Canadian unions should be raising their voices to promote peace. Instead, a recent British Columbia Federation of Labour resolution highlights the labour movement’s alignment with NATO and the political right.
At the BC Fed’s convention two weeks the resolution committee endorsed a statement on Ukraine. It notes:
BECAUSE of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014;
BECAUSE Ukraine’s resistance is founded in a solidarity of Ukrainian people including Ukraine’s Jewish Community, Muslim Community including the Crimean Tatars, the women of Ukraine, and the LGBT+ community;
BECAUSE Ukrainian society is built on community ‘hromada’ — an ideology aligned with the labour movement — a view of change occurring from the bottom up — people dictating government and not the other way around;
THE FEDERATION WILL work with the CLC [Canadian Labour Congress] to reach out and work with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to organize efforts to support displaced Ukrainians in Canada and particularly in securing work;
THE FEDERATION WILL explore divesting any of its assets that are directly and indirectly supporting the Russian state and encouraging affiliates to do the same.”
It is odd to suggest Ukraine is pro-union. In July, reported The Militant, the Ukrainian “Parliament eliminated collective bargaining rights at any job with 250 workers or less, turning labor agreements into ‘individual employment contracts.’” Nor does it make sense for unions to promote the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which the federal government helped create eight decades ago to undercut more socialist and internationalist elements within the Ukrainian community. The UCC is pro-corporate and includes a hard-line nationalist bent that glorifies those who assisted the Nazis during World War II.
The BC Fed resolution highlights Canadian unions failure to challenge NATO’s proxy war with Russia. Few unions have raised their voice to challenge Canada’s role in escalating the conflict or opposition to negotiations. Nor have they questioned the resources — over $1 billion in arms and $3 billion in other support — Canada has devoted to the war since February.
(In Europe the war has been used against unions. In response to planned job action by health workers’ British cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi recently said that Russian president Vladimir Putin “wants to see” strikes. According to Zahawi, “This is a time to come together and to send a very clear message to Mr Putin that we’re not going to be divided in this way … our message to the unions is to say this is not a time to strike, this is a time to try to negotiate.”)
Unions’ NATO alignment and one-sided solidarity with Ukrainians isn’t new. In my 2018 book Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada I detailed Canadian unions lack of reaction to a horrific incident in Odessa, which continues to mark Ukrainian politics. On May 2, 2014, forty-two were killed in a fire at the headquarters of the Odessa federation of trade unions. Neo-Nazi “Right Sector” militants sequestered “anti-Maidan”/pro-Russian demonstrators inside and 40 people choked to death on smoke or died jumping from the building. The far right purportedly instigated the violence in response to a May Day celebration in a city with significant ties to Russia.
I searched in vain for a Unifor, CUPE, United Steelworkers, UFCW or PSAC statement on the fire at the union office. Six weeks before the Odessa massacre Unifor released a statement about the upheaval in the Ukraine, noting “we watched with horror as the political protesters demonstrating in the main square of Kiev, Ukraine were met with deadly violence.” But, unlike those in Kiev, the victims in Odessa were considered “pro-Russian” so the dominant media barely covered their killings. As a result, Canadian union officials ignored them as well.
Between 2010 and 2014, Canada waged a campaign to subvert an elected government in Ukraine. Ottawa actively assisted the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych who opposed Ukraine joining NATO. Canadian unions failed to criticize Ottawa’s role, including housing opposition Maidan protesters at the embassy in Kyiv for a week, before Yanukovych’s 2014 ouster.
They’ve also stayed mum about Canada beginning a military training mission to undercut the Minsk II peace accord to end fighting in the east. Operation Unifier was Ottawa’s principal contribution to a seven-year-old proxy war Russia massively expanded in February.
Ditto for Canada promoting NATO expansion despite promises made at the end of the Cold War to not move the alliance “one inch” eastward. I searched in vain for a statement from major unions about Ottawa’s recent push for Finland and Sweden to join NATO or its long-standing promotion of the alliance’s eastward expansion (A May Canadian Union of Postal Workers statement noted, “we oppose both the invasion and the NATO expansionist agenda that contributes to the long-building tensions in the region.”).
Unfortunately, unions have often aligned with Canadian militarism. The inaugural convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1956 called on the “Canadian government not to falter or fail in its support of NATO”, which it described as a measure for “self-protection against aggression.” As part of an effort to promote the European colonial powers’ military alliance, the newly formed labour federation distributed 11,000 copies of a booklet titled “The Trade Unions and NATO”. The pamphlet explained, “unfortunately we still do have to spend large sums on defence, and the responsibility for the fact rests with international communism. Canadian labour firmly supports NATO.” (It wasn’t until two decades after its formation that the CLC “urged the federal government to … deemphasize the role of the North Atlantic organization.”)
Similar to today’s proxy war, the CLC’s predecessor largely backed another inter-imperialist struggle. In 1915 the Trades and Labor Congress characterized World War I as a “mighty endeavour to secure early and final victory for the cause of freedom and democracy.” Industrial Banner, the leading labour newspaper in southern Ontario, called for crushing “Prussian authoritarianism” under which the “common man suffered most.” (Union opposition to the war grew dramatically after Ottawa introduced conscription in August 1917.)
World War I was a capitalist, colonialist, horror show. It was a struggle between up-and-coming Germany and the imperial powers of the day, Britain and France.
Unfortunately, unions generally go along with the ruling class narrative of what is happening in the world because it is easy, garners positive attention in the dominant media and legitimizes their status inside a system of vastly unequal power relations.
Despite being easy, siding with your country’s ruling class has always been against working class self-interest. It has always led to war and division. Workers of the world unite is an old slogan but remains true as ever.