The Good Society Begins at Home
The Good Society Begins at Home

The Good Society Begins at Home

January 1 st 1997
When the shared moral bonds that make community life possible are weakened, when the traditions that make these bonds sacred and inviolable are rendered implausible to vast numbers, what else is there left to order collective life but the exercise of power? The quest for political solutions to all problems is a natural outcome. In the final analysis, though, the exercise ofpower will never in itself provide a democratically sustainable solution... to the controversies of our postmodern condition.
—James Davison Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War, p. 223

When I observe Canada today, I do not see a country, I see social classes in a state of conflict.
—James Laxer, "Return of Class Conflict is 1996's Legacy" (Toronto Star, December 30, 1996)

Angst-filled peering into the future has become a growth industry. Dire predictions of runaway crime and violence, economic collapse, and the fear that society is unravelling have left many confused and worried. They are susceptible to the siren songs of those—including militants in the mainline trade union movement—who predict and demand radical changes by means of politics and the power of the state. But there's one question that few are asking: can politics save us?

Heaven on earth?

Robert Heilbroner, an eminent American academic and author, elaborates on four phases of history in his recent book Visions of the Future: The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. The early 1700s to the mid-1950s he calls Yesterday, a period marked by confidence in humankind's ability to control its own destiny. This optimistic belief in progress has suffered a severe setback in our time, Today. As to Tomorrow, people are no longer sure that it will be better than the past.

Heilbroner is convinced we must cling to the belief that we are able to create "a heaven on earth." Though that faith is now seriously shaken, he thinks that some form of global government will be the most probable way to avert disaster. He proposes a conception of the shape of future things that cannot be "more than a shimmer of light on the horizon, a half-imagined map of what might someday be our Land of Canaan." This Utopian ambition, with its interesting biblical allusion, needs to be borne up, says Heilbroner, by faith in a kind of "secular afterlife" that may yet become the "sacral element" that we need to "cultivate within ourselves, if we are to pass beyond the contemporary horrors that attest, more than anything else, to its absence" (p 119).

What is remarkable about this somewhat tentative attempt to discern the future is the author's completely secular view of humankind. In his framework there is no power above us, and the destiny of individuals and nations is entirely in our own hands. No wonder that this barren vision has an air of hopelessness about it.

Few would argue with Heilbroner's finding that we have moved from a sense of optimism about the future to a feeling of dark foreboding. Global economic upheaval and frenetic technological change have turned job security into widespread insecurity. Real wages have steadily declined while unemployment has become a structural as opposed to cyclical problem, meaning that many are suffering from long-term unemployment or underemployment. Combine this with a steady erosion of public morality and individual accountability, the emergence of a culture of rights and entitlements, and the widespread adoption of the secular belief in the autonomy of the self and you have a recipe for cynicism, anger, and violence.

Union responses

Canadian unions have not been immune to the economic and social disruption. But they continue to act as if they are. Sure, some unions have adjusted to the new environment and moved away from the traditional adversarial approach. They have learned that cooperation and partnership based on trust is the key to make the workplace a success. Some outstanding examples include the General Motors Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee and the Shell chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario.

But the mainstream labour movement in Canada persists in its view that business and the "corporate elite" are the enemy. Given the present level of unemployment and the difficult economic circumstances of many, those who favour warfare against "the enemy" can find plenty of fuel for stoking the ideological fires. A few of the major unions, including the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and some of the largest federations, including the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), are leaders in this camp.

These labour organizations are busy putting out the one message that is sure to arouse antagonistic feelings. Their view of the problem is very simple—greedy corporations, in cahoots with governments, are determined to destroy unions and lower wages. That's why "labour"must align itself closely with a political party, traditionally the NDP. But some labour leaders feel the NDP has betrayed the cause of socialism and are considering establishing a party purely dedicated to the socialist cause. Whether it's the NDP or a new labour party, they are determined to open a second front in the battle for the workplace—the political front.

Deep down, mainstream labour does not believe that management can ever be trusted to treat workers fairly and with respect. They believe employers need to be forced to do so by a superior force, particularly by militant unions supported by labour-friendly, interventionist governments.

At the CAW's 1995 convention, a document ("From False Solutions to Growing Protest: Recapturing the Agenda") was adopted which maps out an aggressive strategy for negotiations and political action. This document describes the emergence of an "Age of Permanent Insecurity," an age in which we are faced with the loss of our highly prized Canadian social security system.

"From False Solutions to Growing Protest" is a high-pitched call to incite workers to a feeling of anger and distrust. It is mostly a litany of things the union is against. It's a call for developing a "culture of resistance," that is, a class conflict in favour of the socialist agenda. (Interestingly, the word socialism does not appear, only social democrats/democracy.) But its tendency towards a form of political power in favour of one class shines through clearly in this statement:

We don't work to elect NDP government so they can be "the government of all the people." What we expect is that a social democratic government will join us in the fight to democratize our economy—that is use their office to make the economy serve the interests of working people rather than the economic elite.

This CAW document demands that decent wages be made into a priority goal. No arguing here. Part of a union's job is to ensure that workers are paid a fair wage, one in which they can meet the needs of their families. But the means articulated for getting there—through state planning and control—is a different matter all together. History is strewn with the wreckage of such attempts.

More Statism

The Ontario Federation of Labour is Canada's largest federation of provincial unions with a membership of 650,000. It, too, has weighed in with its brand of traditional "us-versus-them" unionism. Currently, it is divided into two camps: those who favour "Days of Action" type shutdowns of selected cities and those who advocate a more activist program in alliance with the New Democratic Party. Despite internal squabbles, a broad consensus exists that a "culture of resistance" must be maintained, even to the point of using or threatening violence.

In 1995, the OFL issued a research paper on the unions' responses to technological change, which provides an inside look at the recent stepped-up, angry, and confrontational trade unionism nurtured by the conviction that the "corporate elite" is out to destroy unions and impoverish workers. This published series of research articles, Re-Shaping Work: Union Responses to Technological Change, reflects a total distrust in management and in the day-to-day outcome of collective bargaining. It's emphasis rests squarely on government regulation.

Re-Shaping Work suggests that the law be reformed to help workers cope with technological changes. Issues such as work organization, hiring, job redesign, and the use of technology—typically thought of as management or, in some instances, joint union-management prerogatives—must be brought under Big Brother's all-encompassing umbrella. Included in the list of sectors the OFL wants to bring under social ownership are communications, cable, satelite, and computer technology.

The OFL papers demand that labour laws be changed to establish labour-management committees on technological change and workplace reorganization. These committees would have co-determining powers, with the right to block technological change if there were no sufficient safeguards or training opportunities. They would also have the right to examine not only the hardware of technology, but also the "software of reorganization," including employee participation programs and total quality management. Included in the proposed changes is the insistence that these committees be funded to train union experts and give them access to the resources of a union-controlled research institute.

The Labour Adjustment Action Program of the OFL declares that since private market forces have failed to deliver prosperity, public intervention is needed. Among specific proposals, the OFL lists the following recommended labour adjustment legislation:

  • ensure one year's notice for any group of ten or more workers whose employment is terminated or who have been laid off for more than eight weeks;

  • establish a Job Protection Division under the Employment Standards Act and/or other suitable mechanisms, to ensure public disclosure, reasonable justification, penalties where appropriate and to investigate alternatives to closures;

  • legislate mandatory labour adjustment committees and a duty to negotiate closure agreements.

The OFL wish list doesn't end here. Re-shaping Work also calls for increasing the funding for labour-endorsed, community-based adjustment programs as well as reversing existing cutbacks to labour adjustment services and educational programs run by OFL affiliates. And they want new laws to regulate work sharing, limiting overtime, establishing shorter work weeks, and longer vacations.

What these wide-ranging demands and calls for action by the OFL, CAW, and other like-minded labour bodies demonstrate is that unions really do not believe in the effectiveness of free collective bargaining. They have opted instead for mandated, government control of business and labour relations in a way that makes a mockery of freedom and free associations.

Many of the specific proposals would be a disincentive to new job creation. For instance, can you imagine what would happen to a company with 10 employees, faced with a downturn, required to give one year's notice of layoffs? You can bet the prospect of such a scenario would keep companies from locating here.

Can the tide be turned?

In responding to the pressures of representing workers in today's unsettling social, political, and economic climate, the mainline Canadian unions have adopted a thoroughly postmodern, that is, secularized view of what it means to be human and how we should live together in society. The underlying assumption is that it is up to each individual or each group to create their own values and control their own future. In the absence of a commonly held moral framework, however, all human relations soon devolve into struggles for power.

If looking out for number one is the creed you live by, and power is the means to get your way, politics inevitably becomes a battleground, political issues then are elevated to matters of ultimate importance, and the government arrogates to itself control of society. To be sure, politics and the role of government are very important in the right ordering of society. But when they become the central authority regulating all human relations and are looked upon as the source of survival—even salvation—they become a cancer, destroying the nonpolitical institutions and forms of human relations.

When workers, unions, and employers are no longer required to resolve their own disputes because the government is expected to settle all important aspects of labour relations, invariably the small day-to-day improvements, accomplished by people of goodwill on both sides of the bargaining table, simply do not happen. To those convinced that the nature of our problems is "systemic," radical, revolutionary change is the only answer. Piecemeal changes are merely diversionary tactics, roadblocks to the necessary revolution. Thus there is a tendency to denigrate the good, demonize the opposition, and exacerbate division and conflict. And by politicizing all of life, the possibility for civilized debate and reasonable discussion is made impossible.

Fortunately, the way out of the serious difficulties we face, including the worsening relations between various social/political interest groups (especially labour and management), has not yet been closed off. But it will require a realization that we humans are not a law to ourselves. We are responsible to do what is just and right and honourable, especially to those closest to us and to those who are the most powerless and vulnerable among us.

This is still possible because the Good News is that God who made this world has not abandoned it—although it may sometimes appear that evil is on the throne. The Creator of the world is still present with His power and grace to heal what is broken and to reconcile those who are enemies. How to embody and live out of that truth is the most urgent and the most liberating challenge before us.

There is no easy formula for this way of living. But one thing is certain. Looking to politics as the means to create the ideal society will inevitably reduce it to a cabal of warring factions.

Our hope must not be put in politics or some Utopian revolution. Instead, everyone of us, from the greatest to the smallest, by daily doing what is right, by taking those little steps, and doing those small works of mercy and of duty and of faithfulness, can by the grace of God still help bring healing to this hurting and conflict-ridden world.

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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