Labour Day is the one day in 365 when you are most likely to read or hear, in mainstream media, a supportive or positive account of what unions have contributed to society, in terms of both economic and political advances that have benefitted not just union members but the great majority, if not all, of the public (except, perhaps, for the ‘so-called’ 1%).
You will hear how the weekend, childcare, parental leave, holiday pay, overtime, safer working conditions, pensions and other benefits for the ‘so-called’ 99% have been brought about by the actions of ‘union activists’, even before unions were recognised in law or legally permitted to engage in collective bargaining.
Now, one probably doesn’t think of individual liberty or free speech rights when unions are mentioned. Nor do people often think about the importance of unions in and to a democratic society. These are the two aspects, however, that I want to point discuss in this post after providing some context below.
Whereas the private sector unionization developed first, in part because of the then structure of the economy, the expansion of public sector unions appears to have arisen with the expansion of the public sector itself, particularly in the ‘Golden Age’ of capitalism, 1945 to 1975, from education and healthcare to roads and highways to utilities and other forms of infrastructure necessary to a modern, industrial economy. However, public sector workers had to overcome restrictive laws blocking unionisation and collective bargaining.
The downturn in unionisation or ‘union density’ since the late 1970s has arisen due to a number of developments, including systematic, serial attacks on unions for the better part of the last 40 years (although it has been going on for a longer time: see Elisabeth Fones Wolf), funded and promoted by the corporate elites, their political allies and mainstream media. The ideas to support such a sustained attack on unions have been provided by a network of corporate funded, right-wing think tanks which produce reports that always appear to offer the same, market fundamentalist ‘solutions’. (Donald Gutstein has provided accounts of the Canadian context.)
The greatest degree of inequality that has arisen in the Anglophone countries at least (e.g. UK, USA, Canada) is a result of the systematic application of neoliberal policies and laws that have enabled corporate elites to benefit greatly in the re-distribution of wealth by preventing the ability of ordinary working people to organise and unionise and to represent themselves. This has meant an attack on the ability of ordinary working people to organise collectively through unions to work in the public, not corporate, interest.
Even those social-democratic parties that were supported by unions and advocated for a fairer and more equitable society have also implemented neoliberal policies, such as Labour under Tony Blair in the UK and the New Democratic Party in certain provinces in Canada, and this has been in part due to the dominance of ‘market fundamentalist’ ideas in public discourse in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. This domination of public discourse has been helped, at least in part, by the nature of the ownership and structure of mainstream media and the influence of the corporate sector through advertising.
Of course, the impact and aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 has contributed to bringing the issues of inequality back into public discussion and the rise of Occupy Wall Street and other social movements have challenged the dominance of neoliberal ideas, though not as effectively as one might have expected given the growing inequality across the world. (We can see this in some of the news media coverage and public commentary on the situation of Greece.)
Collective Defence of Individual Rights
However, what I really want to point to in this post is the importance of unions in defending individual rights of free speech and free expression, which is an important part of their own standing as democratic organisations, and as the basic components or building blocks for democratic societies.
Unions are among the most important organisations that ordinary people have that can provide the building blocks for democratic societies around the world. Some notable examples in recent history include the example of the massive union, Solidarity, in Communist Poland in the 1980s or the role of trade unions operating under apartheid in South Africa or in Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (the implementation of the ideas of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School at the point of bayonets providing a new meaning to the phrase, ‘free market’).
From the beginnings of the collective organisation of workers, governments have implemented anti-union or, what had been called, ‘anti-combination’ laws (e.g. the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’) laws, resulting in punishment of workers attempting to organise their co-workers to fight oppressive, dangerous working conditions and to improve their situations in the workplace as well as fighting for the universal franchise (e.g. the ‘Chartists’). The right to vote for workers was not something that was automatically granted by the governments of the day.
Of course, just like democracy itself, unions can have bad or authoritarian cliques or groupings that run the organisation, and often times this can be a result of the lack of participation by others. For example, many union elections are uncontested because workers might be too busy or satisfied with the leadership; but equally they could also feel ‘apathetic’ and that they cannot do anything, just as we know happens in our democracies where people think they have little or no power.
We know with the Westminster Parliamentary system that in the UK and Canada, those societies can often end up with ‘elective dictatorships’ because of the nature of the formation of ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral systems and we have seen in Canada most recently how a government can take advantage of many of the unspoken customs and ways in which the system works in order to better exploit it to its partisan advantage. For example, the long arm of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his advisors, whether via the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) or other formal or informal networks, extends right into supposedly ‘neutral’ state agencies and departments whereby publicly paid scientists and other public employees are not permitted to speak on matters of public interest if they contradict or are not aligned with the ideology of the party in government.
More ominously for the individual’s right to free speech, however, is the suspension of a scientist employed by the state bureaucracy for expressing his personal views outside the workplace.
It is important to note that the short, albeit incorrect, term, ‘government scientist’, is often used to describe scientists in the employment of the state (i.e. public sector) but this is in effect a misrepresentation of that individual since the ‘government’ is a term that refers to the political party or coalition of parties in power (i.e. ‘government’) which make political decisions and pass laws. However, this scientist is in the employ of ‘the state’ and therefore, in a sense, he is employed by the public, you could argue, and therefore is meant to be neutral in the work that he and others like him do. This does not mean that he cannot express his personal views outside his job.
If the scientist was actually a ‘government scientist’, in the more precise meaning of the phrase (rather than that of social and journalistic usage), that is employed by the CPC or by Harper personally, then there might be perhaps a different argument that could be made.
To see a citizen suspended because of the expression of his views of the government is, at the very least, an example of authoritarian and arbitrary power which has no place in any system claiming to be a democracy. This is the kind of retribution against individual free speech that one would expect to hear about under various kinds of authoritarian regimes, such as the now defunct Communist regimes of Eastern Europe or former military dictatorships in Chile and other Latin American countries, and not in what is a modern, ‘first world’ democratic society.
That the scientist, or any other public servant, is not politically ‘partisan’ in their position in the state bureaucracy is what is expected of employees in public sector employment. But, neither should a person, who happens to be employed as a public servant, be expected to be under the total (totalitarian?) control of his employer 24/7, which apparently the supporters of the government urge. Surely, they should be able to express their views as private individuals or citizens without being punished economically for views that differ from the government of the day?
The fact that the Conservative Party of Canada government of Stephen Harper has punished a public sector scientist (Tony Turner, folk singer aka Harperman) for expressing his own personal views about the government outside his work is, I believe, an usurpation of his rights to free expression and therefore his individual Charter rights.
This attack on this individual’s Charter rights, which are the foundation of any society that can lay claim to being a democratic society, is ipso facto an attack on the very foundations of democracy in Canadian society.
Of course, it is not government that is coming to this scientist’s support but his union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, that is doing so.
In universities, it is faculty unions which have fought for, negotiated and implemented collective agreements that protect the rights of full-time, tenure-track professors (albeit not contract or adjunct faculty) to academic freedom of expression, including the right to critique the senior administrations that govern the very institution of research and knowledge production. Unfortunately, not all faculty unions have been able to negotiate protection for their members to critique the senior administrations of their own institutions. More importantly, it should be recognised that it demonstrates the importance of academic freedom that it takes unions to negotiate the freedoms and rights to free speech for faculty. The bureaucrats running the universities do not support or ensure these rights without union negotiations compelling senior administrations to comply with the rights of faculty to academic freedom, which is, obviously, a form of free speech.
For example, while I support and work with my union as an individual member, I also know that it is only as democratic and effective as we, as members, can make it. While I might express criticisms of the way it is run or of decisions that are made, it doesn’t mean that I could expect the same or better working conditions or protection of my free speech rights or academic freedom without my union providing the necessary legal and collective support. And, even if I criticise my union, the leadership or individual member(s) of the Executive, the union still has to support me in any kind of dispute with my employer. I can also run for the Executive and work with others to bring about change.
Since unions remain the last organised force that can help bring about progessive social, economic and political change, they have become the target of big business and its allies, such as the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), which uses back-to-work legislation to undermine the effectiveness of workers to act collectively and it has worked to implement bills and laws, such as C377, to try and destroy the unions. Unions constitute the last organised movement that is focused on addressing inequality in the workplace and which in turn has sufficient collective strength and resources to help rally other sectors and movements in society to struggle for a more fair, just and democratic society.
On this Labour Day, remember that it is certainly not the top bureaucrats, politicians or corporate owners and managers that will defend your rights as an individual to express your opinions freely. Well, you can do so, but many and perhaps most (or perhaps all?), will seek to impose an economic penalty for your expression of social or political views that they do not approve of: i.e. they will suspend or fire you.
Thus, in a democratic society, we need unions to enable us to act collectively so that our individual rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are protected from the arbitrary power of bureaucrats, politicians and business owners.