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.