Around twenty years ago when I worked in the labor movement, I used to go up to Toronto to help a hotel workers’ union fight the boss. During one contract dispute, union members and staffers had an understanding with the cops and management that they could stand in front of a car attempting to enter the property for exactly a minute before letting the vehicle pass. As we were in Ontario, there were a lot of U.S. license plates amid the Canadian ones. The difference between the two groups was striking: the Canadians took the whole thing in stride, waited for their minute to pass, and then went on their way. But the U.S. drivers were enraged! A lot of them screamed and cursed and said that we “had no right” to delay their journey, and urged the cops, blandly looking on, to bust us. What I took from this episode was a sense that Canadians, regardless of their politics, accepted unions as part of their political culture. They were institutional articulations of the working class. Americans just viewed unions as a nuisance—a special interest.
In Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University, has confirmed my anecdotal intuition with a lucid and provocative work of historical sociology. Eidlin wants to understand why and how the fortunes of the labor movements in the United States and Canada so sharply diverged beginning in the mid-1960s. At that time, union density in both countries stood at between 25 and 30 percent. But since then American union density has steadily declined to its present 10.5 percent, as low as it was at the start of the Great Depression, while Canadian union density went up, declined a bit, and then stabilized at its current 28 percent.
So what happened? Eidlin argues that the seeds of this disparity were planted during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, the U.S. labor movement had more power and success than its Canadian counterpart. Franklin Roosevelt, faced with an upsurge of labor militancy, “. . . adopted a co-optive response to worker and farmer upsurge,” writes Eidlin, signing the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), supporting union organizing (sort of), and making labor an indispensable part of the New Deal. Union growth skyrocketed through the late 1930s and, again with the administration’s support, during the Second World War. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Liberal Party attracted no politicians as strategically adroit as FDR. The ineffective William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served non-continuously as prime minister for over eighteen years beginning in 1926, was closer to Herbert Hoover than Roosevelt. As Eidlin puts it, he “hesitated to implement comprehensive collective bargaining policies because of an ideological commitment to a value normally viewed as classically American: voluntarism.” R. B. Bennett, the Conservative leader who served as prime minister from 1930 to 1935, doubled down on King’s free-market nostrums while also promoting arrests of radicals and violent repression of labor. Neither Canadian party supported an NLRA-style law.
The Canadian labor movement didn’t win the concessions that FDR had granted in the United States during the 1930s. The Conservative Party unconditionally opposed organized labor, and the Liberal Party failed to support unionists enough to politically consolidate them. Canadian unions won wartime concessions due to their continued militancy and, ultimately, the passage of the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigations Act in 1948, the rough analogue to the NLRA. The paradoxical result was that the Canadian unionists forged themselves as an oppositional “class representative.” Rather than absorbing themselves as one interest among several into a major party, they nurtured their own oppositional party, affiliating in 1943 with the agrarian based Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. And, despite the fervent desire of the Canadian business class, Canada did not pass an equivalent to the labor-restraining Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. (It’s not entirely clear from reading Eidlin why the Canadian business class and its conservative political allies were not as ferociously supportive of such a law as were the National Association of Manufacturers and the Southern white supremacist bloc in the United States.) Moreover, facing a milder postwar red scare than McCarthyism in the United States, Canadian labor did not fully divorce itself from Communist and other radical influences like U.S. unions did.
Unions in both countries took a more nationalist turn after the radicalism of the Depression era. In Canada, this deepened labor’s leftist oppositional stance, connecting nationalism to criticism of their huge and powerful neighbor to the south. Nationalism of the U.S. labor movement had an entirely different social meaning, embodied in the reactionary Vietnam War hawk, George Meany, who as president of the AFL-CIO famously opined in 1972 that he saw no particular reason to organize workers beyond labor’s current membership. Within unions and the Democratic Party, Meany’s forces vehemently fought the New Left. In Canada, by contrast, labor leftists in the 1970s helped massively increase public-sector organizing, just as globalization and the collapse of the New Deal order were undermining manufacturing unions in the United States.
American labor had gotten a head start by incorporating itself into the New Deal. But, over time, it grew complacent and dependent upon a party it could not control, stuck in what Mike Davis memorably described as a “barren marriage.” Canadian labor, harshly rejected by both major parties, had a more difficult period during the late 1930s and 1940s. Eventually, however, it controlled its own autonomous working-class party. It devoted itself not to “access” to power, but to mobilization and generating its own power.
Eidlin incisively dismantles reasons that scholars have routinely suggested for differences between the Canadian and U.S. labor movements—in particular, the old chestnut of national comparative studies that the two countries have dramatically different national cultures: the United States individualist, Canada collectivist.
Instead, he focuses on the administrative and legal structures under which unions operate. In the United States, labor was increasingly hamstrung by bureaucracy after Taft-Hartley. The NLRB general counsel—a position created by Taft-Hartley—is charged with deciding which cases the board should take up, reducing unions to supplicants rather than advocates on their own behalf. In Canada, unions represent themselves directly. Moreover, U.S. unions must deal with an onerous judicial review process: federal courts hear appeals of board decisions and frequently overturn them on substantive matters. As Eidlin writes, this “creates huge incentives for employers to appeal and delay as much as possible.” In Canada, judicial review is mostly limited to procedural issues, making courts the “final and binding arbiter” of the labor-relations system.
Eidlin also attempts to address another common reason suggested for the relative weakness of U.S. labor: racism. He concedes that, while racism is pervasive in the history of both countries, American racism “has had a more damaging effect on labor in the United States compared to Canada.” Yet he also asserts that racism is exacerbated by a labor movement’s inability to create an independent class-based political formation.
But the Socialist Party of the early 1900s, the most successful third party ever on the left, was, like the rest of America, rife with racism; nothing about being an Independent Left Third Party (ILTP) precluded that. The AFL unions of that time frequently barred black workers from membership. Later, the overwhelmingly working-class civil rights movement was indeed boosted by social democratic black trade unionists like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and pro-union social democratic civil rights advocates like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But unions did not lead this movement, and significant percentages of white working-class and unionized voters stood in the way of their struggle and lent support to George Wallace in 1968 and Richard Nixon in 1972. (Indeed Nixon carried the union vote that year.) Similarly, the failure of Operation Dixie, the postwar drive to increase union membership in the South, is symptomatic of racist obstacles to unionism in the United States that are far more powerful than those in Canada.
One of Eidlin’s sharpest insights, paradoxically, points to how American racism is not given its due in the book. Eidlin compares the 1968 report by the Canadian Task Force on Labor Relations—a comprehensive historical analysis of the Canadian labor relations system that included many reform recommendations implemented by the government—with a much briefer 1970 memo prepared by the U.S. Department of Labor, “The Problem of the Blue-Collar Worker,” which focused on the individual issues of worker alienation and did not recognize unions as the institutional representatives of the working class. This is indeed a fascinating comparison. But an even more resonant parallel to the Canadian study is the much better-known Kerner Commission report on “civil disorders,” also released in 1968, in the wake of the violent, urban racial conflicts of 1967. Structural racism remains the most prominent and recognizable feature of the hierarchical social order in the United States. With some significant exceptions, that racism has repeatedly undermined the possibility of American workers seeing themselves as agents of the class idea.
At times, it seems to rankle Eidlin that U.S. labor took the good deal it was offered during the 1930s. At one point, he notes that union membership “exploded” under the NLRA, but in the very next sentence he writes, “The Wagner Act’s perceived benefits drew labor toward Roosevelt [emphasis added].” But the benefits weren’t merely perceived; they were concrete. The New Deal delivered the goods, including the passage of Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which codified a minimum wage and overtime pay). Eidlin writes that we often forget how New Deal policies “were contingent outcomes of political battles, and the degree to which historical outcomes were suppressed.” But once FDR seized control of the presidency and gained the support of Southern white supremacists for the early New Deal, it’s hard to see how things might have turned out other than the way they did. It’s easier to imagine Canada spawning a gifted, opportunistic politician like FDR who would have cut a deal with labor in the 1930s than it is to think that U.S. unions would reject the first president to recognize unions’ right to exist and even grow.
Eidlin attributes much of the failure of the U.S. labor movement to start an ILTP to conflicts between the AFL and CIO. But earlier fights between the AFL and IWW hadn’t prevented the rise of the Socialist Party (SP) decades earlier, and the obstacles to launching a successful labor-driven third party were, by the postwar period, extensive. There was also a fierce intra-CIO dispute between its still influential communist wing and the abrasively brilliant social democratic UAW president Walter Reuther. That alone made independent political collaboration hard to imagine. The structural difficulties that, in part, limited the growth of the SP earlier in the century had also persisted. By the end of the Second World War, the effective anti-labor conservative alliance between the white supremacist Southern Democratic bloc and most of the Republican Party that had begun in the late 1930s had consolidated. The passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was one major result of that alliance. Harry Truman’s failed veto of the law highlighted the risks of a third party, which would, unlike in Canada, have to simultaneously fight and win separate legislative and executive branch elections.
An independent left party in the United States would have also had to contend with a far more inhospitable political climate during the early Cold War. Eidlin allows that the Cold War made an anti-communist “backlash all the more inescapable.” But he doesn’t see why that backlash was far more pervasive in the United States than in Canada. The United States was the adversary of the Soviet Union and, until 1952, the only other nuclear power. The anti-communist right in the United States was morbidly linked, in a way it could not quite be in Canada, with “mushroom clouds, real and metaphorical,” in the words of Paul Boyer, the historian of American atomic culture. While a few left-wing intellectuals and journals (like this one) survived the McCarthy period, it is hard to imagine that a left-wing third party could have sustained itself during the coercive consensus of the 1950s.
Eidlin’s characteristic care in comparative structural analysis falters in his discussion of another critical period, the 1970s, when America labor failed to win legislative reforms under a Democratic president and Congress, while Canadian labor did win such reforms. Eidlin briefly points to the ambivalent Democratic Party support for the Labor Law Reform Act of 1977–8; the Democrats treated labor as merely a special interest, one to be judged against the needs of other party constituents. “Whereas the Canadian labor regime allowed for an effective translation of class mobilization into the political realm, leading to regular policy reforms,” writes Eidlin, “the US labor regime consistently mistranslated class mobilization into the political realm, diffusing labor’s independent political pressure.”
This misses a number of features of the American system that would have made a Canadian outcome all but impossible. We shouldn’t assume that an independent labor party would have produced better labor law when, under a first-past-the-post presidential system, it could just as easily have split the vote and led to Republicans capturing the presidency in 1976. Moreover, Canadian labor reform in the 1970s happened at the provincial level across the country. By contrast, U.S. labor law preempts most state-level legislation that would revise or repeal it. For example, in 1994, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down that state’s anti-striker replacement law, an effort by state Democrats to replicate the failed national version of the law.
Even so, the 1978 labor reform bill could have passed were in not for another procedural obstacle: the filibuster. The mundane but profound truth is that the U.S. political system has far more chokepoints than Canada’s parliamentary, (effectively) unicameral system. Anti-majoritarian procedure in the United States, including voter suppression policies, have long structured political outcomes.
At the end of his book, Eidlin observes that class politics in the Canadian labor movement and its political vehicle, the NDP, are so diluted that political observers see no salient differences between it and the business-
compliant Liberals and Conservatives. The “class idea is under attack” in Canada, writes Eidlin, but it remains “more embedded” than in the United States. Eidlin offers no explanations for this deterioration in labor’s political and economic position in Canada, which makes this reader wonder why the “class idea” of the book’s title remains vulnerable to erosion even in a country that produced, according to Eidlin, such a strong version of class representation. Why, if the NDP had been so successful in representing the interests of the Canadian working class, has it recently moved away from that position? This raises the possibility that the U.S.-Canadian comparison, while yielding many sharp insights, needs to be expanded further. Today, across the economically advanced democracies, a cohort of young leftist intellectuals is shaping a new analysis of political culture and economy. But the large institutions of the left—its traditional social democratic parties and unions—are, in many places, in crisis.
Eidlin is most pessimistic—as is everybody else—about the United States. Yet Canada’s current baseline for union density and political power are indeed higher than in the United States, but there doesn’t seem to be many other reasons for a more optimistic prognosis for Canadian organized labor. In fact, it might be argued that just as Canada’s labor movement didn’t get its version of the Wagner Act until a decade after the United States, it may now just be deteriorating on a later timeline.
For either country, as Eidlin emphasizes, there is no path forward without a renewed focus on workplace organization. Only workers at the point of production, provision, and distribution can enforce agreements and hold management accountable. Workplace organization, in turn, must create and sustain “durable collective identities” for today’s working class. Even in a period of great difficulty for the labor movement, we might now be seeing the development of those identities in the inspiring workplace organizing in sectors like education and media.
But militancy in those venues isn’t enough to revive U.S. labor when the commanding heights of the economy remain union-free. In a 2017 article in the Yale Law Journal, entitled,“Nothing New Under the Sun,” which Eidlin cites, Matthew Ginsburg, an associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, directs the movement to its most difficult organizing challenges. “There’s no avoiding Walmart, Toyota, Amazon, T-Mobile, and Federal Express. The greatest concentration of unorganized workers in the United States is still employed at these and similar large multinational corporations.”
This would truly be organizing on an enormous scale—the only way labor in the advanced world has ever grown enough to increase its political and economic power. It seems barely conceivable to organize these goliaths any time soon. But while workers might gain benefits from less ambitious projects—alt-labor and worker centers, pushes to increase the minimum wage—nothing other than taking on the biggest companies can create political change on the scale required. Alt labor and worker centers are boutique-level interventions. They cannot generate sufficient revenue from workers themselves without being tied to specific company bargaining agreements. And for workers’ organizations to depend upon capital’s philanthropic arm, an idea that Ginsburg rightly derides, is to become a grant recipient, not a labor movement. Fight for $15 has been stunningly successful in every way—raising the wages of millions and pushing the Democratic Party to the left—except for actually increasing union membership.
Similarly, the idea of implementing sectoral bargaining is percolating among labor intellectuals in the United States, but massive militancy and numerical expansion in the labor movement is the only leverage that can win such a large reform. As Ginsburg argues, “Organizational growth on a firm by firm basis must precede any effort to significantly change the legal rules governing labor relations in the United States.” The intellectual labor can bear fruit someday, but the only way to win big is to go big. Workers must build those durable collective identities on their own behalf. And unions must institutionalize that social solidarity. For now, we are left with incipient possibilities.
Barry Eidlin has given us a smart lay of the land for both nations. We know much more about the different labor regimes in these neighboring countries than we ever have before. And Eidlin’s core argument—that New Deal–era support for U.S. labor limited its autonomy decades later, while Canadian labor’s lengthier struggle to win concessions from the state steeled its independent, class-conscious perspective—is arresting and persuasive, even if it’s almost impossible to imagine a plausible historical counter-narrative in the United States. What he can’t explain is why today, even in Canada, the class idea is more fragile than ever, or how U.S. labor can recapture its New Deal militancy in the political economy of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Labor and the Class Idea is a stimulating contribution to today’s movements for egalitarianism and labor solidarity, and activists throughout North America should ponder it for some time to come.
Rich Yeselson is a contributing editor to Dissent. He is writing a book about the causes and consequences of the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.