This year, Labour Day marks the thirtieth anniversary of the largest single union strike in Canada’s history – the walkout by 115,000 federal public service workers, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), in September 1991. Labour Day 2021 also falls almost exactly at the mid-point of the federal election campaign. These facts make it a good moment to reflect on working-class politics and the labour movement’s role in pushing them forward.
As of press time, opinion polls suggest that the outcome of the September 20 vote will likely be another minority government – probably Liberal, and probably reduced.
In general, minority governments are better for the working class – by their nature, they provide more opportunity for the labour and democratic movements to apply pressure and win progressive reforms. So, while the corporate media is already moaning that another minority won’t help their class to recover from the pandemic and related economic crisis, such an outcome should give labour a second chance at a recovery that serves workers’ interests.
And labour really does need that second chance, as its response to the last parliament was far from stellar. Certainly, the economic impact of the pandemic pushed many trade unions onto their heels for the better part of 2020, a reality that would have limited even the most militant unions’ capacity to struggle. But the flawed die was cast before the coronavirus – coming off an appallingly weak campaign during the last federal election and plagued by division and opportunism within the leadership, the CLC never seemed to find its political feet and workers and individual unions were often left to drift.
Labour has tremendous strengths. Obviously, its sheer size is an asset – the CLC encompasses over 3 million organized workers in all parts of the country. But more important is the fact that labour is unique among all social movements – it alone is organized on a class basis at the point of production in class society. This reality situates the working class at the fulcrum upon which our society balances. “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn!”
Garnering those strengths – that collective brain and muscle – is what the labour movement needs to do during the remainder of this federal election and for every day afterwards. Workers need to move the trade union leadership more decisively into the political level of struggle – advancing working-class demands and addressing broad social and economic issues through that class lens. (The Communist Party’s Plan for a People’s Recovery provides a great example.)
Failure to engage in political struggle would be disastrous. The 1991 PSAC strike fought off the Mulroney Conservative government’s attacks on wages and job security; four years later the Chrétien Liberal government introduced its “hell or high water” budget that slashed 45,000 public service jobs.
A lot can change between now and voting day, but what won’t change is the necessity of class struggle. Workers cannot afford a corporate recovery, and nor can they afford to wait for a “friendly” political party to get elected.
It’s time to load the cannon and fire a shot across the bosses’ and government’s bow.
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