10 things Canada’s labour movement can learn from Donald Trump’s victory

By Nora Loreto

Feeling down? Don’t worry: we have the tools we need to fight back against the politics that delivered Donald Trump’s victory. We just need to readjust our priorities. 6988859764_ed6aaaa2-d9e7-4819-b848-4c18441f50d1

1. Mobilizing within the membership.
The most basic tenet of union organizing is often the one that gets forgotten the fastest. Unions need to be in a constant state of mobilizing our members. Whether during or outside a period of bargaining, members need to be trained in debate and public speaking skills, given research materials and educational sessions, given opportunities to talk with fellow members and given the space to get creative in how they organize. And critically, unions need to put money into membership mobilization and organizing through full-time organizers who aren’t solely focused on organizing non-unionized workers.

2. Resist divisive contracts that will sow seeds of dissent.
Trump’s victory was fueled by widespread illegitimate and legitimate disenfranchisement felt by many kinds of people. Most notably white, middle class folks but also young people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for an establishment candidate like Clinton. We sow the seeds of dissent today that will become our nightmares tomorrow. When bargaining contracts that give new workers less than what current workers have won, we create conditions that disenfranchise workers and that tell them that the labour movement isn’t there for them. We need to open space on our bargaining committees for young workers, marginalized workers and workers who have been traditionally ignored, and resist any divide-and-conquer tactic advanced by the bosses that sow the seeds of our own destruction.

3. Fighting racism and white supremacy.
Unions must take racism seriously, both expressions of racism within the workplace, but also more broadly in Canadian society. This includes taking real, concrete actions to help efforts to decolonize Canada. Unions should work directly with Indigenous communities and create programs together to fill gaps where governments have failed: together, can we fix housing or water infrastructure? Union members must find ways to show solidarity in the communities in which they work. Union members need to organize and promote events that support and help others, and most importantly, racialized union members need support and resources to access power and fight for changes within their unions and their workplaces. We need to be in solidarity with struggles that are fighting injustice and support them with money, resources, office space and paid staff.

And, racialized workers need the encouragement and supports to get involved, run for leadership positions and win.

4. Fighting patriarchy.
For many women, their first taste of political life is in their union. Unions need to continue to be steadfast for their defense of women’s rights, equal pay and fighting sexism in the workplace, but we need to go further. Unionized women need to practice how to lead: they need to be trained, they need to be supported and they need to be encouraged to run. When women lead the labour movement, we normalize women as leadership in broader society. While many unions have always been at the fore of fighting for women’s rights, the leadership of Canada’s unions right now reminds us that we may be slipping back in gains for women in our unions.

We also need unions to do the difficult work to fight for programs that will help women. For example, it’s not enough to simply call for a national childcare strategy. Parents and caregivers are drowning in their childcare debts. Union leadership need to present bold actions to their members and encourage work stoppages, rotating strikes and other economic measures that force the Liberal government to scrap their UCCB payment scheme and instead, create a proper system of quality public childcare.

5. Big actions to fight for average people, including strikes.
Labour needs to find its teeth again. In the same way that we can only fight white supremacy and patriarchy through bold actions, we can only fight for all people through bold actions too. If unions think that the Liberals’ new Infrastructure Bank will be a privatization scheme (which it will be), then union members must fight its implementation however they can. And in that fight, we need to craft messages that aren’t exclusive to union members. We need to remind Canadians how much money falls through Liberal cracks into Liberal pockets when infrastructure schemes are privatized. We need to defend Canadians’ taxes and we need to force the Liberals to abandon their plans because they’re too politically risky. This must include the possibility of national strikes.

6. Trade agreements.
Opposition against trade agreements has been steady, but it will be disoriented by a voice of the extreme right calling for an end to trade agreements. Already, we know that the business class is working to paint labour activists with the same brush as Trump for opposing free trade. Anti-TPP and NAFTA campaigns need to mobilize our members. Debates about NAFTA need to include what a post-NAFTA North American economy looks like, and what, if anything, must replace the pact if we are to strengthen manufacturing jobs in Canada.

And, during this period of uncertainty, now is the time to confuse and destabilize the Liberals by targeting every single Liberal MP in Canada and pressure them to oppose the TPP.

7. Stop playing with the Liberals.
The loudest message of the US election campaign has been one that is anti-elite. While it’s ironic that an anti-elite campaign delivered an elite president, there are important lessons that labour activists can learn. Cozying up to central liberal powers, the ones that use the language of Hope and #RealChange to get elected but who then turn around and do nothing, or worse, for working people, is a dangerous game. With so many deindustrialized states full of blue collar workers voting Trump, the message here is clear: the Democratic machine has fully lost its way among voters who have been hit hard by deindustrialization. In many cases, these are not the poorest voters, the ones who benefitted from programs like Obamacare, but they’re voters who are mostly white and mostly college educated. They must be convinced to reject extreme right-wing politics rather than embrace them.

The smarmy game of mainstream politics stinks. Labour needs to stay clear from this game, meet with the Liberals behind closed doors if necessary, but remember that this is not their party. The only strength labour has to force the Liberals to take #RealChange is through work stoppages, protests and mobilizations. The benefit is that these actions allow for authentic leadership to emerge, either leaders in formal positions, or widely-supported spokespeople. They are critical to galvanizing popular support for various causes, giving voice and confidence to voters and, most importantly, pose a serious threat to the status quo politics of the federal government.

8. Fix the relationship between labour and the NDP.
Labour’s strength is in the workplace and in the streets, but labour has also built a political party to have its perspective heard in the House of Commons. The broken relationship between labour leaders and the NDP needs to be fixed immediately. We can’t wait for a leadership race to work out the internal problems with the NDP. With a Conservative leadership race that could result in Canada’s own Trump-style candidate (in rhetoric only, Kellie Leitch is a fraction of the talent and the money of Donald Trump), there is no time to lose. Union members with a stomach for electoral politics need to get involved in their local riding associations, find the smartest, most connected and engaged candidates and propel them forward towards the next election.

9. Dump polling.
Don’t listen to the pollsters; polling did not capture the popular sentiment of the American election campaign and has made some major blunders in recent campaigns in the English-speaking world. The failure of the pollsters to predict a Trump victory reminds us that polls are not a proxy for actually talking with your members.
Too many unions rely on public opinion polling as a means to set direction with campaigns. Polling can be a useful tool to frame a message, or to create a story for a journalist, but polls are not useful to determine what the campaign should be. Campaigns need to come from the membership. Active leaders need to take their direction from meetings, forums, telephone townhalls and basic membership mobilization. If you’re engaged with your members, you don’t need to tell you what is working and what isn’t working. And most importantly, unions exist to change public opinion, not gauge public opinion and then work within those parametres.

10. Immediately up our communications game.
In the world of political communications, we’re often drawn towards the flashiest, newest tactic. Trump demonstrates that common talk and a reliance on invented common sense is enough to push past an overwhelmingly hostile mass media. He did this, in part, by relying on the strength and relentless work of alternative right-wing media that drilled home a message, regardless of how racist or how non-factual it was.

Union members often get a rough ride from mass media, though most mainstream journalists are also union members. There are no shortcuts. National unions should be issuing comment on every single action taken by the Trudeau government, regardless of whether or not it’s directly an issue that affects union members. Comments should be short and sent immediately to national media, and union representatives need to be made into go-to representatives for analysis.

But we also need to respect the limits of mainstream media, especially as social media fuels an intense atomization among segments of people. Alternative media is more important than ever before. Union leadership needs to take alternative media seriously: if they’re involved in managing alternative media platforms, they need to take their involvement seriously, move past the concern that union leadership might have a bad article written about them from time to time, and use whatever levers they have available to ensure that alternative media, emerging podcasts or progressive magazines are well funded, well managed and full of the smartest and hardest working journalists in Canada.

This piece was first published by CALM.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “10 things Canada’s labour movement can learn from Donald Trump’s victory

  1. Having recommended this article on Twitter, I also tweeted that “My own opinion is I’m not sure #8 [Fix the relationship between labour and the NDP] is doable or worth the candle…” Now me (and my big mouth) have been asked to expand on that statement. First, let me emphasize that I do think this is – as Nora said in her reply to my tweet – an issue that needs thought and debate. I ask anyone who reads the following to remember that these are thoughts (“of a dry brain in a dry season”?) not convictions.

    That said, I question whether it’s “doable” mainly because I think both labour and the NDP have to start sorting out their own crises of identity before they can hope to re-engage with each other. With respect to the NDP, I was a member up until the last Federal election – at which point I ceased my financial support for both the Federal and Ontario parties. I think the basic question for the NDP is whether it wants to be a party of principle or a party of expediency. To put it crudely, does it want to be a left-wing party, which is informed to some extent by a recognition of the realities of social class and class struggle? or a populist party that offers a mildly progressive take on whatever issues seem to resonate with the electorate at the moment? It seems to me that the NDP has tended towards the latter approach, with disappointing results (to say the least). I recognize that this is probably more conducive to getting votes and maybe someday winning power. It’s nice to imagine that if our hearts were pure and we took the former apporach, our strength would be as the strength of ten – but most likely it would put the NDP back into its role as a “conscience” that can win significant but not majority support and exercise some influence; but would always be the “third party.” So it’s not an easy question. But I also think that the party didn’t really show any great interest in confronting it (which is why I left) – “not our fault, nothing to see here, move along”. I do wonder if the “iron law of oligarchy” is at play here.

    For labour’s part, I’d put it this way: a fundamental issue seems to be whether the movement ultimately wants to rely on its ability to organize/mobilize or on its “legality” – by which I mean that unions are legally recognized institutions that conform to a variety of laws/regulations/institutional constraints. The latter, it seems to me, is what unions are most comfortable with and increasingly rely on. I’m not questioning that unions have to and should operate within this framework – the rule of law has to matter – but I do question whether there’s too much reliance on this part of the environment that has lead to an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude (for example, as Nora notes, the trend to sacrifice the interests of young/new workers for older/established workers – it seems to me unions have followed this path far too easily) . Again to oversimplify, do unions want to, when it comes down to brass tacks, rely on their members or on their institutional status? My own experience in Ontario public service unions (OPSEU and then AMAPCEO – I’m recently retired) has been that unions spend a lot of time and effort in reining their memberships in. This makes sense from the perspective of an organization focused on avoiding risk – if that’s the main objective, then not trusting your members makes good sense. But I would say that the current environment calls for more, not less, willingness to take risks.

    For what the above is worth, in discussing whether it’s doable I’ve probably also addressed the issue of whether it’s worth the effort. A final thought is that, among other prerequisites, the labour movement needs to sort out what it’s legislative agenda should be. In recent years, it seems that agenda has been reduced to “vote anybody but Conservative” – hardly a positive program. It seems we are now relying on the Supreme Court of Canada to achieve positive outcomes (as in putting the right to strike under the protection of the Constitution) – but, while I welcome the SCC’s recent decisions, that’s not the base we should rely upon.

    The original links between labour and political parties grew out of the need, as the labour movement saw it, to carry its concerns and issues into the electoral/parliamentary arena. The parties that emerged – Labour in Great Britain, the NDP in Canada – evolved over time and (perhaps inevitably) grew away from those roots. It would be naive to suppose that electoral success is not going to drive what these parties do; and it perhaps says a lot thSoat many originally progressive politicians (Lloyd George, Ramsay Macdonald, Bob Rae) lost some of their patience and sympathy for unions once they got to exercise power.

    So my conclusion is that re-inventing labour’s relationship to party politics is something that should be addressed later rather than sooner. Other ducks need to be put in the row first.

Add Comment