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BLOG (Brendan Lehman): Changing Of The Guard: An Opinion On Unionism

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Protesting CFS in Gatineau
Protesting CFS in Gatineau
Despite growing up in a blue-collar conservative environment, my earliest impressions of unions were quite positive. My father is a caretaker with the York Region District School Board, Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1196. During Mike Harris’ tyranny in the 1990s, he felt compelled to get involved with the union while his benefits were under attack. As a kid, this made sense to me; standing up for yourself. At the same time, my teachers were going on strike and I wasn’t in school. I didn’t have a concept of the tactics or anything, but the idea was good. The culture of unionism didn’t appear to me again until the last few years in graduate school, getting involved in my student union with a similar drive as my father roughly 15 years prior. Fuelled by a fascination with the recent Occupy movements and Printemps Érable, I went in with an open mind. That said, in the interest of disclosure, my experience in the area of unionism was, and remains to a certain degree, as an outsider. Forced into being a part-time student by lack of funding, I was unable to get involved with my teaching assistant union at Laurentian University. And now, I’m glad I didn’t. Even 15 years ago, my father often spoke of the “old boys club”. In trying to organize today, not much has changed.
Recent events at Carleton University have pushed this concern to a point. This egregious action by the CUPE National Office, combined with them naming 2013 the “year of the young worker”, exposes something not many are willing to call out in general union culture: hypocrisy. Between throwing successful union drives away and disingenuous campaigns, I have a hard time distinguishing between this bureaucracy and that of the state and industry they purport to have been fighting all these years. From my explorations, at least here in Sudbury, unions at their prime were tough. Often, actions were not peaceful as is the hallmark of many western movements today. These people were truly fighting to make their lives better, and it got results. It was these groups and mentalities that today’s unions were drawn from. It is this rhetoric that unions continue to sell today. The old guard of union bosses, as it were, had nicely made a career out of the years of selling this idea to workers. But in fighting fire with fire for the prize of worker’s rights, the inherent flaw of remaining under a system of capitalism leads us today to a structure that is becoming too bloated and fearful to live up to its product.
It appears from where I sit that the old guard (union careerists, that is) were only ever in it for themselves; agreeing with whatever unionist rhetoric was required to capitalize on this job opportunity. Now, after fighting so hard to get what they wanted, and sitting stubbornly on it, it leaves the youth of today with nothing but empty right-wing style PR campaigns. What's more, youth who get involved with the culture to try and keep up can only encroach so far before they get politely stonewalled, adding another layer of bureaucracy for progressive youth to fight through.
In my context of academia, the battleground of the youngest, newest, and most precarious workers, enters the Canadian Federation of Students. This organization; its internal function, its rhetoric, it’s style – it’s culture – provide an interesting model by which to analyze this trend in the “gentrification” of social democracy and centre-leftism and how the true left should work in the opposite direction. In a similar fashion to their professional colleagues, the CFS has a history of radicalism, giving way to the present-day fearful and bloated office-dwellers. Each year the CFS cuts out a nice niche on the backs of the educational proletariat to the tune of about $7 million. One face trumpeting how progressive they are with equally glossy PR materials, the other looking for ways to put their hands in your pockets; always working toward furthering personal resumes and the institution, but never the class struggle. The majority of this money comes from poorly-managed, low quality services, provided at high cost for having student union membership all but locked in due to restrictive bylaws and litigious and undemocratic organizational culture. An emphasis on governmental lobbying efforts falls often on disinterested ears due to poor organization and misallocation of funds, ultimately leading to little or no results for their members. Sound familiar?
So we come to the million dollar question. What do we do about it? The first step is acknowledging that the time of the old left has passed. As with the evolution of all things, cycles turn over, knowledge is carried on, and new things are born. It is the time to engage this process. Let me put it another way: what does an entrepreneur do when they want to make a change in their industry? They start a business. If even the culture of capitalism encourages creating new entities to further its reach, why does the left insist on holding fast to the old ways? Allowing students and workers alike to organize themselves freely, with an open, horizontal structure not tied down by the burden of profit or salaries is, in my view, the way forward. This includes not only the fight for accessible education, but that of social equality, class disparity, and oppression. The revolution must be adaptive and fluid, open to creativity and ideas for any ground to be made. This winter, students from across the nation state known as Canada will meet in Toronto to discuss alternatives.
Let’s see your ideas in the streets.

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BRENDAN LEHMAN (Brendan Lehman)
Member since May 2013


Graduate student and organizer at Laurentian University and beyond.

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