Challenges for Public Sector Unions: Thinking Big to Win

Sam Gindin
interviewed by PSAC’s Our Union Voice

How did we get to this economic crisis? What happened in a nutshell? And who’s to blame?

It’s common to point the finger at greedy bankers, irresponsible speculators and regulators who let the financial system spiral out of control. Each of them certainly deserves blame but we need to look deeper. The crisis wasn’t just about the excesses of our economic system; it was rooted in what had become the normal, everyday functioning of our economic system.

Our economy had come to depend on ever-higher flows of credit and financial ‘innovations’ that, by reducing the risks of fluctuating exchange rates and other uncertainties, made it easier for all corporations, financial and non-financial, to expand globally. The accelerating role of finance was unsustainable, but rolling it back without an alternative would mean losing its benefits. This contradiction came to a head when the collapse in the U.S. housing market triggered a collapse in the economy and the global integration of financial markets spread the financial crisis globally. Business could no longer get credit, consumers pulled back to restore savings, construction was halted and with it the sale of appliances and furniture, and the financial crisis morphed into a general economic crisis.

How is this economic crisis affecting workers in general and public sector workers in particular?

Because this crisis is so deep and has required such massive public intervention to save the system, we now confront two crucial questions: Who will pay to clean up the mess? And what kind of economic and social changes will emerge from this crisis?

It’s already pretty clear who will pay. Workers are making concessions and the poor are facing added pressures on their social programs. Since it’s also clear that the only solutions being considered revolve around how best to technically fix finance – not change its social role – we can also expect to continue to pay into the future.

The first round of attacks on workers came in the private sector but this is spreading quickly to all workers. Even if the economy turns up, public sector workers will face the pressures of budgetary deficits and the corresponding threat of cutbacks in services, layoffs, and concession demands. Governments have already started mobilizing popular opinion to isolate public sector workers and define the takeaways in the private sector as the new standard. Most important, business and governments will use the crisis not just to roll back particular gains, but as an opportunity to try and weaken unions as the key working class organization and so more permanently weaken the ability of working people to defend themselves.

>How should workers and their unions respond to the pressures being placed on them in a difficult economy?

It is obviously crucial to resist this attack on our past gains, but militancy itself won’t be enough. We’ve been under attack for a quarter century now and haven’t developed an effective response. That failure is most evident at this moment when, given the exposure of the elite and their governance, they and not us should be on the defensive.

What we must absolutely avoid is the notion that the ‘new reality’ means we must now accommodate and work more closely with the employer. This, as all of labour history teaches us, is a dead end. It essentially means giving up. The relationships we need to deepen are not with our employers – that further divides working people – but with other workers and the social movements.

The other side has come to understand that in this new world, the choices are polarized. To defend their privileges, they’ve concluded that they must become more radical. We need to learn that same radical lesson but, of course, from our own perspective.

How do you suggest that we address or counter the anti-union and anti-public sector rhetoric that’s so rampant in the media right now?

The problem is not just the media. Our isolation from others, especially groups that should be our allies, is a real problem. We need to be clearer about who the public is – who are we trying to win over? If we want support, we need to frame our struggles so they really do reach beyond our own members.

For public sector workers, this raises a whole host of questions about overcoming the general denigration of the public sector in favour of the private sector. We need to play a leading role in criticizing the bureaucratic shortcomings of our own employers (governments) so we can imagine and mobilize around a more progressive, egalitarian and democratic vision of what the public sector might be – something the private sector can never be.

In thinking about reaching out, we also need to be honest about the fact that in many cases we have often lost the support, or at least enthusiasm, of many of our own members. Among other things, having a larger vision can also inspire the participation of our members.

You talk about how workers need to dream big, even when governments and corporations are telling us that now is not the time. How would you suggest we do this? What programs and policies would you like to see unions pushing for right now?

Our present economic system – capitalism – has become a barrier to the development of meaningful democracy, human solidarity and a richer life that develops all our human potential. Yet as long as we limit ourselves to the terrain of capitalism, we are boxed into its logic – the logic of reducing all priorities to the narrow goals of profitability and competitiveness. If we can’t get out of that box, its not just that we won’t be able to change things; we’ll increasingly find that we can’t even defend ourselves. So we now need to think big even to win small.

Two examples. Workers in the private sector have tried to develop what was essentially a private welfare state, with benefits focused on their own members. That achievement is now collapsing.

Public sector workers may feel immune from that, but if they are the only workers left with a decent pension plan, they won’t be unaffected for long. What we need is a labour movement looking to lead a crusade for decent public pensions as a right for all. This has three strategic advantages. First, in reducing worker dependence on employers, it also reduces worker vulnerability to concession demands to save ‘their company.’ Second, it’s the only way to get or retain livable pensions. Third, it builds solidarity across the working class and the poor so resentment is replaced by solidarity (and that new strength can be extended to move to other benefits like dental care and pharmacare).

In the auto industry, what we’ve seen is that as long as the problem revolves around saving the companies, workers are left wondering which benefits or rights they’ll give up this time (and then, when the next round of concessions will come). If we approached the auto crisis in terms of saving our productive capacities rather than the companies, and looking to planning for social use rather than how to become competitive, a quite different solution emerges.

If the 21st century is going to revolve to such a critical degree around adjusting everything in our economy to environmental constraints – factories and offices will have to be restructured, homes modified, and all sorts of infrastructure rebuilt – then why not start addressing this now? Why not take over all the closed auto component and assembly plants, place them in the hands of a new public corporation that is democratically accountable, and convert them to produce those environmentally-critical products? Among other things, such an orientation would move us toward shifting the leading role in the economy from the private sector to the public sector.

You’ve stressed the need for unions to be more involved in communities. Could you describe some ways that PSAC might better connect with local communities and build support for public services?

To speak of the community isn’t to refer to something outside us. We’re not just workers. Community needs are in fact often about other dimensions of our lives. In other cases, ‘the community’ is a standin for the rest of the working class – those we will need to join with if we are to defend ourselves and change things. •

Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000. He is co-author (with Leo Panitch) of The Making of Global Capitalism (Verso), and co-author with Leo Panitch and Steve Maher of The Socialist Challenge Today, the expanded and updated American edition (Haymarket).