Labour needs more political activity, not less

By Dave McKee  

In what can only be described as a hit piece on the entire labour movement in Canada, the Globe and Mail’s Tony Keller complained in a column on May 17 that unions have abandoned the world of “real” working-class struggles, to flirt with “other issues, notably 2SLGBTQIA+ rights and, above all, the war in Gaza.”

Keller takes particular aim at CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, who he claims represents a privileged group of people who no longer resemble the hard-working labourers of old. “The typical Canadian union member is now a woman in the public sector, with decent benefits, pension and job security, and who earns more than the average person in the private sector.”

In just a handful of sentences, Keller manages to misrepresent Hahn’s leadership record, slander women workers, skewer the just economic aspirations of all working people, and demonize labour political action. Not bad for a writer whose other recent articles include a rant that student encampments for Palestine “aren’t protected by free speech, because they aren’t speech” and an argument that the only way to solve the housing crisis is to drive the population “down, way down.”

Of course, Keller’s article isn’t intended to be a truthful assessment of the labour movement, or of working-class experience whatsoever. The message is clear: workers shouldn’t trust union leaders – or unions at all – because they don’t help with important things like wages and pensions, but spend all their time (and your money!) on boutique political issues like “race, gender and anti-colonialism.”

Right, because things like racial and gender equality, decolonization and national liberation, peace and solidarity have nothing at all to do with class society…

Such absurd logic would be easy to dismiss if it were not so pervasive.

Since unions first emerged – early in the development of capitalism – the bosses, their political parties and their media mouthpieces like Tony Keller’s lordly Globe and Mail have worked tirelessly to alienate workers from unions. For generations, the arguments have been the same: “We’re a family business!” “We can resolve our problems internally, without outside interference!” “Unions were necessary then, but not now!”

But where capital really gets aggressively anti-union is the fight against labour political action. From claiming that labour politics only represent the views of a small minority of privileged leaders, to suggesting the “bread and butter” issues are fundamental a-political, to insisting that unions – democratic organizations of working people – shouldn’t be permitted to be politically active at all, the elite in capitalist society is clearly terrified of labour’s political potential.

But capitalist forces have done a good job of ideologically softening working people, to the point that arguments over political action have been at the heart of the labour movement since unions first emerged.

Even now, in the middle of a genocide that is occurring right in front of the world, labour leaders in Canada appear deeply split over how to respond. Far too many choose to sit quiet, meekly deferring to “political leaders” who apparently know better. They pursue a narrow, often opportunistic type of labour politics that will ultimately bind working people to the bosses’ interests.

But others, including Fred Hahn and Ontario President of Labour president Laura Walton, are speaking up and using their positions to educate their members and the working class at large about why peace, gender and racial equality, de-colonization and climate justice are urgent matters for the labour movement alongside wages, pensions and working conditions. They speak to an understanding of class struggle that extends beyond the “shop floor” and right into the political arena.

That’s what capital and its mouthpieces like Tony Keller are afraid of and want to crush. And it’s exactly what we need to defend and strengthen right now.

[Photo of rally in support of U of T encampment in solidarity with Palestine: Fred Hahn X]

Support socialist media!

If you found this article useful, please consider donating to People’s Voice or purchasing a subscription so that you get every issue of Canada’s leading socialist publication delivered to your door or inbox!

For over 100 years, we have been 100% reader-supported, with no corporate or government funding.

Sign up for regular updates from People's Voice!

You will receive email notifications with our latest headlines.