How not to manage a general strike

The 30 November strike could be a huge own goal unless unions ensure they appeal to as many workers

Ahead of the November 30 strike, it's important to understand why low-paid workers might be resentful towards public sector employees, and to think about strategies of how to win them over. And let's consign the word "scab" to the dustbin.

While previous disputes have pitted traditional "class" enemies against one another, such traditional distinctions are not so easy to draw nowadays. We're faced with a situation in which the public sector "class" have been portrayed as living the life of Riley with decent wages, working conditions, holidays and the so-called "gold-plated" pensions by successive governments' friends in the media, while the private sector has forced employees to up their pension contributions in order to maintain pitifully bleak pension outcomes, and while wages have failed to keep pace with prices.

It's simple to see why one group of workers might view the other with suspicion or resentment, even if it's not desirable to see a race to the bottom. But times are tough. Private sector wages don't go as far as they used to, and they are suffering thanks to corporate greed of employers and wider economic woes alike. Forcing public-sector workers to suffer as much as those who've been in the private sector won't solve anything, but it's not hard to see why some might see that as somehow deserved or overdue.

While unions are fighting for the pension rights and futures of public sector workers, there are hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers right across the country seeing their wages disappear in tax while they're struggling to cover their basic outgoings -- and that's if they're lucky enough to have a job in the first place. When those people read their newspaper in their brief lunchbreak and see the carefully constructed average figures for public-sector pensions, deliberately designed to make them seem as outrageous as possible, how do you convince them that it's important to maintain those standards?

How are unions going to win over those people, and tell them it's worth paying their taxes to ensure that teachers or civil servants get the pensions they deserve? It's not going to be a simple task, but it's worth doing. Low-paid workers are those who could be helped the most by being members of a union, or be lifted up by collective bargaining rights in the workplace; they are the most vulnerable to being kicked out at a moment's notice or treated badly by unscrupulous employers. They have the most to gain from the labour movement, yet they are the ones who may well view it with the most suspicion.

Even if you accept that it's vital for unions to be campaigning for the hard-fought rights of public sector workers at this time of ideological cutbacks, when the government is zealously tearing into the fabric of the state by using "the mess we inherited" as camouflage, it's important not to allow workers to be divided and conquered. It's happened so many times before, and it's bound to happen again.

November 30 could be a massive bear trap unless unions ensure they try and appeal to as many workers as possible. Let's have no talk of "scabs" -- those who cross picket lines may not do so joyfully but because they've got families to feed or because, in the case of public-sector workers, they feel their duty is with the public they serve. There must be respect for those choices at all times, for the word "scab" is the biggest gift of all to the enemies of the labour movement.

We'll be told there was a small turnout for the action. We'll be told that workers have gold-plated pensions. Unions will, as ever, be on the back foot when it comes to publicity and the government will have its slick media strategy prepared well in advance, ready to take on the Tories' old enemies. The only thing that will make it even harder to get the right message across will be scenes of intimidation of those who are faced with the awful choice of having to cross a picket line.

This is going to be a tough sell for unions, which isn't to say it's the wrong action at the wrong time. It's the right thing to do at the right time. But it's vital that the right messages come out of this, that unions are inclusive and for everyone. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being an own goal.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change