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(en) Canada, Prairie Struggle #1 - where we retreat, they will advance: reflections on labour’s “victory” in Challenging essential service legislation By Anastasia Kropotkin

Date Wed, 26 Dec 2012 11:20:33 +0200


In 2008, the Saskatchewan Party government led by Brad Wall introduced two bills that worsened the rights of workers in fundamental ways. Bill 5, dubbed “The Public Service Essential Services Act”, defined essential services so broadly that practically any public service employee could be unilaterally designated “essential” by the government and therefore denied the right to strike. Bill 5 also lacked any meaningful way to negotiate which workers are essential, and which were not. It was widely regarded as the most extreme essential services legislation in Canada. Bill 6, dubbed “An Act to Amend to the Trade Union Act” made it more difficult for workers to form unions in their workplaces, made it easier for employers to “bust” unions, and also gave workers less protection from unfair labour practices committed by the employer.

Almost immediately after passage of
the two bills, the Saskatchewan Federation of
Labour (SFL), acting on behalf of unionized
workers in the Saskatchewan, launched a legal
challenge against the legislation. They argued
the legislation violates Canada’s Charter of
Rights and Freedoms by restricting the right of
workers to form unions, collectively bargain
with their employers and engage in strike ac-
tion. The argument was supported by an Inter-
national Labour Organization (ILO) ruling in
2009 that Bills 5&6 violate ILO Convention No.
87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of
the Right to Organize which Canada and all
provincial governments have ratified. In 2011,
the challenge was finally heard by a Queen’s
Bench judge. In February, 2012,after 4 years of
prohibiting the right to strike for many of the
provinces public sector workers, a ruling was
issued that found Bill 5, the essential services
act, unconstitutional. Unfortunately, Bill 6, the
amendments to labour law that make it easier
for bosses to intimidate workers and bust
unions, was not found unconstitutional. Even
more unfortunate is that the ruling delays im-
plementation for 12 months, which means Bill
5 is still in enforceable likely until the
Saskatchewan Party government can appeal
the decision or engage in token consultation
with Labour; the result likely being that many
workers will still be outlawed from enforcing
their collective bargaining rights through the
strike.

Reaction

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the response
from the SFL and its affiliates has been one of
celebration. In the weeks since, there have
been many articles from provincial news and
labour media celebrating the perceived victory.
There is almost a complete absence of critical
perspective discussing how Bill 6 in now per-
manent legislation, nor how Bill 5 will always
exist in labour law though it may be a Bill 5-lite.
Labour leaders have completely missed oppor-
tunities to point out the numerous oppressions
these laws perpetuate, and are completely
oblivious that to many workers (those who will
still be deemed essential, those wanting to
unionize, those in the process of unionizing ...
) this ruling is a loss. Perhaps it is a symptom
of the times, where constant attacks by neolib-
eral, and conservative governments have left
labour leaders starving for anything resembling
a victory? Or perhaps labour leaders feel that
the legal challenge was the only option to com-
bat these laws? No matter what the justification
for this celebration, there is very little to cele-
brate if you are a worker affected by this legis-
lation.

Quit Unions?

The treatment of this ruling as a victory shows
how detached labour union politics have be-
come from their radical history. Sure, union
leaders and bureaucrats are quick to point out
gains made from radical labour history such as
the fight for the eight hour working day, week-
ends, and various types of leave when educat-
ing members and organizing. However, very
few labour unions are prepared to consider
pressing for similar foundational gains. The at-
tack on working people presented by Bill 5 & 6
in Saskatchewan further illustrates the lack of
preparation to fight for anything vital to working
people. The idea that this judicial ruling is being
hailed as a victory flourishes only because
unions have gone so long losing, with rare vic-
tories in struggles that matter to workers. The
reality is that without credible resistance from
unions through their membership, workers
rights are open for further attack.

These observations have led some
political activists on the left to be disdainful of
unions. Many people and groups have defined
business unions as an enemy, and equated
them with collaborators with the various capi-
talist oppressors. The spirit behind these claims has
merit. Certainly, these unions employ a bureau-
cratic class who have financial interest in insti-
tutionalizing class conflict rather than taking
risks through direct action. Also, many of these
unions define political action as engagement
with electoral politics within the capitalist sys-
tem, rather than with the issues affecting mem-
bers everyday. Several unions are also
attached to larger national or international bod-
ies that can from time to time use authority to
end ‘rank and file’initiatives. However, to com-
pletely ignore the political arena business
unions provide is in my opinion the wrong con-
clusion. Union politics are still a legitimate site
of struggle for millions of working people in
Canada. Many work places function according
to collective agreements, and when these col-
lective agreements are attacked, it affects the
working class in entire industries at home, work
and in political life. When radical member rep-
resentation in business unions is weak, it only
perpetuates reliance on those bureaucratic
structures in place that default to non-radical,
non-democratic bureaucratic resolutions to
conflict. Unions still also have an instrumental
role in protecting workers against unfair labour
practices, and violations of collective agree-
ments. While this section isn’t meant to absolve
unions of their reformism, and their compla-
cency to the capitalist system, it does point out
that the political arena unions fill is working
class orientated, and consequently, when radi-
cals and revolutionaries abandon this arena,
they only make more space for reformism, and
further remove revolutionary potential from the
realm of union activity. In addition to this,
unions are still one of few social institutions left
advocating for the rights of workers. As alluded
to in a previous paragraph, the union move-
ment has its origins in radical working class or-
ganizing; thus as a point to organize around, it
is the task of revolutionaries within business
unions to continually build counter-power within
these working class organizations so that the
radicalism originally giving rise to union move-
ment, and to some extent is still celebrated
within it can be reclaimed.

Admittedly, this argument is a lot more
complex than presented as the extent to which
we, as revolutionaries within these institutions,
accomplish this, and the barriers union bureau-
cracy will present are extremely complex. How-
ever, rather than cede this territory to liberal
challengers in the bureaucracy, there is value
in confronting conservatism in the union, build-
ing militancy that goes beyond legal negotia-
tion, and mobilizing members against
bureaucratic impediment.

Lessons from the Shop Floor

In writing this response to Labour’s celebration
of the Bill 5&6 legal challenge, I must also re-
flect on recent events in the province of Alberta.
In the midst of reacting to the news about the
legal challenge, hundreds of healthcare work-
ers in Alberta, beginning with the Royal Alexan-
dra Hospital in Edmonton engaged in a wildcat
strike in contradiction of both the laws regulat-
ing the conduct of strike action and Alberta es-
sential services laws. Like Bill 5 in
Saskatchewan, the Alberta essential services
law outlaws many healthcare workers who ex-
ercise their right to strike. Alberta healthcare
workers have been without a collective agree-
ment since March 2011, and without the legal
right to enforce their rights through the ability to
withdraw their labour, Alberta Health Services-
the employer- had little justification to make
a serious offer. The most recent offer before the
wildcat strike was insulting and was rejected by
a 95% no vote. As a result, the union represent-
ing the effected healthcare workers organized
an information picket. From there, workers es-
calated the information picket to a full scale
wildcat strike. After one day of the job action,
the employer agreed to send negotiations to
binding arbitration, with agreement that no dis-
cipline or legal action would result from the
walkout. More recently, the bargaining commit-
tees have reached an agreement that both par-
ties are recommending for ratification.

While this result also isn‘t ideal, and
the union certainly played a role in institution-
alizing the membership by pushing matters into
binding arbitration, the membership still en-
gaged in radical actions that achieved as much
in one day as the bargaining process did in al-
most a year. Second, this action emerged from
little more than working class frustration, and
good timing. Arguably, even a minority anar-
chist presence could have pushed the action to
be more effective, and more militant. Lastly, in
connection to the point made earlier, the union
supported workers in the decision to wildcat,
and protected workers from retribution. While
this does not absolve the numerous downsides
of bureaucratization, it lends support to my pre-
vious claim that business unions are still a
space for worker advocacy, and certainly, this
case illustrates the sheer scale in which this
small glimpse of radicalism was able
to take place. Logically, an anarchist strategy
shouldn’t be to cede more of this space to lib-
eral influence, we should be seeking to counter
these influences by arguing our politics with co-
workers, and union activists to mobilize them
towards radical stances in the union. Unlike
electoral politics, and other nationalist oriented
initiatives, where the subjugation of the working
class is either completely ignored, or an in-
creasingly utilized selling point, unions are a
domain of workers involving the struggle to re-
duce our exploitation and where we have re-
treated, they have advanced. Thus, Prairie
Struggle rejects the abandonment position that
advocates abstaining from union struggles, and
sometimes even attacks them. Instead, we aim
to support union struggles, and support organ-
izing within them to advance anarchist perspec-
tives to resistance.

Even within the Canadian context,
many other examples exist where radical polit-
ical space has been created within the busi-
ness union. For instance, the involvement and
impact of grassroots militants in the Canadian
Union of Postal Workers has been significant.
By organizing militancy on the shop floor, there
have been many instances of workers storming
the boss, refusing forced overtime, setting up
worker run organizing committees, and in-
creasing tactics to reclaim space lost to bureau-
crats through direct action. At the core of this
has been the radicalization of other coworkers,
and involvement with the IWW. While this is a
far cry from resisting government legislation
similar to essential services, some locals within
CUPW are certainly building this resistance at
an increasingly effective rate. It also further il-
lustrates the urgency of unionized workers
within unions organizing within a radical con-
text, and why any union bureaucrats paying at-
tention to these examples must refocus on
building radicalism instead of celebrating legal-
ism.

Mention must also be made of the ef-
forts of anarchists within the student movement
in Quebec. Within a radical student movement
context, anarchists work to further mobilize po-
litical direction, actions and are crucial to coun-
tering efforts to co-opt the movement by more
liberal student organizations. The current stu-
dent general strike occurring in Quebec to fight
against rate hikes, and the numerous direct ac-
tions illustrate huge potential for militant
organizers within that movement.

While premature, another example of
radicalism in the union that must be pointed to
is the brewing conflict in the education sector
in British Columbia.

Workers in this sector are deemed es-
sential by BC law, and the government is taking
advantage of this by trying force a net-zero
mandate on the workers, meaning any pay
hikes must be offset by other concessions.

However, the government will be met by the
seasoned BC Teacher’s Union, a union with a
history of previous illegal strike action. Already,
the union staged a three day walk out, ended
by back to work legislation, and is arranging for
further votes to engage in a full scale wildcat
strike despite the possibility of fines of over one
million dollars. The union also openly states
that institutional solutions like provincial
mediation amount to nothing more than a
sham. This has liberal analysts already re-
acting to the power of such a huge action,
and expressing fear that this behaviour will
catch on. Clearly, the BC Teacher’s Union
is a rare exception to usual conduct, but
what this case shows is that even in some
business union contexts, by no means has
bureaucracy completely paralysed radical-
ism. Furthermore, the potential space for
an anarchist presence in these struggles
(if it isn’t already present) is an attractive
thought to have.

Conclusion

There is no denying that business unions and
many bureaucrats within them are not doing
any favours for the various workers they repre-
sent. The celebration of the Bill 5 and Bill 6 rul-
ings, and the surprising lack of any critical
analysis is even one of the less severe exam-
ples of this. However, the nature of business
unionism is that we are working with institutions
that effect our exploitation by the ruling class.
As a reflection to union reaction to the Bill 5&6
challenge, it is evident that the current ap-
proaches are not satisfactory to fight continu-
ous attacks not only from our employers, but
also from politicians that attack our livelihoods
to benefit corporations, and manipulate public
opinion. While the current strategies being de-
ployed to counter these attacks are undeniably
failing to combat our exploitation, and have re-
sulted in almost perpetual losses, if revolution-
aries within the unions abandon this territory, a
territory that militants within unions can radical-
ize as many examples demonstrate, there is
nothing to suggest this would benefit our move-
ment, nor further revolutionary aims. While this
is a contested, and complex claim, and admit-
tedly an issue that requires far more space than
this article has provided, what isn’t contestable
is that worker’s rights are under consistent at-
tack, and that unions are one of the broad-
est defenses against these attacks
currently in place. Thus, merit exists in the
argument that anarchist presence within
the union movement, if for nothing more
than to challenge the prevailing bureau-
cracy with articles like this one, is vital to
building resistance today, and mobilizing
against attacks tomorrow.

It is this message that should prevail
in responses to Bill 5&6. There will be more
attacks tomorrow. Be it back to work legis-
lation, laws that disclose the union
books to our bosses, or even the prospect
of laws resembling “right to work’ legislation
in the US. Capitalist political parties, and Cor-
porations are conspiring to further attack the
working class, and smear our struggles in pop-
ular media. Clearly, organization, mobilization
and radicalization are in order, not celebration
or withdrawal.

Anastasia Kropotkin (Prairie Struggle Organization)
_________________________________________
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