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College Quarterly
Summer 2012 - Volume 15 Number 3
Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada
Stephanie Ross & Larry Savage, eds.
Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In 1965, the plan for an Ontario college system sprang, like Athena, from the head of then education minister and future premier Bill Davis. An astonishingly grand and generally successful collection of about two dozen Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology was constructed and made operational within less than five years. There was some uncertainty about their purported nature and function, but at least these two elements were plain. The colleges were to provide:

  • “applied” as contrasted to “theoretical” education intended to equip graduates with the necessary skills to make their way in what was deemed to be an expanding high-tech economy; and,
  • a balance of vocational training and liberal (awkwardly termed “avocational” and later “general”) education so that these people would have not only the job skills to win immediate entry into the workforce, but also the necessary tools for personal development and responsible citizenship.

The ratio of vocational training to liberal arts education was clearly identified: the liberal arts (including language and literature, the humanities and social sciences, etc.) were to constitute no less than 30% and no more than 50% of every student’s curriculum.

From the outset, there were turf wars. Most colleges embraced vocational education, but were less enthusiastic about the liberal arts, preferring to recast English Literature as Technical Report Writing and to restrict the Social Sciences to the Psychology of Marketing or Early Childhood Education. They also tolerated Economics for Business students as well as problem-centred Sociology courses for law enforcement and social work—the hard and soft sides of the coinage of social control. Generally speaking, courses in the liberal arts steered clear of penetrating social criticism.

A few colleges, however, took the mandate and academic content seriously, both in discipline-specific courses and in an exciting range of multidisciplinary programs in Canadian Studies, Environmental Studies, Women’s Studies and other “controversial” domains. Most of the ones that emphasized critical social theory and raised issues of social justice did not succeed in the long run, of course; but many made a noble attempt, often against considerable political pressure.

The struggle to maintain the liberal arts component was not conducted entirely within the colleges, nor was it always a question of liberal arts faculty against the outside world. From time to time, an authoritative body would enter the fray—ostensibly in support of socially engaged courses. In 1994, for instance, the College Standards and Accreditation Commission (CSAC) reinforced the initial commitment to “general education.” It was not exactly a reiteration of the original mandate, especially in terms of the ratio of vocational to non-vocational courses, but it did endorse the notion of a balanced curriculum in principle. It also set out eight “themes” which the liberal arts were to address to which I have added some of the pertinent academic disciplines:

  • aesthetic appreciation (arts and literature);
  • civic life (history and political science);
  • cultural awareness (the humanities);
  • personal development (psychology);
  • social awareness (sociology);
  • understanding science (natural science, philosophy);
  • understanding technology (philosophy, sociology);
  • work and the economy (labour relations, economics).

In 2004, CSAC published a revision of its guidelines. It accommodated further reductions and restrictions, presumably succumbing to pressure from any number of quarters to get rid of unnecessary “frills” and get “back to basics.” To accomplish the reduction without appearing to be complete philistines, a tactic of collapsing themes was adopted; for example, understanding science and understanding technology were telescoped into a single theme, as were cultural awareness and social awareness. One modification, however, was of singular importance: whereas “aesthetic appreciation” and “civic life” remained untouched “work and the economy” was jettisoned.

What were they thinking?

The colleges were established for many reasons. They were to provide an alternative form of education to people wishing to have a postsecondary education, but one that was more “practical” than a university degree. They were to offer accessibility (cheaper fees) to allow for the vastly increased number of high school graduates who could not afford university tuition and for whom there were not enough university places regardless of cost. College students in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, we should recall, were certified members of the “Baby Boomer” demographic.

The overriding justification for the creation of the colleges and the massive expenditure of public funds that they required was, however, the rhetoric of a new, technological society. The promises of postindustrialism were in the air. Just as the nineteenth-century primary economy of natural resource extraction and agriculture had been supplanted by the twentieth-century industrial economy, so too the industrial economy was understood to be confronted by the fast approaching twenty-first century high-tech economy. It was understood that the service sector would dominate, while automation and robotics would take away monotonous and sometimes dangerous factory jobs.

There was immense optimism. Just as few had long lamented the end of the horse-and-buggy era and the loss of jobs for bridle makers and blacksmiths, so we were assured that no one should worry about the end of assembly lines and factory work. In the coming age of computerization and cybernetics, there would be a bonanza of well-paid, intellectually challenging and personally satisfying employment—probably to be rewarded not only financially, but with a thirty-hour work week as well.

In the coming decades, so the designers of college education believed, brains would trump brawn. The industrial revolution demanded workers who could read work orders and set the dials on machinery correctly; so, public education at least to the age of sixteen was made compulsory. The postindustrial revolution would set even higher standards and the colleges were put in place to meet them. This, of course, begs the following question: since the transformation of the workplace and the coming of a new information-based economy were at the core of the college experiment, why would courses that explored work and the economy suddenly and peremptorily be written out of the script?

It would be presumptuous of me to speak in depth about what I think was going on in the heads of the authors of the second CSAC document, nor would I want to speculate in detail about the motives of those who gave them their instructions. What I do know is that, in the early 1970s, a number of programs in industrial relations and labour studies were started in a variety of educational venues. Some of them were created by trade unions, and I had the pleasure of teaching classes in labour history in union schools around the province. Some were set up in college liberal arts departments, where again I had the opportunity to bring labour history to the fore. Some of the most enduring initiatives were begun in universities, where fine scholarship continues to flourish. I am most familiar with the excellent labour studies and related programs at Brock University, McMaster University, the University of Windsor and York University, but there are assuredly many others both in the province and across the country. All of them, I think, were inspired by intellectual leadership in the form of: books published by both academic and small private presses often in association with groups such as Studies of Political Economy in Canada (formerly the University League for Social Reform); professional journals (e.g., Labour/Le Travail and Studies in Political Economy); and diverse leftist magazines past and present (notably Canadian Dimension, Last Post, Our Generation and This Magazine). They remain, however, an academic niche as the postsecondary education becomes more and more geared to the business model and educational materials produced by large-scale multinational enterprises conform ever more rigidly to the corporate ideology.

Within that niche, however, remarkable work was and continues to be done. Projects were generally sympathetic to the experience of workers in industrial capitalist economies. They unashamedly addressed questions of social class, occasionally from socialist or even Marxist perspectives. They were therefore deemed suspicious, even when no evidence could be produced that they were actually subversive—though, from time to time, the authorities were contacted. Nevertheless, they have persisted and form one of the most genuinely valuable domains of teaching and learning and of political education rather than uncritical job training.

From the mainstream college perspective, I am sure, industrial relations and the question of labour organization and history were matters best (or exclusively) left to Business Administration programs or placed in courses intended for use by people headed toward careers in Human Resources. The point of studying unions became to discover how best to avoid them if possible, or outwit them if necessary.

Despite the triumph of neoliberalism and the overall ideological assault on the liberal arts in the colleges, some modest holdouts remain. For these college outposts and for colleagues in the more independent universities, there is an abundant literature devoted to “work and the economy.” Considering administrative efforts to transform actual labour relations in the colleges—including everything from (so far) failed attempts at union-busting to transforming whole faculties from full-time to “contingent” workers—it seems to me that all teachers in all disciplines in all colleges could use a serious exposure to labour history. This is needed not only in Canada, but in the United States, the United Kingdom, Western Europe and elsewhere—but that’s another matter.

The book under review here is concerned exclusively with Canada, and it is much to be commended. As the first contribution to the larger “Labour in Canada” series edited by John Peters and Reuben Roth, it is of inestimable value both for traditional classroom use and for trade union leaders and activists. It is an admirable introduction to the many topics that are crucial to understanding labour in Canada.

The book is divided into a useful “Introduction” and three main parts: “Contextualizing Labour and Working Class Politics”; “The Challenge of Electoral Politics”; and the “Politics of Extra-Parliamentary Activism.”

Throughout, the labour movement is taken for what it is: the political organization and activity of a complicated and not always consistent group of people from highly skilled paraprofessionals to manual labourers. Today’s labour movement embraces college teachers and administrative staff, corrections officers and social workers, nurses and laboratory technicians, arts and communications workers, skilled artisans, clerical, sales and hospitality employees, as well as chemical, forestry, mine, mill, paper, transport and auto plant workers, … plus many, many more.

As working people’s share in national wealth drops precipitously, governments adopt increasingly draconian legislation to frustrate attempts to organize workers in banking, hospitality, retail and other occupational categories. Public sector workers and educators are regularly demonized by politicians of various stripes and party labels. Crises are created so that harsh measures can be imposed to solve phony problems. And, of course, all efforts are made to turn workers against one another rather than joining together to address common problems. In the current circumstances, students about to enter the labour market need more than ever to understand the complexities of their future place in the political economy of Canada.

Too often, those few volumes about work and working people that have managed to get into classrooms provide an inventory of past social frictions, a sentimentalized version of progressive politics and a conflict-free assessment of anticipated future trends. Editors Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage have not produced a counterfeit celebration of labour history with historical nods to the Winnipeg General Strike, industrial organizing and such partial victories as the winning of the “Rand Formula,” augmented by an ambiguous account of the role of labour today. In fact, the title says it all: this is a book about rethinking the politics of labour, but not in the sense of adjustment to the new “realities” so relentlessly put forward as necessities, if labour and its representative unions are to have any future whatsoever.

Three decades of executive and legislative government attacks as well as corporate and media assaults on working people have resulted in significant losses and considerable loss of hope. Among the set-backs has been the transformation of the work place into a setting in which outsourcing and off-shoring have made job security seem anachronistic. “McJobs” in all sectors—especially college teaching— and allowed to prevail. Politicians and corporate promoters decry seniority rights and, in education, faculty tenure is castigated. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Toronto—whose inherited wealth has made him a multimillionaire—has been among the more vocal opponents of job security, calling for a “war on jobs for life.” Now, McJobs, short-term contract work usually without benefits and other measures to create vulnerable, timid employees prevail. In addition, slashing budgets for education, health care, industrial health and safety, environmental protection and all manner of social services has increased both middle and working class insecurity—sometimes leading to resentment by some (unorganized) workers of the working conditions and benefits won by others. These and related matters are taken up openly and honestly. More importantly, they are not made to comprise a catalogue of complaint and a list of laments; Ross, Savage and their contributors have much more to do than collude in the general discourse of defeat.

In their Introduction, the editors identify the main point of the book: it is to work toward “new and effective strategies and tactics … in a hostile political and ideological climate …” The process is begun by Donald Swartz and Rosemary Warskett, who offer an historical account of the labour movement, with a view toward “theorizing” its evolution and current situation as it experiences the “crisis of solidarity” in circumstances of neoliberal hegemony. Stephanie Ross then adds a nuanced assessment of the alleged dichotomy between “business unionism” and “social unionism,” making the perceptive point that these “historicized ideal types”—the one formal, bureaucratic and directed toward internal economic and contractual issues and the other informal, participatory and directed toward external political and social justice issues—are neither mutually exclusive nor necessarily separate domains occasionally tied to one another for reasons of opportunism or convenience;instead, they are simply different “modes of union praxis.”

Understanding something of the origins and structures of the labour movement, the book presses on to analyze one of the most problematic aspects of working class activity in Canada, the relationship between organized labour and the New Democratic Party.

In Part Two, the reader is treated to four excellent essays that deal with the relationship between trade unions and the electoral process. The no longer “new” New Democratic Party was created out of a merger between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a leftist, populist party which had its greatest success in the Canadian prairies and the Canadian Labour Congress, the functional equivalent of the American AFL-CIO, and the most powerful union organization in the country. The notion of uniting farmers and workers had long been a part of one version of the Canadian Dream. In 1961, therefore, hopes were high when the fusion was complete. With Tommy Douglas, the “father of Canadian Medicare” and, for seventeen years, the successful premier of Saskatchewan ordained as leader, it seemed that a restructuring of Canadian politics was possible.

The NDP has achieved electoral success in several provinces and, as of 2011, it reached its highest point in federal politics, becoming the Official Opposition in Ottawa for the first time. Some sceptics have regarded this breakthrough as an anomaly. They claim—not without reason—that the success was partly due to the NDP’s unexpected popularity in Québec, where it displaced the separatist Bloc Québecois as the choice of progressive voters and the disastrous Liberal campaign under former leader Michael Ignatieff. Whether a fluke or not, voices of caution within the party urged that all efforts be put into the consolidation of the advantage. In effect, this meant not frightening the Canadian electorate with “radical” policies and postures. A shift to the centre was signaled.

Prior to this largely unexpected advance, however, two issues plagued the NDP and account for its reluctance to voice its role as the political arm of labour. The first was that it was seen by political scientists and by much of the public as a “party of principle,” meaning that the purity of its ideals were its main concern and that it was unwilling to make necessary compromises in order to win elections. As such it was seen as “preachy,” sometimes sanctimonious, and primarily interested in political consciousness raising rather than practical power. The second was that, although trade union leaders and activists provided financial support and small armies of volunteers at election time, rank-and-file union members were apt to vote against the NDP, partly because they despaired of NDP candidates winning and partly because their personal ideologies and political commitments were often more in tune with moderate Liberal or even Progressive Conservative thinking.

In the interest of full disclosure, although I have never taken out a party membership, I have been a supporter and campaign worker for provincial and federal New Democrats since the national election of 1965 (when I was still too young to vote) with only two exceptions—the federal campaign of 1968, when I was resident in the United States and a volunteer in Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, and 1995 when the time came to work to re-elect Ontario Premier Bob Rae (who later found his proper place in the Liberal Party of Canada). Accordingly, I have considerable empathy for union people who are less than fully committed to the NDP. In office for at least one term in five different provinces, the party in power has a mixed record. As Bryan Evans explains, the case of the Rae government was telling: coming into office at the time of a deep economic slump, the NDP in Ontario “shifted toward public sector austerity … and was unprecedented both in the abrogation of collective bargaining rights and in spending cuts sought.” It attacked public service unions and imposed vicious fiscal restraint echoing or even amplifying right-wing calls for government austerity.

The record has not been appreciably better in some other jurisdictions. Writes Larry Savage: “while most provincial sections of the NDP are lambasted by left-wing critics for selling out social democratic principles after forming government, the Nova Scotia NDP seemed to jettison its social democratic policy prescriptions prior to forming government.” Evans quotes Greg Albo of York University (and co-editor of perennially brilliant annual collection of essays, The Socialist Register): “Like centrist political parties around the world, [the federal NDP] has “increasingly traded social inequality”… for an embrace of markets and small business.” The NDP platform, he adds, is “utterly conventional.”

What to do? With the federal Conservative Party now the aggressive political instrument of corporate capitalism in a “war” on the working and middle classes, and the federal Liberal Party apparently without a compass—moral or strategic—the NDP has a more-or-less realistic opportunity to win power. The question is: what would be the result if the clever insiders and pollsters did figure out the formula for success? Evans points out that whereas “social democracy in the post-war decades offered a more redistributive policy and practice of managing capitalism, it now offers a program assisting in the adjustment of workers to the requirements of a global, hyper-competitive market economy.” It offers capitalism with a human face.

With this in mind, the book proceeds to consider political alternatives. The distinct society of Québec and its unique approach to labour relations is discussed, but the likelihood that it provides a readily transferable strategy or even one that is apt to remain successful in Québec is said to be small (though what the promised launching of a provincial NDP presence might mean in not discussed). So is the promotion of “strategic voting,” which urges workers to vote NDP wherever its candidate has an honest chance of winning a riding, but to vote Liberal where its candidate presents the most effective way to prevent a Conservative majority. Statistically, there is a good argument for this tactic—if the aim is exclusively to deny the Conservatives unencumbered legislative and executive control. The argument, however, depends upon the premise that the Liberals would behave differently from the Conservatives in office. The rebuttal might go something like this: both federally and provincially, Conservatives do the wrong thing with glee whereas the Liberals do the wrong thing with regret. How New Democrats feel about doing the wrong thing varies from place to place and from time to time.

Dennis Pilon presents a cogent case for electoral reform as a means to give labour a proper voice in governance. It is a truism that the Canadian voting system distorts the will of the people as it is reflected in political party choices in at least four ways:

  1. whichever party wins the plurality of the vote normally wins a majority of seats;
  2. any party with a heavy concentration of votes in one province or region is apt to be overrepresented in Parliament;
  3. third parties with support spread across the country are apt to win a portion of the seats that is significantly smaller than its percentage of actual voters;
  4. third party supporters in ridings in which the election of one of the two mainstream parties is all but guaranteed vote for the lesser of the available evils rather than “waste” their vote on the NDP, thus exaggerating an already distorted system.

So, artificial majorities are the order of the day, and smaller parties (normally the NDP, but now the Green Party as well) may get 10% or even 20% of the vote yet be denied much, if any, representation in the House of Commons.

The obvious solution to this particular democratic deficit is some form of proportional representation (PR), perhaps with some element of a “preferential voting” ballot. Such reforms, however, have had a long and tortured history from the inception of the CCF to the present day. Decisions by the parties of the working class, just like their opponents, have been made with an eye to short-term electoral success. When it seems that PR would enhance the party’s chances, it becomes popular; when it seems that it might work against it, it is rejected. It is a matter of crass calculation, not of an endorsement of greater democracy.

Perhaps the most provocative section of Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada is Part Three, “The Prospects of Extra-Parliamentary Activism.” Taking up slightly more than half the book (excluding front and back matter), it raises the question of what labour might do as an alternative or in addition to providing rhetorical support but often ineffective action on behalf of a New Democratic Party. The NDP seems to have embraced pragmatism over principle in order to win power and to become even more pragmatic in order to retain power, but not to have delivered on many of its ever weaker promises to make real change once elected. Indeed, the NDP has maintained its following of a core 20% of voters primarily by being able to claim that at least it’s not one or the other party of big business, and to make a bit of a show of “standing up for the little guy,” which is about as tepid a version of worker solidarity as can be imagined.

Contributors to the book do not urge the withdrawal of labour from party politics as a corruption of democracy so much as they seek to explore other methods and means of advancing labour’s interests. They are still willing to keep the dialogue with the NDP going, even as the expressions “socialism” and “social democratic” are purged from its language and literature. Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada does, however, examine other forms of discrimination and exploitation in an effort to cast a wide net for potential allies. So, in sequence, chapters are devoted to the relationship between unions and gender equity, aboriginal rights, environmentalism, coalitions with community activists, anti-poverty work, organizing migrant and immigrant workers and so on.

A final chapter on the erosion of worker’s rights within the courts concludes the section. Though not an easy fit with essays that address extra-parliamentary “activism,” there is no other obvious place to put Charles W. Smith’s account of relations between labour and the courts; and, it is a contribution that more than merits inclusion. The Canadian labour movement and citizens in general are quite right to be sceptical of the courts. If, to borrow loosely from Marx and Engels, the state is the executive committee of the ruling class, then courts have surely been its main enforcer. While it is possible to trace a gradual expansion of workers’ rights, these have come painfully slowly and only when demands became irresistible in the absence of brute force.

So, trade unions emerged from the status of “criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade” to second-class partners in an industrial system that ensured labour stability for the owners of the means of production and distribution of goods and services and the state authorities which protected private property in exchange for minimal collective bargaining rights and a parallel quasi-judicial system to adjudicate management violations of collective agreements. In Smith’s enlightening account and perceptive assessment, people without a formal background in law or experience in negotiations and grievances can learn a great deal about how the courts—both before and after the passage of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms—have functioned mainly to protect capital and only occasionally and inconsistently to support labour’s rights. Reliance on The Charter and the courts are almost certain to be tested as federal and provincial governments use and abuse their powers to truncate the collective bargaining process when dealing with everyone from commercial pilots to elementary school teachers.

All of the chapters in this anthology are effective and informative, and each one all ends with a helpful summary relating the specific topic to the overall theme. If I have any reluctance to give this book an A+, it comes with a matter of omission rather than commission. The question of extra-parliamentary action is handled extremely well, providing no hyperbolic call to the barricades as if a rainbow coalition might precede a thunderstorm of social change—a meteorologically dubious as well as a politically doubtful proposition. What seems missing, however, is a rigorous discussion of social class itself.

The editors and their collaborators have done a remarkable job of presenting essays which are brief without being superficial, pointed without being strident and academically sound without being pedantic. Yet, a spectre haunts throughout—the spectre of the working class. If anything has bedeviled the analysis (never mind the praxis) of working-class politics, it is the failure of Marxist, neo-Marxist and socialist intellectuals to “frame” the question of what constitutes social class in the late capitalism. This is the “lens” through which labour politics must be viewed.

From Weber onward to Ralf Dahrendorf, Andre Gorz, Edward Thompson, Perry Anderson, Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser, Ralph Miliband Jürgen Habermas, Eric Olin Wright and many, many more, the issue of the nature, constitution, historical role (if any) of social class has been debated with urgency, but without a satisfactory resolution. Moreover, the Canadian voice in this essential discussion has largely been derivative. The historical and practical work represented in this volume needs a better sense of its subject. Perhaps that is a topic that will inspire Peters and Roth as they seek to add a third, a fourth and eventually more excellent books to this admirable and much-needed series. A second volume, Boom, Bust and Crisis: Labour, Corporate Power and Politics in Canada, edited by John Peters is already in print with more, we may hope and expect, to come.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at