Book Review: From Demonized to Organized

CCPA book on labour explores building a new union movement
December 1, 2013


Nora Loreto's new book, From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement, is a publication of Our Schools, Our Selves, and as such part of the CCPA's Education Project. It's a book that should be added to the toolkit of any educator interested in collective consciousness-raising in the 21st century.

The book's last few chapters provide valuable reading material for Canada's current union leaders, who need to come to terms with the new economic and political climate that is increasingly hostile to organized labour and workers.

Loreto's book is broad in scope, serving as so much more than a mere discussion of unionism in Canada. It makes connections between current attacks on civil liberties, the current state of journalism, fiscally irresponsible governance, corporate tax cuts, and anti-worker legislation. These issues need to be analyzed together because they are all part of the same neoliberal agenda, which Loreto describes in Chapter 6 as the new economic system arising in the 1980s that promised more individual freedom, but "was instead marked by 'tilting markets even more in favour of the big corporate players, privatization, deregulation, and rejection of everything communal or social'." And until we understand just how neoliberalism is operating in Canada – particularly within our political system – we won't be able to develop meaningful solutions to a demonized and embattled labour movement that struggles to remain relevant in the public eye.

Like her writing, Loreto's intentions are clear: to provide an accessible, evidence-based, timely account of the nation's prolonged attacks on the public good – at the heart of which is the destabilization of both unions and all forms of social solidarity. Naturally, then, community building and engagement are fundamental strategies for moving forward.

The book is written in accessible language for an audience that might have limited knowledge of unions or the labour movement as a whole. This makes her book a useful tool for engaging youth and workers new to unions. In Chapter 1, Loreto spends 10 pages exploring the question "What is a union?" She introduces the Rand formula, explains how and why union dues are collected, and defines such terms as "collective agreement" and "lockout" in clear and simple language.

Loreto progresses from simple ideas to more complex ones. She spends chapters 1 through 5 exploring the the role of unions, their basic democratic procedures, and the debates surrounding anti-unionism. Chapters 6 through 11 look at unions within the bigger picture, connecting broader Canadian social policies with political attacks on workers. Chapter 9, entitled "Profit hoarding, tax evasion and the creation of useful crises," seeks to emphasize how public policy is facilitating an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. And in Chapter 11, "Towards new ways of organizing," Loreto looks at recent labour campaigns, primarily in the United States, that have "brought workers together, allowing them to reclaim their agency."

Loreto provides a good analysis of the contradictions inherent with government policy and the corresponding pro-austerity language used to attack unions. She appeals to examples of outrageous government fiscal irresponsibility (some would call it corruption), such as the Ontario Liberals' Ornge scandal, in which the provincial government squandered almost a billion dollars on the air ambulance service. The province then had the audacity to suggest that Ontario teachers needed to tighten their belts for the sake of the public education system, removing collective bargaining rights with the introduction of Bill 115.

Through such illustrations, it becomes clear that governments are largely unaccountable to the public while quick to scapegoat unions and workers. At the federal level, the government's interference in contract negotiations between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers marks an effort to test public reaction to its escalating attack on unions.

As Loreto remarks in her concluding chapter, "Democracy without accountability is the playground of the rich." This could very well be the slogan for the evolution of Canada's democratic government under neoliberalism. Using the Harper cabinet's omnibus bills as examples, Loreto demonstrates how the federal government has failed to govern in the public interest. She can affirm with confidence that "not a single Conservative MP was elected because she or he promised to de-list all of Canada's waterways from environmental protection." It is within this climate of democratic deficiency that politicians are able to make policy decisions that benefit wealthy elites at the expense of the average worker.

In contrast, unions have a role to play in fostering democratic literacy among its members. Loreto contends that they remain one of the few institutions that are "extremely democratic by design," as explained in Chapter 5. Collective agreements need to be ratified by the general membership, and the decision to strike is decided through a democratic vote. When unions make decisions that members disagree with, the democratic avenues are in place to participate in union elections.

While such a presentation of unions is somewhat simplistic – some unions in Canada have institutional barriers to democratic participation – these assertions are intended for a broad audience. The public does not commonly characterize unions as democratic agencies, and unions, Loreto argues, need to be "cutting through the spin" that permeates the mainstream media in order to bring to light their own potential power.

Unions need to debunk the myth that they stand in the way of a healthy economy. Loreto presents extensive empirical evidence that counters this claim. She uses the stark example of the 2012 London, Ontario Electro-Motive lockout, which happened amidst a period of massive profit earnings for parent company Caterpillar Inc. During negotiations, the company demanded that workers take drastic pay cuts – from $35.00/hour to $16.50/hour. Caterpillar's 2012 forecast earnings were between $68 and $70 billion. Corporate greed, not unions, led to the plant's closure.

Overall, Loreto has left criticisms of the Canadian labour movement aside, and instead emphasizes its room for growth. She sees the development of new models of organizing central to this goal. Frankly, "maintaining the old patterns is simply not going to be enough to save, unite, broaden, or grow the labour movement."

So where does this take us? Loreto directs us to recent successes of labour organizing in the U.S., pointing to the community-based campaigns that support fast food workers. Unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are working to organize the unorganized, and other unions need to follow suit, using creativity and appealing to non-traditional organizing models. She notes that sometimes organizing outside formal union structures can be effective, especially when it dissipates a clear target for employer backlash, as seen in the U.S. campaign to organize WalMart workers.

Loreto's book proposes clear and necessary strategies for moving the labour movement forward. She stresses the need for alternative business structures, stronger communities, stronger solidarity between communities, and the "need to protect all forms of democracy when they are under attack." Such strategies are a solid launching pad for future conversations around what tactics labour should adopt. The Canadian labour movement needs to borrow tactics not just from the U.S., but from successful labour organizations around the world. It needs to understand what exactly these tactics are, why they've been chosen, and how they've been successfully co-ordinated.

And at some point, labour unions in Canada are going to have to face their inner demons by working more constructively towards greater institutional democracy, and developing more united, principled advocacy against neoliberalism and all its evils.

(Samantha Ponting is the program coordinator of Next Up Ottawa and an editor of the labour news site, where this review first appeared.)