A few months back, Jim Stanford – in a provocative article entitled “When in doubt, blame unions” – noticed a troubling trend.
Stanford observed that the current recession seemed to unleash a wave of public resentment against labour unions – as people, fearful of their own economic security – turned their anxieties against the supposed superior economic position of union members.
This resentment is in spite of the fact that unions had absolutely nothing to do with the current recession and most unions in fact lobbied hard against the deregulation of a financial sector that had become drunk on risky speculation and the most arcane of financial instruments.
Why the public has sought to scapegoat labour rather than the financiers and free market policies that created this mess, Stanford remarks, “is a mystery”.
I would contend that the reasons behind public resentment are less of a mystery than Jim makes it out to be.
For the past thirty years in which neoliberal policy has dominated the country – we have been told that we had to “go it alone” and that reliance on others or our government created only a “culture of dependency”.
For the past thirty years workers have been told to “increase their human capital” to “invest” in themselves.
They have been told to upgrade, re-skill, get lean, and be flexible – all in the name of increasing our individual competitiveness.
In effect, for the past thirty years, workers have been told to think of themselves as individual business units; “me incorporated” and that it is only through the requisite amount of self investment and personal sacrifice that we will succeed in the global market place.
In essence, we have just lived through thirty years of the “cult of the individual” – so is it any wonder then, that any thought of collective solidarity outside the labour movement seems to have vanished?
After being incessantly told that we are on our own and should not rely on others – is it any wonder that people can’t see that their own well being is inextricably tied to the health and strength of the Canadian labour movement?
After thirty years of this – is it any wonder that rather than envision a better life for themselves – economic anxiety has compelled people to look to drag down those who they believe may have a little more economic security?
But how can we rekindle a much-needed sense of solidarity within the wider public?
Who can we rely on to get this job done?
Is it through a school system that is so oblivious to Canadian labour history that the majority of students have no idea of the collective labour struggles of the past that secured the rights they enjoy today?
A school system with a pro-business curriculum that includes courses entitled “unleashing the young entrepreneur” and “an introduction to venture planning”?
Just imagine if public schools introduced a course on labour organizing – how hysterical would the Chamber of Commerce or the Fraser Institute become? Even though the vast majority of students will be employees rather than employers.
Can we look to the media to rekindle a sense of solidarity in the public?
A media that if they cover labour struggles at all focus exclusively on strikes – despite the fact that almost 97% of contracts are bargained peacefully and without incident?
A media that can only see labour action as an inconvenience and never ask whether it may benefit all workers – union and non-union alike?
How about government? Will Stephen Harper or Brad Wall rekindle a sense of solidarity in the public? The very people who have gladly foisted the cult of the individual upon us for the last thirty years? Politicians who have sought to pit worker versus worker at every and any opportunity?
No, if we truly wish to cultivate solidarity among the public the task will fall squarely on the shoulders of the labour movement itself.
However the labour movement will not be alone in this effort. You have the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as a staunch ally.
Our research and commentary have consistently demonstrated the benefits of collective action and public goods for all of us.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for the CCPA many of these ideas would not even get a public hearing in the mainstream media. It is only by proving, day after day, the truth of our message that we all benefit by working together rather than apart, that we can re-ignite the idea of collective solidarity as popular common sense.
Together we can bring the spirit of solidarity back to the public and make our province and our country a more just and dignified place for all workers.
To conclude I want to thank our organizational members here for their continued support – we could not do the work we do without you.
I also want to thank the SFL in particular – not only for their continued support of the Saskatchewan CCPA but for what was demonstrated on this very floor yesterday.
Yesterday you all committed an inspiring act of solidarity to assist your locked out brothers and sisters in the UFCW.
Now if the public could see that side of the labour movement more often, we would have no image problem.
And it is in that spirit of solidarity that the Saskatchewan CCPA would like to donate the proceeds from yesterday’s 50/50 draw to our brothers and sisters in the UFCW.
Simon Enoch, Director, Saskatchewan Office
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Originally Presented to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour Convention
October 23, 2009