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.
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"
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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