Always on the cutting edge of social change, the Canadian Auto Workers union has just launched an important new initiative. The CAW has set up "A Task Force on Working Class Politics in the 21st Century."
Here is the introduction to the paper that introduces the task force to union members:
"We generally think of politics as being about who gets elected and what they do - that is about governments. But even though this is how it's normally expressed, the essence of politics is really about power and change; whose interests and values get attention and results, and how people organize to affect that. So politics is really about society and not just government. No matter who gets elected, as long as power in society remains basically in the hands of a minority, our lives are shaped and limited by that minority's control (power) over production, investment, finances and communications."
The CAW is the largest private sector union in Canada. It not only has members in the auto and airline industries, but it is now also devoting its resources to organizing in the service sector. The first Starbucks to be organized in Canada was by the CAW in Vancouver. In 1985 the CAW broke away from the United Autoworkers because of disagreements about concession bargaining and business unionism. Since then it is been a major force for social change in Canada and its President Buzz Hargrove has been perhaps the most visible and consistent spokesperson of the left in the country.
Unlike in the United States where labour alliances with social groups is a fairly recent development, in Canada the labour movement has been working closely with women's, environmental, student, gay and lesbian and other social movements for several decades. The CAW provides financial support for many social action groups. It was also at the centre of the Days of Action, a joint labour-community protest across Ontario that shut down city after city in protest against the right-wing attacks of the current Ontario government. The CAW also uses its considerable economic power in Big Three bargaining to negotiate clauses that promote change like the six week SPA (Special Paid Absence) to cut down on work time and thus provide more jobs in the auto plants or a $2,000 subsidy available to parents who are using licensed non-profit child care.
The CAW has also historically been one of the strongest supporters of Canada's social democratic party, the NDP (New Democratic Party). Unions may have formal membership status in the NDP and form a considerable power bloc inside the party. In the 1960's and 70's that power bloc was often in opposition to the left in the party but in the early 1990's there was a fundamental change.
The NDP in a suprise victory became the government of Ontario, Canada's largest and richest province, in 1990. Under pressure from a recession and from big business, the NDP enforced what it called a social contract on labour that basically removed the right to free collective bargaining from the public sector. The CAW and the public sector unions publicly broke with the NDP over the social contract. This created a split in the labour movement with the more right-wing industrial unions continuing to see the NDP as the path to workers political power and the CAW and public sector unions devoting more political energy to social movements and extra-parliamentary political action.
The NDP like most social democratic parties around the world is moving further and further right under the pressure of globalization and the right-wing ideological shift which hit Canada with a vengeance in the 1990's. Like Tony Blair's Labour Party, the NDP is also putting into question the nature of its relationship to the labour movement. That provides an opportunity for labour to begin to ask some fundamental questions. The CAW Task Force is the first attempt by any major sector of the labour movement or the left to come to grips with this changed political situation.
Instead of either ignoring the NDP as many social movements have done or just critically supporting it because there is no alternative, the CAW is actively seeking other solutions. Some of the ideas that the task force will discuss include: electoral reform, local councils to make politicians more accountable, changing the union's relationship with the NDP or steps towards a new party.
This is an incredibly important initiative in the Canadian context. The labour movement provides the central support for the NDP in terms of resources both financial and human. Even putting on the table the discussion of labor's links to the NDP or the possibility of a new party is very dramatic and radical.
Unlike the United States, Canada has had a third party representing working class interests for several generations. As a result many workers and social struggles have been brought into the corridors of government more quickly and effectively than in the United States. While many social activists have never gotten involved in the NDP and while most social movements maintain a distance from the party; nevertheless, the NDP has often acted as a transmission belt from social action to political action.
As the NDP starts to look more and more like the mainstream capitalist parties, fundamental questions are raised for the left. Many groups believe that social movements alone can bring the kind of change we want. My own view is that a mass political party with links to the labour movement and the social movements is essential to any lasting change for the majority of people.
The CAW Task Force on Working Class Politics could well provide a framework for activists inside and outside the labour movement to begin the critical discussion of how to influence political change from inside the political system as well as from outside it.
Judy Rebick is an activist, writer and broadcaster who lives in Toronto. She is the author of a new book "Imagine Democracy"
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