Workers (and Students) of Canada, Unite!

When I tell people I’m interested in labour history, most smile politely, perhaps nod a couple times and then quickly change the subject.

For many, talk of workers and unions is either boring or anger-inducing. These feelings often stem from the notion that unions are relics of a previous era and are now obsolete, or that overpaid, lazy unionized employees are ruining the economy.

In From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement, writer and activist Nora Loreto seeks to challenge these inaccurate understandings of unions and to demonstrate how and why unions must be at the forefront of struggles for social justice today.

Her central argument is, “if Canadians are going to mount a national, well-resourced and coordinated campaign to restore our public services and defend our democracy we need an active and united labour movement” (ix).

For Loreto, the breadth, diversity, and democratic nature of the labour movement makes it one of the last best options for organized large-scale resistance against corporate control and rising inequality in Canada.

From Demonized to Organized will be of interest to anyone who works or will work in the future; however, it should especially interest young people.

In the introduction, Loreto explains that she wrote the book for younger generations. She argues that this demographic has had limited experience with unions and other forms of community-based organizations due to the recent dominance of neoliberal ideology and policies that encourage people to view themselves as individuals competing in a free market.

At the same time, the book also serves as a call to the labour movement to reach out to young workers in new and creative ways.

Published by independent research institute, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, From Demonized to Unionized is a quick and easy read, and a useful introduction into unions and the labour movement in Canada.

In Chapters 1–5, Loreto explains what unions are, how they function, and why they are well-positioned to be leaders in struggles against inequality and for democracy. She argues that “a strong, unified labour movement … is the only structure that has regional, provincial and federal representation, rooted in local democracy, that’s diverse enough to be able to systematically challenge the federal government” (81).

In Chapters 6–10, Loreto looks at neoliberalism: what it is, how it came to permeate all aspects of society and its negative implications for workers and their organizations, as well as for freedom and democracy.

As examples, Loreto examines the recent battles by Ontario teachers’ unions and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers to defend their right to strike and bargain collectively against government attacks. She contends that these were “test cases to see what the government can and cannot get away with. It’s the slow erosion of workers’ power, workers’ democracy and the freedom all citizens should have in society: the right to withhold one’s own labour to demand improvements to one’s working conditions” (141).

Loreto concludes by suggesting ways the labour movement might revitalize itself in coming years. She looks at recent examples of successful new ways of organizing in the United States, including Hot and Crusty Bakery workers in New York City and retail workers in the nation-wide OUR Walmart campaign.

Loreto argues, “[j]ust like how students in Québec inspired a nation to see that protest can still win victories, workers can reinvigorate their organizing efforts, debate new tactics and take their resistance from the shop floor into the streets to fight for a more just Canada for all” (157).

An important contribution to discussions about youth, work and social justice organizing in the 21st century, From Demonized to Organized explains in a clear and straight-forward manner why unions matter, and challenges labour activists to devise new strategies and tactics to engage young workers.

Nevertheless, the book has some weaknesses.

Loreto provides hardly any discussion of the historical development of the labour movement. Such a discussion would strengthen her points about the labour movement’s diversity and reach, as well as the important role of workers and their organizations in Canadian society.

Also, though Loreto is right to emphasize the labour movement’s failure in engaging young workers en masse, young people haven’t always been ardent supporters of the labour movement either.
Imagine if, in the summer of 2012, when both CP Rail workers and Québec students were on strike, the thousands of people who took to the streets to protest the Charest government’s proposed tuition increase and attack on civil liberties had continued marching down to the CP picket line?

Imagine if, when the government and university administrators try to blame rising tuition fees on so-called overpaid professors, students refused to accept these arguments and instead, pointed to government cuts to post-secondary education and corporate taxes as the real cause of university funding crises?

Solidarity between young people and the labour movement must go both ways and must be ongoing, not something that occasionally manifests during times of strife. As Loreto concludes, “[w]ith the strength and support of social movements, including the labour movement, we can stop neoliberalism and austerity” (164).

So, workers and students, unite! After all, we have nothing to lose but a future of precarious work, rising corporate profits, and increasing inequality. We have a world to win.