Just thinking about unions tonight and what they should be versus the way they are currently in North America. I watched the movie Pride again tonight and saw how the union in that film was made up of an entire town who met together and worked together and discussed together and argued together. They all knew the importance of the union and it was a major part of their lives. And this is so different from what I’ve experienced when I’ve been in unions. I don’t want to provide too many details because I want to be anonymous, but I have been in two North American unions. The first one I was in was a very pathetic union who had obviously given up on being a union long before I joined. There was no engagement whatsoever among members. No one had a copy of the collective agreement—I kept trying to get a copy and I don’t think I was ever able to get one. I think I was the only one even trying to get a copy. They probably gave up on printing them because usually there was no one wanting them. The people who worked there only belonged to the union on paper—union dues came off our paycheque and that was it, there was no actual involvement. I know there were union stewards who existed but I don’t remember ever talking to one about anything. One time the collective agreement was being negotiated and the union had to vote whether to accept the new agreement or go on strike. Hardly anyone showed up to the meeting to vote, and almost everybody who showed up voted against striking even though the new collective agreement was much worse for the workers. That’s because of the general attitude and culture surrounding us. Neo-liberalism had firmly set in already. We were all individuals doing what was right for ourselves. We weren’t in the mood to stand on a picket line, so we just didn’t. There was no concern about new workers being hired and having a worse collective agreement than we had. There was no solidarity with others, no consciousness of ourselves as a part of the labour movement, no consciousness of our union being a part of a larger network of unions that fights for the working class as a whole, no willingness to look at the big picture. I’m pretty sure everyone identified with the company and with the company’s rights to do whatever they wanted and only saw the union as something that deducted dues from our paycheque. Due to years of union-busting and pro-capitalist propaganda, workers all seem to believe that we don’t have the right to demand anything from companies and that if we demand more than a few crumbs we’ll make the company fail and we’ll all be out of a job. We’ve been beaten into submission. We are supposed to be grateful for the crumbs that we receive from our masters.
In the second union I was in, the union had specific people who did negotiating for us, and the workers had absolutely nothing to do with negotiations at all. It wasn’t like we were all sitting around a table in the town hall discussing and arguing about what to do, and then voting on something. We had certain people who negotiated for us while we sat around and did not participate. This is like a top-down organization where the leaders are in charge, kind of like a private company. That’s the organizational format we’re all familiar with, and we’re familiar with this format for a reason—we were taught this structure because it protects the power of the ruling class. When do groups of people get together to democratically vote on anything anymore? The entire culture has shifted so that we do not expect to have to engage with our neighbours or co-workers, we don’t expect to have to organize collectively, we just expect our leaders to do their jobs while we ignore what they are doing and just focus on ourselves. This is fundamentally wrong. People should be engaged and we should be organizing from the ground up.
This second union that I was in was actually a powerful one that got us good working conditions, however, there was still no participation among members. I have never gone to a union meeting to discuss strategies or actions. In fact, I’ve been to only one union meeting in my entire life, and that was the one where we were defeated already before we even got there because we were in a culture of not giving a shit. I’ve never been on a picket line, and I’ve never even seen a picket line other than in pictures.
When I read about Cheki’s experiences being in a union I’m filled with longing. She has actually been in proper unions where there are actual discussions among members, where there are actions, sometimes with violence and arrests, and where members actually care and get involved. I would totally do that stuff if it was happening here, but it’s not. There is nothing like that to join. I don’t understand Left politics like Cheki does, not for a lack of interest, but for a lack of opportunity. This makes me so sad.
In North America, what unions we still have left that have not been broken up do nearly everything quietly and on paper. Union reps meet with company reps and negotiate agreements, and that’s it. Workers don’t seem to have any fight left in them, nor do we have any solidarity amongst ourselves— we know the companies are in control and that we can’t do anything about it. It’s rare that there’s ever a strike, and sometimes the government actually orders the workers back to work, an order which is always obeyed. I would have no opportunity to support striking workers the way the LGSM helped the Welsh miners, because there are no long strikes.
What we’re seeing happening is poverty increasing. Food prices are going up, housing prices are going up, wages are stagnant or going down. My generation doesn’t have nearly as much as our parents had. I know lots of people in their thirties who are university educated and have professional jobs and who still rent apartments because buying a home is out of our reach, but in my parent’s generation you could pay for a mortgage on one income, even without a degree. It’s not that living in an apartment is a terrible thing, but we are losing and we will keep losing more. There are tons of people in poverty and using food banks, and our social programs are so insufficient they’re becoming a joke. Prostitution is becoming the replacement for the social safety net. And still, everyone votes for conservative politicians whose goal is to further the interests of big business, which leads to more poverty and more environmental destruction. Everyone seems to be unable to see past the end of their own nose, and no one will do an analysis of what is happening around them. There should be widespread outrage among my generation but there isn’t. We should be organizing but we’re not.
North America is neo-liberal hell. I think we need to rebuild the Left again from scratch because it has completely fucking died. We’re not a bunch of individual agents choosing choices for fuck sake, we are a society of interdependent people, we have a culture that is fucked up and needs to be changed, and we are still divided by class and have to fight for our rights as a class. We are in this together and we will sink or swim together, as a group. Right now we’re sinking.