Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Renewal in Canadian Public Sector Unions: Neoliberalism and Union Praxis

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 employment.

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.

Read more HERE. (pdf)

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