Spartacist Canada No. 170
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
Defeat Capitalist War on Public Sector Workers!
Working people everywhere have paid with their jobs, benefits and pensions to bail out the bankers and corporate magnates whose financial swindles kicked off the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Amid this devastation, profits are soaring once again along with CEO salaries and bonuses. Having bilked the public purse of billions for this “recovery,” the capitalist rulers are whipping up an outcry against public sector workers and their unions as supposedly living high off the hog at the taxpayers’ expense.
The industrial unions in this country have been ravaged by deindustrialization and a one-sided class war by the ruling class. Two years ago, leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) surrendered some $20 an hour in wages and benefits to help bail out Chrysler and General Motors, a demoralizing defeat that helped set the stage for broader attacks. Nickel miners in Sudbury went through a year-long lockout in 2009-10 that ended with major concessions by the union. Steelworkers in Hamilton remain locked out in a bitter battle over pensions that began late last year. The workforces in both these industries, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, have been decimated by many years of job cuts.
With fewer than one in six workers in the private sector now in unions, public sector workers—71 percent of whom are organized—now make up by far the largest proportion of union members in Canada. Yet many public sector unions remain constrained by the bosses’ laws from going on strike. Without the ability collectively to withdraw their labour, the workers are left at the mercy of the employer. A union that can’t (or won’t) strike is like a lion without claws or teeth.
Governments at all levels, led by the Harper Conservatives, are now moving to further curtail the right to strike. Emboldened by their majority status, the Tories brought down legislation in early summer that forced nearly 50,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to take down picket lines and return to work or face huge fines and the seizure of union assets. In addition to banning strikes for four years and kicking Canada Post’s rollback demands to a government-appointed “arbitrator,” the law imposed a wage settlement even lower than the corporation’s last offer.
CUPW leaders had launched city-by-city rotating strikes in early June. When workers in Toronto and Montreal were brought out simultaneously in a one-day strike on June 14, the company responded with a countrywide lockout. The Tory back-to-work edict came less than a day later, an unconcealed act of collusion with union-busting management. Making clear that it was declaring war on all union struggles, the government also moved to break a strike by 3,800 Air Canada customer service agents. In this case, the CAW union leaders quickly abandoned the strike, signing a deal that accepted multiple concessions, notably on pensions, the central issue in the strike.
Such attacks are not only coming from the federal Tories. Earlier this year, the Ontario Liberal government banned strikes by Toronto transit workers at the behest of the city’s right-wing mayor Rob Ford, who is preparing a frontal assault on city workers through outsourcing and job and service cuts. From coast to coast, the rulers are bringing down the austerity axe on tens of thousands more jobs, claiming this is necessary to “balance the budget” and “keep Canada competitive.”
Labour Tops and NDP: Obstacles to Struggle
The unions are elementary defense organizations of the working class against unbridled exploitation. But struggle against the onslaught of the ruling class has been undermined by a labour leadership that accepts the inevitability of capitalist austerity while seeking to soften the blows. The union tops couple this with fealty to the NDP social democrats, or in some cases the Liberals, around a program of Canadian nationalism and protectionism which falsely asserts that the workers share a common interest with Canadian big business and governments.
The New Democrats, now Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in parliament, postured against the Tories’ recent back-to-work laws. But the NDP’s claim to stand on the side of striking workers is sheer hypocrisy, as shown by its record of breaking strikes and jailing union leaders while running governments in various provinces. In 1975 the first-ever NDP government in B.C. broke the strikes of pulp workers, railworkers, supermarket employees and propane truck drivers. A generation later, in 2000, they broke a strike by school support staff. In Ontario, an NDP regime jailed the president of CUPW’s Toronto local for defending picket lines in a 1991 strike, and in 2008 the Ontario New Democrats endorsed Liberal legislation breaking a strike by Toronto transit workers.
Down-the-line supporters of Canadian capitalism, in the midst of the postal showdown the NDP endorsed Harper’s call for a three-month extension of support to the brutal NATO military assault on neocolonial Libya. The very day CUPW members were forced back to work, foreign affairs minister John Baird visited Canadian NATO troops in Italy, where he signed a bomb destined for use against Libya that included the message, “This postal service don’t strike.” This powerfully underscores the link between imperialist war abroad and attacks on workers at home.
The eulogies from ruling-class spokesmen for NDP leader Jack Layton following his recent death from cancer are a measure of the services rendered to Canadian capitalism by the New Democrats, and by Layton in particular. The Tory government gave Layton an official state funeral, while Stephen Harper saluted his “dedication to public life.” It is instructive to contrast the bourgeoisie’s laudatory treatment of the late NDP leader to its unconcealed contempt for the poor and unemployed; its racist repression of immigrants and refugees; its imperialist pillage of the semicolonial world. The social role of the NDP has been, and remains, to tie the working people to supporting the rulers’ violent and barbaric social system, perhaps cushioned by a few cosmetic and highly reversible reforms.
Unchain the Unions!
The social power of public sector workers is not that of industrial workers, who can directly stop the wheels of production and thus of profit from turning. But public sector unions include transportation, utility and other workers who provide the means and services by which the economy runs—the infrastructure vital for a modern society. While the capitalist media whips up a propaganda barrage about “public outrage” against these unions, the truth is that some hard class struggle would win plenty of allies among the unemployed, immigrants and all those who have been thrown under the bus by the ruling class.
“Public opinion” is, in the end, determined by the ebbs and flows of the class struggle. As V.I. Lenin, leader of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, stressed: “Whereas the liberals (and the liquidators) tell the workers: ‘You are strong when you have the sympathy of “society”,’ the Marxist tells the workers something different, namely: ‘You have the sympathy of “society” when you are strong’” (“Economic and Political Strikes,” 1912).
In the face of the rulers’ savage offensive, the number of strikes has plummeted. Last year saw the fewest in more than half a century; by some measures, labour struggle in Canada is at its lowest ebb since the 1930s. What stands in the way of the necessary militant class struggle is the union bureaucracy, which has for the most part surrendered abjectly in the face of the austerity onslaught, the continuation of decades of bowing before the bosses.
Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Toronto rolled over with barely a peep of protest when the Ontario government banned their right to strike. Two months after the short-lived CAW strike at Air Canada, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) leaders called on the airline’s flight attendants to accept a tentative deal that threatens their pension plan. A letter by the president of CUPE’s Air Canada Component, Jeff Taylor, sought to justify the betrayal: “One of the main deciding factors is the Conservative government, a government that would rather enforce back-to-work legislation than allow your union to strike. This was a key reality that drove the bargaining committee’s decision” (Toronto Star, 21 August). The union tops preach that struggle is not possible, that workers will just have to eat it. Nonetheless, 87 percent of the union voted down the sellout deal.
In the case of CUPW, while the union’s leaders refused to swallow Canada Post’s outrageous demands, they at no time sought to unleash the full power of the union on the picket lines. Their strategy of rotating strikes meant that the mail kept flowing until the company moved to shut down operations in preparation for the government intervention. The CUPW tops even offered to call off the strikes if management reinstated the old, expired contract. And once the lockout began, their only response was a series of punchless rallies featuring stale “solidarity” rhetoric from union bureaucrats and NDPers.
The miserable defeatism that characterizes today’s union misleaders threatens disaster for the workers. Labour has never won anything by meekly accepting the bosses’ rules. Once, unions themselves were illegal under the capitalists’ laws. It took “illegal” strikes, notably by postal workers, to win the right to organize for hundreds of thousands of government workers in the 1960s. The best working-class leaders recognized the need to face down state repression and go to jail if necessary for the workers’ cause. As we wrote last issue, in an article titled “All Labour Must Stand With CUPW!” which was distributed heavily at postal worker pickets, rallies and meetings:
“It is in the interests of the entire working class that CUPW beat back the bosses’ onslaught. If the union movement is to wage the battles necessary for defense of the workers and all the oppressed, a political struggle is necessary to get rid of the sellouts atop the labour movement who strangle the workers’ fighting spirit. It is in the crucible of the class struggle that a new leadership of the unions can be forged.”
—SC No. 169, Summer 2011
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The question of turning the unions into fighting organizations for the working class is fundamentally a political one. In an article written more than 70 years ago, the Marxist leader Leon Trotsky wrote: “The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat” (“Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” 1940).
The economic devastation that now stalks the capitalist world is the product of the workings of a deeply unjust and irrational social system based on production for profit derived from the exploitation of the working class. The obscenely wealthy capitalists appropriate the results of the workers’ labour as their own, while working people are left to wonder if they will have a job tomorrow. Many feel that the best they can do is to try to hold onto their jobs. But the same conditions that grind down the workers and set them one against the other in a fight to survive can and will also propel them forward to unity in battle against the class enemy.
What are the obstacles to such united class struggle? First and foremost is the lie that there is a “common interest” or possible “partnership” between the exploited and the exploiters. The working class must champion its own interests, which are also the interests of all the oppressed. Thus in this country the labour movement must defend the national rights of Quebec against the chauvinist Canadian rulers and their NDP handmaidens. Anti-Quebec bigotry divides the working class, with workers in English Canada rallied behind their “own” exploiters and those in Quebec pulled into the framework of bourgeois nationalism. The New Democrats have a long history of supporting “united Canada” chauvinism against Quebec. This includes endorsing the Clarity Act, which seeks to ban Quebec’s democratic right to national self-determination. They have renounced none of this.
Various reformist leftists (echoing bourgeois commentators) assert that the NDP’s surge in Quebec in the federal election means that national antagonisms are a thing of the past. But nothing could be further from the truth. The continued significance of the national question was underlined in its own way by the furor whipped up in English Canada when it emerged that the NDP’s new interim leader, former federal public sector union leader Nycole Turmel, was until recently a member of the Bloc Québécois. While Turmel asserted that she has always backed “Canadian unity” and only joined the Bloc because it was a purportedly “progressive” force in her native Quebec, this was of no consequence to the witchhunters of the Canadian ruling class, for whom even a hint of possible support to “separatism” is tantamount to sedition. As revolutionary internationalist opponents of chauvinism and oppression in all their manifestations, we Marxists advocate independence for Quebec.
To unite the working class in anti-capitalist struggle, it is necessary to champion the rights of immigrants and oppose the rulers’ stepped-up campaigns for deportations and the detention of refugees. It is necessary to fight for women’s rights including free 24-hour child care and free abortion on demand. It is necessary to oppose Ottawa’s repressive “anti-crime” hysteria and the “war on terror” hysteria against Muslims and other minorities. The working class must take up the cause of all the oppressed!
The labour bureaucrats and New Democrats claim that the workers must “sacrifice” to preserve the profits and rule of Canadian capitalism. This road has led to disaster. It is necessary to fight for the perspective of mobilizing labour’s immense potential power against the exploiters, taking up such demands as jobs for all through sharing the available work at no loss in pay; a massive program of public works to rebuild crumbling roads, hospitals, schools and transit systems; for decent pensions, health care and other social services for everyone, fully guaranteed by the state. Such measures will not be granted by the capitalist ruling class, whose only interest lies in maintaining its profits and privileges.
The achievement of such basic measures, and more, requires a fight for the workers to wrest power from the hands of the exploiters through socialist revolution. Only then can we begin the rational reorganization of society in the interests of the vast majority. The fight for a class-struggle leadership to rebuild the unions is linked inextricably to the fight to forge a binational, multiracial revolutionary workers party including through political struggle against NDP-style social democracy. The need for revolutionary Marxist leadership is today posed acutely, not only to defend the working class against the menace of its own devastation, but to do away with the source of that devastation, the capitalist system itself.