Review: Labor and the Class Idea in the U.S. and Canada

Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, by Barry Eidlin. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

In 1965, in both Canada and the U.S., about 30 percent of the workforce was represented by unions. This figure, called union density, had been close between the two countries for 50 years. Often, density in the U.S. was a little bit higher than in Canada.

But starting in the mid-1960s, our paths diverged. Union density in the U.S. began to fall, while in Canada it kept climbing.

Canada’s union density peaked at 38 percent in the early 1980s. By 2017 it had fallen to 28.6 percent—but that’s still substantially higher than the 10.7 percent in the U.S.

What accounts for this dramatic divergence? And why does it matter? These are the questions Barry Eidlin addresses in his recent book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada.

Eidlin, an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, argues that the divergence came about because, in response to the upsurge in unionization of the 1930s and ’40s, unions in the U.S. were integrated into the political process as a “special interest,” while Canadian unions were integrated as representatives of the working class.


The difference between these two systems of labor relations shows up in the different weight given to individual rights, such as freedom of speech, and collective rights, such as freedom of association.

That difference was on display in 2015 when Friedrichs v. California was making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That case would have had the same result as the recent Janus case if Justice Antonin Scalia hadn’t died before the ruling could be issued.

Simultaneously the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on several cases and found, in Eidlin’s words, that “the right to join a union, engage in meaningful collective bargaining, and go on strike were constitutionally protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

What a contrast! That “says a lot about the current state of U.S. and Canadian labor law,” writes Eidlin. “Whereas the U.S. Court defined union activity as infringement on individuals’ constitutional right to freedom of speech, the Canadian Court defined it as an integral part of individuals’ constitutional right of freedom of association.

“As a result, the U.S. Court endorsed policies that undermined unions’ ability to function, while the Canadian Court sanctioned policies that both strengthened unions and imposed limits on employer and government power.”


To support his conclusions, Eidlin examines the standard explanations for the differences between the two labor (or is it labour?) movements, and argues they do not adequately explain the divergence in union density.

For example, he shows that there were not significant differences in the structure of employment in the two countries that might explain the different trajectories after the mid-’60s.

He rebuts the idea that workers in Canada were more open to unions—or that Canadian employers were more accepting of them. If anything, he shows that Canadian employers tended to be more hostile toward unions during the key years for unionizing in the 1930s and 1940s. Likewise, the Canadian state was less accepting of the legitimacy of unions in those years than the U.S. government was during the years of the New Deal.

This last point, though, helped shape Canada’s political institutions in a way that did contribute to the divergence in union density. Canadian unions have their own political party—first the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and then the New Democratic Party (NDP).

This, in Eidlin’s view, contributed to the recognition of unions as representatives of the working-class in Canada. It also helped keep the Red Scare of the late-1940s and 1950s from being as damaging to the Canadian labor movement as it was in the U.S. And it helped keep the Canadian unions from being as isolated from the rising left of the 1960s and ’70s as the U.S. unions were.


Eidlin finds that “differences in the organization of racial division do explain some of the
U.S.-Canada union density divergence.”

There was slavery in Canada, but it was on a much smaller scale than in the U.S. and was not as central to the organization of the economy or the accumulation of capital. There is no Canadian corollary to Jim Crow laws or the reign of terror that supported them. And, while racial discrimination certainly existed, people of color were a much smaller portion of the working class in Canada than they were in the U.S. This, in Eidlin’s words, created “fewer opportunities for racial divisions to undermine worker solidarity and weaken union power.”

Given the importance of race and racism in undermining the U.S. labor movement, Eidlin suggests the challenge is to understand how, in the 1930s and 1940s, some U.S. unions were able to overcome these obstacles and build power while, in the 1960s and 1970s, most failed to do so.

He points to several factors in the decades following the Second World War. First came the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. It outlawed some of labor’s most effective tactics, such as secondary picketing. It also forbade the closed shop (which required employers to only hire union members), barred Communists from holding office in unions, and permitted states to pass so-called “right to work” laws. A majority of Representatives from the Democratic Party and half of the party’s Senators— overwhelmingly from the Jim Crow South—voted for this bill.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Next was the failure of the CIO’s drive to organize the South, known as Operation Dixie. This left a sizeable part of the country largely non-union and, thus, an attractive place for U.S. corporations to find cheaper labor with few rights. Eidlin argues this failure was caused, in part, by the incorporation of the CIO into the Democratic Party. While Canadian unionists “were able to fight their anti-union political opponents head-on,” unionists in the U.S. were hamstrung by being part of the New Deal political coalition with racist Southern Democrats.

The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, following the purge of left-wing organizers and officers from many unions and the failure of Operation Dixie, marked the CIO’s “retreat back into a more conservative business unionist model,” Eidlin writes.


Many U.S. unions were hostile to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Instead of embracing the demands for rights and jobs which could have helped build a class-based movement, unions resisted calls for internal union democracy and changes to hiring practices and seniority. They then became the targets of legal actions designed to open up jobs and unions to Black workers. This, unavoidably, reinforced the judicial bias toward individual rights over collective rights. Later, in the late-’60s and early ’70s, the leaders of quite a few unions found themselves challenged by caucuses of Black, Latino, and Asian workers.

Public sector unions, which were often more open to the issues and demands of the civil rights and Black liberation movements, were growing during this period. So were the numbers of their local unions led by people of color and women. But they were unable to dislodge the dead hand of the past, embodied by George Meany and other conservative business unionists at the top of the AFL-CIO.

I wish Eidlin had written a few more paragraphs on the significance of racial divisions and shown what these differences meant at the critical moment when corporations were ramping up their attacks and unions needed to fight back hard to defend themselves. Put another way, how did white racism mix with the changes taking place (or not) within the U.S. labor movement to contribute to its failure to rise to the challenges presented by changes in the economy and the decline in union density?

It seems to me that in the 1960s and 1970s—when a class-based response was required to defeat management’s attacks and plans for restructuring of the economy—far too many white workers in the unionized North were engaged in concerted efforts to keep Black workers and their families out of the neighborhoods, schools, jobs, and union apprenticeship programs they were excluded from and to hold onto the political control—in cities and unions—that made this exclusion possible.

These actions by white workers, including many in unions, made it impossible to build the class-based response to the bosses’ drive to restructure the economy, raise profits, break unions, reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy, cut public services, and reap the lion’s share of any benefit from productivity increases.


This is an academic book, but there is much a non-academic reader interested in labor history, culture, and politics can take away from it. Although he’s a professor now, Eidlin was once an intern at Labor Notes and an organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

He clearly wanted to make this book as accessible as possible to the activists he once worked with. He even suggests when a general reader might want to skip a lengthy section.


I was struck by this comment from Eidlin’s introduction:

Collective actors such as unions do not simply exist; they are formed and re-formed through social struggles. Moreover, to the extent that we can ascribe interests to classes, the mere fact that such a class interest exists in no way guarantees that members of that class will either be aware of it or mobilize in pursuit of it. Interests must be organized. In particular, it is parties and unions that do the work of organizing interests when it comes to creating something identifiable as “the working class.”

U.S. workers have never had their own party organizing them to pursue their own interests. They have unions, but these tend to organize on the basis of skill set, employer, or union membership—not on the basis of class. Now, in the wake of the Janus decision, many of those unions will be weakened and even less able to do the needed organizing.

In the absence of a working-class party or unions organizing around class-wide interests—including for justice and equality—the GOP and other right-wing groups have been organizing white workers. But they are organizing on the basis of white identity, not class.

Finding ways to counter this, and rebuilding “something identifiable as ‘the working class,’” are critical tasks for union and labor activists.

Steve Downs is a retired subway train operator and union officer from Transport Workers Union Local 100.