This article is based on several interviews with workers that IWW members spoke with while supporting a couple strikes at Canada National Rail. The piece deals with the politics of the several unions who were all vying to become the One Big Union on the railways. It’s also worth looking at the rhetoric and practice of current contemporary Industrial Unionism and the revolutionary vision of the early 20th Century. There’s a lot of talk about mergers and consolidation right now in the labour movement. This is something pay attention to over the next few years.
The union seemed to start out in a strong position with a strike mandate from the membership of over 95%, but early in the strike cracks began to form. While the Canadian administration of the United Transit Union (UTU) was 100% behind the strike the international body based out of Cleveland Ohio, claimed they had to be asked first before workers could walk off the job. To make matters worse, the International controlled the strike fund. Poised to go out, the workers at Canadian National Railways (CNR) found out they wouldn’t be getting strike pay. While the workers pressed forward the International’s actions became increasingly pro-boss as they sided with Hunter Harrison (CEO of CNR) in a case brought to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, contending that the strike, though legal under Canadian law, was not legal according to the constitution of the UTU, stipulating that workers must have the permission of the International prior to walking out. UTU International could hardly have done more to antagonize their own workers. Eventually the CIRB sided with the Canadian faction, led by Rex Beatty, saying that the constitution stipulated workers could ask the International to strike, but did not have to. To complicate things even further, in response to the howls of outrage from Canadian business, parliament began to discuss legislating everyone back to work.
In spite of deliberate sabotage from their own International, the workers stayed out for about two weeks, seriously wounding the Canadian economy. The place where the CN workers got the most support early in the strike was the Teamsters union, another American business union hardly known these days for their militancy. Their motives for doing so quickly became clear. During the course of this strike the UTU International moved to sack the negotiating team, making a martyr out of Rex Beatty, and replace them with their own people, and around this time the Teamsters attempted an ambitious attempt to raid the UTU. In retaliation Rex Beatty came out in full support of UTU members signing the Teamsters cards.
Showing up on the UTU picket lines and setting up public meetings in hotels across the country, the Teamsters billed themselves as a more democratic alternative to the corrupt UTU. In less than two weeks the Teamsters presented cards from 65% of the workforce across Canada. The Teamsters basically used a two-part pitch to sell their union to the UTU membership: first they touted the increased autonomy of the Teamsters of Canada Rail Conference, saying they were more sensitive to the needs of Canadian workers, and second they said they would all be stronger in one union together.
The first point in the Teamsters pitch is a staple of Canadian labour politics. The argument is a straightforward one: that the reason unions have become so complacent over the years is that they are not Canadian enough. As Jim Stanford of the Canadian Auto Workers, a Canadian ‘social union’ points out, Canada is the only country in the G8 nations that has a large number of foreign unions representing them.
The roots of the desire for Canadian union autonomy are justified. The American unions that do have a serious presence in Canada are by and large not very democratic and are dominated by the larger population bases to the south. This combined with a lot of power and control being concentrated in the head officers drowns out the comparatively smaller Canadian sections and gives them less control over their own affairs. Furthermore, the Canadian working class overall is socially more to the left than in many parts of the USA. So policies like supporting social democratic politicians, divestment of pension funds from nations with poor human rights records, and support for the women’s movement are all much more eagerly supported by Canadian unions than the ‘Internationals’ from the USA. It is also only natural that Canadian workers want more control over their own affairs.
Usually when this happens the most obvious option is to join something along the lines of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) or the Communications Energy and Paper workers union (CEP) – the nearest Canadian social union. CAW already has a presence on the rail lines, representing the inside staff that work at CNR. So why didn’t the UTU members make the most likely move? Because the Teamsters were very much ready for this, after the Teamsters represent the locomotive engineers the same workers that literally work right next to the workers in the UTU.
However, Jim Stanford’s article in the Globe and Mail proves this is a three-way fight and is far from over. The only reason the CAW would be chiming in about an American business union raiding another American business union in the middle of a strike would be because they feel they are the only union fit to represent all workers on the rail lines. The CAW has its own problems with a highly entrenched leadership; Buzz Hargrove has been in the saddle for 15 years and any attempts to challenge his control of the CAW have been quickly stopped. If there was any doubt that the CAW may not be the best people to represent the workers at Canadian National, it is also important to keep in mind that Buzz Hargrove openly campaigned for the Liberals in several key ridings – the same Liberals that supported the Conservatives’ suggestion to legislate the CN workers back to their jobs and recently helped defeat the Federal anti scab bill.
One Big Union in Transportation?
The second point in the Teamsters pitch is something no good wobbly can disagree with: all workers regardless of skill or occupation should be in the same industrial union. The Teamsters no doubt are well on their way to building such an industrial union, with contracts with most of the major shipping companies such as UPS and Purolator, and now a strong presence on both major shipping lines in Canada, the Teamsters have the potential to be a serious force for social change. After all, if one rail line striking can wound the entire upper class of Canada what could a general strike in transportation do? However, the problem with the Teamsters is this: they will not do this, not now, not ever.
This has already become apparent: as soon as the Teamsters felt they had more sway than the UTU they pulled the UTU members back in to work. While the bargaining agent was still technically the UTU, in practice the Teamsters began to call the shots. This allowed the Teamsters to start negotiating with the employer before they even had recognition; in effect this is solidarity unionism in reverse. Frantically trying to change the situation, the UTU appointed puppets who replaced the sacked Canadian bureaucrats were now in the awkward position of trying to hold up the picket lines and keep people on strike in order to show that they still controlled their own union. Furthermore the Teamsters made it clear that they were not interested in negotiating contracts that expired at the same time as those of the CN workers they already represent, but rather the former UTU workers would be under a three-year contract and the current Teamsters would stick to a five-year contract.
So instead of one union scabbing on another union, if they choose to strike on the rail lines, you would have one union scabbing on itself. Using the threat of the Liberals going public with their intentions of backing a Conservative motion in Parliament to order the railroad workers back to their jobs, the Teamsters became decidedly more timid and counseled a return to business as usual and a tentative agreement, effectively diffusing the incredible momentum that had been built up by these workers’ strong support for the strike and their brave defiance of their own International. This begs the question, what is the use of having a union that controls the transportation industry in Canada if they won’t exert that power in the interests of the workers?
The Ballad of Rex Beatty
Like most leaders in a civil war Rex Beatty occupies the contradictory position of being a hero to the Teamsters on one hand and a traitor to the UTU on the other. Like many wars, great personalities aren’t in themselves important, but do represent certain factions and interests within the broader struggle. Prior to the unauthorized strike, Mr. Beatty was well placed within the UTU, and now stands to be about as equally well placed within the Teamsters hierarchy.
Given the fact that the workers seem to be more or less in the same position they originally were in, minus two weeks of pay while on an unsanctioned but legal strike, it is important to keep in mind who benefited from this situation. It is quite likely that Mr. Beatty genuinely feels that the running crafts are better represented under the Teamsters contract than they would be under the UTU. It is also true that Beatty put a hell of a lot on the line to fight the UTU International; if he had lost the Canadian Industrial Relations Board ruling he not only would have lost his job but could have faced severe penalties for leading an illegal work stoppage, and possibly even some jail time. After that he would have had to face the bleak prospect of being an unemployed labour leader with a reputation of not following orders looking for a new career.
Regardless of Mr. Beatty’s actual feelings on the matter, for him to lead a genuine fight possibly outside and even against the business unions would have meant almost certain financial ruin. This is the bind that all labour leaders find themselves in when workers are looking to actually fight and not engage in a stage-managed struggle conducted in boardrooms. The days of lynching labour leaders may be long gone, but we have far more litigious ways of keeping union officers from challenging business interests.
Again, this is precisely why we cannot rely on these structures to actually wage real class struggle. Not only does every person have their price but it is much easier to corrupt people through threats than bribes- the Canadian Industrial Relations system and its provincial counterparts use both to keep unions a part of capitalism itself. We also can’t rely on leaders – no doubt leaders will be thrown up by situations – but what will determine whether or not there is a real fight isn’t who is in charge, but the degree to which the rank and file is able to keep control in their hands. The organizations that stand the best chance of winning will likely be skeletal in form, like basic communications networks, but can still provide a vital avenue for solidarity.
The situation is not entirely bleak. The workers at CN brought their rail line to a standstill. Hunter Harrison may be able to run his trains, but all it takes is the workers at CN to fold their arms to stop them.
The problems with the CAW and the Teamsters of Canada Rail Conference highlight the problems with Canadian nationalism. While the roots of our problems are justifiably directed at American business unions the answer is not Canadian trade union nationalism. The problem is that unions are not rank and file driven and are tied up in the labour relations game that the Canadian Industrial Relations Board encourages them to play. The answer includes workers in Canada, but also the world over – we need unions that are based on direct action and built from the bottom up with some degree of local autonomy. Some of these unions may stand entirely outside the existing labour relations framework, like the struggles of independent truckers and farm workers in some parts of Canada that are deliberately excluded. Building Canadian unions may be a good start if done with an eye to the global situation, but there has to be more to them than just a maple leaf and a new coat of paint on the same old labour relations model. The bankruptcy of the CAW also shows the bankruptcy of so-called social unionism and exposes it for what it really is – left wing business unionism.
Canadian labour law is mostly designed to make class struggle look like a gentleman’s sport, but really what is happening now is not the consolidation of all the Transportation industry under one industrial union as the Teamster will doubtless boast. It is simply politics. This isn’t consolidation, it is cannibalism; like turkey vultures turning on one of their weaker mates, they are descending on the corpse of the UTU to feed their own bloated bureaucracy. It’s important to keep in mind that people’s jobs and safety are on the line in a job that has already seen a rapid increase in injuries over the last ten years.
It is these degrading working conditions that will doubtlessly drive rail workers to strike again, as the CAW workers did in 2004, and now the strike that killed UTU in 2007. None of these issues were addressed; in fact 3,000 outstanding grievances have passed from the desks of UTU officials to the Teamsters. High strike mandates may continue into the future, but at very least the current method of conducting strikes has to end. The gentleman’s game of legally permitted strikes favors the gentry, because they are the ones who wrote the rules. Direct action is the key: slow downs, work to rule, creative interpretation of the rules are the key to moving forward. These things can’t come from the top they must come from the initiative and fighting spirit of those on the floor.
Originally posted: July 4, 2012 at Recomposition