PV Labour Bureau
The Common Front struggle has brought together over 500,000 workers from six different unions, four of which are members of the Front and two of which are closely cooperating with it. None of these unions are organizationally united in the same labour central, yet they have come together in this fight. They are united in struggle, and because of that, they have made gains.
There is an important lesson for the labour movement throughout Canada here. If six unions in different labour centrals in Quebec can pull together – four of them with common demands, common tactics and a common bargaining committee – why can’t unions in the Canadian Labour Congress not find a way to build common struggles with unions outside of the CLC?
Rather than seeking unity in struggle, most of the labour leadership in Canada seems quite content with a divided house of labour. Recent discussions about unity have skirted the fundamental question of unity in struggle between the CLC, Teamsters and especially Unifor, and instead been more narrowly focused on the question of how much back dues need to be paid if the latter unions are to re-affiliate.
An example of this culture of division can be seen in the struggles of grocery workers in Ontario last year, which was a missed opportunity for labour. In the summer, 3700 workers at Metro food stores in the Greater Toronto Area struck for higher wages. You would expect that other unions in the sector – most notably UFCW, which represents several thousand grocery workers including 8000 at Metro – would have mobilized to support them and help win a precedent-setting contract for the entire industry. But the striking Metro workers were represented by Unifor, so the UFCW leadership sat on its hands and pretended nothing was happening. After a month on the picket line, the workers accepted a deal with strong wage gains and other improvements. UFCW essentially matched these gains at the end of the year in a new contract for its 26,000 members working at Loblaw stores, but without even acknowledging the role played by the Unifor strike in setting the bar.
In this case, UFCW lucked into a type of accidental pattern bargaining, but betting on luck is hardly a strategy for success. Wage gains would almost certainly have been greater if there had been a united struggle by all unions in the sector, especially given wide public support due to high grocery prices, corporate profiteering, and the government’s failure to do anything about it.
Of course, unions have historically benefited from each other’s struggles, leapfrogging with demands and using pattern contracts to raise their members’ wages. But remaining apart and actively disengaging from labour solidarity is a different matter and is not a plan for unions to advance the class struggle. Instead, it is a recipe for division, sectarianism, isolation and weakness for labour, while handing bosses and their governments a free hand to trample on workers’ hard-won rights and conditions.
The struggle of Quebec’s Common Front of unions is helping to illuminate the way forward for working people. The CLC and the labour movement throughout Canada would be wise to get onto a similar path.
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