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Review: From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

May 31, 2014

All they taught you at school…
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself
- Billy Bragg
 
 
Former student leader Nora Loreto has written an important intervention into the lives of her peers about trade unions and workplace justice.
 
The book is a brilliant practical guide to trade unions, and to the law and politics surrounding them. She negotiates well between what you need to know about how unions operate in society, in all their strengths and weaknesses: how they will protect you against the system, and also how they are a compromise with it, depending on circumstances. It is a passionate argument for the necessity of trade unions, while also guiding you through what is within their control, what is not, and why.
 
And along the way, she gives multiple examples of actual struggles that show what unions can achieve through the activity of their members, from a union drive at the Hot and Crusty Café in NYC, to a strike by faculty at St FX in Nova Scotia to support contract staff.   
 
Although the book will serve as a practical and accessible resource for the mechanics of trade unionism, what’s most interesting is how it unites that practical guide to action with an understanding of what holds young people back from unions.
 
Nora ascribes the generational loss to the absence of an alternative. And she locates that absence not only in what has happened to the union movement but what has happened to society as a whole: “In Canada, there exits a clear lack of social solidarity that should accompany living in any society and this has isolated young people like never before.”
 
She counterposes the notion of “community” in rural societies where survival nurtured cultures of interdependence. Now, that sense of community is simply foreign, and any notion of interpedendence is viewed at worst as a weakness, at best as abstract, in ever-more fragmented workplaces.
 
Nora makes the patient case that, in the end, there is no individual way out, only a collective way, even if much of the immediate communal dividends have been lost in the neoliberal shuffle. Those who have been dealt out should push their way back into the game, and at least have the benefit of all the union rules that are now under attack.
 
Nora admits that she provides only an incomplete answer to the most important question posed by her book: what is to be done? Do we keep playing, or do we rewrite the rules of the game?
 
I think she would agree: we have no choice but to do both at the same time.
 
Nora Loreto will be speakng on the panel "The NDP and the crisis of social democracy"--along with rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick and labour activists David Bush and Ritch Whyman--at the conference Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, June 14-15 in Toronto. Other sessions include "Rebuilding our unions: a rank and file strateg," and "After the election: taking on the anti-union threat in Quebec and Ontario."

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