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Canada in the Age of Working-Class Power

In the 1970s, Canada’s working class was at the height of its power, combining shop-floor militancy, political ambition, and intellectual confidence. Canada’s liberal elites, led by Pierre Trudeau, were determined to crush it.

Rob Mieremet / Wikimedia Commons

Both at home and abroad, Pierre Elliott Trudeau has often been seen as a figure of the left. Thanks to his early engagements with Marxist thinkers like Harold Laski, immersion in the progressive milieu of postwar Quebec, and proximity to figures in the labor and socialist movements before entering electoral politics, the former Canadian prime minister retains for some an at least partially radical reputation.

A new book by historian Christo Aivalis, however, makes a convincing case for Trudeau’s consistent adherence, in both thought and action, to the liberal tradition. But, as its title suggests, The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour and the Canadian Social Democratic Left is also concerned with the Left as both a political and intellectual force during the critical decades of Trudeau’s life and career. This makes it doubly useful as a clarifying account of one of Canada’s most influential politicians and a chronicle of a particularly vibrant period for its since-tamed labor and left movements.

Throughout the 1970s, Canadian capitalism faced a series of periodic crises wrought by sluggish growth rates, rising unemployment, and high inflation. As in several other Western economies, these coincided with a moment of growing working-class militancy and labor power. Arguably the most interesting chapters in Aivalis’ book detail the ensuing conflict between capital’s desire to retain a high share of profits and the socialist left’s competing vision of a redistributive politics coupled with economic democracy — a conflict which would result in fierce battles over both wage and price policies and industrial relations.

The Constant Liberal draws on Trudeau’s papers and files, but also a rich and hitherto under-examined body of material from within the Left — notably socialist magazines, labor journals, and trade union releases — detailing the stark ideological divergences between the two. What emerges is a picture of distinct and opposing political and intellectual traditions: on the one hand, an organized socialist left committed to the material interests of the working class; on the other, a current of politically ambidextrous liberalism whose ultimate loyalty was to capital.

Central to this picture is Trudeau’s war on inflation, and his interpretation of its causes and potential implications. As Aivalis puts it, the inflation crisis “provided the context of the long drawn out conflict pitting Trudeau against labour and the left”; a conflict during which those in charge of the Canadian state would ultimately unite with big business in the view that “capitalism could be saved only by preventing workers from fully exercising their rights to strike and bargain collectively.” For Trudeau, however, the economic issues wrought by inflation were both moral and psychological in origin, the product of rising expectations and selfish, unrealistic majority demands for a greater share of national wealth.

One aspect of this phenomenon, as Trudeau saw it, came down to a kind of middle class pathology by which people were:

asking for more in every area, whether it be for welfare or for the farmers or for the industrial workers or for the managers or for the entrepreneurs, health, education, people want more. … And I think this is a political reality which has overtaken most western societies. … I think it came with the advent of television and mass communications. … It’s perhaps too much information of what the Jones’ are doing and what we must do to live up to them. And this has caused these great inflationary pushes.

Another, less ethereal cause was what Trudeau took to be the excessive power of the labor movement which, alongside Canadians’ expectations for material improvement, he would actively seek to rein in. Each Canadian, he would declare in 1975, “[must appreciate the] new limits and consider himself bound by them…All Canadians must restrain their rising demands upon the nation’s wealth.”

At once conservative in its diagnosis and paternalistic in its implications, this view in practice meant austerity for wage earners and a reconfiguration of the Canadian economy in the interests of capital. And as Aivalis makes clear, the Trudeau government’s response to the economic conditions of the 1970s had at least as much to do with its concerns about a challenge from the organized Left. He notes: “When one reads the speeches and writings emanating from Trudeau and his government, it becomes clear that they worried less about inflation than about a powerful working-class and left challenge to the liberal order.”

Indeed, the Canadian left — rooted in a powerful trade union movement (union density in Canada peaked in the mid-1970s) and the relatively recently formed New Democratic Party — then boasted a braintrust of working-class intellectuals, academics, and militants steeped in the thinking of the New Left. Taken together, this milieu represented an influential and intellectually robust force to the left of Canadian liberalism. Putting more than a million workers into the streets in October 1976 to protest Trudeau’s policy of wage and price controls, Canadian unions correctly charged the government with trying to curtail progress for ordinary people in the interests of big business.

But through its organs, both intellectual and political, the labor movement would also offer strong alternatives to government policies ranging from taxes and anti-poverty measures to industrial relations, and also make critical contributions in the area of foreign policy.

Unions representing workers in the transport, postal, auto, and manufacturing sectors, for example, all issued forceful critiques of the Trudeau government’s propensity for means-testing and made the case for a sweeping crusade against poverty. The United Auto Workers and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers meanwhile, openly criticized Richard Nixon, while the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Canadian Labour Congress both called for the nationalization of telecom and oil monopolies.

Emblematic of the era’s general radicalism, the United Steelworkers published a cartoon depicting anthropomorphized multinational corporations in Roman armor, with one wielding a smoking gun over a corpse labelled “Chilean democracy.”

Though a (now quite unfashionable) current of nationalism sometimes ran through the Canadian left during the 1970s, its primary thrust was directed at the perceived injustices of a global capitalist order rooted in the neighboring United States and a desire to build an egalitarian alternative to it in Canada. This, coupled with revulsion at Trudeau’s attempts to push down wages and bring labor into a corporatist, tripartite system of industrial relations, motivated pushes from within the movement and across the broader socialist left for public ownership and economic democracy.

Of the energy sector, for example, UAW leader Dennis McDermott posited that the country’s existing economic structures were antithetical to democracy and argued that citizens deserved fair access to energy even if it meant ending “private ownership through nationalization.” For both private and public sector unions representing workers throughout the country, public ownership and socialization were put forth as democratic alternatives to liberal corporatism; as transformative means through which ordinary Canadians could both play a role in setting the economy’s direction and obtain a greater share of the wealth they collectively produced.

Through its careful analysis of a formative period in Canadian political history, The Constant Liberal offers a welcome corrective to a lingering romanticism about Pierre Trudeau and his ostensible allegiance to the ideas and causes of the Left. But it’s also, perhaps more importantly, a critical document of a now-lost era of labor militancy and working-class power.

Despite important victories and achievements since then, the position of Canada’s labor and socialist left in the 1970s represented a genuine historical anomaly. In the decades since, union density and the broader institutions of the country’s working-class have been steadily weakened — wage gains and the promise of a rising quality of life for millions of ordinary people along with them.

With Trudeau’s conservative vision of the future having ultimately prevailed, today’s socialists and trade unionists need to think carefully about where their predecessors may have fallen short. But there is nevertheless tremendous inspiration and insight to be drawn from the examples they set and the struggles that they fought.