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Chapter 12

Ecology and Labour:
Towards a New Societal Paradigm

Laurie E Adkin 


A radical critique of past socialist theory and practice is now widely recognised to be a necessary precondition for a convergence between socialists and the new social movements [NSMs]. But the "ideal revision" required is really so profound that it amounts to the construction of a new societal paradigm. What is called for is a new synthesis of the insights of socialism's critique of capitalism and those of the new social movements and their theorists. "Socialism" has not succeeded in encompassing diverse forms of domination and oppression, which have become increasingly "politicized", or conflictualised, in the post-World-War Two era. Moreover, the term has such deeply-rooted associations with the anti-democratic, environmentally disastrous, and other negative aspects of "formerly existing socialism", that it may be a politically bankrupt label.

As a result, "eco-socialism" does not adequately describe the societal project envisioned as a "new paradigm," and neither does "post-socialism" because we cannot ignore the continuing existence of capitalism. So what will we call this "new synthesis"? We find ourselves, like the members of the former Italian Communist Party, searching in the rubble of toppled symbols and overturned assumptions for the elements of a new discourse.

Current paradigmatic shifts reflect not only changing reality and the resulting crisis of our analytical frameworks, but also the arrival of a new generation of theorists. Attachment to a widely shared left culture and ideology - to la gauche fordiste - (whose negative aspects included productivism, technocratic positivism, and an inadequate concern with democratic questions), and to its political organizations, is more characteristic of left intellectuals who are now in their late forties or older, than it is among those who were born after 1960 (Mushaben, 1983). For the emerging generation of social theorists, it has been the women's movement, and the environmental, peace, civil liberties, and other alternative movements, rather than the unions or traditional political parties, which have fundamentally challenged societal values and the model of development. While for many of us, this reality may mean rethinking old assumptions about the agents of radical social change, for a younger generation this may seem a very arcane debate indeed. 

Although "social agency" tends to be the focal point of debates about the NSMs, what is at stake is not a simple "transfer" of importance from the labour movement as "revolutionary subject" to other actors, such as the anti-nuclear movement as Touraine's group suggested in the early 1980s. I agree with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (1985) that social actors must be understood in terms of multiple, interacting subject positions. We cannot separate, as discrete "social agents", "workers" from "women" from "immigrants;" these identities and others are embodied, in various permutations, within each of us. What is at stake, therefore, is a reconceptualisation of the entire project - the common threads that link the experiences of oppression and the struggles for emancipation which are associated with these identities, or subject positions. 

Theoretical Questions

What are the cultural values and goals of the alternative movements, particularly the environmental movement, and the unions? How do these values and goals underly their respective strategies of social action, and what are their implications for 1) the relations between the two actors, and 2) our understanding of the forces propelling social change?

First, I think we should view the struggles of the alternative movements as evidence of a transition to what Claus Offe has called a "new political paradigm" (1985), in which fundamental social conflicts are defined both in "broader" and in "deeper" terms than was possible within classical Marxist theory. A growing number of theorists (including Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Joachim Hirsch, Jean Cohen, Alain Touraine, and Raymond Williams) argue that relations of conflict have proliferated, and that the widespread mobilizations for peace, ecology, women's emancipation, and other goals contain the elements of what, in Gramscian terms, we might call a new counter-hegemonic project.

There is a broad consensus about the roots of the NSMs in the contradictions created by the maturing and internationalization of Fordism, and the development of the welfare state. Some theorists, including Alain Touraine, have associated the NSMs with "postindustrial" society. What this means, roughly, is that while the labour movement contested the terms of capitalist industrialisation, it did not profoundly challenge its legitimacy as a model of social development. With advanced capitalism, the forms and loci of social struggles have proliferated beyond questions of ownership and distribution of wealth, to control over technology and information. The NSMs challenge the neutrality, the authority, and the rationality of bureaucratic and technocratic decision-making, as in the case of the anti-nuclear movement in France. Touraine (1981:9) argues that they are engaged in a struggle for control over "historicity and of the action of society upon itself." 

Joachim Hirsch, using the analytical framework of the French regulation school, is one of a number of theorists who have drawn attention to the declining relevance of "class" identity for millions of workers in the developed capitalist countries. The conflicts produced by the commodification of social relations, and of human needs, are now so diffuse, that they "no longer manifest themselves along traditional class lines and in traditional political forms" (Hirsch 1988: 49). The working class cultural and political associations rooted in the era of industrialization have been dissolved in a myriad of identities--some derived from positions in the relations of production, many not. As Touraine et al have said (1983: 178), social domination embraces much more than work, extending to almost every domain of social activity, so that it is no longer possible to appeal to tradition, to a local or professional culture, or to a specific community, as the artisans were able to do, or the miners, the steelworkers, or the fishermen, living in a working-class environment that was both homogeneous and isolated from the rest of society.

The consequences of this are, first, that it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to build a mass movement around a "core" working class identity: the exploitation of wage-labour is no longer a sufficiently homogeneous experience of oppression, for enough people. Capital-labour struggle around the appropriation of surplus-value is not a sufficiently broad definition of social conflict to encompass such struggles as women's emancipation, citizens' mobilisations against private corporate or state investment decisions, and so on. It cannot, therefore, in itself constitute a fundamental organising principle for a broadly-based "historical bloc". A more encompassing definition of social conflict is, on the other hand, suggested by the central themes of the alternative movements and the more radical elements within the trade unions: democratization of decision-making, individual autonomy, and the creation of new solidarities.

The politics of the new social movements do not compel us to "bury" class, or Marxist theory, but they do demand that we develop a more inclusive and holistic analysis of the determinants of social change (in which the working class loses its former "privileged" role). Age, generation, gender, sexual orientation, and race, among other factors, impart to individuals and groups specific identities and values whose importance in determining social or political behaviour becomes evident when one studies social movements. Take, for example, the category of "youth". Youths today, in most of the advanced capitalist countries, are relatively unwilling to join traditional political organizations, although they are greatly affected by the social and economic crisis (unemployment, a shrinking social security net), lack of adequate housing, restriction of women's reproductive rights and other freedoms, and racism. They have been born into a world threatened with environmental degradation and even destruction, and in an era when parliamentary-institutional paths of change seem to be too little, too late. For many, the future looks so bleak, that the only options are despair or direct action. As Joyce Mushaben points out, these young persons are not "post-materialists"; affluence and security are experiences that their parents' generation may have known, but which they probably never will. The point is that these identities/experiences are just as important as the identity/experience of wage labour if what we are trying to explain is why individuals or groups participate in social action and what kind of social changes they seek.

This broad interpretation of the significance of the alternative movements also draws on the work of the Italian theorist, Alberto Melucci, of Habermas, and of Foucault. Melucci, like Touraine, emphasises the production of cultural identities and images, control over information, fragmentation of individual identity and experience, and the "artificiality of life" to explain the alienation of people from power, which he sees as the common root of the alternative movements. These movements are, he argues, about "making power visible" by challenging "the logic governing production and appropriation of social resources." They "present to the rationalizing apparatuses questions which are not allowed" (Offe 1985: 810). Claus Offe summarizes the explanations of Habermas and Foucault as, respectively, the theses of "broadening" and "deepening" (of conflicts and deprivations). Habermas has argued that "the work role is neither the exclusive nor the basic focus of the experience of deprivation, an experience which equally affects the roles of the citizens, the client of administrative decisions, and the consumer" (Ibid: 845). Foucault emphasised the enormous capacity of modern political economies and technology to displace conflict and the increasing scope and costs of the system's failures.

The alternative movements reflect a cultural resistance to the further penetration of commodity relations into every aspect of human existence and the natural environment, entailing the loss of both individual autonomy and belonging, deprivation of a social and spiritual nature, and escalating fear in response to capitalism's "death wish" (nuclear weapons, toxic chemical pollution, radioactivity, environmental destruction, resource depletion, and the devastation of third world wars). They offer resistance, as well, to homogenisation and conformity, and validate the diversity of experiences and needs integral to individual development. The ecology and feminist discourses, for example, criticize what Ursula Franklin (1990) calls "prescriptive technologies" for creating a "culture of compliance" and for depriving people of holistic experiences of creativity and production. The alternative movements also share a goal of self-determination, or autonomy, which can be achieved only through decentralization and democratization of the state and the economy. They therefore represent both a "brake" on the old model of development--their anti-productivist, needs-oriented aspects--and the elements of a new order. Touraine has argued (1987) that the central theme of these movements was the demand for autogestion, or self-management.

Claus Offe has conceptualised the alternative movements as modern critics of the internal contradictions of the value system of modern culture. With Jean Cohen (1983) he sees these movements not as a premodern, romantic, or traditional petit bourgeois reaction to modernity, but as a predominantly rational response to certain negative aspects of modernity, which at the same time offers a vision of the future (rather than a nostalgic appeal to the past). Offe argues that the values of the alternative movements (dignity and autonomy of the individual, the integrity of the physical condition of life, equality and participation, peaceful and solidaristic forms of social organization) are not new, but rather are rooted in modern political philosophies and inherited from the progressive movements of both the bourgeoisie and the working class. What is new is the belief that these values cannot be satisfied within the dominant institutions (property, market, parliamentary democracy, nuclear family, mass culture and media) or within the dominant political paradigms (liberalism, statist socialism, social democracy).

Zsuzsa Hegedus takes even further the idea that NSMs are about empowerment and democratization, in an era when human and planetary survival are at stake, and the old model of industrial society and its ideologies have been radically undermined. She argues that:

A social movement is a very complex process - with a multiple time/space perspective - of empowerment and alternative problem-solving which assigns the finality of maximising the possibility of choices on all levels and in every aspect of social life, and creates this possibility by its capacity to engender new (multiple) options ....

In other words, what is at stake in self-creative society, characterised here by the permanent invention of new possibilities and the realisation of possible futures, is not `the' power but empowerment: the capacity of people to intervene directly in problems they are concerned with and to `control' the choices of their own futures; that is, to decide their collective and individual destiny or, simply, the choices concerning different aspects of their own lives" (Hegedus 1989: 32).

The activists of the NSMs are drawn predominantly from the so-called "new middle class", especially people who work in the human service professions and/or the public sector, and are relatively educated, being thus in positions to experience first-hand, and to bring a critical analysis to, issues of control over decision-making (at the level of the state and the economy), of social priorities, and of the rationality of the system. They also tend to be young, and to have higher female participation than the activist bases or official ranks of political parties and many unions. Another important component of the NSMs is made up of what Offe calls "decommodified groups" - people who are outside of the labour market, such as unemployed workers, students, housewives, and retired persons. Marc Lesage, a Québecois sociologist, has observed that the regular, permanent worker is being succeeded by a "multitude of new faces": part-time workers, temporary or casual workers, volunteer labour, illegal labour, and involuntary household workers, in addition to the unemployed, the socially assisted, and those getting money by some means (scholarship, grants, self-employment) (1986). Current trends suggest that these strata will continue to grow. The unions - managed by officials whose mandate is derived from the security interests of the permanently employed - are finding it hard to respond to, let alone to integrate, the interests of this "new proletariat". There is, on the other hand, potential for their interests (in autonomy, liberation from work, in finding new solidarities and meanings) to be associated with the organizational forms and agendas of the NSMs.

At certain conjunctures - particularly in environmental struggles - the issues of the alternative movements have attracted support from the traditional middle class (farmers, shop owners, artisans-producers) whose interests are threatened by proposed developments. The one group the alternative movements have typically not included is the primarily male, industrial workforce: the traditional working class. Some theorists such as André Gorz and Touraine have gone so far as to argue that there is an objective, historical conflict of interests between this class, which is deeply committed to the institutional rules and ethics of the industrial capitalist era, and the interests represented by the alternative movements. Others, like Offe, have stopped short of such a claim, while pointing out that "the classes, strata, and groups that are penetrated least easily by the concerns, demands, and forms of action of the `new' paradigm are exactly the `principal' classes of capitalist societies, namely, the industrial working class and the holders and agents of economic and administrative power" (1985: 835). 

Relations between industrial and resource-sector workers and environmentalists, given the "jobs-versus-the environment" construction of trade-offs in a capitalist economy, are most often conflictual. Short-term material security is also typically pitted against occupational or public health and safety concerns. There are numerous examples of such conflicts in the Canadian as well as other cases. At the same time it is evident that these conflicts stem from a particular construction of the choices available to citizens-as-workers, one which imposes the costs of harmful industrial practices on wage-earners either in the form of economic deprivation and insecurity, or in the form of the degradation of health and the quality of life. This trade-off, although experienced by many as "a fact of life", is the conjunctural outcome of existing relationships of power. Objectively, it is workers in the most polluting industries who have most to gain from the success of environmental demands. Thus, rather than posit an objective or historical conflict between certain strata of workers and the alternative movements, it is more useful to examine the factors which allow these trade-offs to be reproduced, and which prevent alternatives from being considered.

Among these factors is the question of union leadership. Classical Marxists, including Gramsci, advanced various explanations of what they viewed as the bureaucratic conservatism of the trade unions. My view is that union leaderships may not be characterized as invariably conservative, but that there do exist certain institutional limits to the potential of union organizations to become counter-hegemonic actors. Radicalization of union structures, priorities, and tactics, will occur only in the context of an external social mobilization, such as when a tidal change appears to be occurring which could oblige employers and the State to make significant concessions to the new consensus. Moreover, a study of the strategic responses of the Canadian Auto Workers and Energy and Chemical Workers' unions to environmental issues (Adkin, 1989) supports the view that, which unions will take the lead in making alliances with the alternative movements depends on a complex inter-play of factors, including the political economy of various sectors, State policies, and the cultural-ideological perspectives of union leaders and rank-and-file members.

The above theses have been put forward at a highly general level, with a view to showing that the alternative movements herald the end of one era and the beginning of another, in which the central social conflict will be defined no longer in terms of class struggle but in terms of struggles for democratization and self-determination. We dwell, however, in a period of international capitalist restructuring, of the decline of traditional identities and movements, and of the still amorphous and contradictory forms of the new ones. As soon as we undertake the task of research, we find an immense diversity of phenomena. Empirical research yields evidence of certain trends, or tendencies, but their potential development remains a question of prediction, and of present practice. 

The Canadian Case

There is insufficient space here to provide a detailed analysis of the discourses which I have identified in the Canadian environmental movement, and which may be labelled: 1) eco-capitalist; 2) popular-democratic; 3) social-democratic; 4) fundamentalist; and 5) eco-socialist. Setting aside, for the moment, the "eco-capitalist" discourse, one finds in the environmental movement a number of counter-hegemonic themes. These include critiques of patriarchy, andro-centrism, productivism, and the logic of capitalist accumulation. The popular-democratic discourse of the citizens' groups defends "popular" interests against corporate, technocratic, and bureaucratic interests, involving a conflict between social conceptions of property, and of access to resources, the rights of future generations, etc., on the one hand, and the prerogatives of private ownership and appropriation of (social) resources and (socially-produced) wealth, on the other hand. "Popular interests" also refers to a fairly widespread critique among the citizens' groups of science and scientists, and of "experts", as agents of corporate and technocratic interests. The concerns of the citizens' groups give rise to demands for the democratization of institutions, the political system, and economic decision-making.

A "fundamentalist" tendency, often associated with the environmental movement's "vanguard", expresses ecological and humanist ethics which (re)validate our relationships to our bodies, to nature, and to other species. It affirms the desirability and possibility of non-exploitative and non-violent relationships both among humans and between humans and nature, a vision shared by many feminists. Derived from these ethics is opposition to growth for the sake of growth (viewed as a non-optimal and unsustainable path of development), and a vision of society tending toward equilibrium - not to be equated with stagnation. In this model the criteria for the production of goods and services include meeting needs in an egalitarian manner, maximizing leisure, autonomy and creativity, and minimizing harmful effects on the natural environment, resource depletion, and mentally and physically oppressive working and living conditions. This vision, however, may be only very vaguely attached to a theory of social change (the processes and actors which can bring it into being), or may be linked to pessimistic (apocalyptic) ideas.

Eco-socialists do attempt to provide a theory of social change which identifies the objective and subjective bases for alliances among social actors. Without convincing alternatives to the eco-capitalist project, the environmental movement cannot attract the support of people whose livelihoods are presently dependent on the growth of what Vaclac Havel has called "some monstrously huge, noisy, and stinking machine, whose real meaning is not clear to anyone" (1990). The priority for eco-socialists, is to link the alternative movements to the traditional social movement (organized labour) by way of a renewed socialist theory and practice.

What is the likelihood that the democratisation, feminist, ecologist, and socialist discourses will be "synthesized" in the form of a "new-paradigm", and that such a convergence will find significant political expression in Canada? Many observers have dismissed the NSMs as single-issue-oriented, apolitical, scatterings of groups, with no direct interests in the concerns of citizens-as-workers or conflicts with capital (Wood, 1986). This perception arises from what Alain Touraine's group described ten years ago - with respect to the French anti-nuclear movement - as a "state of equilibrium between a cultural refusal that [the movement] has already gone beyond and a political influence that it [does] not yet have". The uneven ideological development of the environmental movement has resulted in an inconsistent and only partially conscious linking of its democratic demands and ecological-humanist ethics to an analysis of the state and the economy. The cases of the Green movement in Germany, where there is a tradition of socialist discourse, and of the environmental movement in the United States, which has evolved within a "populist" (Boggs: 1986) and liberal tradition, suggest that interaction with socialist discourse is a key factor in explaining the extent to which alternative movements have succeeded in becoming transformative social movements. However, this thesis refers both to the ways in which socialist theory has informed the critique of ecologists, greens, feminists, and others, and to the rejection of certain aspects of socialist theory and practice by these new actors. Thus it bears emphasising that what is at issue is not an "amalgamation" of, for example, socialism and ecology, but a new synthesis founded upon a critical re-examination of both. Given the relative weakness of a culturally-rooted socialist tradition in Canada, to which forms of discourse, and to which social actors may we look for a radical critique of the model of development? As I have argued elsewhere (Adkin: 1992a), elements of a radical critique are found in the developing agendas of many of the citizens' initiatives. Groups organised around problems of toxic chemical pollution, for example, generally form in response to threats to community health or quality of life, but over time become "politicised" and radicalised by their experiences of confronting corporate, bureaucratic and technocratic interests. The struggles of these groups lead them toward a greater understanding of systemic biases which prevent certain alternatives from being considered, and toward demands for the democratisation of decision-making. These demands have, in the Canadian case, been largely directed to governments.

The citizens' groups which form the grass-roots base of the environmental, peace, international solidarity, urban quality of life, anti-poverty, anti-free trade and other networks, are, in a sense, the "labouratories" of the radical democratic project. They are the sites of intense conflict among competing discourses, which seek to interpret, politically, the particular issues and values espoused by the members of these groups. "The citizen groups' struggles reveal, and call into question, hierarchical and exploitative relationships. Challenges are posed (often unconsciously) to the traditional prerogatives of capitalists to control economic development, or of bureaucrats and technocrats to take decisions affecting various excluded collectivities. Questions about the purpose and the meaning of the model of development make alternatives thinkable. It is in this sense that I view alternative movements (or at least, certain elements within them), as posing more radical challenges to the entire post-war Fordist model of development, its values and its institutions, than the labour movement or traditional political parties have attempted. That is, for radical elements within the alternative movements, such questions, and the "thinking" of alternatives, are their raison d'être, whereas for the unions, challenging the institutional rules or the logic of growth have not been priorities, if at all part of the conceptualisation of their role. For liberals, conservatives, social democrats, and the "fordist left", such issues have been regarded as, at best, utopian. 

This is not to say, of course, that because the alternative movements place questions on the political agenda which "are not allowed", a radical discourse has achieved predominant influence within these movements. For the most part, the grass-roots base of the environmental movement, like the labour movement, continues to have faith in social-democratic solutions to the environmental and economic crises. Nor would I argue, with regard to the Canadian environmental movement, that the "fundamentalist" and "socialist" elements have transcended the "green versus red" debate sufficiently to articulate a "radical and pluralist democratic" discourse, the term used by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau describing a project to create links among multiple struggles against subordination and domination. In this conception of hegemonic struggle - of politics - no one subject position, be it defined by class, race, gender, or other relation, creates a "centre" which gives to all other forms of oppression their essential meaning. Subject positions are constructed by practices of articulation, as are the relations of equivalence or difference among them. "Radical and pluralist democracy," therefore, expresses a project which is capable of articulating to one another the themes and struggles of the alternative movements and the workers' movement without insisting on the "privileging" of one identity or struggle over another. It is such a privileging which the term "eco-socialist" suggests, and which is at the centre of the debate between "ecologists" and "socialists".


The positions of the more progressive unions are similar to the popular-social-democratic discourse and agenda of the Canadian environmental movement. While certain rank-and-file militants have espoused radical, eco-socialist views, union organisations have not taken the lead in posing the "questions which are not allowed". For instance, questions about the purpose and nature of production and growth, about the meaning of work, self-development and autogestion, about decentralisation of planning and decision-making, continue to be raised primarily by radical ecologists, feminists, and libertarian or "new left" socialists.

How have union structures sought to transform cultural values, to create solidarities? With regard to an earlier era, one thinks of such collective and individual identities as "the ordinary guy," "the little guy," "the working man," which convey the ideas of subordination, maleness, and a certain nobility stemming from sacrifice and "honest labour". These identities strike fewer and fewer chords in the majority of the work forces of the advanced capitalist countries, following the growth of non-manual occupations, the entry of women into the work force, and the less rigid hierarchies which characterise management-worker relations in many white-collar work places (but not gender or racial relations within these organisations). They are, moreover, not free of associations with an age of deference, and of class position experienced as a natural and inevitable ordering of a hierarchical society. Struggles for workers' rights have often been defended ideologically in terms of respect for the contributions of workers to society, or for the dignity of the "working man," or of the defence of the traditional family, whose preservation depends upon the secure employment of a male breadwinner. (This kind of discourse has long characterised the struggles of steel plant workers in Cape Breton, and is still quite rooted among predominantly male industrial work forces and their communities.) In other words, it is often the terms (even the perpetuation), rather than the elimination, of relations of subordination-domination which are considered to be the stakes of the struggle.

Clearly, the politicisation of many relations of subordination and oppression, particularly by the women's movement, but increasingly by other political subjects as well, has helped cause labour organisations to broaden the scope of their discourse to make references to forms of domination which criss-cross the identity of "worker". However, insofar as it is preoccupied with the creation of a collective identity, the union is primarily concerned to raise consciousness and to define what is specific or unique about the experience of wage-labour. With respect to the conditions for the creation of a counter-hegemonic project, the problem is not the function of the union in defining a unique, or different subject position, but the way in which the relationships among this subject position and others are understood. The subject position of "worker" (articulated in terms of exploitation and subordination) may be privileged (as in Marxist discourse) as the central axis of social conflict, in which case other subject positions are necessarily of secondary, tangential, or tactical importance. This interpretation, when couched in terms of a radical (transformative) political project, means that the labour movement must be "hegemonic" vis-à-vis its allies, and that the capital-labour conflict must have strategic priority.

The subject position of "worker" may also be privileged, however, within a social democratic discourse whose aims are primarily to "manage" the existing institutions of a capitalist and productivist society. This is the predominant ideological discourse of those who lead the Canadian labour movement. It is interesting that the "privileging" of the identity and interests of the "worker" (what union officials often describe as their "bottom line") is increasingly challenged by the identities and interests defended by the alternative movements. Union officials try to avoid "choosing sides" in conflicts which pit their members' job security against the environment, health, gender or racial equality, peace, or the aspirations of "third world" peoples. They may do this by down-playing or minimizing the costs to "the other side" of an outcome which favours the immediate interests of profit and job security (a position taken by the Energy and Chemical Workers with regard to toxic chemical pollution problems in the Chemical Valley, leaded gasoline, and other issues, and by the United Steelworkers' local in Sydney, Nova Scotia, with regard to pollution from the Sydney Steel Corporation coke ovens, until the ovens were finally closed by Environment Canada). They thereby attempt to ward off accusations of having narrowly and short-sightedly defined the interests of their members, or of having "sacrificed" the interests of other social groups.

However, the above response is usually adopted only when an appeal to the state to intervene in a conflict between the interests of workers' economic security, environmental protection or health, and the conditions of profitability for corporations, has failed, and the union believes itself to be in too weak a position to confront employers in the sphere of collective bargaining. Many union leaders and members view the appropriate role of the state as being the facilitate both economic growth and the fulfilment of an array of other goals, such as the redistribution of wealth, environmental protection, and the safeguarding of civil and political rights. Since it is the social democratic party - in Canada, the New Democratic Party [NDP] - whose election is viewed as necessary to secure these State functions, to "resolve" these kinds of conflicts, much of the "political" strategy and resources of the Canadian labour movement is directed toward support for the NDP.

Another important aspect of the social democratic orientation of union leadership is that the articulation of the "equivalences" among social movements (among subject positions) is seen to be primarily a responsibility of the political party - the NDP. Apart from large unions, which have considerable financial resources, most labour organisations function as "service agents", assisting members in the interpretation of legal rights, mediating during collective bargaining, and monitoring agreements. Rank-and-file education and grass-roots coalition-building are activities outside these institutional priorities. The bureaucratic organisation created to carry out these functions is characterized by hierarchical and representative, rather than inclusive and participatory structures. "Mobilisation" increasingly comes to refer to recruiting picketers during strikes, rather than to an ongoing process of education, skill-development, analysis, and empowerment.

There are limits to the challenges facing capital that unions can pose within the framework of collective bargaining - hence the division of labour with a social democratic political party. The current direction of capitalist restructuring (greater freedom/mobility for multinational capital, structural unemployment, erosion of social security, etc.) further constricts the gains that can be made through collective bargaining. Even the relatively progressive leadership of the Canadian Auto Workers Union - which implemented an environmental policy in 1986, and has developed committees and policies dealing with women's issues and racism - and the dedicated rank and file activists who share the vision of the radical currents of the alternative movements, are constrained by the union's institutional role within the existing constellation of State and economic structures, and by the need to avoid political isolation.

The CAW may be considered the "strong case" of social unionism in the industrial sector. A study of the implementation, between 1986 and 1989, of environmental committees in six CAW locals, showed that there was potential for two different political-strategic conceptions of a labour-environment alliance to develop (Adkin, 1989). A "social democratic/institutional" orientation was supported by existing union structures and practices, as well as by the local executive officials. This approach is characterised by:

1) Alliances at the level of organizational elites (with environmental organisations). Joint activities consist mainly of co-signed statements or briefs to government bodies, or endorsements, rather than educational and cultural events organised for rank-and-file union members and environmental activists. This kind of relationship maintains the ability of executive officials to control the nature and extent of contact with their own base by "outside" groups, while allowing them to claim that they are fulfilling the policy objectives of the national leadership. It does not necessitate internal changes in union practices or priorities.

2) Participation in citizens' campaigns whose demands do not necessitate risk-taking in the sphere of collective bargaining or job security (which indeed, may strengthen the position of the work force vis-à-vis employers), but which are directed toward governments (such as incentives or penalties affecting production practices or investment). The union typically uses such campaigns to argue that an NDP government would resolve conflicts in favour of public and workers' interests.

3) Environment committee functions which centre around lobbying for legislative reforms, instructing stewards in interpretation of legislation, and monitoring workplace observance of legislation. By 1989 it appeared that the environment committees would be modelled closely on the functions of the occupational health and safety committees.

A "convergence/transformative" tendency, on the other hand, was manifested in the views of some of the rank-and-file activists (who were nevertheless expressing conflicting views about these two directions), as well as in the choices expressed by a significant minority of workers in a rank-and-file survey. Environment committee members tended to be partially seduced by the greater freedoms of action bestowed by holding official union positions, and by the sense of influence attached to representative roles. At the same time, they were conscious of the real limitations of these roles, and sympathetic to the more radical goals of the environmental movement. A survey of rank-and-file workers showed that there was very substantial support for a more "pro-active" or "pre-emptive" union strategy, especially in the areas of research and educational opportunities.

A "transformative" direction for the environment committees would be characterised by:

1) Emphasis on organising joint actions and events for members of the environmental groups and the union's rank-and-file, to eventually build links among subject positions.

2) A conception of political work centred not around electoral support for the NDP, but around the articulation of a discourse which links the experiences of workers' subordination with other forms of oppression, and which seeks to define the "frontiers" of political conflict, or of counter-hegemonic struggle.

3) A refusal of a "representative" role based on little meaningful direction from the rank-and-file, but which is really one of transmitting or implementing campaigns that emanate from the national executive and must have approval from national and local executives. Instead, the environment committees would seek ways to democratise union structures, and to increase participation, with the goal of empowering members.

4) A formulation of campaigns in such as way as to pose questions about the meaning and the purpose of production, of work, and of the control of economic decision-making, and also to allow consideration of radical alternatives. For example, in the case of the auto workers, questions could be raised about the need for autombiles, urban transportation alternatives, plant conversion, and strategies for reducing work time and unemployment.

5) The incorporation of environmental goals in collective bargaining; this would politicize members and create bases for alliances with other social actors.

While the "social democratic/institutional" strategy has predominantly defined the role of the environment committees, there continues to be a tension between their institutional and transformative functions, fed by the contradictory pressures on rank-and-file workers and their union representatives, by the demands and influence of the environmental movement (particularly with regard to state regulatory policy), and by the ongoing restructuring of the industry. A number of environmental demands were included in the union's bargaining with Chrysler in 1990. In addition, the national agreement struck with Ford in September of the same year made significant gains in the areas of reduced work time, child care, and the reinforcement of the union's commitment to social justice issues. Local 444 in Windsor recently negotiated an agreement with Chrysler that will provide expanded educational opportunities for the work force.

The CAW case demonstrates the current limits of "social unionism" and suggests the kind of developments that would be evidence of movement towards a counter-hegemonic conception of union strategy. Such a strategy, as explained above, would link together a multiplicity of subject positions on the bases of a shared resistance to relations of subordination and oppression; it would confront both the definition of "the enemy", and alternatives which advance the goals of equality (social solidarity) and self-determination (liberty). 

A comparison of the CAW with the Energy and Chemical Workers (ECWU), or with public sector unions, indicates that, within the existing institutional and political limits on union strategies, there is a range of responses that they may adopt toward the alternative movements. While the CAW has adopted a pro-alliance policy, the ECWU has remained largely passive and sometimes hostile. In the presence of alternative movements of growing political influence, these responses are determined by a complex array of factors.

Public sector unions are "political" by necessity - their employer is the state. Also, the "human service" professions (nurses, teachers, social workers, etc.) and highly-educated white-collar workers (public administration) seem to be key elements of the alternative movement coalitions. Offe argues that this is because their knowledge of decision-making processes, of inefficiencies, of irrational aspects of the system, of its unjust and undemocratic aspects, as well as their expertise about alternatives, gives them both the motivation and the means with which to develop a political critique of the State. 

Workers in economic sectors which have been relatively protected from current capitalist restructuring, either through State policies or the luck of the market, may be in a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis employers, and therefore less defensive toward the environmental or peace movements. This is one factor that may explain the CAW's willingness to ally with the environmental movement. The Auto Pact has provided the Canadian state with some leverage over MNC investment in the sector, contrasted to the situation of the petrochemical workers. The ECWU functions in an economic sector where huge MNCs have free reign, and the federal and provincial states (since the defeat of the National Energy Policy) have adopted a free-market approach. The Free Trade Agreement offered even more lenient terms of exploitation to the petrochemical companies. However, the social democratic optimism of the CAW leadership could be affected by the deepening recession in the North American auto industry linked to world market saturation and the effects of the free trade agreement on Canadian production.

The ECWU is also a less militant or alliance-oriented union than the CAW. The oil fields, refineries, and industrial chemicals sectors have always been highly capital-intensive relative to other industries, and their workforces have been comparatively well-paid. Employers have been able to buy peace with wage increases surpassing those of other sectors. The higher proportion of skilled tradespersons in the ECWU, in addition to employer campaigns, have contributed to the formation of a "professional/elite" culture among ECWU officials which is resistant to militant, grass-roots oriented campaigns and tactics, and to the formation of alliances with non-union organizations (Adkin, 1989). In addition, certain industrial sectors have been more vulnerable to campaigns by the environmental movement than others. The chemical and nuclear industries [areas of ECWU unionization] have been subject to more health and regulatory scrutiny in Canada in recent years than has the auto industry. The threats to ECWU jobs from environmental reforms have been more direct and immediate than the pressures directed toward autoworkers from the environmental movement.


Issues beyond the environmental regulation of the industrial model of growth or the management mandate of the social-democratic State, are being posed by the critiques and in the proposals of the radical elements in the environmental movement, and also by some activists in the labour movement. However, the limitations and contradictions of a social democratic response to the economic and environmental crisis have not been confronted by alternative movements in Canada as they have, for example, in West Germany, or - since 1981 - in France. NDP governments at the federal and provincial levels might create new spaces for grass-roots mobilisation, or provoke, as a result of heightened (and frustrated) expectations, a radicalisation of the alternative movements. The development of a new counter-hegemonic party (not currently being proposed by significant numbers of Greens or socialists in Canada) could yet emerge. In the context of a broad social mobilisation around a "new societal paradigm", we can expect movement by some unions towards this bloc, entailing changes in the structures, practices, and priorities of these organisations. Another possibility is that union organisations may be - as Gramsci predicted (1975) - abandoned and by-passed by other forms of collective action.

A radical democratic and pluralist project appears to be the only alternative to the impasse likely to be confronted by social democratic solutions, or to a deepening of the economic, social and ecological crisis which could prepare the way for authoritarian responses. The NDP would do well to note the experience of Socialist government in France. The capitulation of the Parti Socialiste (PS) to the liberal-productivist model has disillusioned the alternative movements and contributed to a cynical alienation from politics on the part of the majority of the population. This alienation is often expressed in terms of an inability to distinguish left from right. The old cleavage is indeed disintegrating, as evidenced by the declining memberships and militant bases of the traditional political parties and the unions. Alain Lipietz has argued (1989) that the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the Socialists now comprise a broad centre in the French political system, whereas the Communists, still attached to the Fordist paradigm, are in crisis and decline. The emerging poles of a new societal paradigm appear to be the Greens and the far right. Within any "historical compromise" there are "frontiers" of social conflict - interests excluded from the hegemonic bloc. There are always poles of conflict, in this sense. The failure of the Canadian NDP to deepen and extend its democratising agenda could lead, as in France, to the temporary fragmentation and marginalisation of the alternative movements. However, in the contexts either of deepening recession and an environmental crisis, or of a project of radical democratisation, we will confront a reactive pole comprised of those threatened by change. Its discourse may well take the form of an "anti-politics" populism (already present in the Reform Party's contradictory welding together of a political democratisation discourse and a neoliberal economic agenda), xenophobia, and/or anti-feminism.

The values of the alternative movements (self-determination, social solidarity) and their linkages to the goals of decentralisation and democratisation of decision-making, suggest the outlines of a new paradigm of social conflict and change. Inevitably, the emergence of this new paradigm is marked by clashes between old and new ways of interpreting a multitude of identities and relations. Yet what is at issue is not the schematic ending of one era and the beginning of another; the "old issues" are not irrelevant, and the "old actors" are not incapable of change. The challenge facing us is rather to view with a critical and fresh eye both all that was known, and the limits of our imagination.


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