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In Defence of the Class Struggle

April 1, 1988

According to the most militant leaders of Canada's labour movement and to a substantial number of the country's academics (most obviously those involved with the Winnipeg-based socialist magazine, Canadian Dimension), life is and ought to be a class struggle. In their view, attempts to improve workplace atmosphere and relationships are clearly part of a clever corporate conspiracy to keep workers down and crush unions.

Don Wells, author of two books on labour relations and former teacher at the Labour College of Canada, warns that efforts at enhancing labour-management cooperation and job satisfaction are simply tactics in a new ideological offensive by management.

"'Teamwork'," according to Wells, "is the core of a new management control strategy" intended to blind workers and unions to the most important question, which is "Who is in control?" In good class struggle fashion, Wells writes:

The most fundamental danger is a profound ideological attack on the basic adversarial rationale underlying genuine trade unionism. In part, this kind of teamwork entails a public relations campaign to reinforce public antagonism to organized labour. More importantly, it is a management campaign for the hearts and minds of union members themselves. 

Wells argues that workplace cooperation undermines the collective agreement and the position of the stewards, thus making unions redundant. He believes that the new approach rejects the concept of collective achievement and reinforces individualism by encouraging productivity and quality competition within and between teams and by singling out workers for merit awards. Solidarity of the workforce, the basis of worker resistance to management power, is thus destroyed.

Unless unions fight back by politicizing workers' rights, Wells warns, all the gains workers have made since the 1930s will be lost. Labour's strategy must move far beyond the conventional limits of collective bargaining. Labour will have to take the offensive and push for the objective of achieving a fundamental realignment of labour-management power. This will require that the fight against management's rights, especially the right to invest and disinvest, is placed at the top of the political agenda. It will also require that the politics of labour move beyond parliamentary politics to embrace a coalition of the main victims of corporate domination.

As Wells sees it, this coalition of victims ought to include, among others, the women's movement, the peace movement, native people's organizations, the ecology movement, poverty groups, and organizations of the unemployed. ("'Teamwork' and the New industrial Relations," Canadian Dimension, February, 1988, pp.33-36.)

Don Wells's call to militant action is the old refrain of the Marxist gospel. Part of its continuing appeal must lie in its simplicity: Overthrow the powerful, empower the powerless, and all will be well.

The Christian Gospel as well as history clearly repudiate that essentially simple-minded world-view. Those who believe that a state which has concentrated all power in itself is able to build the just society deliberately close their eyes to one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. This does not mean that we should overlook the shortcomings of our (democratic) societies. There is indeed much wrong to be righted. But that is precisely why we should welcome the joint efforts of management and workers to improve relations and conditions in the workplace.

The mainline unions, represented by the Canadian Labour Congress, are divided on this issue. On the one hand, they are drawn to a socialist view of the relationship between workers and management. On the other hand, a more moderate and pragmatic sector in the Canadian labour movement is willing to pursue the path of cooperation and gradual workplace reform. The tug of war between these two factions will continue to divide the house of labour. As long as it does, don't expect any drastic breakthrough towards a new kind of labour relations. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that instances of employee ownership, more socially rewarding work arrangements, and improved and open relations between labour and management will continue to take place in a growing number of workplaces across this nation.

If management thinks that the traditional, authoritarian management style is good enough for today, it will merely provide fuel for the likes of Don Wells who specialize in fanning the flames of discontent and envy. Much will be required of management and workers (unions) of good will in the way of fresh ideas and new approaches. We had better wish them well!