Labour Day 2010 .. a hinge of fate for someone’s new world order?

Sep 6th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief

Rachel Pine, born in Chicago 1974: a child prodigy on violin, which she started playing at age 3 and a half. Debuted with the Chicago String Ensemble at age 7, and with the Chicago Symphony at age 10.” Joined American Federation of Musicians in 1991, at age 17.

Dark clouds hang over Labor Day 2010 in the USA — with what at least seem right now to be growing prospects of strong anti-labor Republican inroads in this year’s mid-term elections.

Something about today’s exotic variations on the long tradition of North American labour struggles appears in the news that “Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra L. Williams has invited the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) musicians and the Detroit Federation of Musicians to lead Detroit’s Labor Day Parade in support of the musicians’ fight to save the orchestra.”

Performers with the DSO are members of the  American Federation of Musicians. As little as 250 years ago, of course, Detroit itself was a Canadian Great Lakes outpost. And something of this history is echoed in the official pronouncement that: “Founded in 1896, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), AFL-CIO, is the largest organization in the world dedicated to representing the interests of professional musicians.”

In both Canada and the United States the so-called “unionization rate” or “union density” has been declining over the past several decades. But it remains considerably higher in Canada.

Members of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association in Toronto Labour Day parade 2008. 490 BC is the date of the Battle of Marathon in the history of Ancient Greece, among other things. Just how this fits the theme of the parade would take more clever people than we are to figure out. But the placard seems nonetheless intriguing.

According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada: “the unionization rate or union density (union membership as a percentage of non-agricultural paid employment) is 29.9% for 2009. In comparison, Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey`s unionization rate of paid employees is estimated at 31.6% for the first 6 months of 2009.” (And the 29.9% number for 2009 here is down from 32.8% in 1999.)

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics: “In 2009, the union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union — was 12.3%, essentially unchanged from 12.4% a year earlier.”  (Casting a much longer glance backwards: “In the United States, unions represented about one-third of all workers in the 1950s.”)

You have to wonder: what lies behind these disparate numbers, in the lingering hard times of 2010? And are we better or worse off in Canada, than our big brothers and sisters in the USA?

1. Why are Canada and US different?

Labour Day parade, Regina, ca. 1913. Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A197.

Back in August 2005 the right-leaning Fraser Institute published a short report that grappled with the question of why such a greater share of the Canadian work force still belongs to unions.

This report found that “Canada’s [2004] unionization rate (31.8%) remains more than twice that of the United States (13.8%).” And it quietly suggested that Canadian “labour relations laws” more favourable to trade unions and the “relative size of our public sector” had a lot to do with this. (The public sector, that is to say, is somewhat larger in Canada — and in both countries the public sector nowadays is more unionized than the private sector.)

1900s Labour Day Parade, Downtown Toronto. On what would appear to be Yonge Street, north of Queen, looking north towards Dundas. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568 f1568_it0314.

Well, yes, some will reply. But the real question is why do we have more favourable labour relations laws and a somewhat larger public sector in Canada? Back in 1995, the late great US political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset published an article at least addressed to this question, called “Trade Union Exceptionalism: The United States and Canada.”

This argued that “Trade unionism and social democratic parties are significantly stronger in Canada than in the United States. While many factors have been suggested to account for these differences, this article emphasizes the impact of cross-national variations in values: Tory/communitarian, group oriented, and statist in the north; more individualistic, meritocratic, and antistatist in the south.”

2. Progressive or conservative?

Seymour Martin Lipset, 1922–2006: an American academic who took an unusual interest in Canada. Born in New York, and a graduate of the City College of New York and Columbia University, he ended his career as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Personally, I am less impressed by Lipset’s kind of argument here (which owes quite a lot to the work of the Canadian political scientist Gad Horowitz as well — as Lipset acknowledges in his footnotes) — than I used to be.

In some of its key dimensions at any rate the Lipset-Horowitz argument reduces to an assertion that we have a more unionized work force in Canada because we have a more conservative political culture than the United States. But in 2010 it seems more sensible to say that we have a more unionized work force in Canada because we have a more progressive political culture.

As cases in point, the August 2005 Fraser Institute study includes an interesting table of comparative unionization rates for US states and Canadian provinces. Two US states — Hawaii and New York (also associated with both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton nowadays, not altogether accidentally?) — actually have higher 2004 unionization rates than the Canadian province of Alberta.

The largest photo of University of Toronto political science professor Gad Horowitz that seems available on the net today.

Similarly, the 10 lowest-unionization US states in 2004 were North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Tennessee.  This doesn’t fit well with the Lipset-Horowitz argument, in my view. It looks more like a somewhat vague re-enactment of the American Civil War — with unions on the side of the progressive North, and anti-union sentiment most securely lodged in the more conservative Old South.

3. Whatever … are unions a good thing in 2010?

If you are progressive-minded yourself, of course, this “Civil War reprise theory” implies that it’s a good thing we have higher unionization rates in the most extreme North of Canada today. And I would still for the most part agree with this proposition myself.

President Obama amuses Governor General Jean during his February 19, 2009 visit to Ottawa, Canada. He remains more popular in Canada than any current Canadian politician. Does that suggest that Canada is more conservative than the United States?

There are, however, some things I do not like about our present trade union culture in Canada — and perhaps elsewhere too: things that do not really seem “progressive” to me. As cases in point here see two recent newspaper articles: “Smitherman, Thomson told to skip Labour Day parade” (in the Toronto Star); and “ Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis to join Labour Day parade” (from the similarly named but, I believe, otherwise unrelated Windsor Star — just across the river from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The people doing the telling in these cases are not the working-class masses, but local labour leaders. In Toronto, eg: “Mayoral candidates George Smitherman and Sarah Thomson asked for — and were denied — permission to march in Toronto’s annual Labour Day parade … The Toronto and York Region Labour Council says the only mayoral candidate welcome to walk with their members on Monday is Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone … ‘He’s our endorsed candidate and the one we invited … We’re really concentrating on showing people that Joe Pantalone would make a great mayor,’ council president John Cartwright said in an interview Wednesday.”

In Windsor, this year at any rate, things are somewhat more open-ended (or “free and democratic,” as Canada’s Constitution Act 1982 puts it) — “Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis will join Monday’s Labour Day parade after being told to steer clear last year … ‘I will be attending,’ Francis confirmed … He said he talked with Windsor and District Labour Council president Dino Chiodo before making his decision … Last year Francis and city councillors weren’t invited to the parade as hard feelings simmered after the city workers’ strike.”

4. Labour leaders’ egos or working peoples’ interests?

A Canadian worker in Quebec City (old Iroquoian Stadacona), where modern Canada began, 2010.

I am no doubt being naive here. But it is how I feel. The kind of Labour Day Parade I’d like to march in — or just watch, for that matter — would be one in which anyone who actually works for a living and wants to participate can.

Too much of what goes on in the organized labour movement nowadays has too much more to do with the egos of labour leaders than it does with the real interests of working people (who still make up the great majority in the kinds of  societies we have in both Canada and the United States even in 2010, as best as I can figure out). And this is especially true, I think, in the case of too many public sector unions.

I think too that the tightening stranglehold of (often quite well-paid and comfortable) labour leaders over the North American labour movement has at least something to do with the long decline in unionization rates or union densities, since the later years of the last century, in both Canada and the United States.

(Even in Canada, eg: “Union density increased after 1960, albeit slowly until the mid-1980s, reaching 40 percent of the non-agricultural labour force in 1983. But the subsequent density of union membership declined steadily during the last half of the 1980s and the 1990s, reaching a level of just over 30 percent of the labour force by 2000.” )

5. Time to put Reagan and Thatcher in dust bin of history (if only it could happen, somehow, sometime, somewhere, etc)?

President Ronald Reagan dancing with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at his 1984 inauguration. Those were (NOT) the days! Photo: REUTERS.

All this was predicted long ago, of course, by such students of “Democracy and the Iron Law of Oligarchy” as Robert Michels. And it is important to be realistic, even or especially in progressive democratic politics.

There is, as Michels explained in the early 20th century (and Gad Horowitz taught Canadian students lucky enough to hear him in the 1960s) a “need for leadership” in mass movements and democratic organizations. But, as we have (or certainly ought to have) come to see more clearly still in the later 20th century, the resulting mass democratic elites (including labour leaders) can finally alienate a great many of the very people they are supposed to serve.

I do think this tendency helps account for the decline in unionization rates or union densities, since the later years of the last century, in both Canada and the United States. It does seem to me too that some labour leaders today are not as sensitive about all this as they ought to be — and thus not prepared or able to take any kind of requisite countervailing action.

At the same time, I think there is a considerably larger and more fundamental explanation for the decline in unionization rates or union densities over the past several decades now as well. And that does have everything to do with the carefully engineered resurgence of conservative and even quite reactionary political and economic values associated with the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan in the United Kingdom and the United States — and no doubt reflected in some degree in the current Canadian federal minority government of Stephen Harper’s still rather new Conservative Party of Canada.

Water Park at West Edmonton Mall, Labour Day 2009.

The dark clouds hanging  over Labor Day 2010 in the USA — with what at least seem right now to be growing prospects of strong anti-labor Republican inroads in this year’s mid-term elections — also show that these resurgent conservative and reactionary values were certainly not suppressed forever (or even a very long while) in the 2008 US general election.

I do agree that if ever there was a time for a big resurgence of countervailing progressive values in North American political and economic life, that time is now. Yet both the forthcoming mid-term elections in the USA, and Stephen Harper’s ability to endure as minority prime minister of Canada for a surprisingly long time, seem to be telling us that we who retain some passionate faith in progressive values are still not strong or confident enough to push our opponents to the back of the bus — for at least as long as necessary to get what needs to be done done, in the interests of the democratic majority.

6. Happy Labour/Labor Day 2010 anyway …

A progressive or even just independent or moderate person could become quite depressed about all this on Labour Day 2010. And while we in Canada seldom take anything in our public life seriously enough to get altogether or seriously depressed, there have been moments lately when, in contemplating what only a year or so ago seemed the still essentially hopeful career of Barack Obama in the USA, I have felt quite sad and disappointed myself.

But to finally succeed in the real cruel world of politics and public life and all that you do of course have to be made of sterner stuff.

When you look at the actual record of President Obama so far — in health care, economic development, financial regulation, and even the beginnings of educational reform — he has accomplished much more than the minority of the American people who will actually bother to vote in the mid-term elections, now less than two months away, seem likely to give him credit for.  There are still, however, good enough reasons to believe that what Obama has accomplished will finally sink in with the larger majority who will vote in the presidential election of 2012.

And then in the current extreme North of Canada we are finally starting to see the beginnings of some light at the end of the Stephen Harper tunnel.

Here too, it seems to me, those of us who believe in the ancient cause of free and democratic progress still have a lot to learn, and much hard work to do. But it now appears quite clear that Mr. Harper, and Mr. Manning’s institute of democracy, or whatever it is, and the new FOX News north etc — with the support of not much more than a third of the Canadian people — are not finally going to be able to fundamentally redesign the Canadian political culture of the past 114 years, with its essentially progressive centre of gravity, that gives us higher unionization or union density rates, and so forth, on and on.

Canadian worker celebrates Labour Day in author’s dreams.

So … I will not be watching my local Canadian Labour Day Parade this year. I don’t need my local labour leaders telling me who to vote for in the municipal elections next month. (Although wait, this just in: “Rossi, Thomson to crash Labour Day parade.” Mmmmmm …?)

But I will be raising even several glasses of something to the great majority of people who work hard for a living, and who, in my estimation at any rate, have done the most to create the good things about the free and democratic society I do often enough enjoy living in.

Much still needs to be done to make things better. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pause to celebrate the people and places we actually like in the world we can’t escape today. (Even or especially at a time when the economy is still in far too much trouble.)

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