Building the new union movement
Nora Loreto. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013; 184 pp; ISBN: 978-1-77125-016-0, paper $20 CAD.
Review by Jason M.C. Price
I agreed to review From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement during the final days of leading a long and contentious union certification campaign of faculty and librarians at the University of Victoria. The title of noted activist Nora Loreto’s small book immediately resonated with my experience of having to repeatedly counter the near default ideological resistance to unions in the mainstream press, and the lack of general knowledge about unions demonstrated by such a large number of Canada’s most educated workers. Despite the ubiquitous nature of certified academics in Canada, persistent myths and unfounded fears about unions ran deep in the BC professorate until recently.
Reading Loreto’s engagingly written book during breaks in a BC Labour Relations Board mediation on the form our certification vote was to take, added a degree of urgency and context to my understanding of the importance of unionization for academic staff, societal and institutional democracy, and the democratic, civil society-building mission of post-secondary education in Canada. Perhaps, most important, I began to fully understand the debt owed by Canadian academic staff to the labour movement.
Academic staff in Canada have embraced the rights, protections and powers offered by union certification, to become the most densely organized sector in the country. The continuing support for unionization in the post-secondary sector is a powerful endorsement of unions, at a time when they face the combined challenges of union busting government legislation and an often hostile media. Loreto identifies the relationship between the reductionistic focus of the media coverage on the most contentious and sensational, and misunderstood aspects of labour relations; namely strikes, and lockouts. She also targets the incessant media’s echoing of unsupported ideological charges of unions being a drag on the economy and future economic growth, and the publics’ (especially our youths’) disturbing and widespread lack of substantive and accurate knowledge about, and support for unions. For Loreto, the labour movement’s role in educating Cana-dians about unions is critical to the survival of democracy in Canada.
Loreto’s two main intended target audiences for her book are new workers (or younger workers) and union leaders. For non-unionized workers, her book offers an engaging and accessible introduction to the political and media-manufactured mythology of unions, and the neoliberal policies that are dismantling communities and civil society. Her goal is to “cut through right-wing rhetoric and explain the roles that unions play and should play in Canadian society to combat the cynicism that is bred when workers of all types are divided.”
The book has less to offer for labour leaders. Her approachable tone may engage young workers, but lacks the sophistication and detail to be useful to union leadership and organizers. Loreto does provide an example for union leaders in Canada to follow in growing the union movement in one chapter titled “Toward New Ways of Organizing,” where she reviews recent labour campaigns in the US. But in the end she provides little in the way of specific recommendations beyond the need for creativity, and intensification of union outreach to its members, its communities and to non-unionized workers who are victims of wage theft, and who face injustice and intimidation at work because they lack the protections and rights of unionized workers. Surprisingly, Loreto does not mention the possibilities for unions collaborating across sectors to improve and increase the coverage of union and workplace issues in K–12 schools, or post-secondary institutions.
Her book reaffirms the strategic importance of academic activists’ continued and increased participation in the Canadian labour movement. More of our members need to honour our collective debt and offer substantive support to campus and community workers, participate in student labour activities on campus, participate in boycotts, use unionized service providers and union-made products, and support politicians at all levels that support the labour movement.
We can answer Loreto’s call for improving union knowledge through research and teaching in our disciplines. Labour studies need not be left by K–12 and post-secondary educators solely in the hands of labour activists and historians. Educating our students, our neigbours, politicians and journalists about how unions work is everyone’s responsibility. We need to share the lead in initiating positive talk about unions or the labour movement and the roles they play in broader society.
Academic staff in Canada owe a deep moral and ethical debt to the labour movement, whose members and leadership have endured economic penalties, and paid extraordinary personal and social costs, and even faced imprisonment, physical threats and beatings, and yes, even death to achieve protections for the average person. Post-secondary educators are ideally positioned to explain unionization to students, and champion the labour movement and unions as bulwarks of democracy. It’s a reminder that the most powerful curriculum we can teach is our own lives. We need to be visible and active members of the labour movement, we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, our families and our neighbors to work towards securing the same level of participatory, process, and content-based democracy in our communities, as union certification has established for us in our institutions.
As Loreto’s cautions “democracy without accountability is the playground of the rich,” it is high time unionized folks serve their debt to the labour movement.
Jason M.C. Price is an associate professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Victoria and former vice-president of the UVic Faculty Association.