New Wine into Old Skins
New Wine into Old Skins

New Wine into Old Skins

In my last article, I said guilds could be the vanguard of a new civil society. Valiant words, but there are significant obstacles to overcome before we see any progress. Moreover, all the examples of functioning guilds that I have used so far have one thing in common: they are not in Canada. The question then arises, can guilds can ever take hold in Canada? If so, how?
August 1 st 2004

Are we ready for new models of organized labour, such as guilds? Well, define ready. Current social attitudes and regulatory frameworks for the organization of work will freeze new ideas out if they don't have enough fire in the belly.

In my last article (Comment, April 2004), I said guilds could be the vanguard of a new civil society. Valiant words, but there are significant obstacles to overcome before we see any progress. Moreover, all the examples of functioning guilds that I have used so far have one thing in common: they are not in Canada. The question then arises, can guilds can ever take hold in Canada? If so, how?

After my last article was published, an online reader asked whether "unions should diversify their approach to organizing labour by adopting a guild mentality in non-traditional organized labour markets." Or, he asked, must we "erect new institutions?"

The trouble is that I'm not convinced that most unions have anything even close to the innovative culture required to adapt, not just their organizational model, but also their institutional philosophy to the current economic and political reality. The trouble for guilds is that, to a large extent, traditional union thinking has set the terms of the debate on worker solidarity. Guilds are fighting the prevailing winds of collective action's lack of credibility, class warfare, commoditised labour, and obsolete legislation.

Are unions "dinosaurs or dynamos?" Ed Grootenboer, head of the Christian Labour Association of Canada's Mississauga office, asked this question in The Guide (March/April 2004), a magazine for the union's members. He pointed to steadily declining union membership, obsolete economics, and confrontational bargaining practices as evidence that unions are having some trouble adjusting to the contemporary labour scene.

"Unions have a lot of housecleaning to do," Grootenboer said. "Many are not ready to be responsible social partners in an enterprise." The clear implication of his article, even though his tone was hopeful, was that most unions are dinosaurs—and we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.

Collective action has been acquiring a bad reputation in the last few years. For example, during the recent stand-off between Air Canada and the Canadian Auto Workers union, I didn't hear much support for Buzz Hargrove and his antics. It's not that Hargrove's ideas are outrageous (and they are). It's mostly that people think Buzz's shtick has gone stale.

One could easily dismiss such anecdotal evidence, except that the numbers back me up. I could point to last year's poll by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which found that Canadians say all kinds of good things about unions in theory and all kinds of bad things about unions in practice. Three in 10 union members, in both the private and public sector, say they are dissatisfied with both their local and national leadership.

This, despite the cheery CLC gloss, is a serious problem. Think about it: nearly one-third of union members are upset with their supposed representatives, and the union leaders don't even know why. Perhaps it has something to do with the widespread belief (45 per cent) among union members that they have no say in how their union operates.

Does this sound like democratic collective action? Or does it sound like tyranny of the few? Any organizational concept based on guilds will have to do a lot of work to distinguish its working communities from traditional union working collectives.

The poor image that collective action suffers is often attributed to the confrontational stance that some unions take toward corporations and their management. These unions view labour relationships as a class war. Their leaders believe that the relationship between owners and workers is inherently exploitative and that their job is to resist the owner at every turn. The owner, as the one who holds the capital (and therefore the balance of power), is guilty until proven innocent: an abuser of his position unless a collective agreement has been signed.

Again, the CLC is a good example of this attitude. In June 2002, it released a series of documents which emerged from its 23rd Constitutional Convention. "Building a Stronger Movement at the Workplace" is full of adversarial language: "employers, governments increasingly attacked workers' rights to bargain freely," and "employers continue . . . attacking workers' rights and the standards that protect us."

Guilds do not fit very well in the worker-owner dichotomy. They do not treat the company as a mini-state where the parties form a precarious balance between workers' rights and economic survival.

Many unions see themselves as coalitions with a common enemy. As I mentioned in my last article, the key distinguishing feature of unions seems to be that unions do collective bargaining—and this makes a difference in the character of the relationship with the employer.

I should be careful to note here that I am not saying that collective bargaining is inherently adversarial. The problem is that, in the case of most unions, collective bargaining happens in the context of an underlying Marxist worldview. Company owners, as holders of the investment capital, control the means of production. This gives them power, which seems to be an unqualified resource, like electricity. But workers, who are the human means of production, have the will and the ability to organize and withhold their labour; this gives them the political leverage to collectively bargain and gain a piece of the power pie.

In short, traditional unions think in terms of power politics. By doing so, they blur the line between politics and business, which explains why they tend to rely so heavily on government to legislate worker benefits and provide economic support networks.

Again, the CLC provides a good example: "We need to restore hope to our members, their families and neighbours and renew their faith in what government can accomplish on their behalf and with their direction."

Guilds, on the other hand, are cooperatives with a common interest. They are, as we've seen, civil society institutions that stand in between the individual worker and government and exist separately and alongside business institutions. Guilds have an opportunity to treat their members as full human beings, rather than simply disenfranchised economic producers.

Work, under the guild model, is seen as a craft that workers cultivate to their own and society's advantage (not simply the pockets of the owners). The organization itself is not primarily political—a responsibility that belongs to government—but social, oriented toward service and solidarity between its members.

From that perspective, some of the CLC's goals are worthwhile:

  • strengthening the culture of organizing—all members are to be organizers;
  • broad-based participation in the union;
  • ongoing labour education programs;
  • a union that is active outside as well as inside the workplace.

Guilds have the advantage that they are not generally company-specific. This does make them more flexible when it comes to non-traditional work arrangements, since formal employment is not a condition of membership. At the moment, there are large, and increasing, numbers of workers that are simply not eligible for union membership. This does explain some of the losses that unions have experienced in the last few years.

If a new generation of labour activists had faith in what unions could be rather than what they are today, they could open up the Marxist rhetoric on the producing classes and see work as a community effort that requires community support. Organizing efforts could reach out to those who lack such supports and crystallize around common interests other than bargaining agreements with conventional employers.

In fact, as Robert Laubacher and Thomas Malone point out, the guild structure could be more open to non-economic criteria, such as "family ties, place of residence, or religious beliefs." Membership based on other social criteria benefits those who lack skills and bargaining power.

The real challenge facing guilds, then, is communicating a new vision in a social and regulatory environment conditioned by the struggles and solutions of a former generation. Those opposed to unions will have difficulty seeing the difference between the organizing principles of traditionally Marxist unions and those of guilds—especially if the unions are the ones starting the guilds.

On the other hand, mainstream unions aren't about to break away from their confrontational mindset anytime soon and could very well see guilds either as their competition or as collaborators with oppressive structures of power. It could very well be up to the smaller, innovative, and emerging alternative union and open-shop movement to carry the flame of solidarity forward.

James Brink
James Brink

James Brink is an associate with Ormston List Frawley LLP, a law firm in Toronto that advises small to mid-size Canadian public and private companies on corporate organization and restructuring, contracts, financing, as well as their securities compliance obligations. James also regularly works with the firm's litigation department in connection with commercial and personal disputes ranging from breach of contract to online defamation.


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