Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Direct-action solidarity in Brighton

Mainstream Canadian trade unionism continues to (mostly) focus on workers having full-time, permanent work with a single employer (sometimes called the standard employment relationship). This reflects (in part) that the laws structuring trade unionism in Canada were built for workers in (broadly speaking) manufacturing jobs in the mid-20th century.

Obviously I’m generalizing some—many unions make an admirable effort to represent workers in the now dominant service-sector (e.g., UFCW). But the nature of this work—low pay, high-turn over—and the workforce—often teens and foreign migrant workers—make representation challenging. The low unionization rate also means that non-unionized employers are often able to “out compete” unionized employers via various forms of wage theft.

An alternative to traditional trade unionism in these sectors is direct action solidarity. This comes in lots of flavours but the gist is that workers join together to picket, occupy or otherwise punish employers who screw their workers.

We have seen some of this in Edmonton with the Wobblies. Sometimes these campaigns are successful (i.e., the workers get their demands met). Sometimes they are unsuccessful (i.e., the employer ignores the pressure). And sometimes the results are mixed (e.g., a crappy employer is driven out of business and thus can’t harm other workers). A friend tipped me to this British example of a direct action campaign in Brighton.

One of the outcomes of current Canadian labour laws is that they tend to divert anger into manageable processes (e.g., interminable grievance arbitration). This tends to benefit employers (who don’t have to worry about workers putting down their tools. Yet, for some workers (and for all workers in some instances), acting outside of the confines of labour law and some workers may be more beneficial.

-- Bob Barnetson

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