BY DAVID CAMFIELD
Relations industrielles / Industrial Relations
Vol. 62, n° 2, 2007, p. 282-304.
Challenges from employers and governments and the limited
success of public sector union responses suggest the need for
renewal in Canadian public sector unions. This article engages
with discussions of union renewal by way of theoretically
conceptualizing the modes of union praxis relevant to Canadian
unions. It then examines the nature of neoliberal public sector
reform and assesses the experiences of Canadian public sector
unions under neoliberalism. In this difficult context, unions that
are able to make progress in the interconnected development of
greater democracy and power will be more capable of channelling
workers’ concerns into union activity.
This, along with international
and Canadian evidence, highlights the significance of the praxis of
social movement unionism to union renewal in the public sector.
Around the world, the public sector is undergoing extensive “reform” at
the hands of governments and managers committed to neoliberal precepts.
In Canada, public sector workers have experienced many difficulties since
the mid-1970s. As Joseph Rose (2004) has argued, the current era of public
sector collective bargaining is one in which employers are consolidating
gains made in the 1990s and attempting to achieve new ones. In addition, the
contemporary period is characterized by an uneven process of constructing
what has been dubbed the “lean state,” whose implications for public sector workers include work intensification and the spread of precarious
Although public sector unions have sometimes actively
opposed neoliberal “reform,” they have often had little success.
Neoliberal challenges and the limited success of union resistance to
them suggest that union renewal is needed, and creates openings within
public sector unions for renewal initiatives.
However, union renewal is
not an unproblematic concept. There are contending visions of what it
should entail. This article approaches the issue of union renewal by way of
theoretically conceptualizing the modes of union praxis relevant to Canadian
unions. On the basis of an analysis of public sector “reform” and an
assessment of Canadian public sector union experiences under neoliberalism
and their implications for the future of these unions and for their renewal,
it concludes that the most promising direction for union renewal would be
the development of the praxis of social movement unionism.
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