Nationalism does not equal workers’ power

GlobalSolidarityBy Gerard Di Trolio

With Donald Trump as President of the United States and nationalist and racist movements around the world gaining greater strength, now is not the time for the Canadian labour movement to fall back on nationalism.

The crisis in ATU Local 113 demonstrates some disturbing trends. Rhetoric from Bob Kinnear and Unifor President Jerry Dias has used nationalism to make the case why Local 113 should leave the ATU.

It is worth remembering the split which created the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) in 1985 from UAW Canada was not simply about nationalism. The international leadership of the UAW in Detroit was demanding Canadian workers at General Motors take concessions during bargaining in 1984 and argued only they could authorize a strike.

Though nationalism played a role in the split, as Sam Gindin notes in his tribute to Bob White, CAW proceeded to become more internationalist and engaged labour movements in the Global South in places like South Africa.

But thirty years later, things have dramatically changed. The legacy of neoliberal globalization is generating a nasty racist and xenophobic backlash. Talk of “Canadian workers,” is not going to help the labour movement, it will only feed reactionary politicians like Kellie Leitch.

In the American context the ATU is a progressive union, offering labour education to its members and endorsing Bernie Sanders for president. Both the U.S. and Canada need massive investments in public transit, and splintering this movement seems counterproductive.

This is not to deny that there are tensions in international unions that operate in Canada and the U.S., but Canadian only unions for the sake of it is a mistake. And despite suggestions that Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where unions operate across borders is false. Unions operate across borders in Britain and Ireland, as well as among Scandinavian countries.

The problem isn’t that unions operate across borders. Union leadership can be unresponsive and overly bureaucratized whether they operate nationally or internationally. The solution is of course powerful rank-and-file movements from below.

Look at the Teamsters for an example. James P. Hoffa won reelection because of the votes of Canadian Teamsters.

And yet in the aftermath of the results, Hoffa’s challenger Fred Zuckerman and Teamsters for a Democratic Union made it clear that blaming Canada was not the way to deal with results and argued that it was the Hoffa administration and the Teamsters’ Canadian leadership that were trying to divide American and Canadian Teamsters in order to benefit Hoffa.

That’s principled union internationalism.

The nationalist perspective is effectively dead in this era of neoliberal globalization, it is time for unions and their members to acknowledge this and move forward on a democratic and internationalist agenda to rebuild workers power.

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7 thoughts on “Nationalism does not equal workers’ power

  1. Herman Rosenfeld


    I think the argumentation in this piece is extremely faulty: real internationalism in the union movement requires real equality between national movements. Without the power to make decisions within one’s country – especially in confronting the state (which is still the cite of employer rule) a union movement is severely weakened. And, to argue that the era of neoliberal globalization requires unions to be controlled in another country is ridiculous. Furthermore, arguing that unions based in the US can have complete equality across borders is extremely contentious, even though it would be wrong to make sweeping generalizations about the character of each of these international union centres (some are clearly more conservative and reflect the power American imperialism in various ways, others – like ATU – are clearly not and do not)

    The issues around the ATU 113 have to be taken on their own merits, without resorting to bogus principles. There are clearly conflicting principles at work here and they can’t be swept under the rug through an appeal to faux ‘internationalism’ underpinned by the argument that internationalism can only become operational through an organic, institutional unity (given the obvious power imbalance between countries).
    There are those who use an appeal to nationalism as a demagogic way of avoiding substantive issues. It is hardly valid to use a demagogic attack on the right of workers in a given country to choose democratically as somehow being inimical to internationalism, and thus finding another way to avoid substantive issues involved here.

    1. Just wanted to second your entire post, Herman. And to add one small point: “Raiding” (a loaded term which this article mercifully avoids) is not the greatest ill facing the workers’ movement. It is not nearly as injurious as the attempts by bureaucrats to circumscribe and negate the democratic right of workers to choose which union (and which “leaders”) should represent them.

      In any event, any argument (in 2017!) that Canadian workers can benefit by belonging to U.S. unions needs to be looked at very closely. And then discarded.

      1. Raiding, however, is often about bureaucrats attempting to punish rank and file unions. One only need look at how rank and file unions through out the years have been “raided” by larger, bureaucratic internationals. The IUE’s whole existence, as one example, of a union whose sole existence was created to raid another to undermine rank and file militancy. Rarely has there been a raid that is predicated on MORE rank and file involvement, but rather on the idea that either 1. the independent union isn’t strong enough to negotiate contracts or 2. we will save you money on dues.

  2. There are distinct interests at odds across borders.

    For instance, Teamsters Canada don’t really care about bargaining for health benefits, since theirs come from the government instead of from their CBA.

  3. Your both right. The Democratic process should have been followed. To bad Kinnear didn’t follow it at 113. They wouldn’t be in the mess their in, if he had.

  4. Nick Del Monte member of local 113

    “We” the membership, have to demand more for our from our elected ATU board members now! Make our demands now for what we need to see for the future of local 113… We are the membership and we should be in control of our needs for a better union ship for whats to come, before someone else decides for us…..

  5. The nation state as a construct has often blunted international working class solidarity. The susceptibility of labour leaders to jingoism and nationalist propaganda undermined the 2nd International’s opposition to the 1st World War – where millions of workers from different nations slaughtered each other in service to capital and imperialism. The problem is not where unions are located so much as how unions are organized.
    An honest look at the failings of the democratic process in the business union model predominate in North America is needed. Simply calling for rank-and-file control without recognizing that such control will require a fundamental change to the way unions are organized and how they make decisions and choose leaders is misleading.

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