On Monday, March 13, the executive committee of the union for Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia University (TRAC) issued a statement urging their roughly 3,000 members to disassociate from their current parent union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Resigning from their positions, they appealed to form a new union: the Concordia Research and Education Workers union (CREW), affiliated with the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). They then began mobilizations to get more than half of their members to sign new union cards with the CSN. This is an example of what is called “union raiding”, where one union tries to take the members of another existing union. 

The outgoing TRAC executive stated that “PSAC is unable and unwilling to address the longstanding and pervasive problems facing us as teaching and research assistants at Concordia. Every year, they pocket dollars from struggling student-workers, while contributing virtually nothing to improving our pay and working conditions.” They explain that the campaign to join the CSN is necessary to better equip the teaching and research assistants to win a good contract. 

But is raiding really the way forward?

Frictions between the TRAC and PSAC executives

The motorforce behind the raid is that TRAC’s current collective agreement with Concordia University expires in May, meaning that they will soon enter into new negotiations with the University’s administration. 

A document listing their drafted bargaining demands includes pay increases above seven per cent, Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA), a cap on the amount of hours per contract, paid training, the abolition of tiered pay rates, and a strengthening of the right to refuse unsafe work, among many others. In-and-of-themselves, these demands are very positive. Each of them addresses a real problem faced by the teaching and research assistants on the campus, and would greatly improve their working conditions.

According to TRAC’s former leadership, they have faced criticism from the PSAC executive for including pay raises above inflation in their demands. This is of serious concern since PSAC’s executive committee maintains the right to dismiss members of local bargaining committees and to decide the final terms of agreement between locals and their employers. They have also been criticized for a lack of transparency in handling locals’ finances. A PSAC policy officer has the last word on the monetary demands of locals. Altogether, PSAC’s bureaucracy represents a significant barrier to the local union fighting for their bold demands.

In their last statement before resigning, TRAC’s leadership explained that the ‘raid’ on PSAC was a step towards building “a stronger union”, one that is actually willing to fight for their demands. The sentiment is a positive one; the teaching and research assistants at Concordia University are beginning to voice in greater numbers their desire to fight back against deteriorating conditions and wages. We fully support this struggle for better conditions. But a closer look at the tactic of raiding shows that this has generally negative repercussions for the movement as a whole, and channels resources and energy in the wrong direction. 

Is raiding the right tactic?

Many, both on the campus and beyond, are likely not familiar with “union raiding”. Concretely, this means taking members out of one union and re-affiliating them to another. It is a tactic with a long history in the labour movement, with numerous instances of union bureaucracies pouring large amounts of time and energy into campaigns to recruit already organized workers, instead of working to unionize the majority of the working class who remain unorganized. When workers leave one union to join another it is a zero-sum game—what one union wins the other loses, and so the trade union movement can work itself into a sweat campaigning. Instead of organizing the unorganized, union bureaucracies enter into conflict with each other. On principle, union raiding is entirely counterproductive. 

In the case of TRAC the raid campaign has taken on a somewhat different character. It is clear that this is not a ‘Game of Thrones’ struggle between the bureaucracies of two big unions, like we have seen in the past, but that this represents a genuine contradiction between the local executives and the parent union’s executive. It does not appear that the drive to reaffiliate originated with the CSN, but rather it was the local TRAC leadership who were the ones to begin the campaign.

The former TRAC executive (now running the CREW-CSN campaign) have, to their credit, gained support among a layer of the local rank and file by demanding better wages and working conditions. But now this campaign came as a surprise, above all, to most of TRAC’s members. Whether or not the campaign is supported among the ranks will be revealed by whether or not the campaign succeeds. With their upcoming contract negotiations at stake and so much left uncertain, this was a massive Hail Mary by the TRAC outgoing leadership. 

Instead of raiding, it would have been possible to explain to the ranks of TRAC the bureaucratic roadblocks of the PSAC bureaucracy, and mobilize the members en masse to resist it. The PSAC bureaucrats would be left with the option of letting the union fight for its demands, or disciplining it and discrediting itself.  This could then be used to win over other PSAC locals to the need to fight for a militant national leadership. There are likely many locals that are experiencing similar grievances with the PSAC bureaucracy. A fight within PSAC could have been the starting-point for a campaign to beat back the right-wing bureaucracy across the entire country, forcing them to let the local fight for seven percent and COLA. This road would have avoided the tensions within the labour movement generated by the raid, while potentially triggering a broader change within PSAC.

Instead, CREW’s campaign statements blur the line between the PSAC bureaucracy and the rank and file. They state: “PSAC has actively undermined many of our attempts to campaign for our members: they failed to help us deliver significant changes on the issue of sexual harassment. They failed to provide adequate training and support for us and our members. And they disciplined us for rallying for a pay raise above inflation.” CREW’s statements do not differentiate between the rank-and-file members and the very small minority of conservative union bureaucrats that make up PSAC’s executive. In effect this means lumping in 230,000 public sector workers with the handful of conservative executives who are really to blame for CREW’s grievances.

We should also point out that the campaign that CREW-CSN has put forward avoids mentioning their concrete demands like COLA and others. It isn’t specified what wage increases CREW proposes to fight for, only that they propose to fight for “a stronger union”. 

The main thrust of the statement is to convince their members that the CSN represents that “stronger union”. It says:

“Employers are scared of CSN unions because they have a track record of backing members’ demands, effectively using the collective power of workers and winning good contracts during bargaining. Signing on with CSN sends a clear message to Concordia that we are ready to fight – it’s a simple action you can take to improve our future.”

We must advise against portraying joining the CSN as a panacea. The issue of conservatism is as present in the CSN as it is in any other union federation. The former president of the CSN said on the 50th anniversary of the Conseil du patronat du Québec (the bosses’ union) in 2018: “We sometimes clash and have different points of view, but we get along very well when it comes to promoting employment, fostering good working conditions and ensuring Quebec’s economic growth.” The struggle against this sort of class collaborationist approach is ubiquitous in the Canadian labour movement—it is not unique to PSAC. The CSN also has paid union advisors in negotiations that try to dampen the mood of the workers of their affiliates—this doesn’t exist in PSAC alone.

The former leadership’s main argument basically comes down to the idea that the PSAC bureaucracy is an insurmountable obstacle, that the union cannot be changed. But we should resist this mindset and have confidence that the rank and file members of TRAC and other PSAC locals can be mobilized to transform the union into a militant fighting body. The history of the labour movement is littered with such transformations. The CSN itself was once a conservative catholic union, but was transformed throughout the stormy period of 1950s into a major fighting force in the 1960-70s. A negative example is the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), who split from the United Auto Workers in 1985 on the pretext that it was less radical. The CAW later fused with another union to become Unifor, which today stands firmly on the right-wing of the Canadian labour movement. Unions, far from being immutable, are constantly changing. 

Whether the campaign succeeds or not, it risks breeding animosity between PSAC and the CSN. This comes at a time when PSAC-affiliated federal employees are voting on a strike mandate and the CSN, along with the other members of the Common front, are about to begin their public sector negotiations. Some PSAC locals in Quebec are affiliated with the FTQ, which is also part of the Common front. The utmost unity will be needed for these struggles—not a scrum over already unionized workers. Moreover, there are still non-unionized workers at Concordia University, like those currently employed at Concordia’s bookstore and in the coffee shops and cafeterias around the campus. It would be a much better use of union energy and funds to organize these workers. This would genuinely help to strengthen the workers’ unity, instead of waging an inter-union feud.

The former TRAC executive describes the raid as if it were a decision they were forced into by the PSAC executive; but throughout this whole process the option to remain and fight back openly against the bureaucracy and, more importantly, broaden the struggle to other PSAC locals, was a possibility. We are afraid that the results of this raid, whether they succeed or fail, will not be positive for the labour movement as a whole. We don’t think this was the right tactic.

What next?

Whatever the outcome, the key question remains the fight for better wages and working conditions—pay increases above seven per cent, COLA, etc. These were democratically decided upon by TRAC’s members and should be fought for vociferously. A fierce struggle for these demands would set a positive example for the rest of the labour movement to follow, regardless of TRAC or CREW’s union affiliation. Through fighting for wages which are tied to the cost of living and fighting consistently for wage increases above inflation we can finally begin to undo decades of wage erosion. 

The campaign has revealed the bureaucratic tendencies of the PSAC executive in particular. But conservative leadership acting as a barrier to  workers struggling for better wages and conditions is not unique to TRAC or PSAC. The struggle against conservative leadership is present in all the major trade unions in Canada. 

Under the hammerblow of the crisis of capitalism, workers will inevitably be driven to fight against deteriorating wages and conditions and the bosses’ attacks. In entering this struggle the workers will need leaders who represent the mass radicalization of rank and file workers across the country. 

Conservative bureaucratic leaders have presided over decades of declining living standards for the working class. Workers need a militant leadership that will fight and go on the offensive to end decades of decline of living standards and working conditions. Union executives should receive the same wages as the workers they represent, not the fat salaries and expense accounts which place them closer to the bosses they’re supposed to oppose. Within our unions we must fight for genuine workers’ democracy, with the right to recall those so-called leaders who have proven themselves not up to the task. Energy and resources must be put towards bringing new layers of workers into organized struggle and campaigning against government austerity and bosses’ attacks. And above all, we must win the unions to a socialist, class-struggle perspective that aims to organize working people not just on the basis of union affiliation but as an entire class capable of taking society into its own hands and organizing it for its own interests. 

Only on this basis can our living standards be guaranteed and the perpetual struggle for a decent existence be brought once and for all to an end. What is needed is a struggle against the capitalist system as a whole and for the socialist transformation of society by the workers.