Say Hello to the Pavement!

Unions under attack need more effective forms of activism
October 1, 2013

Workers in Canada and around the world have been under assault for decades, but most of our recent tactics to stop the bleeding have been ineffective. If we don't soon get a lot more of our boots on the pavement, our labour movement density will continue to decline to the level of impotence. Just look at the United States. Union density does not have to be zero for workers there to consistently lose against employers and anti-worker legislators. Density just has to be low enough to discourage a meaningful push-back.

Here are two examples of just how bad it's getting in Canada.

In 2012, Labatt's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, made $9 billion in profits. That's a lot of Stella Artois, Becks, Lowenbrau and Blue. Yet last April, they demanded concessions from their workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, because $9 billion was simply not enough for their shareholders.

In Richmond, B.C., in May, IKEA locked out its unionized workers, members of Teamsters Local 213, and then began bargaining in reverse: the longer the workers stayed out, the more concessions they would have to make. Then IKEA was caught hiring scabs. The warm and fuzzy Swedish company is calling it a "strike" because, they argue, the workers can come back to work at any time -- on management's terms.

IKEA's 2011 profit was $3.85 billion. Again, not enough money for the family-owned company, whose founder is worth $52 billion. Despite IKEA's charming, suburban, global reputation, it has been busting unions around the world. The only unionized IKEAs in Canada are in Richmond and Montreal. If IKEA breaks the Teamsters in Richmond, what happens to the workers in Montreal – and to any other organizing drives around the country? They fizzle.

Ineffective tactics

Petitions and e-mail campaigns are convenient for activists who are busy. It helps them feel involved, but they're often just sending form letters. Even if we all add our own unique preface to the form letters, how often do they cause employers to back down? Armchair activism has run its course. In IKEA's case, they replied to activists' e-mails and letters with their own form letter. I suspect they understood the irony.

Beyond armchair activism, we are now rarely able to get more than a few dozen of the usual activists out to rallies. What does this accomplish? Why do we even have rallies any more? The media rarely show up, and, even if they do, they usually just look for sensational or inarticulate participants to put on camera. The employers are often merely inconvenienced for a few hours, then it's back to union-busting. If rallies never lead to a victory, why should we be surprised that thousands of members and their families no longer show up for them.

Despair, of course, is a luxury we cannot afford, but futility is a feeling that we can learn from. So is fatigue, burnout, cynicism, and exasperation. So let's stop asking members to show up for demonstrations that don't work.

Smarter activism

We need to get back on the streets, but not for 45-minute rallies. Unions have often merely endorsed new approaches to pushing back against the Canadian and global élite, like the Occupy Movement and Idle No More, but we haven't delivered our members, or their families and activist networks. Here's why: we haven't drawn the connections so that our members can understand that real wage growth in the last two generations has declined while the 1% became obscenely rich. We will keep losing if we don't fight back in ways that work.

This means building solidarity networks and hitting the pavement – and not just for our own issues.

What if there were strike support at every IKEA in Canada from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday until the end of the lockout in Richmond. And once in while, we switch it to Sunday, just to avoid being too predictable. And not just a rally, but real engagement, occupying the sidewalk to really engage with and inform IKEA's faithful customers about how awful the company's labour policies are, how rich IKEA's owners are, and why decent living wages help everyone's local economy.

But why stop there? Why not continue the sidewalk engagement occupations until every IKEA in Canada is unionized, which would motivate the thousands of new union members across Canada to pay it forward to help organize other workers in the rest of the retail sector, and other sectors with low union density.

I know. We are exhausted. We are trapped in a hyper-consumerist society and we make less real income than our parents did. So we're behind and we aren't catching up, and we have little free time and we miss our families and friends. Still, we could be more effective with the time we've got. We can't turn this around until we help our members understand that every lockout or anti-worker piece of legislation is an attack on them, on all of us. It needs to be our job, as labour activists, to help people make the connection that it is worth several hours every other Saturday to do something like occupy the sidewalks outside all the IKEAS.

Why can't sidewalk occupations include a nearby bouncy castle, a face-painting station, and a huge craft table for the kids; then younger activists with families would feel welcome to take part instead of put out because of the logistical problems with what to do with kids while trying to change the world.

One-off rallies are not effective any more. Regular, unpredictable rallies and occupations would be better, but only if we can show our members how they will be successful.

(Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a CUPE research representative and former high school teacher. Visit his blog at