A Lack of Crticial Analysis of the Failure of the Union Movement to Generate a General Strike Against a Conservative Government

John Clarke, a radical here in Toronto, provides a general negative characterization of the union movement that opposed the reactionary effort by the Ontario Conservative government of not only legislating workers back to work even before they went on strike but also trying to use the nonwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom to prevent any legal challenge to his legislation. However, apart from a very general negative characterization of the union bureaucracy, he does not delve into detail about what the limitations of unions are. For example, he does not refer at all to the connection between union bureaucracy and the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements. His criticism remains at too high a level of criticism for it to be useful for workers and members of unions.

His most recent post on Facebook on the topic reads: 

The forms of regulated and state supervised class struggle that emerged after WW2, have played out under changing economic, social and political conditions. Their role has, therefore, also evolved over time.

1. When the deal was brokered and for decades afterwards, it allowed for gains in working class living standards to be conceded, while ensuring greatly limited forms of working class resistance and stability for the capitalist economy. Decisively, a bureaucratic layer formed in the unions that had its own independent interests based on the preservation of the compromise.

2. As the boom years that followed the war ended and profits declined, a neoliberal strategy of intensified exploitation was put into effect. This changed the nature of the regulated class compromise. Previous working class gains were being lost and unions were being weakened, yet their leaderships continued to play by the rules of the compromise deal with only rare and reluctant acts of defiance. The losses were substantial but they played out over decades and were relatively incremental.

3. The present period is one of greatly sharpened attacks on working class living standards. Economic instability is interweaving with ecological disaster and the impacts of global rivalry. These combined effects have generated a global cost of living crisis and the state is resorting to class war measures to regain stability. This means that adherence to the forms of class compromise goes from ensuring a gradual loss of ground by workers and becomes a recipe for catastrophic defeats.

In order to fight back effectively, the strike weapon will have to be used in united mass struggles that press general demands. The Ontario education workers’ struggle pointed to the incredible power that could be unleashed with such an approach. However, the fact that the forward movement was halted as soon as it possibly could be also reveals how much change is necessary, if we are to even mount an effective defence, let alone go on the offensive.
How we are to halt the halting of the forward movement remains a mystery; surely, we need to engage constantly in discussing and criicizing the limits of collective-bargaining, collective agreements and associated union rhetoric around them, such as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “decent work,”and “good jobs.” 
And what does Clarke mean by “general demands?” Your guess is as good as mine. 

We read the following the day before on Facebook by Clarke (with a posted news article explaing some of the context):

hough a major effort will be underway to present this as a great gain, it is hard to justify such a position. Factually, the wage increases won, though improved, don’t match the present rate of inflation and would mean very small increases in the following years, IF current projections are accurate. Measured up against the present cost of living crisis and the loss in real wages for education workers over a long period, this is clearly inadequate. The OSBCU president also points out herself that no gains were made in terms of services and staffing. The decision to end the strike on Ford’s terms has produced a very meagre settlement and blocked the prospects for a generalized working class fight back that could have taken its lead from the education workers’ struggle.

All this being said, the resistance taken up by these workers threw the Ford Tories into a crisis and struck a chord with working class people. The fact that such a significant number of workers didn’t ratify this, coupled with the obvious disdain coming from OSBCU, has to be taken to heart. A movement based in the rank and file of the unions and in hard pressed communities remains the only viable means of breaking out of the rituals of a failed compromise and fighting the attacks we face on equal terms.


The lack of gains made by the movement–except the repeal of the repressive legislation–indicates a major problem with modern unions, but Clarke does not really engage in just how limited modern unions are in their role as representatives of the economic and political interests of workers. Furthermore, Clarke exaggerates the opposition of the rank-and-file members to the resulting collective agreement: 73 percent of .those who voted apparently voted for the collective agreement (the posted news article is somewhat unclear on this. I assume that it was 73 percent of those who voted voted to accept the resulting collective agreement, with 76 percent of elegible voters actually voting). 
In addition, Clarke’s reference to “the obvious disdain coming from OSBCU” (the union responsible for bargaining for the 55,000 workers at a general level rather than at a local level) probably refers to Laura Walton’s own dissatisfaction with the resulting collective agreement. Nevertheless, she herself admitted that she voted for it. Morever, does not Laura Walton, president of OBSCU, herself believe in the sanctity of the colective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement? 
Should not Clarke–and other radicals–be engaging in a more concrete critical analysis of the limitations of unions? What do you think? 

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