3. 2. 2024

What Future for a Federal Public Service Union after Left Activists Take Over?

Brian McDougall

Members of conservative trade unions, organizations that limit themselves to negotiating and administering contracts, seldom replace their entire leadership with rank-and-file activists. But that just happened in the third-largest federal public service union in Canada: the 27,000-member Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE).

In a December election, a radical slate, Members For Change (M4C), won 21 out of 26 positions on the union’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The union’s new president, Nate Prier, and one of the two vice presidents are members of M4C. That is a shocking development in a union so conservative it has never even held a strike vote, let alone conducted a strike. If fully adopted, M4C’s election platform would instantly shift CAPE from the conservative end of the labour movement’s political spectrum to the radical one. 

For left labour activists, M4C’s victory is an inspiring and hopeful development. Because of its potential implications for other activists seeking to build more democratic, militant, and effective unions, the Members For Change strategy deserves to be closely watched and widely discussed.


Crisis of the CAPE model of business unionism 

While CAPE’s membership includes the federal government’s translators, researchers at the Library of Parliament, and some Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) civilian staff, 85 percent of its members are economists and social scientists in the government’s Economics and Social Science Services (EC) employment category. ECs do the social research and policy work behind government programs and decision-making. Concentrated at headquarters in Ottawa-Gatineau, ECs are mainly people with graduate degrees in the social sciences. 

CAPE has traditionally operated with minimal democratic involvement by its membership. Prior to the current period, the largely disengaged ECs were more like consumers of limited union services than participants in an organization mobilizing to win contract improvements. Those few who dared participate in union affairs were exposed to a chauvinist mantra claiming CAPE was better than the more activist, 150,000-member Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) because the latter was composed of non-professionals, who pay higher union dues and need to strike to win contract gains.

CAPE’s past conservatism is partly explained by the heavy representation of economists within its ranks, people who often favoured a narrow legalistic version of unionism. That preference was reinforced by two other factors. First, because the EC category has served as the primary feeder group for promotion into the senior ranks of the federal bureaucracy, a significant portion of CAPE’s membership has always been more preoccupied with individual mobility than collective struggle against the employer. Second, even after the Supreme Court’s 1991 ruling that federal public servants have a right to publicly criticize the government, some ECs clung to the notion that they must remain “apolitical.”

The Members For Change electoral victory in December should be understood as the product of a deepening crisis of the CAPE model of business unionism, rather than as some great ideological swing to the left by most CAPE members. Nate Prier of M4C won the CAPE Presidency with 38.6 percent of the vote (929 votes) in a first-past-the-post election that included four other candidates from a divided right. With fewer than 10 percent of CAPE’s 27,000 members voting (only 2405 votes were cast for President), Prier was elected with the support of only around 3.5 percent of CAPE’s membership. Moreover, as one CAPE activist told me, there are indications that more than a few members voted for M4C without a full understanding of the slate’s platform or ideological stance.

In recent years, CAPE, like other federal public service unions, failed to respond effectively to two major issues. First was the financial suffering inflicted upon many federal workers by the government’s new Phoenix pay system, adopted in 2016. Since then, every two weeks, thousands of government employees have been over- or underpaid, often for long periods of time, creating massive financial insecurity and hardship. Second, CAPE failed to defend its members’ interests during the COVID pandemic. “Solutions” to a welter of pandemic-driven issues – the government’s return-to-office policy, for example, overriding the right to work remotely – were unilaterally developed and imposed by the employer.

The other crucial context for M4C’s victory was a protracted crisis within CAPE’s elected leadership ranks. Since May 2023, the National Executive Committee (NEC) and CAPE staff had pushed two successive presidents out of office. First, Gregg Phillips was forced to resign for reasons that were never adequately explained. His replacement, vice president Camille Awada, was driven out of office in early November, ostensibly because of antisemitic social media posts. The NEC’s interim president – the third in six months – was then replaced by Prier after the December election. This background of turmoil in the union, combined with low voter turnout in December, throws Prier’s repeated claim that M4C has a “strong mandate” into doubt.


Past attempts at change, and future possibilities 

M4C’s election platform addressed many of the issues CAPE members currently face: workplace health and safety (including mental health) and the Phoenix pay system, for instance. It also outlined some of the organizational changes CAPE requires to address such issues: democratization of the union to empower members and locals; more equitable practices to ensure accessibility and inclusivity; and enhanced solidarity to support the struggles of social movements and other unions.

To be sure, Members For Change isn’t the first electoral left reform movement attempted within CAPE. In 2014, a loose coalition of CAPE lefties, CAPE Stand Up (CSU), won a substantial minority of National Executive Committee seats, including the presidency and the Economics and Social Science Services vice presidency. While CAPE Stand Up introduced some reforms – the creation of a strike fund, for example, and CAPE’s affiliation to the Canadian Labour Congress – it failed to transform the day-to-day operations of the union or increase the level of membership involvement.

Like M4C’s Prier in 2023, CAPE Stand Up’s presidential candidate, Emmanuelle Tremblay, won with a minority of votes in a low-turnout first-past-the-post election pitting her against four conservative candidates. Thus, like M4C, CSU started with a weak mandate and a still-disengaged membership. The 2014 reformers soon ran into a brick wall of opposition from CAPE’s re-unified right, backed by members of the CAPE staff defending the status quo. The CAPE Stand Up members elected to the National Executive Committee, who had no pre-election history of working together on workplace campaigns against the employer, soon disagreed with each other, losing their bare majority on the National Executive Committee. Within months of the election, the CSU vice president switched sides, joining the CAPE right. By CAPE’s 2017 election, the union’s right was back in power.

Members For Change will not suffer the exact same fate as CAPE Stand Up. Without a serious presence on the National Executive Committee, CAPE’s right might be slower to regroup. Deprived of a viable contingent of status quo allies on the National Executive Committee, CAPE’s 60-member national staff also has less capacity to impede left initiatives than during Tremblay’s presidency. But CAPE Stand Up’s experience reminds us what can happen to left activists who win office without first winning a substantial following among the membership.

The M4C members will be busy. CAPE’s president is the union’s only full-time elected official, meaning all other elected members take up those leadership duties in addition to their regular employment. Administering CAPE’s contracts, running the union’s 11 internal committees, managing CAPE National’s 60 staff, representing the national union on government committees, responding to various legal requirements – such responsibilities will leave the 20 Members For Change members who remain full-time federal public servants with little capacity for day-to-day workplace campaigns.

There remain significant obstacles to transforming CAPE into a radical union: amending CAPE’s minimally democratic constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority vote; winning serious contractual improvements from a powerful employer; addressing the strategic incapacity of CAPE’s EC members to win a strike without simultaneous action by larger and more essential categories of workers, such as those in PSAC; subverting the business unionism of the leadership in the other federal public service unions; and defending against a new job-cutting government if Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre wins office in 2025.

Of course, the greatest challenge facing M4C will be how to win a substantial proportion of CAPE’s still disengaged and skeptical membership to support for collective action – if not on the picket lines, then in the workplace. (The current EC contract expires in June 2026.) The question of whether that support can be built from the top down is key to the future of the M4C experiment. Such a top-down orientation, with its inherent limitations, can be traced to the origins of the M4C experiment.


From workplace campaigning to an electoral focus

In April 2023, a loose grouping of left activists inside CAPE were already planning to run a slate for the National Executive Committee elections when the 150,000 member PSAC strike began. Those left activists hastily created a Solidarity Caucus (SC) to organize CAPE members to visit PSAC’s picket lines. Sharing a common antipathy to the conservatism of the CAPE leadership, dozens of Ottawa-Gatineau SC members got involved, holding Zoom meetings of up to 70 people and building a 200-person email list. 

After the PSAC strike, the CAPE Solidarity Caucus continued to meet, debating what stance to take on CAPE’s new tentative agreement, a carbon copy of the PSAC one that failed to offset inflation or win the right to remote work. The lack of consensus regarding how to change the union was evident when SC members split 60/40 in favour of a motion to call for a No vote on the CAPE contract. 

In June 2023, the Solidarity Caucus was constituted more formally, with an elected and recallable steering committee. With surprisingly little debate, a meeting of 40 SC members adopted a radical set of caucus principles, including support for amalgamating all federal public service unions; open rather than secret contract negotiations; abandonment of the conservative model of business unionism in favour of social movement unionism; a shift of union resources away from reliance upon professional staff and towards training members for self-representation; struggle against all forms of oppression; and constitutional changes such as adopting a provision allowing for the recall of national officers. 

For its first major campaign, the CAPE Solidarity Caucus planned to target government departments with large concentrations of SC members to make the government’s restrictive new policy on remote work unenforceable. All CAPE members would be encouraged to request the right to work remotely. Inconsistencies in mid-level managers’ written rejections of those requests would then be publicized, to mobilize members and pressure senior management to reverse those middle managers’ decisions. 

Yet the rollout of that workplace campaign was derailed when many of the Solidarity Caucus’s most experienced activists pivoted to launch their Members For Change electoral drive. Capturing the union machine from a discredited leadership seemed easier than the exhausting slog of undertaking thousands of one-on-one conversations with disengaged CAPE members during a workplace campaign. While Members For Change sought and obtained the Solidarity Caucus’s endorsement, the M4C slate operated as a completely independent entity, allied with but unaccountable to the larger SC.

Most Solidarity Caucus members supported the Members For Change electoral strategy, believing M4C’s capture of the union machine would support their future campaigns. Thus the activist energy first generated by picket line solidarity and plans for a workplace campaign was channelled into M4C’s four-month electoral push. That shift preempted the Solidarity Caucus’s potential to be a space for debate over alternative, non-electoral strategies for radicalizing CAPE members. After campaigning to elect the Members For Change candidates, many Solidarity Caucus members now await reforms to be delivered by the new union leadership.


Models for building power

In early February 2024, CAPE President Prier held a virtual town hall meeting, open to CAPE members, to outline his plan of action for the union. The 215 people in attendance learned that CAPE’s direction will now be guided by concepts and strategies found in the writings of Jane McAlevey, a long-time left union staffer and author in the US. While many of McAlevey’s ideas are useful for radical unionists, socialist critics such as Kim Moody, Joe Evica, Ian Allinson, and Andy Sernatinger have pointed out at least two major problems with her strategy for radicalizing unions. 

First, McAlevey’s model, which privileges the role of left union staffers such as herself, misreads the actual historical record with respect to the emergence of radical movements inside the labour movement. For example, in Canada’s federal public service, the most impressive strike actions by PSAC members – the clerks’ strike of 1980 and the general strike of 1991 – were driven from below by rank-and-file workers, not organized from above by left union staffers. Similarly, when Canadian postal workers created Canada’s most radical union, a status the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) held for decades after a 1965 illegal wildcat strike, the process did not start with electoral capture of the union machine and was not initiated by left staffers. It originated instead with self-organization by local militants in opposition to their union leadership. And it was steady pressure from radicalized postal workers that ensured the militants elected to lead CUPW were not co-opted by the employer.

Second, McAlevey’s model fails to analyze the bureaucratic character of trade unions, working-class institutions with a staff and paid leadership who develop interests distinct from those of the workers they ostensibly represent. By omitting any discussion of the phenomenon of trade union bureaucracy, McAlevey’s ideas can disarm workers in crucial moments of struggle.

Recent local history provides a practical illustration. In 2022, 55,000 CUPE education support workers went on strike in Ontario. Their left leadership prepared for the confrontation by running eight months of McAlevey-inspired training to produce a 96.5 percent vote for strike action. But McAlevey’s ideas did not prepare CUPE education workers politically for how Ontario’s union leaders would scuttle the power and solidarity built by the strike.

Before the strike began, the Ontario government passed legislation outlawing strike action. The Ford government invoked the notwithstanding clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to suspend the right to strike, a precedent that threatened the rights of all trade unionists and greatly diminished the bargaining role of union leaders. Strike action by CUPE education workers, in defiance of the new law, inspired union activists across the province to organize solidarity action and call for a general strike. But the Ontario government abruptly offered to repeal the new rights-threatening legislation in exchange for a suspension of the strike, and union leaders capitulated – a decision not subject to a vote by education workers. Thus, to serve their own interests, trade union leaders sacrificed the power and solidarity that education workers built on the picket lines. 

Nothing in the McAlevey playbook for building union power prepared striking education workers for the takeover of their strike by the labour leadership. Without a clear understanding of the phenomenon of trade union bureaucracy, workers trained in McAlevey’s methods can find themselves unable to act independently of their left leaders when the latter act in accordance with their own interest in preserving a stable industrial relations system. McAlevey’s strategies assisted in building the movement for a strike, but they did not equip workers to retain control over their strike and the solidarity movement it inspired.


Diverging roads ahead

Members For Change’s victory means change is coming to CAPE, though how deep and lasting remains to be seen. If M4C promotes higher levels of membership engagement and democracy but fails to produce substantial improvements in working conditions and contract provisions, those developments may not endure. Paradoxically, the drive to democratize CAPE may ultimately assist the union’s right wing to reorganize and regain control of the National Executive Committee.

CAPE’s new president hopes M4C can offset the strategic bargaining weakness of government Economics and Social Science Services workers by building a common front with PSAC and the 70,000-member Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) for the next round of contract negotiations. Yet in the absence of large, experienced rank-and-file movements in all three unions, such a strategy is unlikely to generate the kind of militant action, driven from below, needed to win substantially better contracts and working conditions.

CAPE radicals who are critical of a McAlevey-style transformation of their union need to develop a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative models for radically changing unions – Kim Moody’s rank-and-file strategy, for example. Failure to do so might leave them badly disoriented if CAPE’s membership are forced to relive the experience of CUPE education workers, seeing their union’s McAleveyism converted into bureaucratic machinations. 

To avoid such a situation, CAPE’s left activists will need to build rank-and-file groups – their locals as well as union-wide caucuses such as the Solidarity Caucus – as entities that are staunchly independent from Members For Change and the union machine. They should embrace the spirit of the Clyde Workers’ Committee in 1915 Scotland, which issued a manifesto insisting, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately if they misrepresent them.”

Ultimately, only workplace initiatives and campaigns run from below with widespread support can reverse the belief among CAPE members, rooted in experience, that trade unions cannot solve their problems. Like other public servants, CAPE members are now profoundly skeptical about the value of unions that cannot protect them from violations of their contractual right to be paid, are unable to secure them a right to remote work, and prove too weak to protect them from inflation. McAlevey-style training and the hiring of radicals onto CAPE staff won’t convince members of the credibility, relevance, and potential of collective action. That can occur only at the grassroots level, initially in those government workplaces where there are already concentrations of left activists. 

If dozens and eventually hundreds of Solidarity Caucus activists cannot change the members’ day-to-day experience of trade unionism in the workplace, if they cannot rebuild their union at the base, CAPE will not change, regardless of what Members For Change does at the top. Only the experience of successful collective action against departmental management will enable left activists to defend their political project in the face of a re-organized CAPE right, a powerful employer, and union leaders who might eventually become preoccupied with retaining office.

Brian McDougall is a retired federal public servant and union activist in the Canadian Association of Professional Employees. Now an associate member of CAPE, he is active in both its Solidarity Caucus and its Labour for Palestine group. Brian is also an adjunct professor of Canadian Studies at Carleton University and owner of Peoples’ History Walking Tours in Ottawa. He can be reached at brianmcdougall25@gmail.com.