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After two decades of fighting mostly defensive battles against the pressures of globalization, employer aggression, hostile government policy, and public cynicism, the trade union movement in Canada faces an enormous and historic moment of truth.
These truths are well known:

  • Continued erosion of union density, especially in the private sector (17% and falling).
  • Failure of union organizing efforts to offset plant closures and keep up with labour force growth.
  • Decline in labour’s share of national wealth; stagnant or falling purchasing power for working families.
  • New levels of political hostility from right wing governments. Examples: Harper’s 3 interventions in free collective bargaining in 6 months; new anti-labour attacks expected in Saskatchewan; attacks on CUPE contracts in Toronto; anti-labour laws in 20 US states.
  • Aggressive attacks by global employers on key contract provisions, and the foundation of unions. Examples: Vale and US Steel conflicts with USW.
  • A dramatic generational change in the unions as union veterans retire, and unions face new challenges in appealing to, organizing, and servicing young people.
  • Growing negative public opinion of unions, and the view that unions are selfinterested and outdated.
  • Paralysis and dysfunction of some (not all) labour centrals.
  • Failure of the labour movement to date to significantly restructure and address issues of too many unions (57 CLC affiliates), ability to initiate and lead powerful campaigns, and lack of coordination and duplication of labour movement services and resources.

If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline. Canadian private sector union density is already as low as it was when Reagan defeated the U.S. air traffic controllers. We must reverse the erosion of our membership, our power, and our prestige.
There is clearly opportunity for unions in the present moment, not just threats. Global capitalism is proving itself incapable of righting itself, and we are likely at the beginning of a long period of economic turmoil and stagnation. Public concern with inequality, and the excesses and irresponsibility of the rich and corporate leaders, is growing – as reflected in the surprising support for the Occupy movement. If unions can position themselves as a legitimate voice of this discontent, and channel Canadians’ anger and worry in progressive and effective directions, we could emerge from the current crisis stronger and more confident – just as unions emerged stronger from the 1930s, thanks to innovation in organizing and bargaining strategies, and a willingness to directly confront the political and economic failures of that daunting time.

II. For a New Kind of Canadian Unionism

In this worrisome context, the leaders of CAW and CEP recently met to discuss how the labour movement must respond. They considered in particular the possible impact that a new Canadian union could have in rebuilding the movement’s power and capacity to innovate.
It was agreed that the Canadian labour movement in 2011 needs revitalization, greater strength and a new social influence. It was also agreed that Canadian labour, and each of our unions, will undergo major changes in the period ahead as our economic and social conditions are transformed. CEP and CAW have an opportunity now to lead and shape this change, rather than waiting passively and having change forced upon us.
We believe there is a need for a new force in the Canadian labour movement, with the ability to succeed and grow in a way that our present unions cannot. Such a new Canadian union could open important opportunities to build on our traditions and past successes, and also to create a new identity, a new presence, a new “brand,” and new power – for worker rights and social change.
The purpose of a new union is not just to create a “bigger” organization. Other unions have tried to do that, and the results were often discouraging. While there are important benefits from becoming larger, reducing duplication, and capturing synergies in infrastructure and servicing, the labour movement today needs more. The formation of a new union must be founded on a desire and willingness to modernize our practices, to innovate with new models of organizing and servicing, and to rebuild our image with workers.
Such a new union would have to speak to Canadians in a new way. It must reflect a dynamic, sectoral and community-based workers’ movement that is more attractive and more relevant to workers’ needs than our present day organizations. A new union must have a critical mass, and the size and resources to win crucial struggles, organize successfully and wield political influence as a social union. It must be willing and able to develop new methods of organizing and representing workers in today’s precarious, hyper-flexible labour market. It would require qualities, priorities and strategies that would overcome the economic, political, and cultural adversities and obstacles that now stand in our way.
The qualities, priorities, and strategies of a new union must be the product of extensive dialogue and debate and visioning. However, the following opportunities and principles for a new union were mutually agreed in this opening discussion. The initial discussion also identified some of the questions and challenges that be faced as we move forward.
The above is taken from a CEP-CAW discussion paper available at www.newunionproject.ca/