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Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, eds., Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity.

Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, eds., Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing 2013)

Unions generally and public sector labour relations in particular are largely understudied. This collection brings together well-established and emerging labour experts exploring public sector unions in their diverse forms. The first article by Bryan Evans discusses the dual role of the state as an employer and sovereign legislator. Situating his article in historical perspective, Evans discusses what differentiates public sector unions from their private sector counterparts, traces the historical origins of public sector associations-cum-unions and pulls together key legislative developments across the provinces and federally. Next Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz update their well-known thesis of "permanent exceptionalism"--the idea that the "temporary" removal of labour rights in the 1970s has ever since been a permanent ideological and legislative fact. Despite the "Labour Trilogy" rulings and recent Supreme Court challenges, Panitch and Swartz show how the Charter continues to grant federal and provincial governments, via the courts, free reign over the usage of injunctions and back-to-work legislation with greater laxity and less parliamentary debate. While the courts have protected the "consultative" process, this does not extend to dispute resolution mechanisms, collective agreements, or to the right to strike. As they show, the Supreme Court has effectively consolidated the assault against trade unions' rights and freedoms into the new millennium.

Larry Savage and Charles Smith follow this up with a valuable overview of the relationship between public sector unions and electoral politics. While diverse in form and function across the provinces and federally, they show how electoral coalitions have shifted over time and place and explore the challenges this poses in a renewed era of state and capitalist militancy. The following articles by Stephanie Ross and David Camfield explore distinct understandings of "social unionism." Both authors provide compelling theoretical and empirical data to support their arguments for union renewal, with Camfield also raising the idea of going beyond social unionism. While both Ross' and Camfield's visions of social unionism offer important suggestions for rebuilding trade union strength, such as the need for alliance-building and proactive framing, some of the limitations of this mode of union praxis are not fully explored.

To what extent has social unionism, even in the most militant and committed of unions, been able to stop, let alone reverse, decades of concerted attacks and defeats? Does militancy in the form of work-to-rule campaigns, sit-ins, and strikes, for example, apply equally to private and public sector forms of social unionism considering their different locations in the broader economy and society? What is the relationship between social unionism and social democracy or explicitly anti-capitalist frameworks? Also, in regards to Camfield's article, particularly his emphasis on "reform from below" or bottom-up politics, absent a broad program of trade union political education might such an emphasis also potentially reproduce the worst excesses of right-wing populism or business unionism? While top-down versus bottom-up conceptualizations may be useful analytical tools to identify the anti-democratic or non-participatory characteristics of trade union practices, there are no special virtues in the expressions themselves. The example of the Chicago Teachers' Union Caucus of Rank and File Educators used in Camfield's text, while inspiring, might also reveal some important strategic and tactical considerations in light of the significant concessions and outright elimination of schools and unionized workers in the aftermath of the 2012 strike. While both authors' introductions to social unionism are perhaps not the place to address these concerns, such questions might provide some useful food for thought in subsequent writings.

In what follows, Donna Baines provides a useful portrait of the nonprofit social services sector, with an emphasis on its predominantly female and racialized workforce, showing how an ethos of care shapes the identity of workers, and the kinds of resistance mobilized in this sector. Similarly, Linda Briskin provides an important empirical examination of nursing work and healthcare restructuring. Both authors show how women form a majority of public sector trade union organizing, illustrating diverse challenges and forms of resistance, and speak to the politicization of care work. The subsequent article by Andy Hanson is an important contribution to this volume. Hanson explores, on the one hand, how public education has reproduced worker-citizens disciplined to the rigours of the Taylorist workplace and rituals of British citizenship. On the other, he notes the contradictory and gendered forms of reproductive labour that education work reproduces in its relationships with teachers, the state, the wider labour movement, and the broader public. In drawing attention to linkages between the state and capital, Hanson provides a useful catalogue of education legislation across the provinces and the unique forms of workplace and trade union resistance.

In the "Paradox of Professionalism," Larry Savage and Michelle Webber provide an important contribution to the often underexplored area of professionals in the public service. Unlike public service workers proper or the broader public sector more generally, "professional" unions encounter their own unique set of challenges, political histories, and workplace-based circumstances. In discussing the shifting landscape of professional unions, Savage and Webber raise a number of issues related to deteriorating working conditions, encroachments on professional autonomy, and how recent austerity measures may open-up radicalizing opportunities in light of continued demands for concessions. The final article by Rosemary Warskett explores how federal public sector unions have responded to demands for concessions, new authoritarian restrictions on workplace organizing and job actions, and how contrasting structures and strategic choices by Canada's two largest federal public sector unions (the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Public Service Alliance of Canada) have resulted in contrasting levels of resistance, success, and politicization. Warskett overviews key legislative developments in the federal public sector, concluding with an analysis of austerity under the Harper Conservatives and the moment of truth that federal unions now encounter.

Notwithstanding ten well-written, accessible, and critical articles, two gaps are nonetheless notable. First, although there have been concerted attacks against municipal workers for some three decades, civic workers are increasingly at the forefront of public sector resistance against concessions. With some 185,000 civic workers organized with the Canadian Union of Public Employees alone, issues related to service cuts, contracting-out, public-private-partnerships, demands for concessions, and general restructuring at the municipal scale are increasingly important as flashpoints of public sector confrontation. An article examining these issues would have added an exclamation point on this important collection of articles.

Second, while all of the contributors point to the need for public sector unions to organize differently, democratize themselves, make connections with the broader community and other unions, and enhance militancy, there is no article that deals explicitly with the structural constraints and democratic shortcomings of organizing unions within the context of capitalist social relations. This is something, of course, that a good many of the authors collected here recognize in various ways. However, considering the emboldened radicalism from capitalist class and state actors, the absence of an explicitly anti-capitalist article that explores how labour might challenge private capital accumulation as the engine of economic growth, raise a set of demands for non-commodified labour and services, or combine electoralism with a campaign to educate workers in an anti-capitalist perspective is noteworthy. Such an article could have gone a long way in showing why labour must not only lead left within the context of capitalism but seek to transcend, as Marx and Engels put it, social relations of servitude.

Considering the cumulative demands for concessions from federal, provincial, and municipal governments from across the political spectrum, how might a radicalized anti-capitalist project that explicitly recognizes the limitations of resistance from within liberal democratic structures be able to challenge the concerted attacks against labour? Are there limitations to militancy in the absence of a progressive political project, as was evident in the vitriol directed against striking civic workers in Toronto and transportation workers in Ottawa, for example?

Notwithstanding these two shortcomings, Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity is one of the most significant contributions to debates about union renewal in quite some time. The editors and authors have produced a very valuable collection that will likely be discussed widely in classrooms and union meetings, and by researchers, students, and laypersons alike. More contributions like this are necessary if unionized, non-unionized, as well as un(der)employed and unpaid workers are to challenge austerity, neoliberalism and, perhaps, even capitalism.


Ryerson University
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Author:Fanelli, Carlo
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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