Worker Power in an Age of Uneven Austerity

Any time commentators speak of a new ‘age,’ powerful assumptions quickly become entrenched in our thinking. An ‘age of austerity’ now encompasses many western economies as governments launch fierce campaigns against workers to lower public sector wages. At the same time, capital has taken a ‘wait and see’ attitude resulting in an unprecedented hoarding of surplus and thereby limiting investment and real job creation. As unions are put on the defensive by austerity measures, calls for broader working-class organizations from diverse groups on the left have become commonplace. Difficult questions remain around how to build such formations and what role organized labour can play, if any, in their development.

In recent times, labour unions have been a disappointment for the working-class. Whether one explains stagnant growth of organized labour in Canada and other countries as a function of neoliberal attacks by capital and the state or an internal crisis of leadership, the fact remains that most unions have lost power in a rapidly changing economy. The recent lockout/strike by postal workers ended with back to work legislation with defined wage settlements. The state’s nonsensical justification was the ‘fragility of the economic recovery’ (even though Canada Post had one of its most profitable years). The state’s harsh action against CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers) members is more likely the stage for future austerity in the public sector. Traditional postal services are less important to the flow of goods and information in a digital economy. As a result, capital and the state are simply less vulnerable to any post-strike militancy of disgruntled Canada Post workers on the shop floor. CUPW itself recognizes the decline of the post office and has organized new sectors such as bike couriers. Not all that long ago, the state actually feared postal workers and CUPW leadership was routinely under surveillance by the RCMP for ‘subversive’ activities.

New Strategic Opportunities?

Such changes are demoralizing for the left and it is tempting to dismiss traditional labour as viable agents of change and resistance. It is, however, important to keep in mind that much like capitalism itself, the new age of austerity is and will continue to be an uneven project. Nations, regions, sectors and workers will all be affected differently as austerity measures and capitalist restructuring unfold. Admittedly, in the vast majority of cases, pressure on workers and communities to submit to deregulated labour markets with lower wages and poor working conditions will be great. There are, however, shifts occurring within and among unions and labour markets that create new strategic opportunities for workers and working-class organizations. This is evident in particular sectors and regions where workers may maintain their power relative to employers or even have opportunity to expand it. Moreover, this has a range of strategic implications for building resistance to the politics of austerity. It means engaging in a strategic politics that identifies new power centres in both organized and unorganized labour markets as points of leverage against capital and the state. Worker-community organizations will not only have to identify these new strategic points, but also build bridges from these power bases to where austerity measures are the most pronounced. Such reorientations are more easily said than done, especially when many of the sectors where workers have power are not well organized or even appealing to most activists.

There are, of course, important caveats to simply looking to workers and sectors less affected by austerity programs. For example, police and prison guard unions are likely to survive (and maybe even thrive) in the age of austerity as they are increasingly called upon to manage dissent. In the UK, riots involving young people displaced from jobs and education opportunities have directly challenged David Cameron’s attempt to spread austerity to police services. In Canada, police budgets have increased from $7-billion to over $12-billion over the last decade. The farce of the G20 in Toronto last year lead to widespread public sentiment against what turned out to be very expensive incompetent police action. Unfortunately this did nothing to deter Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, from giving police well above average raises while bullying almost every other city worker. Despite declining crime rates, the Stephen Harper government is insistent upon expanding a prison industrial complex with new facilities (perhaps only a benefit to public sector unions representing prison guards). Police and prison guard power based on deepening oppression is of no use to any democratic workers’ movement.

A second caveat is that building strategy around sectors where workers have relatively increasing power does not mean abandonment of other workers and unions. In many cases, workers with declining positions relative to capital still have a great deal more organizational strength than workers who have recently increased their power relative to employers. For example, manufacturing has shed over 350,000 jobs in Canada over the last five years, but USWA (Steel Workers) and CAW (Auto Workers) remain among Canada’s largest unions.

Third, while there are power shifts in the traditional labour movement, this does not mean that new working-class formations and new working-class politics are not needed. In fact, in order to organize in some sectors, and to ensure that economic power in the ‘new economy’ doesn’t simply translate into economistic militancy, new models of representing workers are increasingly necessary. A broad working-class movement will also be required to leverage worker power in emerging sectors.

New Strategic Sectors

There are workers and unions that do have increasingly strategic positions in a post-industrial knowledge economy. While postal services may face challenges, workers in industries that control the flow of information have some power. The recent Verizon Communications strike in the eastern U.S. mostly involved unionized workers providing landline services facing competitive pressures from wireless providers. The 45,000 striking workers are less than a quarter of Verizon’s workforce; yet reported cases of sabotage by increasingly angry Verizon workers, including the cutting of fibre optic cables, have challenged the company. Imagine the challenges Verizon would face if the majority of its 190,000 workers were unionized. What would happen if striking IT workers left homes and businesses without internet connectivity? What kind of power would a craft union of IT workers have in a highly connected economy?

In a knowledge based economy, education (outside of the U.S.) may be somewhat insulated from the most severe public sector cuts, despite its continued competition with health care expenditures. Demographic shifts will allow governments to reduce the number of teachers in many jurisdictions when there are fewer students. In post-secondary education, three decades of flexible labour growth around a shrinking ‘core’ (i.e., tenure-stream professors) has lowered costs as tuition revenues rise. In part, the status quo in terms of employment is protected as doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and almost everyone else these days require significant education and accreditation. The strategic imperative here would be for teachers’ unions to demand something other than narrowly defined improved wages and working conditions. Demands for universal early childhood education might take some of the daycare burden off of parents. At the post-secondary level, prioritizing caps on class sizes and stabilizing faculty-to-student ratios would help ensure the quality of education. At present, the capacities of educators to leverage their power over the state with community supported strikes is limited despite the relative importance of education.

Health service workers will be in increasing demand even as ‘austere’ western economies age. Massive cuts to health care providers and services are not viable for most states facing the scrutiny of greying voters. Professionalized healthcare workers may survive austerity as nurses remain popular with the public. Other health sector workers providing janitorial and support services are much more vulnerable to outsourcing.

Despite a global financial crisis of its own making, the various financial sectors survived. In Canada, the banks held up better than elsewhere, and they are currently on a shopping spree in the U.S. financial sector. It is naive to think that all financial workers will ever organize against employers even in the midst of layoffs in U.S. banks. There are, however, many low-wage front-line financial workers in call centres, credit control (i.e., collection service) industries, and pay-day loan services that could be organized. Imagine the disruptive power to capital if collection services (another growth industry) were interrupted by collection agency workers taking strike action.

Traditional industries such as resources are also of strategic importance to labour as capitalism remains a carbon-based system. In Canada, resources have largely driven the economy as demand from China and India for everything in the ground has buffeted the impacts of stagnant U.S. growth. In 2010, an agreement between Suncor Energy and CEP Local 707 representing over 2,000 workers in Fort McMurray established wage increases of 2.5 per cent plus $1500 in the first year followed by 4 per cent increases in years two and three. Well above the concessions and austerity settlements in many manufacturing sectors, but still below the 6% and 7% annual increases negotiated in the previous agreement. In the oil fields, labour shortages during periods of expansion led to substantial wage increases for all workers, whether unionized or not. The power of workers to control the flow of petroleum is substantial. Leveraging this power to increase union density in Alberta (Canada’s least unionized workforce) will take innovative leadership and broader working-class organization. Leaving oil workers in isolation to achieve strictly economic gains well above those of most workers simply creates resentment and divisions in the working-class.

Organizing the oil fields is perhaps not as appealing to many activists as fighting for more green jobs in renewable energy sectors. These new sectors will emerge slowly, but the most immediate step is to organize workers in all sectors around the imperative to ‘green’ work. Many ‘green’ initiatives are simply about making work more labour intensive (e.g., sorting waste). Policies that privatize or reduce waste management services after years of educating the public on the evils of landfills and incinerators are a significant contradiction for the state.

The politics of ‘green jobs’ is a key strategic site for working-class organizing. Construction workers and unions have done relatively well in the initial stages of the current crisis as stimulus spending was released. Construction employment in Canada rebounded almost completely in 2010 from a decline immediately following the financial crisis. Retrofitting buildings for greater energy efficiency requires skilled construction labour and unions continue to lobby for policies that demand investment and support the ‘greening’ of the built environment. It is here where ‘blue-green’ politics clearly intersect and provide opportunities for workers.

In a ‘greening economy,’ transit workers also play an important role. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Toronto Transit Commission workers are systematically vilified and attacked by neoliberal city politicians and in the media. Reducing traffic gridlock and efforts to reduce carbon emissions are impossible without public transit workers. Again, to build on this relative shift in power among public sector workers, transit worker unions will have to build alliances with community groups fighting for accessible (even free) public transportation.

There are private sector service workers that have been organizing under austere conditions for decades and are only now beginning to realize improved standards for workers. In the tourism sector, UNITEHERE’s Hotel Workers Rising campaign has improved working conditions despite a decade of challenges for the tourism sector in North America and a hostile hotel industry. The urban based sector employs large numbers of women, immigrant workers and people of colour and is the future-present of North America’s labour market. It is antithetical to the aging manufacturing workforce, the declining core of large industrial unions. It is not surprising that organized workers in this sector remain the target of several unions in Canada attempting to build a base in hospitality services through mergers and raids.

Similarly, retail services are a growing sector that does not have a large unionized component. An exception is food retail services, where the UFCW has been viciously attacked by employers as grocery stores restructured operations to defend against the expansion of Wal-Mart. Clearly there is strategic capacity within the UFCW given their success in organizing temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector; but it is felt that the size of Wal-Mart will require a coordinated campaign by a number of large unions for any chance of success.

From a strategic perspective, the large number and structural role of service workers in a post-industrial economy has great potential to build and leverage power. Imagine for a moment a Toronto where organized labour had the power to slow the pace of construction for the 2015 Pan Am Games or even shut down most accommodation, retail and public transit services during the event. What would employers (and perhaps even the state) bring to the table to get workers back to the construction sites and into the buses, shops and hotels? A coalition of key unions and community groups demanding that all workers involved in the Pan Am Games be covered by a collective agreement and that the infrastructure be developed in a socially responsible manner is a necessary starting point to shift the struggle away from short-term economic gains for select groups of unionized workers.

While police are hardly pillars of working-class struggle, what about private security? A growing sector, with low wages and long, irregular hours, the USWA and other unions have attempted to organize in the sector. Are these unions willing to educate their members and discuss how it may be in the strategic interests of security guards to demand language that allows them to refuse work for an employer during any work-stoppage and leave picket line security to someone else? Building workers’ power in this sector may also hold strategic value given the direct link to security of property for capital.

From Defence to Offence in Challenging Times

It is only expected that activists and workers defend themselves at points of attack. Working-class organizations have been performing triage for over thirty years, prioritizing the most wounded workers on the battlefield. At this conjuncture, there are opportunities to identify sectors and regions where workers have significantly more power and to start thinking creatively about how to leverage that power against capital and the state.

Shifting the labour movement’s focus from defence to more strategic offense will be a challenge. Some of the sectors experiencing employment growth and that are vital to contemporary capitalism may seem contradictory for some on the left as an organizing focus. Construction workers, hotel room attendants, security guards, credit control workers, and ‘dirty’ oil workers in Alberta are difficult to imagine as future pillars of working-class power. But they very well may be. Unions in these sectors often represent relatively younger workers, women, immigrant workers and workers of colour. The biggest challenge is to convince union leaders and workers in these emerging sectors that they not only have relatively greater power than in the past, but that they also have a responsibility to use it to rebuild the labour movement rather than simply defend their own economic interests over the short and medium term.

“It is imperative that new working-class formations engage with the rank and file and union leadership. A failure to do so will create conditions for an increasingly corporatist and narrow business unionism … In the worst case, unions in these sectors could be increasingly co-opted into the base of populist right-wing (not yet fascist) governments.”

Leadership that recognizes that all workers with power require a strong and broad-based labour movement to survive over the long term is vital, but is extremely rare in what are too often quite conservative unions in these industries. It is imperative that new working-class formations engage with the rank and file and union leadership. A failure to do so will create conditions for an increasingly corporatist and narrow business unionism that achieves very little in terms of real gains for workers. In the worst case, unions in these sectors could be increasingly co-opted into the base of populist right-wing (not yet fascist) governments.

A first step is for labour activists to escape the intellectual traps of ‘age of austerity’ generalizations and recognize that some workers and unions have power, though these workers may not be in the traditional sites of working-class organization. In this context, unions will doubtlessly have a role in new working-class formations; they just may not represent workers from the same sectors that lead the way in the past. •

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in Geography at York University.

Mark Thomas teach the Department of Sociology at York University.