Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part One

Professor Tuft (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (Covid-19 and ‘Actually Existing’ Unions), argues that unions will be in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Unions exist financially because of union dues, and with the increased level of unemployment among unionized workers, unions have experienced substantial reductions in the flow of union dues, at least here in Canada. As a consequence, they have begun to lay off union staff.

I will address Professor Tuft’s solution to this problem in a follow-up post, but in this post I will address his reference Sam Gindin’s call for a restructuring of unions. Mr. Gindin was the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union

Before looking at Professor Tuft’s analysis and recommendations, let us pause to look at Professor Tuft’s reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a renewed union movement (The Coronavirus and the Crisis This Time).  The union movement, Mr. Gindin argues:

The failure of unions over the past few decades both in organizing and in addressing their members’ needs is inseparable from their stubborn commitment to a fragmented, defensive unionism within society as it currently exists, as opposed to a class-struggle trade unionism based on broader solidarities and more ambitiously radical visions. This calls for not just ‘better’ unions, but for different and more politicized unions.

The view that unions need to develop “broader solidarities” and “more radical visions” certainly forms an essential element of the renewal of organized labour’s contribution to a new socialist movement. However, I have indicated before that Mr. Gindin seems opposed to questioning the limitations of present unions in relation to the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements (see The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant). Broader solidarities can arise without becoming radical; an example of that is the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), an organization that cuts across unions at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Such an organization, of course, should be welcomed since it does have the potentiality to create common bonds among workers who belong to different unions. However, there is no basis for assuming that such common bonds will generate a more radical vision (see The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?).

Mr. Gindin also asserts the following:

Andrew Murray, chief of staff at the British/Irish union UNITE has noted the difference between a left that is ‘focused’ on the working class and one that is ‘rooted’ in it. The greatest weakness of the socialist left is its limited embeddedness in unions and working-class communities. Only if the left can overcome this gap – which is a cultural gap as much as it is a political one – is there any possibility of witnessing the development of a coherent, confident, and independently defiant working class with the capacity and capacity-inspired vision to fundamentally challenge capitalism.

There is undoubtedly much to be said of such an analysis. Radicals who cannot find a way to address the concerns, interests and needs of regular working people will stand on the sidelines and have little impact on the working class. However, Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to do the opposite–to stand with one foot outside of working-class communities, who for so long have been shaped by the concerns, interests and needs of the class of employers. Being too close to working-class communities and working-class organizations (like unions) can easily limit the development of the capacities of workers to develop a radical vision that contributes to the creation of an effective movement against the class of employers. Mr. Gindin himself, as I have argued elsewhere (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short), has been too close to the union movement, failing to engage in its criticism when it is warranted. We need to develop an environment in the labour and union movements where discussion of important issues–such as whether working for an employer can ever really be characterized as “decent” or whether any wage or contract can ever really be considered “fair”–can emerge without heaping abuse on those who raise such issues.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to “inward development” following on the coronavirus–focusing on organization at the local and national level rather than at the international level–may or may not turn out to be radical (see his article Inoculating Against Globalization: Coronavirus and the Search for Alternatives). Those who look only to international developments to resolve our problems without connecting them to organization and action at the level of the city, the region and the nation will likely vastly underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The basis for a powerful international working-class movement must have deep roots in the working class at the local level. Indeed, the local level itself is relative and, unless artificially separated off from the wider world and context, must lead to that wider world and context if we are to come to grips with that local level theoretically and practically. From John Dewey (2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,  pages 229-230):

… local or home geography is the natural starting point in the reconstructive development of the natural environment, it is an intellectual starting point for moving out into the unknown, not an end in itself. When not treated as a basis for getting at the large world beyond, the study of the home geography becomes as deadly as do object lessons which simply summarize the properties of familiar objects. The reason is the same. The imagination is not fed, but is held down to
recapitulating, cataloguing, and refining what is already known. But when the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors are signs that introduce an understanding of the boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning. Sunlight, air, running water, inequality of earth’s surface, varied industries, civil officers and their duties–all these things are found in the local environment. Treated as if their meaning began and ended in those confines, they are curious facts to be laboriously learned. As instruments for extending the limits of experience, bringing within its scope peoples and things otherwise strange and unknown, they are transfigured by the use to which they are put. Sunlight, wind, stream, commerce, political relations come from afar and lead the thoughts afar. To follow their course is to enlarge the mind not by stuffing it with additional information, but by remaking the meaning of what was previously a matter of course.

Starting at the local level does not end there but gains in meaning as the conditions for the existence of that local level become more evident, just as the larger picture gains in depth by being routed in diverse ways to our immediate lives (page 143):

Nor are the activities in which a person engages, whether intelligently or not, exclusive properties of himself; they are something in which he engages and partakes. Other things, the independent changes of other things and persons, cooperate and hinder. The individual’s act may be initial in a course of events, but the outcome depends upon the interaction of his response with energies supplied by other agencies.

However, that means that taboo issues that unions and the so-called progressive left either ignore or actively suppress need to see the light of day–such as just how legitimate any person or organization can claim that they represent “fairness” in the context of an economic and political system dominated by a class of employers.

To make good on the simultaneous focusing on the local and the global, it is necessary to begin to develop class analysis at the local level such as the local, regional and national class structure as well as local conditions of exploitation (rate of exploitation) and class oppression. Class organization also involves class analysis.  Let us hope that Mr. Gindin (and others) start this important analysis. Otherwise, reference to the local is just rhetoric.

Professor Tuft’s brief reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions, then, is far from adequate. By merely referring Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions without analyzing the adequacy of such a call, Professor Tuft skirts the issue of the nature of such radical reconstruction. By doing so, Professor Tuft can then proceed to focus on what is typical of his approach: reform of unions and the nature of such reformed unions rather than radically reconstructed unions and the nature of such radically reconstructed unions. Unfortunately, then, Professor Tuft’s call for reformed unions already has limitations.

A further post will shift to investigating Professor Tuft’s analysis of the probable situation of unions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic here in Canada as well as his proposed solution.

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Three

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Getting a Shift Back to Work and Overtime Action

  • This is a Small Group Activity
  • Read both short stories and answer the questions below together
  • Be prepared to describe each collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers
  • You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise

In the later 1980s, at an auto assembly in Toronto (closed in 1994), there were two rotating production shifts, of approximately 1,000 workers per shift. Once shift worked on days , often with a sixth day shift (Saturday), scheduled as an overtime day. Another shift worked afternoons.

The plant churned out full-sized vans that were popular with companies and recreational buyers. The vans were extremely popular across North America, and with only two plants producing them, it seemed that the jobs were secure.

The union local had a history of militancy, with wildcat strikes, overtime boycotts, and various forms of collective resistance, often in response to things like difficulties getting washroom breaks, work intensification, and excessive discipline issued for minor offenses. as well, there had been a number of collective work refusals over health and safety issues that seemed to get resolved rather quickly.

One day, the plant superintendent announced that the market for vans was softening and that they would reduce production to one shift.

After a transition period, the plant laid off the low-seniority workers, eliminated the afternoon shift and began production with the one-day shift with higher seniority workers. Soon after, at a union meeting, people were wondering if there truly was any downturn in sales. The meeting decided to strike a voluntary committee to investigate with car dealers just how large their inventory for vans really was. The committee was made up of elected committeepersons, members of the Local Union Executive, and volunteers from the group of laid-off workers. They also resolved to organize a biweekly meeting of all the laid-off workers, to regularly discuss their situation and develop a common strategy to force the boss to hire them back to work.

They found that no matter where they called, dealers all claimed that they were short in their inventories of vans, that demands for the vehicles was rising and that there seemed to be no need to cut production.

After about 2 months management announced that it would schedule a Saturday overtime shift. This caused huge debates and divisions within the membership, especially those who were working. A number of the higher seniority workers argued that they needed to have their Saturday overtime, and that it was their “right” as  a consequence of seniority. A minority threatened violence against anyone who tried to keep them from getting to work on Saturday. Others were angry, and saw it as an attack on the rights of all the workers, scheduling a Saturday overtime shift when half the local was on layoff. Further, they asked, how could they need overtime if, as they claim, they don’t have enough orders to justify full production here?

The laid-off workers, along with the union activists on the voluntary committee, also asked that question. And, collectively, they debated what they should do about the scheduled Saturday.

Doing nothing would be out of the question. Organizing a picket line to stop workers from coming into work on Saturday would make sense, but the level of opposition from the minority of workers who supported the scheduling of the overtime, might lead to sharpening divisions and even violence. After a heated discussion, a group of about 100 people decided on the following course of action: they would organize an informational picket line, explaining why it was wrong for the boss to schedule Saturday overtime while a shift was laid off–reminding people about the true state of the van market, and asking people to make their own choice about working. They would also make a push–through phone calls and personal visits–to bring out large numbers of the laid-off workers to the picket line around the plant.

As well, they made a push in the local and national media: press releases; calling up every media outlet; massive distribution of leaflets announcing the informational picket and an educational leaflet, explaining the links between the ease of management’s shutting down Canadian facilities, in the context of the looming debate over Free Trade with the U.S.

The day of the picket-demo was cold, with sleet. But there were hundreds of laid-off workers handing out leaflets to the workers entering the plant. Some turned away, and they barely had enough to work the shift. But there were discussions and no violence. There was also national and local press coverage–of the absurd reality of a plant with over 1000 people on layoff working a mandatory overtime day. People across the country read, heard about it and watched it. The laid-off workers got some recognition of their collective plight. Rank and file workers, activists and union officials were interviewed. The shift ran, but there were a number of stoppages, due to the low level of staffing for the day

A week later, the company announced that the laid-off shift would be brought back in in a couple of weeks.

Three years later, management announced that van production would end at that facility and 3 years after that announcement, the plant closed.


  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union local back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Two

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with resistance against management at the brewery, so we permitted them 25 minutes for both.]

Clapping for Lisa Raitt

When CAW (Canada Auto Workers union] Air-Canada reservation and air ticket agents briefly went on strike over a series of contract concessions demanded by management, the Conservative government [of Stephen Harper, prime minister at the federal or Canada-wide level], though Labour Minister Lisa Raitt quickly introduced a law to legislate them back to work. (It would have been the 5th time in 5 years that the Harper government had taken away workers’ right to strike.) An agreement was reached between the union and Air Canada.

The workers who handle baggage, members of the IAM (International Association of Machinists) rejected the tentative agreement bargained by their leadership and demanded that they go back to the table and bargain improvements.

After the rejection, the workers started forming “Action Committees” to prepare co-workers to organize rallies at the airport, to pressure the employer to bargain seriously. The IAM workers had previously supported the actions of Reservation and Flight Attendants, who had protested the elimination of their right to strike.

A key action was to write a letter to the company president, complaining about endless demands for concessions and the culture of entitlement for the top executives.

Some quotes from the letter:

“It smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order to be led by Executives that continually demand we make sacrifices for the “viability” of the Company and then watch those same Executives pocket millions in bonuses and receive raises in pay and pension benefits in excess of 70% in a year.

A day doesn’t go by without us hearing about how we are the problem and how management is trying to find ways to replace us with “low cost” workers from senior Executives whoa are never replaceable and must be highly compensated in order to maintain their loyalty to the Company.

Over the past decade we have agreed to take wave after wave of concessions and have watched this goodwill allow Senior management to make hundreds of millions in payments of “special distributions” to their corporate backers or in golden parachutes to departing millionaire Executives.

It is time to lead by example. It’s time to end this culture of senior executives viewing us workers as a cost in which to be squeezed for more bonuses at the top.

This will require a major change in culture including management not using their friends in Ottawa to threaten our unions into concessionary agreements, ending the disastrous habit of unilaterally imposing policies on us (lie the unilateral changes to travel charges) and ending the out of control greed at the top.

The workers planned to present the letter to the president at the private management celebration of the 75th anniversary of Air Canada’s founding. They stormed into the meeting and, after a scuffle with the police, agreed to select 2 representatives to deliver the latter. Rovinescu, the company president, received the letter, but was not happy about it.

Shortly after this incident, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, landed at Pearson Airport for a meeting. As she exited the plane, the worker who recognized her, started a slow, rhythmic clapping, as a kind of spontaneous protest against the attack on their collective bargaining rights, followed her through the terminal, as the crowd of clapping workers grew Raitt, who fancied herself as a kind of “friend of the workers” was angry, and called on the police to,” “arrest these animals!”

The police took no action, but Air Canada security guards sent 5 or 6 of the protesters home, in an action that usually signifies a discharge.

The word of the firings went viral. All of the IAM workers at Pearson stopped work and stayed out all night, demanding that the fired workers be reinstated, and that collective bargaining begin again. All 30 of the workers who went on the wildcat were promptly fired.

The morning shift workers refused to work. All workers in Vancouver, Montreal and in airports across Canada downed their tools as well. It made the national news.

The company and the union began talks, and agreed to send the issue of the wildcat to an arbitrator (one often used by Air Canada and its unions, but one not known for his friendliness to union and worker issues).

After heated debate, the workers decided to stay out until the workers were reinstated. The striking workers spent a lot of time talking with members of the other unions at the airport, building solidarity with their actions and issues. When the fired workers were reinstated (although further discipline was planned), the wildcat was ended. Bargaining on the contract began soon afterwards.

A few months later, after the contract was signed, Air Canada fired a number of activist workers using their private E-mail comments, as “incriminating” evidence against them.


  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?