Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Klein has a vision for Unifor

Naomi Klein, bestselling author and activist, has taken an interest in Unifor. As reported in an article on, at Unifor’s founding convention this weekend Klein laid out her hopes for Unifor and the labour movement more generally.

Klein sees potential for the labour movement and the green revolution to merge and she urged Unifor members to lead the charge in realizing this merger. In Klein’s view, the economic troubles of recent years and the consequent austerity measures instituted by governments around the globe aren’t working for people or for the planet.

Far from slipping into despondency over these rather depressing realities, Klein sees opportunities. If, she reasons, organized labour can position itself as a voice for these concerns, offering a different economic model that would provide answers to the attacks on working people and the planet, then unions could “…stop worrying about your continued relevance.”

Klein has long been a vocal opponent of the current system, whereby workers are dispossessed for the enrichment of the few. In her book, The Shock Doctrine, she asserted that certain right-wing interests are wont to exploit crises in order to impose policies that favour corporate interests and leave workers in the lurch. We’ve all seen this doctrine at play: here in Ontario, for example, the Liberal government has been using the economic crisis to justify cuts and the suspension of collective bargaining. 

Klein notes that a number of mass mobilizations have already formed in response to policies seeking to justify their existence on the basis of crisis. Occupy Wall Street is a case in point. Such mobilizations, however, have so far failed to achieve any substantial gains. They flare up, peter out and dissolve. In Klein’s estimation, this is where organized labour could play a vital role. She argues that movements like Occupy Wall Street are wanting of durability, and organized labour can offer that durability to the movement. Klein wants organized labour to act as an anchor for these movements, being a sort of home base for the movements so they won’t fade out so easily: “We need you to be our fixed address, our base, so that next time we are impossible to evict.”

Important to any labour movement involvement would be a focus on building alliances with indigenous communities, community groups and social movements. More than that, though, the labour movement must articulate a strong vision and direction of its own as a counterforce to the oppressive pro-corporate policies of government. It’s not enough to resist policies and maintain the status quo. Organized labour must present alternatives that are better than anything business or government are proposing.

Klein seems to believe that the green movement, at least in part, can form part of this new vision. She trumpets the possibilities that addressing climate change could bring, from a renewal of the public sphere to energy efficient housing, all of which would necessitate significant investment in infrastructure. Taken together, she argues, all of this would generate massive amounts of new jobs.

She suggests that the next time a corporation is planning to close a manufacturing plant that produces fossil-fuel machinery, the workers should resist by occupying the factory. Not only does she suggest workers occupy the factory, but also that they turn it into an environmentally friendly worker co-op. Klein advises: “Go beyond negotiating a last, sad severance. Demand the resources – from companies and governments – to start building the new economy right now.”[1]

Klein is presenting a bold plan to organized labour. For it to work, union members must have a clear vision of what it would mean to create a worker co-op. There are examples of such factories in places as varied as Argentina and Chicago. While there is every reason to believe that anything done in Argentina or Chicago could also be done here, members must be informed of what worked in those places and how the results could be replicated here. As one way of doing this, Unifor could consider hosting educational conferences where workers and union leaders are provided detailed information regarding these worker co-ops.

Whether or not Ms. Klein’s prescriptions are right for the labour movement is a question beyond the scope of a simple blog post. But much to Unifor’s credit, the organization appears to be open to using their sheer size to try something new, listening to voices not entirely within the usual labour dialogue. With its focus on a renewal of the labour movement, Unifor may just achieve a new function for unions and bring social unionism to this country in a way that we’ve never seen before.


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