trying to find the successful formula. Some are reaching out to the rank and file in new ways. Unity will come. We will either swim together or sink together.

 

The CLC is having to change slogans on the fly. Thirty years ago in a fight against wage controls and the bankruptcy of Keynesian economics, a CLC leader declared to Convention that “workers don’t need unions to walk backwards” and “what is at stake here (i.e. the fight against concessions) is the survival of the trade union movement.” That was then. Today, the slogan is in serious need of amendment.  Today, “workers, facing retreat, need unions more than ever”. Otherwise international capital’s assault can quickly go from retreat to rout, and from rout to defeat. History teaches us that retreat, if necessary, should never be viewed as a class crime, especially IF it buys time to work out strategy for future advance. Enough machismo and chest thumping! The delegates to this convention recognized what they were up against.

 

There is another marker of change, not unrelated to the Convention and the direction of Canadian labour. Thirty years ago, the leadership of labour was solidly united around building and electing New Democratic Party governments. The history of the labour movement’s relationship to the NDP is a study in itself. Simply put, since the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, there has always been a tension between how much energy organized labour should focus on ongoing independent political action and how much should be spent building an electoral party that includes elements well beyond organized labour. Today, the NDP is going through a similar process (debate) as the labour movement trying to orient to the brave new world of neoliberal capitalism, and thus far not too successfully. The relationship of labour to party is becoming increasingly frayed as the party strives to achieve electoral success, but growing voices within organized labour sees the NDP program as becoming more distant from the interests of labour and other progressive parts of society. Again, it is a matter of perspective. We can’t predict in advance where that discourse will end, but history is an important teacher of patience. Respectful airing of differences when taking on neoliberal capitalism must be seen as job one, especially as hundreds of thousands of the most advanced Canadian workers have come to rely on the NDP to be their voice. Unity is also problematic as the temptation to abandon electoral politics and ignore decades of history grows. The fraying relationship to the NDP is fraught with difficulty as the assault of global capital intensifies and there are no quick fixes.

 

Canadian Labour is coming through its baptism of dual unionism, US domination, racism, sexism and homophobia, flirtation with McCarthyism, betrayal and outright class collaboration. Organized labour has advanced a long ways on so many fronts; and the labour movement today bears little resemblance to the movement fifty or even twenty years ago. It would be a mistake to suggest the CLC coming out of Convention is the same CLC as before. But there never is time to rest. Added to labour’s urgent agenda is the struggle for the planet, for democracy and civil society. There is a long ways to go to use the power bequeathed to this generation’s leaders in order to empower the next.

 

It might be useful to reflect on a slogan of early trade union builders from the 1920’s “For a United, Sovereign, and Independent[1] Trade Union Movement!” Through the prism of history, we see that much of that slogan has become reality, although nothing remains static especially with the horrific assault that labour currently experiences. Organized labour is navigating in increasingly complex waters. The best shot for continuing forward is finding the right combination in the elusive “struggle for unity while uniting in struggle” i.e. between an increasingly engaged rank and file and its new and changing leadership charged with leading us forward. As in the past, the Resolution Book from Convention and implementing policies emerging from debate in Canada’s Parliament of Labour is always a good place to start in healing wounds that are easily opened, but often harder to close.

 

Conventions are important markers of the growing maturity of Canada’s organized workers. That maturity was revealed in Montreal. Now organized labour, at a critical moment in its history, is poised to take yet another huge step away from administrative, business unionism that has impeded its capacity to fight. As in the past, it will not be easy. But, the optimist sees organized labour (and its friends) on a date with destiny to realize the class conscious and socialist dreams of its founders so many decades ago.

 

 

George Hewison is a lifelong union organizer and former officer of his union, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union on Canada’s west coast. He embraces political and social activism in the interests of social justice and fundamental social change. He believes in the power of working people, who, if given the proper tools, can change the world. One of those tools is a deepening understanding of how our society is put together. He has been the recipient of many important lessons, both positive and negative, from veterans of Labour’s struggles stretching back decades. He has spent most of his adult life sharing those lessons with others.

For a number of years, he has also engaged in a study of the political economy of capitalism, including its current iteration, and conducts discussion groups with interested folks who share his desire to understand and explain the complexities of the social, economic and political world around us.

He continues a tradition of combining working class activism with the power of song and continues to tour and perform extensively. He may be reached at georgehewison@gmail.com .



[1] “Independent” (not to be confused with “sovereign”) of the bosses’ influence.