First Published: In Struggle! No. 217, September 9, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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There has been a significant development in IN STRUGGLE!’s work in trade unions over the past year. We took a more active part in union conventions and the major battles waged by the labour movement – for example, the struggle of the postal workers and the Common Front in Quebec. As well, we were active at the local union level, where we participated in elections for union office, movements to make unions more democratic and various struggles.
All of this work resulted in closer contacts with combative workers, who have drawn closer to our Organization. But it has also raised many questions. How should our work in unions be seen in relation to our tasks as a whole? What goals should we set ourselves in this work at the present stage in the struggle to build the party that will lead the working class? Should communists assume more responsibilities in terms of union leadership? Should they encourage the creation of opposition groups to combat the class collaboration of the union bosses? How should we go about working to unite and strengthen the combative sectors in the labour movement? How can being more involved in the daily battles waged by unions help contribute to winning workers over to the communist Programme?
These were some of the major questions examined by the Central Committee of IN STRUGGLE! to determine our goals and our methods for working in unions in the next period.
The Central Committee began by reiterating that our goal at the present stage in the struggle for the party is not to take organizational control of unions. Such control is not a precondition for creating the party.
Given, however, the importance of unions in the struggle and organization of workers, and given the current development of combative forces that are challenging the leadership now present in the labour movement, we do aim at working in unions in a much more systematic and organized way.
The purpose of our work in unions is to make known the communist Programme and our calls to action, with the aim of rallying workers to the communist point of view. This work will still be basically built around the distribution of the newspaper and the presentation and discussion of our Programme and our stands on various issues. But we will be in a better position to convince workers that this programme and these stands are correct if we are involved in their struggles and work on a daily basis. Hence part of our work is to support the combative elements and movements in the labour movement. This may mean helping to set up opposition groups or caucuses, for example, or taking part in struggles to make unions more democratic. It may mean that we take the initiative in getting such groups or movements going, when it is possible. It may also mean,that we participate in elections for union offices. In these various situations, it is entirely correct to put forward specific platforms capable of uniting progressive people around immediate goals that would be important victories for the workers. In this work, we must be guided by our tactical line and the calls to action that result when this line is applied to given conditions and concrete situations. Lastly, it is important that we work in such a way as to help unions function democratically.
This first series of decisions by the Central Committee represents a development of our positions based on the experience we have acquired in this field. But it should be pointed out that on some aspects they also involve changes from what was put forward in the pamphlet The goals and work of Canadian Communists in trade unions today, published by our Organization in 1978. Although we still consider that the pamphlet’s theses are correct in terms of the underlying principles, we now think that they did not take account sufficiently of the progressive forces present in the labour movement. The pamphlet’s emphasis on the struggle against bourgeois ideology in unions gives the impression that it – and not the bourgeoisie itself, the capitalists and the State that serves them – is the main enemy in unions. As well, the pamphlet’s conclusions tended to put the defence of our Programme in contradiction with the struggle for immediate demands, programmes of struggle for elections, trade-union caucuses, etc.
The Central Committee also decided that the Organization should put more efforts into union work as such, especially in the more militant unions and the unions that have the greatest impact on the Canadian labour movement as a whole.
First of all, the central leadership will take the necessary steps to analyze and keep track of the development of the labour movement and provide more regular and thorough guidance in our work on a country-wide scale. As well, a certain number of experienced cadre will be freed to devote themselves exclusively to communist work in the unions. And we must provide concrete leadership for people who want to actively defend our positions in their unions.
Part of the reason we are able to take these measures today is because of the experience we have acquired and the results of our work. But it is also because our Organization has been consolidated and now has the time and energy necessary to carry out all the tasks of a communist organization.
Lastly, the Central Committee studied the question of making unions more democratic and more Canadian-controlled. We had already put forward both these calls, but we had not generally applied them in practice.
In the crisis situation prevailing today, with workers organizing to fight for their rights while the labour bosses and labour aristocracy in practice sabotage their resistance, the struggle for democratic unions controlled by the workers themselves is a vital necessity. The outcome of this struggle may have significant effects for the working-class movement as a whole, and especially for communists and the more militant unions.
The most vigorous battles at union conventions in the past year have been over questions of democratic procedures and life, and this is not coincidence. To hinder or stifle the development of a powerful movement to defend workers’ demands, or perhaps even the organized revolt of the workers against the capitalist system in crisis, the corrupt union leaders have to limit the democratic expression of various points of view in unions as much as possible and reduce the leeway enjoyed by local unions. They need to have their hands free to get rid of militant leaders or unions that involve the labour movement in militant mass actions. Through their undemocratic manoeuvres, such as controlling and restricting delegations to union conventions, changing voting procedures and election rules, and so on, they concentrate power in the hands of a few bureaucrats at the expense of rank-and-file workers. Combatting these manoeuvres has become a vital necessity for the labour movement. We support this struggle whole-heartedly and intend to do the best we can to help build it.
The Canadianization of unions should not be seen as a goal in itself or as a necessary preliminary stage for the revolution in our country. Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle for democratic unions – unions in which the workers control union funds, unions in which the workers can define their demands, determine their tactics in their struggles and strikes, elect their own leaders, etc. this is rarely the case with the international unions controlled by U.S. labour bosses.
Workers in Canada have waged constant battles on this issue. They have acquired a rich and varied experience of struggle, and one of the lessons is that more than one kind of tactic can be valid, depending on the time and place. For instance, the struggle for more autonomy for the Canadian sections of international unions may be a correct step towards full Canadian control in these unions and eventually a complete break with the international unions. However, the preferred method to Canadianize the labour movement is undoubtedly breakaways by entire Canadian sections from their international unions, although this method often involves very substantial obstacles. The major example of this was the disaffiliation of 56,000 pulp and paper workers from their international union in 1974, following a referendum among thr Canadian members of the union. In other cases, only some part of the Canadian sections may succeed in disaffiliating from the international. This is what happened with the International Chemical Workers Union it 1976, when 20% of the Canadian membership (or 30 local unions; separated to form the Canadian Chemical Workers Union. Ultimately, the best solution can only be chosen on the basis of a concrete analysis of each situation.
The same, attitude must be applied in taking a stand on changes in union affiliation after breakaway movements or struggles for more democratic unions. Here as well we must look at the concrete situation and be ready to support and participate in movements that are really supported by the workers and that will strengthen their fighting capacities. We have made mistakes in the past by automatically condemning disaffiliation moves of these movements that in fact grew out of the workers’ desire for it more democratic union.
These are the basic elements of the Central Committee’s decisions on our work in unions. There will be more articles in thr newspaper or the journal to explain these orientations and their practical application in greater detail.