Where was the Labour Movement?
On March 5, 2010, after a conflict that stretched over almost 9 months, the maintenance and skilled trades workers of CEP (Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada) Local 2003 (affectionately known as the CF61) working in office towers in downtown Toronto voted to accept an offer from real estate developer Cadillac Fairview. The victory was bittersweet. On the one hand, the Cadillac Fairview workers had forced an arrogant corporation to return to the table and to do so with a substantially improved severance offer. On the other, the workers went through hell to get there and at the end of the day the jobs and the bargaining unit were lost.
Though the struggle of the workers was inspiring at many levels and could point to a partial victory, the same could not be said for the response of the broader labour movement. In this regard, the outcome was clearly negative. The movement had been tested and found wanting. When a corporation with a portfolio of $17-billion takes on a unit of 61 workers and arbitrarily sacks workers and gets rid of the union, it is the labour movement as a whole that is being challenged. Allowing this to happen without a serious pushback effectively exposes the labour movement as a paper tiger. It encourages corporations to be still more aggressive – if this is happening in unionized plants, it's not hard to imagine what is happening in non-union workplaces and to much more vulnerable part-time and contract workers (a hint of this was evident in the recent lockout of UNITE-HERE workers at the Woodbine Racetrack).
Unless and until the movement collectively figures out how to reorganize itself to match what it is up against in these times, things are going to get a lot worse for working people. Before turning to what such an alternative response might involve, it's useful to summarize some of the background to the Cadillac-CEP conflict.
Cadillac Fairview is “one of North America's largest investors, owners and managers of commercial real estate.” This includes 84 properties, the most prominent of which are the Toronto-Dominion Centre and Toronto Eaton Centre, the Pacific Centre in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the Chinook Centre in Calgary and Fairview Ponte Claire in Montreal. Cadillac is fully owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (OTPP). The Plan's fund includes monies contributed not just by the government as employer but also the teachers, yet its decisions are independent of any teacher or union control.
In May 2009, the company announced it would outsource or get rid of 20-30% of the workforce. It refused to increase severance payments for those whose jobs would be lost beyond the legally mandated minimum levels and – astoundingly even in this era of corporate extremism – it asked all the workers to give up their seniority and reapply for their jobs with six-month probationary periods. If subsequently dismissed, severance pay would be based on their new seniority, not the seniority they previously had. When the workers refused, the corporation waited until the agreement was over and on that day, June 14th, 2009, Cadillac Fairview locked out and replaced all the workers. A month later the company officially fired them. (On December 10, 2009 the corporation went so far as to use a Toronto by-law to force the workers to shut down their shelters outside the TD Centre).
The decisive factors to Cadillac's bottom line are trends in real estate values and corporate occupancy; the labour costs of the workers who maintain Cadillac's shopping malls and office buildings are marginal to its profitability. In the first stages of negotiating the latest agreement with Local 2003, worker concessions weren't even raised. Then the financial crisis hit and Cadillac was under pressure to cut every corner possible. Because it could do very little about the larger economic issues or affect its relationships to other businesses, it looked to place the burden on its workers. That it expected little or no serious response from the labour movement as a whole left Cadillac Fairview more confident in this attack.
Cadillac Fairview's turn to gutting worker's rights wasn't, in other words, about its survival or even about any significant impact on its profitability. It was about leaving more for its executives and stockholders. Ultimately, Cadillac Fairview acted as it did because it could.
In 1960, a group of workers separated from their international union and formed the Canadian Union of Operating Engineers and General Workers. That union was subsequently a founding member of a new national body, the Canadian Council of Unions in 1968. In 2003, they joined the Communication, Energy and Paper Union of Canada – itself the product of a merger between three unions that had broken away from their U.S.-based parent in the 1970s to move beyond the limits of American-style unionism.
In the thirty years before the last round of negotiations Local 2003 had many conflicts with their employer but no strikes. In this round of bargaining and especially as the implications of the financial crisis became more apparent, the local's demands were extremely modest. The corporation was obviously not looking for a settlement but a chance to break the union and even before the lockout began, the union had filed a bad-faith bargaining charge against the corporation - a charge that the courts subsequently decided merited a labour board hearing. The local set aside any new demands and accepted the corporation's decision to outsource work, concentrating its bargaining on getting decent severance packages for those losing their jobs. The local of course rejected transferring existing work to lower-wage categories and the outrageous corporate demand for everyone to give up seniority and ‘re-apply’ for their jobs.
While the union rejected the company agreement, it did not look to go on strike; it offered to keep working until a new agreement was reached. Cadillac Fairview wasn't however interested. As for the union's labour board complaint, the company's lawyers were able to get this put off until April 2010 (another example of the thin justice the law offers workers and a contrast to the speed with which companies get injunctions and bankers get government attention).
Once on the street, the local ran 24-hour picket lines for six months and then continued picketing Monday-Friday through the rest of the lockout. It organized some 15 solidarity rallies with folk and freedom singers including over 1000 supporters during the OFL Convention and a morning rush hour blockade. Knowing full well that the residents of the TD Centre in the heart of Bay Street were not going to respond sympathetically – the local organized a series of creative disruptions in the TD Centre – from launching huge banners and messages on helium balloons to parading through the crowds with giant grim reaper puppets and a daily barrage of air raid, ambulance, and police sirens. And with its limited resources, it spread its leafleting to other Cadillac properties.
On February 26, 2010 – more than eight months after the lockout began – the national union, CEP, informed the workers that the company had come around to a bargained end to the dispute and that an agreement (details withheld) had been reached which would be voted on the following week. What got Cadillac Fairview to the table was first, the stubborn determination of the workers to continue fighting and keep the issue alive. Second, it was pretty obvious that the now approaching labour board hearings would concur that Cadillac Fairview had blatantly disregarded the province's labour laws. Though this was coming late in the day and a ruling restoring workers to their jobs seemed out of the question, the expected ruling and its publicity did put some pressure on the company to end the conflict.
That pressure was primarily manifested through the owner of Cadillac Fairview, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. The Pension Plan administrators had been increasingly criticized for their anti-social investments on a number of fronts (from water privatization in Chile to investments in the arms trade) and so it was sensitive to the additional negative attention it would receive as the hearings proceeded. Reliable sources suggest that the Pension Plan administrators basically told Cadillac Fairview to settle before the April hearings.
The ratification meeting was held on March 5, 2010. Though a minority of the workers remained angrily opposed, a clear majority voted to accept it. This was not surprising. By then almost half the workers had other jobs and were not interested in returning. Others simply didn't want to work for Cadillac Fairview anymore and preferred to get a good severance package. Of those who did want the jobs again, few considered getting them back as being realistic at this stage. And the severance the corporation had been forced to offer was in fact quite significant: basically triple and in some cases more than four times the legislated minimums. The workers could therefore leave Cadillac Fairview with the dignity that comes with having taken on the fight, forced an insensitive corporation to retreat, and made – albeit qualified – gains.
The Labour Movement
The failures of the labour movement didn't lie in any lack of sympathy for the Cadillac Fairview workers or unwillingness to demonstrate periodic support. The CEP continued to pay strike pay. The Teachers' unions publically expressed their anger and frustration at the involvement of ‘their’ pension fund in attacking Local 2003. The OFL highlighted the lockout at its convention and brought its delegates out to an impressive demonstration at the TD Centre. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) – one of the most progressive in the country if not on the continent – tried to generate further solidarity. And a small number of individual union activists regularly came down to the TD Centre to join the picket line.
None of this, however, spoke to the imbalance in power confronting a particular group of workers, the changing context in which workers are struggling, or to the serious implications of such conflicts for all workers. The movement seemed to be going through the traditional gestures of solidarity, rather than moving to the kind of creative and radical collective actions that might actually represent a winning strategy.
There was, for example, no clear determination on the part of CEP (perhaps overwhelmed by massive job losses and demands for concessions elsewhere) to make this struggle into a province-wide crusade against Cadillac Fairview, especially at a moment in time – the financial and housing crisis - when financiers and large developers were so discredited. Nor was there any strategic determination on the part of labour that the weak link was the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and the consequent need to raise the stakes by joining with others also fighting the narrow use of the Plan to maximize returns (including dealing with the need, at a minimum, for workers to be able to block their pension money being used to break unions).
There was no tactical consideration given to how to overcome the media's disinterest in a struggle that was becoming invisible. This could only have been addressed with the kind of direct actions that the media couldn't ignore and the local couldn't pull off on its own – such as sit-ins backed by mass outside support, at the tenants of Cadillac Fairview that might be most sensitive to public opinion (like the TD Bank), or directly at the offices of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Though Cadillac Fairview could comfortably ride out the occasional protest, there was no plan for sustained and escalating tactics to get the message across that far from fading away, the conflict would be escalated and become increasingly prominent.
Toward Class-Based Struggles
The conflict revealed not only the fragility of union rights in the province and the weakness of one local going it alone, but pointed to a broader strategic failure in the labour movement. The crisis we've been experiencing is not only about plant closures, concessions and attacks on public sector workers and social programs; it's also about a crisis within the labour movement. The movement has been under attack for some three decades now and has emerged with lower expectations and a narrower sense of possibilities. That it was working people, rather than the economic elite, that is coming out of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-10 on the defensive speaks volumes about the state of our movement. We have not come to grips with is that what we face isn't just a series of specific problems confronting particular workers, but an assault on workers as a class and the corresponding need for a class response.
What might this mean? To begin with, this is not just a Canadian problem: it is one facing workers everywhere. It goes far beyond ‘bad leaders’ and gets to the most difficult and intimidating questions. Not only do we need to figure out how to defend ourselves in a new context but – because defence is not enough (those with power will eventually wear you down) – how we simultaneously organize ourselves to transform a society that has become a barrier to human solidarity and progress.
History puts this in some perspective. In the 1930s, workers came to the conclusion that the main form of unionism then, craft-based unionism (which only organized skilled workers), was inadequate to what they faced. They essentially invented a new organizational form that brought all workers in a sector together: industrial unionism (‘reinvented’ might be the better term since such unionism had earlier roots, but it was only in these years that industrial unionism came into its own). Industrial unionism, including its extension to the public sector, was always limited by the fact that, while it brought groups of workers together, it didn't organize workers as a class. This didn't prevent workers from making major gains, especially when economic growth could be taken for granted and the fight was over the distribution of that growth. But once growth slowed down and in response corporations and governments became more aggressive, the limits of this form of organization were exposed.
The labour movement did not, however, move on to new forms and this is what must now be placed on the agenda. Fragmented as we are, we're sitting ducks. We need to develop new organizational forms that see workers as members of a larger class. Workers have interests that go far beyond their workplace - class is expressed in all aspects of our lives from the schools our children attend to the health care we receive to access to public transportation, to the environment. Moreover, those in the same boat as us are not just unionized workers but all those who don't have capital to live off – non-union workers, the unemployed, new workers coming to Canada, the disabled and the poor.
It is not obvious what such new forms might be. But one such form – now being experimented with under the auspices of the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly – tries to bring workers together on a class-based, community-rooted basis. This means gathering activists from across unions and community campaigns with the hope of linking up to other such formations that might subsequently be built in other cities and communities.
This does not mean that unions are irrelevant: unions continue to have a vital role and in the context of broader organizations like the Assembly, the relevance of unions can even be greater. But that can only happen if unions are themselves transformed. This is not just a matter of replacing leaders and introducing more radical rhetoric. If unions are to act to build class power, then everything about them will have to be changed. Unions will have to re-examine their priorities, and strategies, how they conduct strikes and campaigns, the focus of their research departments and the content of internal education. They will also need to rethink the relationships of leaders to their members and the depth of internal democracy, as well as links to other unions and potential allies in the community. And it means expanding customary visions of social justice to naming what we are fighting against – capitalism.
Experience suggests that few union leaders are ready to take on the risks and responsibilities this entails. It also suggests that on their own and in the face of economic uncertainties, rank-and-file workers are unlikely to develop the confidence to force such internal changes. Such revolutions inside unions can only happen through worker activists drawing strength from the creation of networks across workplaces (and across unions) and with support outside the unions. Part of the work of the new class organizations raised above is to facilitate and support such networks.
Looking back to the struggle at Cadillac Fairview, Steve Craig – the Chief Steward of the unit – concluded that “people need to realize that we do have power. Corporations need to feel the heat and workers need to crank it up.” The Cadillac Fairview struggle showed that groups of workers will and can fight but also that this is not enough. We need a new kind of labour movement that can amplify Craig's sentiments. If the left doesn't develop new organizational forms and strategies, corporations and states will exhaust the best in the working class and unions will drift toward simply accommodating to what they face – getting the best deal in the circumstances without challenging the ‘circumstances’ – while workers adjust their private lives, out of necessity, to individual survival. The status quo is disappearing as a choice. We will either make the leap into new forms of class mobilization or find ourselves continuing to slide into ever more ineffective stances to defend the gains of a receding past. •
Sam Gindin is the Visiting Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University, Toronto.