The Labour Movement and the Youth

by Rick Gunderman

In the midst of the capitalists’ economic crisis, organized labour in Canada has been seeking for several years now to reorient itself to meet the needs of the Canadian working class.

Canadian workers on the picket line

Attacks on the public sector include the imposition of a wage freeze in various jurisdictions, the designation of ever-more segments as “essential services” to undermine the right to strike, and back-to-work legislation. The response needs to be a determined, united and militant struggle of the working class.

Promising developments in the Canadian labour movement have shown the willingness of organized labour to not only survive, but to grow and regain their prominence and influence in Canada. These include increasingly class-conscious rhetoric from the Canadian Labour Congress, the formation of the Common Front led by the Ontario Federation of Labour, the involvement of organized labour in Quebec in the student strike, and the impending merger of the Canadian Auto Workers with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers to form Canada’s largest private-sector union.

Amid all of these positive developments, however, are underlying concerns, especially for progressive youth. Unionization rates are particularly low among young workers, with many youth and students employed in tenuous, part-time labour. Despite several militant struggles, such as those waged by workers at US Steel, Caterpillar and Vale Inco, Canada continues to experience deindustrialization due to outsourcing and continued dominance of transnational capital. This has left far fewer good-paying, unionized industrial jobs for Canadian youth than our parents and grandparents had available to them.

Successive governments, the grip of neo-liberal ideology on the mass media, and of course the unceasing efforts of monopoly and finance capital to demonize organized labour have all attempted for the last several decades to smash the labour movement. It’s not difficult to see why – unions like CUPE, CAW and USW long ago rejected business unionism in favour of social unionism, something many credit to the Canadian movement’s greater capacity for survival than their brothers and sisters in the United States. Social unionism combines militant struggles against the employer with broader involvement in community and social justice struggles. What could cause a capitalist to tremble with greater fear?

In spite of decades of concerted attacks by the capitalist class, as well as a delay in presenting an effective response, organized labour in Canada has survived and is showing great signs of reinvigoration and a renewed desire to fight the capitalist system.

From a dialectical point of view, this is good news. Struggles are the key means by which the working class acquires its political and class education, and it appears that the Canadian labour movement is preparing for many new struggles. Having seemingly “went to sleep” since the class struggle shifted in favour of the capitalists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the reawakening of the labour movement will demonstrate that the only effective way to advance the working class is through unapologetic, dauntless, and above all else united class struggle. The complete bankruptcy of the twin policies of business unionism and class collaboration will be laid bare for all to see.

It’s too soon to predict a massive union drive among young workers. However, the appearance of young workers’ committees among various unions, such as CUPE and OPSEU, are very encouraging. Should the labour movement as a whole focus at least a significant part of its efforts on refreshing its ranks with young, class-conscious workers, the survival and advancement of organized labour in Canada will be all but assured.

The tradition of social unionism is of vital importance to the unity of organized labour with all those rejecting neo-liberalism and seeking social justice. This naturally includes the student movement, alongside feminists, anti-racists, environmentalists, anti-war activists, LGBTQ persons and their supporters, seniors’ rights advocates, etc.

The case of the unity of the student movement in Quebec with these forces is illustrative. The Liberal government of Jean Charest responded with police brutality, anti-democratic and oppressive laws and a slanderous campaign against the students. In the end, however, the unity of all progressive people in Quebec forced Charest to resign and brought the centre-left, bourgeois nationalist Parti Québecois to power.

Organized labour in Quebec, like most popular democratic forces in the province, is considerably more active and confrontational. Their example has proven to be effective – although the gains of the movement in Quebec this year cannot be said to be revolutionary, they have left the people’s forces with a seemingly much less hostile environment in which to work. Those with experience in political activism know how valuable this is.

At the same time, movements cannot slow down after victories, major or minor, but must always continue full speed ahead. This is the lesson of the last one-third of the 20th Century for the labour movement across Canada.

The student movement would do well to reflect on their own experiences, including the dramatic weakening of student activism as a result of OUSA and CASA raiding CFS-affiliated student unions. The comparisons and contrasts with the experience of the labour movement will provide further valuable insight. In the end, this will serve to reinforce this truth – that only a determined, united and militant struggle of the working class can challenge the rule of capital and the increasingly anti-democratic nature of the Western world’s governments.

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