To Renew Working-Class Resistance, the Labor Movement Must Be Democratized

Charting a course toward labor’s revival requires a socialist political project suited to the current historical and social moment. To build this renewed working-class politics, the labor movement must be democratized.

An emergency rally in response to Ontario government attacks on basic labor freedoms, Toronto, Canada, November 1, 2022. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Much of what was achieved through the class struggles of the 1930s to 1970s has dissolved. So-called Keynesian capitalism was predicated upon a set of compromises between capital and labor that accepted organized labor as a junior partner in the management of the political economy. Social democracy, as the major political orientation within working-class politics, was instrumental here. Today, however, social democracy offers no vision of a society beyond capitalism, offering up instead a technocratic managerialism to coordinate the state and economy.

The undemocratic and increasingly authoritarian variant of neoliberal capitalism has gradually insulated state institutions from popular pressures through concentrated power in the political executive and central bank “independence,” among other transformations within the state. As there is “no going back,” these developments raise the question as to whether democratic capitalism has arrived at a dead end.

Between Past and Present: The Contours of Trade Union Struggles

How has the labor movement responded to permanent austerity and authoritarianism? One must never fall into the defeatist perspective of overestimating the dominance of capital and the state. The relations of class power in a capitalist society are asymmetric; nevertheless, the power inherent to labor, through its potential to collectively mobilize, always remains a real force. Free collective bargaining was rooted in a material basis of consent given by the expansion of postwar capitalism. As this stage drew to a close in the 1970s, the material basis of consent became more fragile. This prepared the ground for the turn to coercion and, later, authoritarianism. It also opened space for resistance to such coercion that was determined by organizational, political, and ideological factors as well as economic ones.

Of course, the labor movement did not simply lie down and play dead. Economic crises, employers, and the state all worked together to effectively cripple the capacity of unions to resist. The consolidation of permanent exceptionalism through the 1990s and into the 2000s also coincided with a decline in strike activity.

If the 1970s marked the zenith of labor militancy as measured by the number of strikes, the first two decades of the twenty-first century were its nadir. In this regard, the main weapon in workers’ arsenal has been deployed ever less frequently and confidently. It is remarkable just how unchanging the Canadian labor movement has been in the face of each successive blow struck by the state and employers since the turn to permanent exceptionalism and, in particular, authoritarianism.

Union membership in Canada, which had seemed to stabilize at around 37 percent of workers in the early 1990s, fell steadily through the 2000s, reaching a historic low of just above 30 percent by 2016. And, while public sector union density remained rather stable at about 75 percent through the same period, private sector union density declined from just over 21 percent in 1997 to roughly 16 percent by 2017 — a level not seen since the mid-1960s. These declines are only part of the picture, though. Underlying the divisions and confusion among workers is the growing realization that the centerpiece of the labor movement’s strategy for defending and advancing its members’ rights — securing the election of New Democratic Party (NDP) governments — has been a colossal failure.

Some parts of the labor movement continue to cling to the NDP; after all, the alternatives are not any better and, in some cases, far worse. For many, however, it became clear that the NDP was just another party, so that just getting union members to vote for it was no strategy at all. Labor unions also increasingly turned to the courts to defend their rights to free collective bargaining. While the courts have in some cases chastised governments for overreaching, in others they have given their stamp of approval. In nearly all of these cases, they have done little to extend rights to nonunionized workers, let alone contribute to a reinvigorated and confident labor movement. But while knowledge of the law can be a powerful tool, it rarely translates into effective bargaining power; only politics does, and in this regard, the turn to legalism has been an ineffectual tool for organizing workers and wider working-class communities. Surmounting this challenge requires an approach to organizing that prioritizes the urgent task of rebuilding and renewing socialist politics — of getting people to think ambitiously again and of meeting new challenges through unique solutions to the left of social democracy. So, if the legal road to labor rights is a dead end and electing social democratic governments is not the answer, what is?

For many, the answer lies in turning to new social movements. Yet the need to work toward a new strategy for labor cannot be set aside. The new social movements, with some focused on advocating for and mobilizing nonunionized workers’ struggles, are certainly no less important than the labor movement. However, the promise of social movements for social transformation will only be realized if a powerful labor movement — measured in terms of its capacity to halt production as well as its size and organizational strength — takes on board the key emancipatory themes raised by the other movements. At the same time, social movements can hardly ignore their own need for labor’s support.

Experiences of feminist and anti-racist politics in the labor movement are also telling. These considerations suggest that a crucial element in the strategy for all transformative movements must be a strategy for transforming labor movements themselves in fundamental ways. Social movement activists have rightly been wary that many traditional labor attitudes and old strategies are recipes for failure, and the labor movement’s clinging to them, even if they are sometimes cloaked in new language, is a major factor in blocking social change. The old strategic impediments for labor are associated politically with social democratic gradualism and industrially with the service or corporatist models of trade unionism, the former more common in Canada than the latter. Within these frameworks, unions overwhelmingly eschewed any efforts to help their members understand the structure and dynamics of capitalism as a system or to develop the wide range of capacities necessary to challenge that system.

Indeed, unions were more concerned, particularly in the context of the Cold War, to marginalize anyone who sought to educate their membership. Unions overwhelmingly focused on the interests of their members as sellers of labor power, limiting themselves to being agents of collectively bargaining the terms and conditions of work with employers. This focus privileged negotiating skills over those of educating and mobilizing, devalued the importance of democratic forums, and exacerbated the tendency toward a bureaucratic consciousness and practice within the labor movement. The mobilization that did occur was linked to securing agreements with employers, and it was discontinued, if not discouraged, once that objective was achieved.

The shift from consent toward coercion in securing the subordination of labor became part of the broader turn to neoliberal globalization through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Not only were labor movements unprepared for these changes — they had also not prepared their members and supporters with the organizational and intellectual resources to readily understand what was happening, nor had they encouraged imagining any alternatives. It was in good part because of this inertia that the neoliberal restoration proved possible in the face of the impasse of the Keynesian welfare state.

There is no social democratic remedy to any of the foregoing. That project is no longer even capable of integrating workers, unionized or not, into the corridors of representation within the state. In the absence of class confrontation, there is little over which to compel change. And thus, the twentieth-century social democratic political economy, which understood the state as a technocratic instrument standing above class relations, has proven increasingly irrelevant to a world of staggering economic inequality brought on by a systematic, public and corporate policy-induced degradation of work and workers. In short, as the state and capital amplified the class war from above, social democracy, with no ideational and ideological means to understand this new political economy, was left in the wilderness without a compass and, more importantly, an electoral base.

The End of Democratic Capitalism: Moving Beyond Social Democracy

Social democratic theorizing is now as austere as social democratic parties are in practice. Social democracy is a protean political entity, one that has sought not to transform capitalism but rather to become integrated into capitalist modes of governing. In this, social democracy both ignores and obfuscates that the problem is capitalism itself. The immediate three decades following the end of World War II provided the material and political conditions that facilitated the golden age of social democracy. This was a historical anomaly, not historical normality. Those geopolitical and macroeconomic conditions have disappeared and there is no going back.

Party by party, post–World War II social democrats formally dropped Marxism as its theoretical lodestone. Its key programmatic elements then emphasized redistributional policies; de-emphasized nationalization of the means of production; sought to manage demand; and to implement such, turned to constructing a broad, multi-class electoral coalition. The ideological devaluation of ownership is a critical shift in social democracy’s reorientation away from class and toward a technocratic managerialism.

With the ascent of neoliberalism, social democracy again transformed to accommodate the new conditions. Through the 1980s and 1990s, social democratic parties accepted “the necessity of adapting to international markets and the austerity policies capital has demanded.” In the early days of the Great Recession, there was considerable speculation that the neoliberal era was concluding and that a Keynesian-informed classical social democracy would reemerge. It didn’t happen.

Instead, social democratic governments everywhere pursued austerity as it adapted to the requirements of neoliberal capitalism. Internationally, the Tony Blairs and Gerhard Schröders embraced their role as social democracy’s “progressive modernizers,” for whom this “often meant deregulation and privatization . . . that the only way forward is to abandon notions of equality and fraternity . . . and to weaken the state to the advantage of the forces of capital.” As elsewhere, the social democratic welfare states constructed by these parties over decades were eroded through the 1990s and beyond by those same parties that had built them. Large parts of their working-class base responded by withdrawing from the electoral process or finding new partisan homes, often with parties of the Right and far right.

As multiple crises roll out — the climate catastrophe, the fight for indigenous and racial justice, gender rights, living wages, the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical tensions, an emboldened far right, mounting economic insecurity — it is evident that social democratic politics and prevailing union practices and strategies are inadequate to the challenges now and those to follow. The necessary, and by no means easy, first step is the struggle to fashion a party of a new kind that is socialist and deeply rooted in the working class, together with union renewal informed by socialist politics. As Marx long ago noted, while trade unions could bargain within the wages system, they could not transcend the political and economic forces that stymied their continued expansion owing to the structural exploitation at the root of capital accumulation. The challenge before unions, then, was to simultaneously improve the working conditions of their members while extending those gains to the nonunionized, un(der)employed, and unwaged as part of generating a socialistic class consciousness.

Because the capital-labor relationship extends beyond the realm of paid employment, if organized labor is going to have a progressive future, it will need to be anchored in a politics that orients its struggles toward the emancipation of the working class as a whole, linking trade union activism with socialism as part of a radical politics of universalism. In other words, it will involve identifying the means through which the diversity of the working class could be transformed via a class-based project that recognizes how multiple registers of class oppression are not just abstract particularities, but politically and economically rooted in capitalist social relations. Building a socialist politics inclusive of a party and movement of a new kind dedicated to replacing capitalism will require a new type of union practice informed by the same objective.

Confronting Global Capital: National and International Dimensions

It is, nevertheless, the case that there is no adequate new strategy for labor without addressing globalization. It is first of all necessary to clear up some misconceptions. Globalization is not an objective economic process that labor needs to catch up to. It is a political process advanced by identifiable interests. The failure to see the strategic political nature of globalization reflects an economism that needs to be overcome. Nation-states are not the victims of globalization, they are its authors. States are not displaced by globalized capital, they represent globalized capital, above all financial capital. Any adequate strategy to challenge globalization must begin at home, precisely because of the key role of states in making globalization happen. There is no sense pretending that, in the South as much as in the North, anything other than class struggles of the most trenchant kind at the level of each state are required to shift the global political terrain.

It is nonsensical to imagine that campaigns to reform the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or even the International Labor Organization can amount to anything significant without a major shift in the balance of class forces in the leading capitalist states. Hugo Radice is right to note that “the asymmetry between labor and capital in their degree of transnationalization makes workers more a passive object of globalization than an active contestant.” If so, it is mainly because of the asymmetries of power between capital and labor at the national and subnational level, which makes any manner of meaningful reform impossible.

As long as labor remains satisfied with being — and capable of being no more than — a subsidiary partner of the national business class, nationalism can be no more progressive than this. Such a partnership is no longer on offer, in any case, given the increasing inability and unwillingness on the part of domestic business classes to chart a course of development beyond that determined by globally dominant imperialism in this conjuncture. This is precisely why a new strategy for labor has such importance and promise today.

In this era of globalization, such a shift can be sustained only insofar as local and national struggles in each state learn from struggles elsewhere, gain strength from one another, and support one another internationally. For this, a new labor internationalism is certainly required. But what exactly does internationalism mean for labor in this era of globalization? There is no sense pretending that problems that are deeply embedded in, and that reflect the weaknesses of, each national movement will somehow be resolved through transnational collective bargaining with multinational corporations and international campaigns against the political institutions of globalization.

As Sam Gindin points out, international labor bodies can still make constructive contributions to our struggles. They are useful vehicles for exchanging information and analysis and for mobilizing acts of solidarity and support. Here, too, we should be clear about their limits. Strategic international coordination is dependent on the strength of national movements. What kind of internationalism can we expect among the United States, Mexico, and Canada if the American labor movement cannot yet organize its own South? If the Mexican labor movement does not yet have a common union across workplaces? If the Canadian labor movement has not yet been able to achieve major organizing breakthroughs in its own key private service sectors?

What is needed is the kind of internationalism that reinforces the space for, and contributes to, building the strategic and material resources for working-class struggles in each country to develop. Unions in the North need to throw their full weight behind campaigns that would commit each leading capitalist state to a policy of Global South debt cancellation, the most practicable immediate reform that can be won from the institutions of globalization today. But the political and economic debt owed to the South — long a bastion of past and ongoing Northern colonial expeditions — can only be fully repaid by achieving a transformation of working-class culture in each of the rich capitalist countries, so that unions can really do more than place workers as a class on the tail end of consumer society.

Apart from ecological sanity, what is at stake here is the possibility of developing the kind of internationalism that alone will allow for the massive material redistribution — from the rich countries to the poor ones — that any progressive alternative global capitalism must entail. There can be no doubt that it will be an enormous challenge to learn how to reinvent international labor solidarity in this era of globalization.

If internationalism is conceived in a way that is an alternative to, or a substitute for, changes that are necessary at the national level, the results can only be negative, if not disastrous. There can be little tolerance for the kind of invocations of global working-class unity that, as was first made so tragically clear in 1914, has always produced more rhetorical heat than effective transnational solidarity and understanding. The most effective internationalism at this stage is for each labor movement to try to learn as much as possible from others about the limits and possibilities of class struggles that are still inevitably locally based. The world’s working classes have changed and the world’s labor movements must change with them. There can be no doubt that it will be an enormous challenge to learn how to reinvent solidarity in this era of globalization. Winning international support for local struggles is more important than ever. But no less important is open discussion of each movement’s weaknesses and ongoing problems.

Of course, in each country the landscape of political culture and organization is different. Still, common problems are present in every labor movement, North and South, including: issues of sexism and racism, intolerance and fragmentation, of undemocratic mobilization processes, of hierarchies built into labor aristocracies, and of organizational dialectics that reinforce member deference and leader egoism. What is needed now, above all, is common discussion of the experiences of each movement in trying to overcome problems, because advances made — and defeats suffered — by labor and its allies in any one province or state will have a greater exemplary effect than ever. In an era of accelerated globalization, successful new strategies for labor will have significant effects at the international level through converging and coordinated national pressures. A new labor internationalism that appreciates this common purpose is needed if working people are to develop the confidence and capacity to build a better tomorrow out of the great many popular struggles in evidence around the world today.

Before finding its way onto the state’s policy agenda, the struggle for democratic control must first entail a fundamentally different orientation of labor to the state. Rather than seeking a seat at the table, labor and other social movements must envision how to restructure the state so as to provide for meaningful democratic participation and control. Such a strategy for labor is unmistakably socialist. This term is appropriate at a time when the label “anti-capitalist” is commonly attached by the media establishment and is openly embraced by participants themselves.

There is a growing sense of the need to think in terms of class, but also to think about the question of socialist political organization again. The working-class mobilizations and struggles that launched the Keynesian welfare state era grew out of earlier capitalist crises and confrontation with reactionary forces, and these struggles were to a significant degree inspired and sustained by a broad socialist sensibility within the working class. Socialist ideas, at least in vague form, can on occasion emerge spontaneously from working-class experiences. But its development presupposes socialist political organizations to link and inspire concrete struggles. Through the pivotal role these parties played in the struggles of that time, workers learned the importance of having their own political organizations: to give voice to their interests and aspirations; to give some overall political coherence to their diverse demands; and above all to build and sustain the struggles needed to make real gains. There is no way ahead without taking up this daunting task once again.

A New Strategy

In the boom days of the postwar era, when the focus of the struggle was on negotiating wage increases, it mattered less what the ideological dispositions of workers were. Now it matters a great deal: changing the political agenda has to begin and be sustained by a strong popular commitment to challenging the limits of actually existing capitalism and the actually existing state. Once the issue facing the labor movement is posed in this way, debating whether to leave the NDP is clearly not the real question. The desire of those who feel betrayed politically and want to punish the NDP by breaking with it is understandable, but in the absence of any alternative politics, this move does not itself constitute an advance. Neither does it make much sense for union activists to throw themselves into trying to change the party from the inside. Such an intraparty battle, in which most working people would be uninvolved as spectators, could also have the effect of leaving a dangerous political vacuum.

The question of political organization is heard among political activists in labor and other social movements, most of whom have worked together for years in coalition campaigns. But there are strong voices among the new generation of young activists who have emerged in the anti-corporate and sweatshop campaigns and in the burgeoning protests against the institutions of globalization, police brutality, systemic racism, and the urgent need for environmental action.

The alienation from party politics remains, but there is an often-heard lament that something more than coalitions and campaigns is needed, some sort of organization within which to discuss and develop what a serious socialist strategy would amount to. Its immediate emphasis, sensitive to the historical moment of uncertainty on the Left, would be transitional: to create the spaces and processes for collectively working out how to combine daily activism with the need for a broader alternative politics, as well as to increase the likelihood, through organizing the impressive commitments to radical change that already exist, that such energies will be organizationally cumulative rather than dissipated.

Such a structured movement would neither take people away from the broad-based coalitions and organizations that concentrate on campaigns against the institutions of globalization, nor would it seek to undermine social democracy’s electoral project. It would have a different project, a much longer-term one oriented to developing a genuinely alternative vision and program to neoliberal globalization — and a genuinely alternative practice, especially in terms of the kind of leadership qualities and democratic and capacity-building processes discussed here.

This brings us to the most pressing issue, which a new strategy for labor must address as a condition of its own emergence and success, and that is the need for transforming labor itself. Not only will new radical demands like democratic controls over investment bring this dimension to the fore. Even reforms that are currently on the agenda, such as a reduction of working time, a “right to disconnect,” or “living wages,” face limits that are internal to the labor movement.

At the heart of a new strategy for labor must be a strategy for reorganizing and democratizing the labor movement toward developing the new capacities that workers and their unions require to start to change the structure of power. The objective would be to move unions beyond their current preoccupation with workers’ interests as sellers of labor power (just workers) to become more inclusive of workers’ full-life experiences — as producers, as family members and as citizens — taking up the human need to be productive and creative in and out of work.

Union activists and leaders would need to engage directly — not just as surrogates who issue statements to support the vital issues taken up today by social movements — in the many spheres of working people’s lives, from education and housing to racism and sexism, alongside the nature of the work that they do. It is not enough to win more leisure for workers via reduced working time; unions need to be concerned with working people when they are not at work, and that includes part-timers and those who are nonunionized and unemployed. Unions would also need to open themselves to the broader community to become centers of working-class life and ultimately vehicles through which working people develop the capacity and confidence to lead society.

Most crucially, a “movement-centered” unionism rests upon a fundamental democratization of the way unions function. Too often, solidarity within union structures — conceived primarily as loyalty to the leadership — has been purchased at the cost of internal democracy. The goal must be the creation of the most openly democratic procedures, affording members the opportunity and resources to make effective decisions at all levels of the union.

Which precise constitutional mechanisms, democratic forums, and internal structures are technically best in terms of maximizing accountability and democratic decision-making is not the issue here. The point is rather to measure these mechanisms in terms of the contribution they make to developing democratic capacities whereby members overcome deference, leaders pass on expertise rather than hoard it like their personal capital, and more frequent changes of leadership are made possible. Above all, debate needs to be encouraged rather than avoided, even over the most potentially divisive issues.

The problem of avoiding debate — whether due to impatience, intolerance, or avoidance of tough questions — once again emerges out of a dialectic in which members’ attitudes, as much as leaders’ inclinations, are entwined. Only through open discussion and debate can members be brought to see that issues like race and gender, which are often treated by workers as divisive from the point of view of the narrow economics of bargaining, are constitutive of solidarity because of the diversity of the working class itself. Leaders must once again take the risk of talking radical politics with their members who, often enough, do not see the connection between their immediate reasons for joining or supporting unions and the struggle against capitalism as a system. This risk can no longer be avoided.

Fighting for the Future, Today

The course of neoliberalism has thoroughly eroded what vestiges remain of trade union militancy, while social movements generally remain isolated in small-scale and resource-poor coalitions. Given the ongoing onslaught against all workers and working-class standards of living, the existing ways of doing things are not working. Recognizing this, in our view, is the only realistic starting point from which to move forward.

The inability of both organized labor and community activists to confront this impasse underscores the need for a new kind of radical, socialist political project suited to the current historical and social conjuncture, one that interrogates both its own historical failures as well as the transformations in the political, economic, and cultural arenas under which we are struggling today. In the absence of this, organized labor will increasingly risk becoming an impediment to, rather than an instrument of, a renewed working-class politics.

In other words, if austerity and authoritarianism are to be challenged, labor will need to take the risks of organizing working-class communities and fighting back while such communities still have some capacity to do so. Otherwise, it will risk continuing along the decades-long labor impasse. The failure to not take up this challenge may regrettably amount to a historic class defeat. Revitalizing the political promise of a radical working-class politics remains a crucial step in resisting state and employer coercion and potentially realizing a better world that gets to the root of the problem — capitalism. Only time will tell if a major resistance is in the cards.

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Bryan Evans is a professor of politics and public policy at Toronto Metropolitan University. Prior to his academic appointment he worked as a policy analyst/advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Carlo Fanelli is coordinator of the Work and Labour Studies program in the Department of Social Science at York University.

Leo Panitch was a distinguished research professor of political science and a Canada Research Chair in comparative political economy at York University.

Donald Swartz is a professor emeritus in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

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