Spartacist Canada No. 173
Prison and Border Guards Out of the Unions!
If the past few years have shown one thing, it’s that the Canadian ruling class smells blood in its drive to impose deep-going capitalist austerity on the working people. Each new retreat and surrender by the labour movement has only emboldened the Tory government in its assault on wages, job security and pensions. From strikebreaking against workers at Air Canada, Canada Post and CP Rail to sweeping attacks on public sector workers at all levels, the situation cries out for hard class struggle and a leadership that scorns the bosses’ rigged “law and order.” Instead, the working class has been tied hand and foot by a trade-union bureaucracy that is loyal to the capitalist order and accepts the sanctity of the bosses’ laws and state apparatus.
Nothing better highlights this than the union misleaders’ embrace of a significant part of that very state apparatus. Long before the liberal-populist Occupy movement fatuously declared that the police were “part of the 99 percent,” the leaders of some of Canada’s largest trade-union organizations welcomed prison and border guards into their ranks. To the bureaucrats who head the Canadian Labour Congress, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and more, the uniformed racist interrogating you at the border or the sadistic prison guard smashing your face with a truncheon after you’ve been arrested at a protest is your “union brother!”
These thugs are not workers and have no place in the unions! Like the cops, they are a core part of the capitalist state on which the bourgeoisie relies to preserve its system of exploitation and its class rule. When the prison and border guards demand “more,” what they want more of is guns, prisons, surveillance and the untrammeled right to inflict violence on workers, minorities and all the oppressed.
A case in point is the grotesque year-long “Save Our Jails!” campaign waged by OPSEU on behalf of jail guards who oppose the provincial Liberal government’s plans to close down prisons in Walkerton, Owen Sound and Sarnia. This spring, federal jail guards in the “Union of Canadian Correctional Officers” held protests against Ottawa’s plans to close several prisons, including the infamous Kingston Penitentiary.
But the prize for pushing every reactionary hot button surely goes to Jean-Pierre Fortin, head of the PSAC-affiliated “Customs and Immigration Union.” Serving the imperialists’ bogus and deeply racist “war on terror,” Fortin denounced planned cuts to border guard jobs as a “direct attack to our national security and public safety” and raved: “more child pornography entering the country, more weapons, illegal drugs, will pass through our borders, not to mention terrorists, and sexual predators and hardened criminals” (cbc.ca, 12 April).
Crime and Punishment
The 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Canada’s network of federal and provincial penal institutions is a fitting monument to the vicious brutality and racism of its ruling class. Statistics tell their own story. Native people, who are less than three percent of the population, make up 18 percent of men and an astounding 30 percent of women in federal prisons. Fully 20 percent of Ontario’s federal inmates are black. In the rulers’ eyes, oppressed minorities, the homeless, the mentally ill and drug addicts are useless residue, incapable of generating profit. Targeted daily by the cops on the streets of every city and town from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, these are the people who comprise the vast majority of the more than 35,000 inmates currently incarcerated in federal and provincial jails.
During events like the Toronto G20 protests in 2010 and the current student strike in Quebec, police brutality and lawlessness is in plain view. In contrast, the prison system is an arm of the state power that operates unseen behind walls of concrete and an additional “wall of silence” maintained by guards and government officials. Only rarely is that barrier penetrated.
The death of Ashley Smith gave a glimpse of the unspeakable misery the state inflicts on the vulnerable and marginalized. The troubled New Brunswick teenager was first jailed in 2003 for throwing a crabapple at a postman when she was 15. Her one-month sentence stretched, due to “disruptive” behaviour, to four years of physical and psychological torture. She was tasered, forcibly injected with drugs, thrown into isolation, put in restraints and, in the last 11 months of her life, shunted 17 times between detention centres and prisons across the country. On October 19, 2007, in full view of guards at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institute for Women, Ashley Smith was allowed to choke to death with a piece of cloth she had placed around her neck.
A 2008 Fifth Estate documentary exposed the horrific circumstances of the young woman’s death in custody. For its part, the government sought to prevent evidence of its officials’ crimes from reaching the public eye during a coroner’s inquest that was itself a travesty. As the family’s lawyer Julian Falconer commented, “Anyone who thinks that Ashley Smith is an isolated one-off is in a dream world.” In contrast, the prison guards’ “union” issued a revolting apologia entitled “A Rush to Judgement” (2008), which seeks to exonerate the guards involved.
The Harper government’s sweeping new crime law heralds a massive expansion of the bourgeois state’s apparatus of coercion, even as crime levels are the lowest in decades. But the “war on crime” serves a broader purpose, namely the Canadian capitalists’ drive to increase levels of exploitation and thus of profit. This means greater social regimentation, particularly of working-class youth. It also plays out in the racist “war on terror,” the bolstering of religion and “family values” reaction and the glorification of militarism and the monarchy. More cops and more repression serve the capitalists’ aim of cowing the working class so that it will submit to austerity and privation.
While the federal NDP is critical of budgetary aspects of the new law, the current platform of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” fans the same reactionary hysteria. The NDP’s vow to “put at least 2,500 new police officers on the streets, and keep them there permanently” is an unashamed pledge of support to bourgeois “law and order.” The Ontario NDP, including leader Andrea Horwath, has backed OPSEU’s “Save Our Jails” campaign. Whenever this social-democratic party has held power provincially, it has acted as the loyal administrator of the capitalists’ profit system against the direct interests of the workers and oppressed, breaking strikes and jailing union leaders. In or out of power, the NDP’s principal role is to derail the struggles of the working class.
Fightback Embraces Police,
Prison Guards as “Workers”
The question of police and prisons is a litmus test separating authentic revolutionary Marxism from the various efforts to reform bourgeois rule by curing it of its more glaring excesses. Following the union bureaucracy, many of the pseudo-socialist groups in the NDP’s orbit uphold the view that cops and jail guards are a legitimate part of the labour movement. Among them is Fightback, the Canadian affiliate of Alan Woods’s British-based International Marxist Tendency (IMT). Nowhere is Fightback’s underlying loyalty to the capitalist order more blatant than in their view that the cops and prison guards are “workers in uniform.”
Fightback recently organized a speaking tour by IMT leader Fred Weston who openly solidarizes with cops and prison guards, even trumpeting a petition advocating the cops’ right to strike and form unions! In a May 10 article entitled “British public sector workers, prison officers and police protest over pension cuts,” Weston enthuses:
“The action of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, the ‘illegal’ action of the Prison Officers and the protest of police officers is an indication of the growing militant mood of British workers. The fact that it is also affecting prison officers and police officers is an indication of how severe the crisis in Britain has become.”
This embrace of the armed enforcers of capitalist rule is an expression of the IMT and Fightback’s denial of the need for workers revolution to overthrow the bourgeois state. In practice Fightback treats the capitalist state not as the instrument of bourgeois rule, but as a neutral force capable of serving the interests of the working class and the oppressed in society, especially if the NDP is in power.
Fightback notoriously joined in the witchhunt of the anarchist Black Bloc in the wake of the massive police repression against G20 protesters (see “NDP, Fake Left Join Witchhunt of Black Bloc,” SC No. 166, Fall 2010). Later, trying to justify this treachery, they bragged about their pro-cop stance: “We, of course, uphold the democratic demand for the right of rank-and-file police and soldiers to form unions—defending this right potentially brings them closer to the workers” (“Prospects for revolution: Canadian perspectives 2011,” 31 March 2011).
The bankrupt perspective that the police can be won to the side of the workers is a brazen revision of the Marxist understanding of the capitalist state. Demands for cop “unions” are not “democratic” but are necessarily linked to strengthening their ability to brutalize minorities, break strikes and terrorize anyone who opposes capitalism. The same Fightback document claims that “the Canadian state does not rest primarily on force; it is a last resort used in exceptional times.” But 200 years of history show that behind the fine words and democratic trappings of the Canadian rulers stands the brute force of the police, army, courts and the whole panoply of laws that exist to protect the rule of the bourgeoisie. The hanging of Louis Riel, the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II, the repression of leftists and Quebec nationalists with the War Measures Act in 1970, today’s “war on terror”—this is the true face of the Canadian capitalist state. Fightback’s musings are designed to obscure this fact.
Our Model: The October 1917
Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin wrote the famous pamphlet The State and Revolution in the summer of 1917 to politically arm the working class in the former tsarist empire for the revolutionary uprising that would overthrow the capitalists. This handbook of socialist revolution lays out the fundamental Marxist understanding that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” As Lenin wrote, the liberation of the working class cannot come about “without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class.”
The only way to get rid of the system of capitalism that breeds racism, poverty and war is through a workers revolution that shatters the capitalist state and replaces it with the rule of the working class—the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is this perspective that the apologists for bourgeois rule oppose, from social-democratic fake leftists to liberal do-gooders and the populist Occupiers. Such groups are not a step towards socialist consciousness for workers and youth, but a political obstacle.
A critical task of a rejuvenated labour movement will be to clean house in the unions, getting rid of the armed thugs of capital. That in turn requires a struggle to replace the union bureaucrats, who are truly the labour lieutenants of capital, with a genuine class-struggle leadership.
The Marxist attitude toward crime and punishment is that we are against it. Our objective is not to punish offenders: such a vindictive penal attitude is fundamentally a religious rather than a materialist conception of social relations. The state power of the proletariat, built on a collective material basis, will be free of the pathological injustices of capitalism. By getting rid of the scarcity and violence which define the capitalist order, such a society will lay the basis for human freedom as part of the transition to an egalitarian communist society free of classes and the organized coercion of the state.
Capitalism is a system for the exploitation of the vast majority, the working class, which must sell its labour power to survive. This exploitation by a tiny minority serves the interests of the capitalists who own the means of production. Such a system necessarily requires organized coercion. It also requires duping the working class into believing that they have a common interest with their capitalist exploiters, and indeed that the police are fellow “workers.” The trade-union bureaucracy plays a vital role in inculcating these deadly illusions.
The capitalists are ramping up their organs of repression in preparation for further tightening the screws on working people, immigrants and the poor in Canada and around the world. Thus the fight to arm workers and leftist-minded youth with genuine Marxism is more urgent than ever. The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste fights for the forging of a revolutionary workers party that will lead the necessary struggles to overthrow the capitalist order and its entire edifice of state repression and violence.