Spartacist Canada No. 176
Hands Off the Unions!
Tories Invade Union Finances
For Class-Struggle Leadership!
Last December, the Harper government adopted Bill C-377, a law that would force every trade union in the country to open its financial records to state authorities. Under its provisions, the capitalist ruling class and its government will be able to directly monitor unions’ strike funds, pension assets, political contributions and the issues and causes they support. Any labour organization failing to comply faces fines of $1,000 per day. This is a fundamental assault on the rights of every working person. The state has no business telling the unions what they should or should not do with their money.
The capitalists are now itching to take their attacks a step further by going for labour’s jugular through union-busting “right to work” laws. Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak has made this a key plank in his election platform. Similar schemes are being hatched by the Saskatchewan government, Alberta’s opposition Wildrose party and at least one prominent MP in the federal Tory caucus. If implemented, such laws would effectively ban the closed shop, crippling the unions financially and dividing the workforce by making dues payments optional.
Editorial and op-ed writers in the capitalist press are salivating at the prospect of gutting the unions. But whether the bosses get away with their schemes will ultimately depend not on what laws get passed, but on the outcome of the class struggle. It will take a serious, hard-nosed fight that unleashes labour’s social power to beat back the anti-union offensive.
It’s no wonder the employers smell blood. The labour movement has been in headlong retreat, thanks to the careerist turncoats atop the unions who have capitulated on every front. In the private sector, Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) president Ken Lewenza surrendered $19 to $22 an hour of members’ wages and benefits to the bosses without a struggle in the 2009 auto bailouts. In the public sector, leaders of the Toronto city unions gave up huge concessions without a strike early last year. Other unionized workers, from steelworkers in Hamilton to Sudbury miners and more, have been saddled with giveback contracts including big cuts to jobs and pensions.
As for Bill C-377, the ink hadn’t even had time to dry before the labour misleaders raised the white flag. Last fall, a column in the bosses’ Financial Post (6 September 2012) by Lewenza and Dave Coles of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (which is about to merge with the CAW) griped about the bill’s “onerous and discriminatory accounting regulations,” with not a hint of the need to mobilize the unions’ membership to stop it. For his part, NDP federal labour critic Alexandre Boulerice issued a press release faithfully entrusting the issue to the capitalist courts and a constitutional appeal.
Pettifogging legalism, cap-in-hand parliamentary lobbying, electoral support every four years to the pro-capitalist NDP (or even the thoroughly capitalist Liberal Party): this is the program that has brought the workers movement to its knees. As of 2011, private-sector unionization was down to 17 percent, from 22 percent 15 years previously. The frequency of strikes is now 0.03 percent—a drop of 90 percent since the 1970s! The union tops’ cringing loyalty to the bosses is amplified by the NDP social democrats and their preachments of “sacrifice” to the working class. Wages, pensions, vacation time and sick leave have all been on the chopping block, with each new retreat emboldening the capitalists to push harder.
The ongoing global economic crisis has provided new opportunities for the capitalists to open a trap door beneath the feet of working people. The handmaiden to ruling-class “austerity,” union-busting laws aim at intensifying the rate of exploitation, i.e., jacking up profits by shrinking labour costs. Far from being some kind of “misguided policy” of conservative economists and politicians (as the union bureaucracy would have it), such assaults are the inevitable requirement of the profit-driven capitalist system.
The Canadian ruling class is looking with envy to its senior partners in the U.S., where anti-union laws in various states have helped throw workers’ living standards into free fall. In early 2011, all eyes were turned to the Midwest, where an explosion of workers’ anger was sparked when the Wisconsin state legislature passed a union-busting law against public employees. Criminally, the union bureaucrats refused to wield the vast social power of labour shown (briefly) in the streets. Instead, they strangled militants’ hopes and energies by diverting them into a months-long campaign to recall Republican officeholders, aiming to replace them with politicians from the other party of U.S. capitalism, the Democrats.
The “right to work” cancer soon metastasized to nearby Indiana. Then on December 11, 2012, Michigan, a labour stronghold since the 1930s and birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW), became the 24th state to enact such laws. Just one day later, Harper’s Tories rushed Bill C-377 through parliament.
Why Workers Risk Their Lives for Unions
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, in the fight to build and join trade unions men and women have defied the bosses’ rules, burned their strikebreaking injunctions and faced down their cops and scabs on picket lines. By the 1930s and ’40s, every class-conscious worker in this country knew a union shop meant the difference between squalid poverty and a living wage; a degree of safety on the job vs. daily peril to life and limb; bowing before management favouritism vs. the possibility of collectively standing up for your rights. All this is now laid out for sacrifice on the altar of capital, put there by the labour traitors.
On the heels of the second imperialist World War a strike wave gripped the burgeoning Ontario steel and auto industries. In Windsor in 1945, 17,000 Ford workers waged a bitter, months-long struggle for a union, thwarting police strikebreaking with massive picket lines and street blockades. To tame the threat of a surging labour movement, the bosses’ arbitrator, Supreme Court judge Ivan Rand, struck a devil’s bargain with the UAW tops.
The “Rand formula,” which became a standard feature of union contracts in Canada, recognized the union’s right to collect dues and to represent its members, but only in exchange for a ban on strikes in the life of a contract, with severe financial penalties for any violations. The union also won the automatic dues check-off, whereby dues are directly collected by the employer then transferred to the union. This measure secured some financial stability for the unions, but it undermined contact between the union leadership and workers on the shop floor, serving to institutionalize class collaboration at the top.
The current threats to ban the dues check-off are aimed at bankrupting the unions and hamstringing their ability to fight. Every worker has an immediate stake in fighting these attacks tooth and nail! But the present system of collecting dues via the companies also epitomizes the bureaucrats’ legalism and fervent desire for “labour peace.” Making the boss the union’s banker sets up the union for financial blackmail and further undercuts its capacity to strike. A class-struggle leadership would fight for the unions to directly control dues collection.
Down With Anti-Labour Witchhunt!
It’s no coincidence that the calls for anti-union legislation became louder during the wave of social struggle in Quebec sparked by last year’s student strike. In September, Harper protégé and Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre seized on a donation to the student strikers by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and especially on a PSAC committee’s statement of support for candidates of the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire in that month’s Quebec elections.
Raving against the union’s support to “political parties whose avowed goal is Quebec separation,” Poilievre demanded action against “forced unionism.” His Quebec-bashing campaign was picked up by bourgeois press outlets including Sun Media and the National Post. A September 4 Post headline thundered, “With PQ endorsement, the federal PSAC union launches its membership off a cliff.”
Another media furor used to ram through Bill C-377 was whipped up over the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ decision to send delegates to a World Social Forum “Free Palestine” event in Brazil. This led to lying, terrorist-baiting diatribes in the Toronto Sun. The right of unions to spend money on political and social causes of their own choosing–from defense of the Palestinians, to support for abortion rights and solidarity with Native struggles—has been a perennial target of anti-union propaganda.
We defend the right of unions to choose where to spend their funds, with absolutely no interference from the capitalists. At the same time, class-struggle militants must fight inside the unions in opposition to policies that are against the workers’ interests, such as support to bourgeois parties and to the flagrantly pro-capitalist NDP. Pouring money into impotent “public relations” campaigns, along with electoral support every few years to the NDP (or the Liberals) has been a direct route to the graveyard.
The NDP was founded in 1961 on the twin pillars of Cold War anti-Communism and the myth that the capitalist state serves the interests of the exploiter and exploited alike. It is a textbook example of what V.I. Lenin, leader of the 1917 workers revolution in Russia, dubbed a “bourgeois workers party”: a labour party with a pro-capitalist program and leadership. The strategic task of communists is to politically split such parties by winning the working-class base away from the influence of the social-democratic misleaders to a class-struggle program and worldview.
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
In a 1940 article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” the Marxist leader Leon Trotsky wrote:
“It is necessary to adapt ourselves to the concrete conditions existing in the trade unions of every given country in order to mobilize the masses, not only against the bourgeoisie, but also against the totalitarian regime within the trade unions themselves and against the leaders enforcing this regime. The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.”
There is a burning need for a working-class counteroffensive, a determined and militant fight to organize the unorganized in every workplace. This must go hand-in-hand with the defense by labour of Native people, women and all those oppressed under capitalism. The unions must actively defend foreign-born workers, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Against the efforts of the capitalist media to isolate and demonize relatively better-off union members, a struggle by both public and private sector unions to defend their hard-won gains and expand health care, pensions and other social services for everyone could mobilize broad support among non-union workers and the poor.
The key to unchaining the power of the working class is the building of a binational, internationalist workers party dedicated to sweeping away the capitalist profit system. In the face of deep divisions between workers in English Canada and Quebec—divisions constantly reinforced by the NDP and union tops’ crusades for “Canadian unity”—such a party would combat all instances of Anglo chauvinism and advocate independence for Quebec. At the same time, workers in Quebec must be broken from the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois which sells the lie of a common interest between Québécois workers and their “own” francophone exploiters, and from illusions in the PQ’s petty-bourgeois left appendage, Québec Solidaire.
The insatiable hunger of capitalism for higher profits at the expense of labour cannot be effectively fought by the servile hacks and social-democratic politicians who now lead the workers movement. A fighting workers leadership would seek to connect the struggles of today to the need for a socialist revolution to rip the productive wealth of society from the hands of the capitalist rulers and build a planned, collectivized economy where production is based on social need, not private profit.