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Reflections on the Labour Movement and Social Democracy


The Broadbent Institute's new project, Change the Game, takes a critical look at the history of social democracy in Canada, with the intention of learning from the successes and challenges of the past in order to build the best possible path forward. We invite you to join us in rethinking and renewing social democracy by reading other entries in this series.

For large parts of the 20th century, social democracy was the natural habitat for many in the labour movement, and vice versa. Social democrats built the political space where union aspirations for better living conditions and social solidarity found a sympathetic hearing. For their part, social democrats have always relied on strong unions as a major force for economic equality, full employment and the economic democracy that are the necessary pillars of a progressive welfare state1. Social democratic parties also benefited from close union ties in the electoral arena through union political support, both in terms of resources and expertise, as well as a connection to their natural voting constituency.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the social democratic welfare state in the 30 years after the Second World War followed the same trajectory as the rise in trade union power and membership. In Canada, trade union density reached its peak in the early 1980s. Indeed, up until the 1980s there almost seemed to be a historical inevitability to the growth of the labour movement and the flourishing of the progressive welfare state. As Tony Judt points out in his excellent essay “What is living and what is dead in Social Democracy,” the entire 20th century narrative of the progressive state rested on the conceit that we (social democrats, socialists, reformers of all stripes) had “History on our side.” I would argue that the labour movement operated on the same conceit.

But all that has changed. Very few in the trade union movement feel that there is anything inevitable about the growth of our movement. Indeed, in North America, discussions of the movement’s very survival are becoming more and more common.

This is not a problem that is limited to North America. The OECD Employment Outlook, published in June 2017, provided sobering news for trade unionists around the world. The report included an overview of collective bargaining in OECD countries, and found that, on average, 17 per cent of employees in the OECD are members of trade unions, a dramatic decline from 30 per cent in 1985. Further, the share of workers who are covered by a collective agreement has shrunk to 33 per cent in 2015 from 45 per cent in 19852.

It is no accident that the decline in trade union membership across the OECD over the last 30 years has coincided with some difficult times for social democrats. Over the last number of decades the relationship between social democrats and trade unions has also frayed as times have become more challenging. Beginning in the ‘80s and ‘90s social democratic parties became more inclined to defend past achievements rather than propose new reforms. Some social democratic parties, faced with a lack of electoral success, moved to weaken or sever their relationship with the trade union movement, and adopt a kinder gentler neoliberalism, with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton leading the way.

For trade unions, faced with social democratic parties that seemed all too often to advocate the virtues of globalization, neoliberalism and privatization, the benefits of close affiliation and support for such parties became less clear.

In Canada, the relationship between unions and social democratic parties has become increasingly strained. Of course the relationship between trade unions and political parties has never been straightforward, and is often misunderstood. As far back as the mid-19th century, trade unionists were debating the benefits of affiliation with leftist parties. On one hand, directly affiliating and supporting a political party would provide unions with direct influence on the political projects of the day and would eventually lead to the passage of progressive legislation. For other unions, direct political affiliation means compromising the union’s efforts to advance the interests of its members and the working class more generally. For some unions, the best way to advocate for its members is to have a more transactional relationship with the political process in order to exercise power where and when it can. This latter position becomes much more attractive when social democratic parties are on the defensive and are looking to distance themselves from the labour movement. This relationship gets even more fraught when public sector unions (which make up a large and growing percentage of trade union members in Canada) have to face social democratic governments across the bargaining table.

These challenges are not limited to Canada. Social democratic parties and trade unionists, once inseparable, have increasingly gone their separate ways in Scandinavia, Germany, the UK and other parts of Europe. But does the story need to end this way? Is the decline of trade unions and social democracy the inevitable byproduct of a new 21st century global capitalism that is increasingly only working for the very few?

I think not. In fact I think that the future of social democracy and the trade union movement (like their past), is closely linked and that re-invigorating the organizational and political links between the two should be at the heart of social democracy’s attempt to revive its political future. This is so for several reasons.

First, the collective power of the trade union movement, and the bonds of solidarity it creates among working people, offers a promising building block for social democrats that too often goes ignored or unused. Social democrats lament the erosion of the collective impulse at the hands of individualism, consumerism and neoliberal privatization. In its place, social democrats often speak of a re-emphasis on communitarian values. But if you want real collective values, and the power that goes with them, then re-engagement with the labour movement at the membership level offers a better way forward. A revitalized trade union movement can offer social democrats much more than just an electoral machine – it can actually offer what social democrats really need: a mass movement.

Second, social democrats need to be concerned about the state of our democracy, and here again I would submit that the labour movement can be part of the solution. As Charles Taylor points out in his contribution to this project, the rise of right wing populism represents a deep threat to democracy. Taylor points out that one reason for this threat is that in the decades after the Second World War, workers and others “non-elites” had a sense that their voices mattered in the political arena, and that their economic needs were being met3. Trade unions were a crucial part of that process. It is the erosion of this belief on the part of workers (and others) that they have any efficacy in the political and the economic arenas that has led to the rise of right wing populists. For social democrats to combat this populism, they must re-connect with workers who are struggling economically and whose legitimate concerns are not being addressed by our political elites.

Third, social democrats and the trade union movement need to embrace internationalism. Capitalism has gone beyond the nation state, and social democrats and trade unionists need to follow suit. Trade unions are already making halting steps in this direction, but there remain few examples of unions truly exercising power on a global level to combat global capital. Moreover, unions are also faced with the reality that the globalization of capital has, in most cases, been bad for workers. As a result, there is a strong temptation for unions and social democrats to retreat back to national borders and to be skeptical of all forms of internationalism. 

However, both social democrats and trade unionists must resist this temptation. Rather than retreat away from internationalism, social democrats must realize that the way to socialize multi nationals is through global institutions. Social democrats need to advocate policies that tax the wealthy, wherever their wealth may be found, and regulate markets wherever they are exploiting labour or doing damage to the planet. Similarly, the labour movement should have as one of its central projects the international regulation of labour rights. The only real way to avoid a “race to the bottom” is to raise the level AT the bottom – not try and corral the movement of global capital which has long since left the barn.

Fourth, both the labour movement and social democrats need to stop seeing themselves as the only voice for social progress. One of the hazards of having “History on your side” is that you don’t pay enough attention to those that 20th history ignored or left behind. Social democrats and the labour movement have too often viewed inequality exclusively in class terms, and have failed to incorporate a more diverse view of oppression and inequality. Social democrats and trade unionist need to work together with a broader group of progressive voices and forces, in partnership with those who identify race, gender, sexual orientation and identity as the primary loci of oppression in our society.

Finally, trade unionists need to be reminded that social democracy has a lot to offer workers. The construction of the modern social service state that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century led to the greatest period of economic growth and reduced inequality in human history. Social democrats and trade unionists can (and do) claim a lot of the credit for this remarkable achievement, but we are not always good at reminding workers that these gains made a huge difference to their lives.

Here again the recently published OECD employment study is instructive. It notes that collective agreement coverage is high and stable only in countries that favour centralized, multi-employer bargaining at the sectoral or national level. Moreover, among OECD countries, the union membership rate is above 50 per cent only in countries where unemployment benefits are administered by union affiliated institutions (as found in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway and partly Belgium4). In other words, in social democratic states where bargaining is centralized and unions play a key role in delivering social welfare benefits, trade union membership and density remain high. Moreover, these countries continue to have much lower levels of income inequality and higher wage growth than other OECD countries.

For workers, trade unions and social democrats, the answer to achieving greater social justice is in imagining a closer relationship between social democracy, trade unions and the state. This continues to be the successful model in the Nordic states, and it should remain the objective for social democrats in Canada.

More importantly, we need to rekindle the belief that when labour and left political parties join together to build a social democratic future, it can lead to great achievements. It was this inspiration that led to the joining of the CCF and the CLC in in August of 1960 that created the NDP. It was this inspiration that gave Canadians public health care, the Canada pension plan and accessible public education, to name a few. The alliance between labour and social democracy has a proud history, and it must have a bright future.


Mark Rowlinson is the Assistant to the National Director with the United Steelworkers. He has degrees from McGill University, the University of Geneva and Osgoode Hall Law School. The views in this piece are entirely those of the author.


1. Andrew Jackson – Reflections on the Social democratic Tradition – Page 10 and 11 
2. OECD Employment Outlook, 2017, Page 126
3. Charles Taylor, Social Democracy Versus Populism; Broadbent Institute Blog, May 15, 2017
4. OECD Employment Outlook, pages 126,133