Category Archives: Labor Movement

Internal Revolt Shakes B.C. NDP, Labour Movement

By Roger Annis
Two political shakeups have rocked British Columbia in the past two months. First was the resignation of the long-standing premier of the province, Gordon Campbell, on November 3, victim of the fallout of a hated tax he imposed. One month later, the leader of the opposition party, Carole James, was forced to step down by a revolt within her party. Continue reading

Air Canada Workers Reject Wage, Pension Concessions

By Roger Annis. July 6, 2009-Members of the largest union at Air Canada have narrowly voted to reject an extraordinary agreement that would have frozen their wages for the next 21 months and allowed the company to suspend payments into the employee pension plan. The International Association of Machinist (IAM) members voted “No” by a 51 per cent majority. Continue reading

Unite union wins gains for vulnerable workers in New Zealand

By Roger Annis. The Unite union in New Zealand is the country’s newest, and among its most dynamic, trade unions. It is at the forefront of a revitalization of a section of the labour movement in New Zealand that has resulted in thousands of young and marginalized workers gaining union representation for the first time and winning significant wage raises, including to the national minimum wage. Continue reading

‘First Victory’ in Guadeloupe General Strike; Movement Spreads to Other French Colonies

By Richard Fidler. The general strike in Guadeloupe ended March 4, when an Accord was signed between the LKP Strike Collective and the local governments, the employers’ federation and the French government that granted the strikers their top 20 immediate demands and provided for continued negotiations on the remaining 126 mid-term and long-term demands. The LKP, or Lihannaj Kont Pwofitasyon — Collective against super-exploitation — is a coalition of 49 unions and grassroots organizations. Continue reading

Toronto Janitors Organize for Rights, Respect and Justice

By John Riddell. As darkness falls in Toronto and tens of thousands of office workers pour out of the downtown skyscrapers, another army enters the buildings, quietly and unperceived — the night shift that cleans the office towers and readies them for the next day’s activity. These buildings house Canada’s richest corporations — the banks alone had profits of $20 billion in 2007 — yet their janitors are among the worst paid and worst treated of Toronto’s work force. And they work within an employment structure carefully contrived to render them powerless. Continue reading

Political Crisis Exposes Canada’s National, Class Divisions

By Richard Fidler. In a classic 19th century work, English journalist Walter Bagehot divided the Constitution into two parts. The “efficient” part — the executive (cabinet) and legislative — was responsible for the business of government. The “dignified” part, the Queen, was to put a human face on the capitalist state. Bagehot noted, however, that the Queen also had “a hundred” powers called Prerogatives, adding: “There is no authentic explicit information as to what the Queen can do….” Continue reading

Toronto ‘Good Jobs for All Summit’ Builds Unity of Working People

By Robert Johnson. The “Good Jobs For All Summit” in Toronto on November 22 was good news for labour – an important advance in building the unity of all working people. Of the approximately 900 who took part in the one-day conference, about half were workers who are not union members, and many were from oppressed minorities. Continue reading

Battered Labour Movement Needs to Agitate Like It’s 1944

 By John F. Conway. “Democracy leads the struggle of the working class not only for better terms for the sale of labour power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich…Trade unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class.” — V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? Continue reading

CLC Convention Highlights Challenges Facing the Labour Movement in Canada

By Roger Annis. The triennial convention of the Canadian Labour Congress held in Toronto from May 26 to 30 revealed the positive changes that have edged their way into the labour movement in recent years. It also showed the weighty obstacles that stand in the way of the organization’s transformation into a more militant, fighting force on behalf of the working class. Continue reading

Harvest of Injustice: The Oppression of Migrant Workers on Canadian Farms

By Adriana Paz. Some say that nothing happens by chance. At the very least, it was a fortunate accident that my first job, when I arrived in Canada from Bolivia three years ago, was in a tomato greenhouse in South Delta, British Columbia — one of the first in the province to request migrant farm workers from Mexico under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). My job was to run from the office managers’ office to the greenhouse and back relaying information on workers’ productivity levels. Continue reading

New Zealand Union Campaigns to Organize Young Workers

By Roger Annis

Melbourne, Australia—Four years ago, some experienced social and political organizers sat down with young people in Auckland, New Zealand to map out a plan for a novel trade union, one that would potentially represent the thousands of workers who toil in poorly paid and mostly part-time jobs in the fast food and other service industries.

When the group approached existing unions with its ideas for such an organizing effort, it was told, “Not possible,” or “Too difficult.” Most workers in the targeted industries are too young and itinerant, or too distracted by consumerism and other vices to think about collective industrial action.

Undeterred, the group launched an organizing drive that would ultimately result in the Unite Union. Today, Unite counts 5,000 members. Of these, 2,000 work in the fast food industry, 600 at the main casino in Auckland, 500 in call centres, and another 700 work in hotels. Most of the union’s members are in and around Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

The union is exploring a merger with a larger union, the 20,000-member National Distribution Union. That union is itself undergoing a transformation into a more democratic and fighting organization in the wake of a successful campaign in 2006 to defeat a lockout of 500 workers by the giant Australian retailer Woolworth’s.

Mike Treen, National Director of Unite, gave an interview on the story of the union while attending the Latin America and Asia Pacific International Solidarity Forum America and Asia Pacific International Solidarity Forum here from October 11 to 14.

“We had several things working in our favour when we started the organizing campaign. The unemployment rate was low, so it gave young workers confidence that if things came to worse, they could always move on to another job.

“We also had several features of New Zealand labour law in our favour. The law requires employers to grant union organizers access to the work site. And union recognition is granted to whatever proportion of a workforce wishes to be recognized. All we needed was a minimum of two workers to sign up and we had our foot in the door.”

The union quickly realized that it could not win representation by traditional tactics of industrial action. Treen explained, “Our campaign was above all political. We used a combination of on-the-job pressure tactics and mobilization of broader community support to win union representation.”

“Our central demands were one of the main reasons for our success. There were three–abolish sub-minimum wage youth pay rates; a minimum wage of $12 per hour; and secure hours of work. These demands became very popular, not only among the workers we were organizing but also among their friends and family and in broader society. ”

Unite’s organizing work was anything but traditional. “We bought a bus, decorated it with the campaign material and attached big bullhorn speakers. Then we would use it to travel from one worksite to another and mobilize very loud and visible support outside the workplaces where we were organizing or bargaining. Dozens of short strike were held with the young workers making a real noise on the busy highways and intersections where these fast food outlets are situated.”

Treen explained how one company, Restaurant Brands, was organized. It owns Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks. “When we launched the campaign, we did it with what we called ‘the world’s first Starbucks strike’. Because the pizza delivery network had one national call centre, it didn’t require a lot of industrial action to put a lot of pressure on the company. We would have a rally outside the call center on a Friday or Saturday night. The call centre workers would come out and take part. Workers could stay for as long as they liked. Some would only stay out for half an hour, some would decide to go home for the rest of the night. The net effect was to back up calls for hours.”

The union mobilized unions, workers and cultural performers to support its fight. It organized several big events in Auckland in early 2006 to galvanize support, including a rally on February 12 that filled the Auckland Town Hall followed the next month by a march and rally through central Auckland that drew 1,500 participants.

The union’s fast food campaign adopted the popular slogan, “Supersize My Pay.” It scored some victories in 2006. Restaurant Brands signed a collective agreement that increased wages, moved youth rates from 80% to 90% of the adult rate, and contained a clause that protected the work hours of existing staff before new staff would be hired.

This agreement was followed by others at McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s with conditions similar to those at Restaurant Brands.

During 2007, the government was obliged to respond to pressure to abolish youth rates. It decided that youth rates could only last for 3 months or 200 hours. With that change, McDonalds did a joint announcement with Unite that they would get rid of youth rates altogether. Other big employers are now expected to follow suit.

The government has also increased the minimum wage by degree and it is expected to reach $12 an hour in March, 2008. The union movement is now raising the bar to get a minimum wage of $15 an hour. This would be equal to two-thirds of the average national wage, which is the standard set by the International Labor Organization.

“This campaign was a big victory for a radical, campaigning unionism,” Treen concluded. “It proved young people would join unions in their thousands if asked, and if inspired to do so, by a union willing to fight. Not only did it bring notoriously anti-union employers like McDonald’s to the negotiating table, it also forced them to sign a collective agreement and make real concessions.”

Unite’s story is an inspiring one. If you want to see it in action, you can get a DVD of the campaign called “SupersizeMyPay.Com.” It’s well worth a look.

Unite web site: http://www.unite.org.nz/

Actively Radical TV in Australia has produced a 64-minute documentary on Unite’s struggle. To buy a copy, contact Actively Radical TV, 73-75 Princes Highway, St Peters, NSW 2044, Australia. Ph (61 2) 95655522; e-mail: artres@loom.net.au. It costs $US30 plus $US10 postage for organisations and $US15 plus $US10 postage for individuals.

The CAW and Magna: Disorganizing the Working Class

by Sam Gindin

The Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) leadership has hailed its October 15 agreement with auto parts maker Magna International as providing a new “framework of fairness” that may, over time, bring 18,000 Magna workers into the union. In this article, Sam Gindin explains the agreement’s negative features, including abolition of the right to strike and to elect shop stewards.

Sam was CAW research director and chief economist until his retirement in 2000; he now teaches political economy at York University. Sam’s article is reprinted with permission from The Bullet, an e-bulletin published by Socialist Project.


In the neoconservative Canada of the late 1990s, the labour movement needs to become more militant, less accommodating to the demands of corporations and governments. If this sounds like a return to the days of the 1930s or 1950s, so be it. It’s either that or watch decades of hard-won gains disappear. This resistance will mean arrests, charges, maybe even jail terms for some of our leaders and members. But if we are to check this massive wave of unfairness, we simply have no alternative. — Buzz Hargrove, Labour of Love (1998), pp. 88-9.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the attacks on past working class gains intensified, the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) was widely recognized – not just in North America but abroad – as standing at the forefront of working class resistance. With the Magna-CAW Agreement signed on October 15, 2007, the CAW now seems at the forefront of working class desperation and defeat.

This startling agreement raises three sets of questions.

  1. What is in it for Magna?
  2. What did the CAW get out of this (other than dues)?
  3. What are the implications for the labour movement as a whole?

Before getting to these questions, it is useful to return to the foundations of independent unionism (still taught in CAW educationals) and consider how they relate to the ‘Magna Model’ the CAW has turned to.What are unions as independent organizations? The contradiction that has always faced working people is that they are dependent on their employers for work, yet need to create a degree of independence so they can address their own, distinct needs.The foundation for that independence was a democratic organization of workers – a ‘union.’ It resonated with workers because it was truly ‘theirs’; it was a space within which the employer had no say. In practice the innovation of shop stewards, workers elected from various sections of the workplace, was crucial. The stewards represented workers in their daily struggles with management and also acted as mentors and leaders in the development of a culture of solidarity. Against the god of profits and the devil of competitiveness, workers and their unions developed their own understanding of the world and formulated distinct working class values.But all this would come to naught if workers didn’t also have an independent basis of power to offset, if not match the power of the employer. That power rested on the right to withdraw their labour – a basic democratic right that was only reluctantly recognized, and even then limited, by governments and employers. Pierre Trudeau summarized this well in his early years, before he entered formal politics:

‘In the present state of society, in fact, it is the possibility of the strike which enables workers to negotiate with their employers on terms of approximate equality….. [Without it] the trade union movement becomes nothing more than one institution among many in the service of capitalism: a convenient organization for disciplining the workers, occupying their leisure time, and ensuring their profitability for business’. – The Asbestos Strike (1956).

What’s in it for Magna?

Magna has been able to limit the CAW to only three of its 45 units and faces no major organizing drives today. Why then has it suddenly opened the door to the CAW (even if it’s on Magna’s own terms)? Bringing the union in, even on the company’s terms, does mean new administrative headaches (at a minimum, more meetings and consultations take time) and possible hazards for Magna (things are stable now; why risk something blowing up in your face). Other companies, even if they could get the CAW deal, would likely reject it unless the point was to co-opt an actual organizing drive. In fact, its no secret that even most of Magna’s top management is not all that enamoured with this new step.

The new relationship to the CAW starts and ends with Frank Stronach. Frank Stronach, Magna’s founder and current top officer, has always had a paternalistic vision of workplace relations. Fairness is good as long as he gets to define it. Unions are okay if they are certain kinds of unions. The CAW, which left the American international union in the mid-1980s over how close its leadership had gotten to the companies and how far they had gotten from the membership, was certainly not a potential partner for Stronach. Nor was the Buzz Hargrove of the years following that separation, Stronach’s ideal labour leader. But over the past few years Stronach had clearly decided that the new CAW – made desperate by a loss of jobs and with a president vain enough to declare victory no matter the scale of the concessions – does get his stamp of approval. And so Stronach moved ahead to, as he says, ‘transform North American labour relations.’

In the Magna model, these foundations for independent unionism are, to all intents and purposes erased. It is true and important that the company has agreed to open the door to the union contacting its workers. But that comes at the cost of the kind of union the workers can then have.

  • The right to strike is fully erased; it is gone forever. As the CAW press kit puts it: ‘There will be no strikes or lockouts under this system‘ (emphasis added). When the agreement ends, if the members reject the new offer, it goes to arbitration. Period. (The kit goes on to suggest that the strike weapon is, in any case, not really that important.)
     
  • Shop stewards do not exist. The CAW has accepted this. Stewards are replaced by a ‘fairness committee’ staffed by equal numbers of labour and management reps (who are part of the ‘concern resolution process’). The key union rep under this structure is the ‘Employee Advocate’, a carryover from Magna’s traditional practice who seems to be the formal equivalent of a plant chairperson. According to the Toronto Star (October 16, 2007), the Employee Advocate is not elected from the membership at large but screened by a committee which included both labour representatives and management(!). To date it is not public information how the final selection is made. This system is reminiscent in some ways to the ‘controlled democracy’ in communist Europe a while back, where managers – in that case as union members – prepared lists from which the leaders could be chosen.
     
  • The Magna units will be part of one Canada-wide – effectively Ontario-wide – amalgamated local. (This in itself may tend to isolate each unit form interaction with other units in the community). The above Employee Advocates will make up the executive of that local and constitute, along with representatives from the national union, the bargaining committee. The local officers – for example, the President and Secretary-Treasurer – will be chosen by this executive rather than, as in current CAW practice, via a vote of the membership.
  • As for ideology, the CAW president has proudly declared his enthusiasm for a ‘non-adversarial’ relationship, repeating (without embarrassment) all the mushy clichés about ‘teamwork’ and ‘being in this together’ that he not so long ago scorned for their rank hypocrisy. This, it is important to emphasize, is not just about rhetoric. The attitude to labour-management relations is one of the criteria that will be used in evaluating acceptability for being the Employee Advocate. Trouble-makers – those who challenge the system, ‘stir up trouble’ and have always been the backbone of independent unionism – need not apply.

Magna workers, it is clear, need a union. There are, for example, questions of internal wage parity, equity across jobs, and contract workers. And Magna has often undercut other Canadian producers in overall wages, benefits and working conditions. Magna argues that it sets its wages at the average manufacturing wage for the particular work, that its raises follow that average, and that it has no intention of changing this practice. Given that Magna the largest employer in the industry – larger even then General Motors – and in the face of its’ profitability and provision of outrageous compensation to its executives (Stronach’s earnings over the past three years have totalled over $100 million), it would seem that the union is positioned to demand that Magna should actually lead in setting higher standards.

But given the constraints on the union of the Magna model, above all with the possibility of a strike not on the table, it’s questionable how much collective bargaining will accomplish. As well, the union has already agreed to set aside its own practice of establishing defined benefit pension plans at major employers and accept Magna’s alternative of a savings and profit-sharing plan. As for workplace itself, Magna is steadfast on its absolute control in running the plant; with the union agreeing to ensure the company’s competitiveness, it is not simply credible to suggest that the union will introduce any significant challenge to the company on working conditions.

Why did the CAW do this?

The union might be defended on two grounds. The first is that the union is engaging in a scam: once it has a foothold it will revert to traditional unionism. But suggestions that this is the hidden agenda do not stand up. In the 1980s, when the CAW was at its peak in terms of confidence, it might have been argued that such an experiment would draw Magna workers into the CAW orbit. Today, when the CAW has itself been drifting more and more towards corporatist partnerships with the Detroit Big Three, other CAW locals are likely to be drawn into the orbit of the type of trade unionism this deal with Frank Stronach represents.

In any case, it is difficult enough to build a union presence in the best of circumstances; it is virtually impossible when, as in the Magna model, the ideological framework and internal structures all work against you. As well, the path to the full unionization agreed to here is spread over a 9-10 year period in which the CAW gets access to about five plants yearly. This implies a self-disciplining incentive: if the union wants all the plants, it will have to behave – and get the members to behave in the initial plants where the union is recognized – in a way that doesn’t disrupt the agreement before all the units are in the CAW. And by the time all the plants are in the union, a decade or so from now at best, a culture will have been established that will not be easily changed.

In fact, the more likely scenario for the development of a ‘real’ union might come from the outside. Frustrated with a union that draws dues but acts like the industrial relations arm of the company, workers might rebel and look to another union to come in, this time to join workers ready to challenge the status quo. It should however be noted that this leads to murky legal territory. Since the units will be under one collective agreement, the Labour Board might rule that they must all stay or go together and can’t be picked off one at a time – making a change in unions difficult if not impossible (as was seen in the failed attempt at organizing the banks in the 1980s).

A more traditional defence of this new CAW policy would be that the unionization of Magna is critical to the rest of the parts industry and the auto industry more generally, but the only way to accomplish this is by way of a tactical retreat from principle. The problem addressed in this argument is serious. There is no question that unionization in today’s climate of overwhelming restructuring is extremely difficult and this is all the truer at Magna where keeping unions out has been one of its major investments.

The main point of course is that raised earlier: it doesn’t make much sense to kill the patient to cure the disease; the union is better off without Magna than with getting Magna but giving up what the union stands for. But that’s not all. A number of other hard questions are relevant here.

  • Before the Harris revolution and even under Conservative administrations, Ontario had labour laws and regulations which, though the union movement never thought they went far enough, allowed for a meaningful right to organize. With the victory of McGuinty, there was an opportunity to reverse what Harris imposed. Why did the CAW not join the labour movement to mount and sustain through the election the kind of campaign that might have given us a better alternative than ‘collective begging’? Why, instead, did the President of the CAW endorse the Liberals without any commitment on such changes (and do so, incidentally, without a mandate from his members)?
     
  • The CAW has in the past insisted that part of its relationship to the Big Three include a corporate rule of conduct that calls on parts suppliers to show ‘neutrality’ in workers’ decisions on whether or not to join a union. (This was, in fact, an element in the CAW’s victory at Magna’s Integram unit in Windsor.) Why is this now not getting the same or more emphasis?
     
  • Any serious campaign to bring Magna into the fold would indeed cost a small fortune. The CAW is financially strong and the issue is a matter of priorities. The CAW has, for example, found the resources to provide $5 million in financial support for what some consider a shady break-away local of the Labourer’s International when this could have gone into an organizing drive. More important, can the CAW continue to realistically rely on its full-time staff to organize modestly-paid workers? Would it not be more sensible (and less of a strain on resources) to combine experienced full-time staff with dozens of young, energetic workers – paid at their existing wage rate and drawn from CAW workplaces across the country – to organize within their communities?
     
  • It has to be recognized that unionization is not just about what the organizing department does; it’s also about the drive and vision within the union as a whole. How far can unions go in attracting new members if they demand dues but sound like management? If there is no larger vision of building the working class through unionization, what reason is there to expect members and staff to make the material commitments and sacrifices to do what is necessary
  • In the face of the increased corporate aggressiveness, competition between unions over whose institution will expand is can be especially destructive. Where the goal is a major organizing breakthrough, how can some degree of cooperation among unions be established? Can this happen without unions coming to identify the main goal as being to build the working class as a whole?

What are the larger implications for the CAW as a whole and for other unions?

The importance of the unionization of Magna was always seen in the CAW as of value in itself but also as being about the protection of standards in the rest of the auto parts sector. But now it is almost inevitable that in any new bargaining, companies will demand the same structures as Magna. If not a permanent no-strike ban, then at least six-year Agreements during which strikes are banned. If getting rid of stewards is not on, maybe having fewer stewards will be accepted.

This may have implications outside the parts sector. In response to a question at the press conference announcing the deal, Hargrove bizarrely commented (Globe and Mail, October 15, 2007) that he would ‘make a similar arrangement available to General Motors or other auto makers that wanted to build a new greenfield plant in Canada’ (meaning an entirely new plant, not an addition). GM workers, fully aware that a more modern plant with radically lower standards will over time erode their existing standards if not their jobs, might be surprised to hear this.

The CAW’s abandonment of the right to strike at Magna has enormous implications in terms of the labour movement’s struggles (including in the CAW) to win this democratic right. And it mindlessly undermines those workers who never had this right or have seen it eroded as governments expanded the scope of ‘essential services’, or introduced back to work legislation. If it is the case that, as the CAW press kit claims, 30,000 CAW members don’t have the right to strike, is this not of concern to the union? (Ironically, the first section on the CAW web page has a runner giving the latest ‘News Flash’; included here is the formation of a cross union alliance, including the CAW, to resist the Nova Scotia government’s threat to bring in legislation curtailing the right to strike for health care workers).

Hargrove has already declared that if other companies offer something similar to the Magna model, the union will jump at the chance (‘Invite us in’, Hargrove says, Toronto Star, October 16, 2007). But other union leaders, some who were not as outspoken as Hargrove in the confrontation with the Rae government’s imposition of conditions on workers, have reacted negatively. Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, warned of the precedent being set. And Wayne Fraser, Ontario-Atlantic director of the United Steelworkers rightfully asked: ‘What’s to stop other employers, especially Magna competitors, from rightfully asking the CAW for the same no-strike right?’ (Toronto Star, October 16, 2007).

Where in all this are the militants of the CAW – the activists, staff and local and national leaders who not long ago so clearly understood that they couldn’t ‘watch decades of hard-won gains disappear’? Where is their outrage?

Building a Fighting Labour Movement in Canada Today

by Roger Annis

This talk was presented by Roger Annis on March 10, 2007, to the Vancouver Socialist Education Conference organized by Vancouver-area readers and writers of Socialist Voice. Approximately 70 people attended three sessions of discussion and debate on some of the key political issues facing Marxists and other working class activists today.

I have been a wage worker and union member for my 35-year working life. I have been a member of diverse unions, including postal workers, railworkers, steelworkers, and paper workers. For the past 10 years, I have worked as an aircraft assembler. I am a member of the Machinists union.

In all this time, I have been on strike three times. In 1974, we went on a wildcat strike at the Post Office to protest the unjust firing of a union shop steward. In 1976, my union joined the one-day general strike across Canada to protest federal government-imposed wage controls. And in 1979, we were on strike at a large steel mill in a fight to win a new collective agreement.

That’s not much strike action over 35 years, especially as each one was rather tame. But my experience is similar to that of most workers in Canada today. We have grown up in a political period that has known only episodic examples of the “fighting labour movement” referred to in my title. So let’s start by asking what such a movement would look like.

The Working Class in Canada

Marxism holds that those in capitalist society who neither own capital nor profit from the labour of others and who live by our labour have a material interest in fighting for socialism. We constitute a social class that Marxists call the “working class.” Our ranks include not only those who work for wages. They also include those who do not or cannot work, be they laid-off or injured workers, people living a subsistence livelihood in remote or poorly developed regions, women at home raising children, young people in between school and a working life, retired people on modest pensions, and so on.

The working class suffers all the inequalities and exploitation that this society dishes out. We live in perilous conditions in which our jobs and livelihoods are scarred by racism, sexism, economic uncertainty, wars, environmental destruction, and all the other terrible features of capitalist society. We have a vested interest in putting an end to capitalism through establishing a government of working people that leads a socialist transformation in Canada and joins a worldwide struggle for socialism.

Working farmers have similar interests in establishing such a government. So, too, do small-scale producers of commodities or services—teachers, artisans, cultural performers, etc. And in the course of their struggles they need to create alliances with the special victims of capitalist oppression, such as Canada’s oppressed nationalities.

Moreover, we share a common interest with the exploited and oppressed peoples of the world as a whole in resisting a social system whose wars and environmental degradation threaten the very survival of humankind.

In Canada and Quebec, the modern working class has never waged a fight for political power. But we have seen many examples of a “fighting labour movement.” The years following both world wars were tumultuous and saw, at various times, mass trade union organizing drives, general strikes for improvements in living and working conditions, and mass farmer-organizing drives. During the 1960s and 1970s in Quebec, trade unions and other social organizations waged huge struggles for social, language, and national rights. A province-wide general strike occurred in 1972. In 1990, the Mohawk people waged an historic fight for land rights in regions adjacent to Montreal.

Here in British Columbia in just the last few years, we have lived through some major struggles by the trade unions that offer a glimpse of the fighting labour movement we seek to create. These recent experiences have important lessons for us and I want to focus some remarks on them.

Union Battles in British Columbia

In April-May 2004, several tens of thousands of health care workers, members of the CUPE-affiliated Hospital Employees Union (HEU), went on strike. They were fighting to preserve their jobs, wages, and conditions of work. But something much larger was at stake. The workers were also on strike to defend the public health care system against ferocious attacks by the Liberal Party government of Gordon Campbell, elected in 2001, and the federal Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. The rage aroused by Campbell’s attacks was all the greater since he had vigorously denied during the 2001 election campaign any intention to cut back the public health care system.

The HEU strike touched a very deep chord in the working class, and we saw strong and forceful acts of solidarity coming forward from all sectors of society. The strike began to take on the elements of a political strike, one that would challenge the very legitimacy of the hated Campbell government. Had the actions of solidarity continued, they would have forced the resignation of the government and the calling of an election in which quality health care and the ruthless, class character of the existing government would be front and center.

A strike of teachers in British Columbia in the fall of 2005 followed a similar pattern. Teachers were demanding an end to cuts to their jobs and salaries and attacks on the public education system as a whole. In so doing, they sparked a broad and growing movement of solidarity from other unions and from working-class people as a whole. Once again, the entire government policy of sharp attacks on social services was being challenged.

The teachers strike also presented the possibility for unions in British Columbia to come to the aid of embattled workers at the Telus telecommunication corporation. Several tens of thousands of Telus workers were engaged in a very bitter and sometimes violent strike that began weeks before the teachers walked out and was dragging on with no end in sight.

The health care and Telus strikes went down to very painful defeat. A four-day strike by 4,000 ferry workers in December 2004 was also defeated. Teachers won limited concessions because they were in a stronger moral and political position to resist legal and political threats to break their strike.

Some Lessons

During the HEU and teachers’ strikes, some unions were walking off the job in support, and many others were giving signs that they, too, were willing to walk off the job. But the BC Federation of Labour and its affiliates did not mobilize to defend these workers; they thereby signaled to other potential allies of the strikers that nothing could be done. This doomed the strikes to defeat. An historic opportunity to fight the federal and provincial governments’ attacks on social services and democratic rights was lost. The poorest sections of society in British Columbia continue to suffer under the lash of government policy with barely a peep of protest from the unions and their political party, the New Democratic Party.

We are living a seeming paradox in today’s capitalist economy. The capitalists are earning massive profits, and their governments, in Canada at least, are awash in tax revenue and surpluses. In British Columbia, billions of dollars of public money are being thrown into the sinkhole of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver; billions more are earmarked for the highway, bridge, and port expansion, the so-called “Gateway” projects.

Yet, cuts to social programs are continuing apace. Health care services and standards are in decline. Public education is suffering. The federal government’s unemployment insurance program has a $50 billion (!) surplus, and access is harder than ever. Homelessness is rampant and growing, and welfare rates cannot sustain human life. So why are workers’ conditions worsening in a society of seeming abundance?

Society is creating more wealth than ever. But those who own and control that wealth face more and more competition to maintain their profits and privileges. So rather than admit the failing of their capitalist system and allow a superior form of human social organization, socialism, to take over, they fight with tooth and nail to preserve their dying order.

The working classes around the world need to organize politically and take control of government in order to reorganize society. But we face two interconnected problems along that road:

One, our political and trade union officials are not leading. They offer no vision and no program for a fight to defend and advance workers rights. Thus, at the critical moments of the hospital, ferry, teachers, and Telus strikes, leaders of the BC Federation of Labour and its affiliates backed down from a head-on fight with the provincial government and blocked mass action.

And two, workers see no alternative but to seek individual solutions to societal problems. Your rent is too high, or there’s no social housing available? Take out a mortgage and buy a house, or renovate your basement and become a landlord. Inadequate pension income? Put money into an RRSP. Wages too low? Take a second job, or push your children into the labour force. And so on.

A fighting labour movement would have welcomed the challenges of the HEU, ferry workers, teachers’ and Telus workers’ strikes in British Columbia. It would have mobilized the unions and others to win these strikes and to force changes in government policy. Equally important, it would champion the causes of the most oppressed in our society—indigenous people fighting for land, social and national rights; young people unable to find a job; people needing a higher minimum wage or welfare rates; women victimized by systematic sexism; drug addicts receiving police abuse instead of treatment for their addictions.

Is Electioneering the Answer?

Instead, we are told to tighten our belts, wait for the next election, and elect an NDP government that may legislate to meet our concerns. In British Columbia, we have the embarrassing spectacle of the unions and the NDP supporting the 2010 Winter Olympic boondoggle and all its consequences — growing homelessness, rising taxes and housing prices, expanding roadways, and consequent air pollution. And where opposition to the Olympics has surfaced in official circles, such as among some members of the Vancouver COPE municipal party, that opposition has been ineffectual.

In reality, the NDP today, when in power, acts much like other capitalist governments. So when workers elect this party to government, we must mobilize to ensure that the modest reforms in the NDP program are enacted. No deep-going process of social change is possible unless working people unite in their communities and their workplaces to press it forward.

A good current example of a more combative labour movement is in Venezuela. The Bolivarian movement there began in modest fashion, by winning a presidential election on a reform program. But when the employers said, “No,” the masses came into action, organizing in their communities, remaking their unions, and mobilizing in the streets. In this fashion, they have advanced from victory to victory.

A Special Task – Defending the Oppressed Nationalities

One of the key responsibilities in building a fighting labour movement today is to forge unity with the oppressed nationalities and victims of racial discrimination. In B.C., indigenous people are the special victims of the Olympics juggernaut. They are losing housing as low-rent hotels in downtown Vancouver become transformed into high-priced hotels or condos. Their lands are being stolen to build more ski hills or highways. Their pressing health and education needs continue to be sacrificed on the altar of financial subsidies for Olympics facilities.

Canada’s French-speaking nationalities also require our support and solidarity. The Québécois fight for political independence is a progressive struggle because it affirms basic language and political rights, and it also gives a progressive political dimension to the struggle by workers for economic and social advancement.

The 300,000 Acadien people in Atlantic Canada and the half million people of French language in the other provinces face cultural and language assimilation, and often receive inferior social services and job opportunities, depending on where they live. They, too, deserve support in their struggles.

Political Action by Workers in Canada

I said earlier that the road to transforming society runs through the establishment of political power, that is, a government of the working people that can lead the struggle against capitalist rule and carry through a socialist transformation. Where does political action stand today across Canada?

The working class in Canada is saddled with parties that don’t even fight for meaningful reforms. The New Democratic Party has always accepted the capitalist rules of the game. But once upon a time, it fought for such vital reforms as pensions, health care and unemployment insurance. It opposed the war in Vietnam and opposed the 1970 declaration of the War Measures Act against the Quebec independence movement. Today, the NDP speaks out only episodically on the correct side of a political issue; overall, it accepts the logic and dictates of capital. Thus, it supports the Canadian military occupations in Afghanistan and Haiti and does nothing to oppose the war in Iraq that it says it opposes.

A similar description applies to the NDP’s municipal cousin in Vancouver, COPE. This is a party that has provided no effective opposition to the Olympics juggernaut and has next to nothing to propose about the housing crisis and other social ills in Vancouver. It relies on backroom deals and polite lobbying to get things done for working people, and the results are next to nil.

A growing number of NDP and trade union leaders are seeking to weaken the already weak organizational and political ties between the party and the unions. Some even wish to embrace the Liberal Party. These are steps backwards because the NDP is an important arena for the unions to fight for pro-working class policies and to wage a struggle for a government truly representative of workers’ interests.

The situation in Quebec is today more favorable for working class political action. Although most unions act in the political arena as appendages of two capitalist partiesthe Parti québécois (provincial) and the Bloc québécois (federal) something new and important has emerged. Last year, labour and other social activists founded a new party, Québec solidaire. Socialist Voice #103 reported on Québec solidaire’s founding platform. While the party has not yet adopted a socialist and pro-working class program, its formation is an important step in that direction that deserves support and participation. Outside of Quebec, we should work to make this party known. (In the recent Quebec election, the new party received just under 4% of the vote–Editors.)

Marxists Face Up to the Challenges of Our Times

The challenge facing Marxists today in Canada and internationally is to be a part of the unfolding resistance to the employers’ offensive. We must join and provide leadership to the struggles waged by unions, the poor, and women’s rights advocates. We must also learn from popular struggles, such as those of the indigenous peoples. We have a special responsibility to join with the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle and deepen solidarity with the peoples in countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, where working people are struggling to use political power to refashion society in their interests.

Marxists have a unique and vital contribution to make to the working class struggle in all its dimensions. We bring the lessons from previous struggles and we bring a clear outlook on what is needed to put an end to war, environmental destruction, and other injustices.

To do all that, we must ourselves become better organized and more unified. All of us who organized this conference are keenly aware of past failures to do this. Some of us come from political organizations that are no longer playing a unifying role, that have succumbed to narrow group interest and sectarianism. But if Cuba and Venezuela teach us anything, it is that the challenge doesn’t go away; we must draw the lessons of past accomplishments and then move forward.

We are not starting from zero. We are building upon the important practical and theoretical achievements of those who have come before us. The peoples of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries are today struggling to make new political and social leaps forward, and to draw the rest of the continent in with them. We can and must learn from these examples and many others around the world and become more and more a part of the worldwide struggle that is emerging against capitalism and imperialism.

Immigration Laws Serve Only the Bosses

Unions Must Defend and Organize Immigrants

By James Haywood

James Haywood is a Socialist Voice Contributing Editor. He lives in London, England.

In a December 8 speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave orders to the country’s immigrants: Conform to British society!

After a tirade against Muslim “extremists” that the Muslim Association of Britain termed “alarming,” Blair hypocritically cited “toleration” as a core British value. “So conform to it, or don’t come here.” Immigrants have “the duty to integrate,” he said. “That is what being British means.” (BBC News Dec 8; Telegraph Dec. 12)

Blair’s speech provides a licence for reprisals against those who do not “integrate” into the profit-driven values of Britain’s rulers.

The capitalist media are quick to seize every opportunity to attack immigrants. For example the Daily Telegraph on November 25: “a bogus asylum seeker committed a series of armed robberies following his early release from jail.” Or the Sun’s headline earlier last year, “450,000 illegals in UK.”

This kind of hysteria helps the government increase harassment of working people through increased spying (CCTV cameras, phone tapping, internet monitoring, etc.) The Home Office recently announced a doubling of their budget to massively increase deportations in the UK. And the government announced in December plans to make deportation easier, introduce measures such as scanning eyes and taking fingerprints, and allow the arrest of “suspicious” people. Note also the government’s stated aim of introducing national ID cards by 2008.

Labour’s Response

The labour movement needs not only to resist these measures but to combat the racist and anti-immigrant ideology that stands behind them.

The Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, the National Assembly Against Racism, and other groups have done good work in fighting back against government and media scapegoating. Unionists need to make this campaign their own. To do this, we must make the cause of immigrants our own. Immigrants, whether documented or not, are fellow human beings with whom we must unite, in order to fight effectively against the brutal reality that capitalists impose on us all.

Yes, there is a shortage of council housing, but this is not the immigrants’ fault: it is the government that doesn’t provide enough housing. Yes, real wages are declining, but immigrants don’t set wage rates: it is the bosses who super-exploit foreign labour in order to drive down all wages.

Immigrant workers aren’t “stealing” jobs: it is the bosses who are closing down factory after factory; it is the bosses who slash staffing to increase their profits. Who took away hundreds of thousands of jobs in the coal industry?

It is the bosses and their government who brutalize immigrant workers the moment they set foot on UK soil, to force them to accept nineteenth-century-style exploitation. The government claims that immigration is out of control. While the bourgeoisie talk about managing immigrants, we should be talking about organizing them.

If we aim our fire at the ruling class and its government, joining with immigrants as fellow workers oppressed by capital, then we can mount a powerful movement.

Road Out of Unions’ Crisis

The union movement urgently needs such a campaign. Union bureaucrats are in crisis in Britain, as in every imperialist country today. In 1979, the union membership made up 55% of the UK workforce; in 2004 this percentage had fallen to 26%, and is still falling to this day. Last year Britain saw the lowest level of strike action since records began.

The bosses’ success is based in large part on the principle of “divide and rule”—keeping immigrant workers isolated, oppressed, and fearful. Immigrant workers now make up a large proportion of the industrial work force. This partly reflects the bourgeoisie’s efforts to displace older and British-born workers who had won many gains and rights over the years. The immigrant workforce is mostly unorganized. They work under the watchful eye of the cops, ready to deport an undocumented union militant at a moment’s notice.

Encouraging Beginnings

The labour movement needs to commit resources for focused recruitment drives aiming to help immigrant workers organize. Some efforts of this type are under way. The huge Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) has begun an organizing campaign targeted specifically at Polish immigrants – the biggest nationality of immigration here – especially at the massive Grampian meat factories.

The Gate Gourmet strike last year was an example of how important immigrant workers’ role is in the union movement. The strikers, overwhelmingly immigrants from Asia, fought a long battle to defend their union, and were joined by an unofficial walkout by a thousand workers at the British airways airport, where their factory supplied food for in-flight meals.

The TGWU has also made encouraging gains in London among contracted cleaners of big buildings. Immigrants in their overwhelming majority, they are paid barely £2 per room. For example, at the Hilton hotel, for cleaning a room that rents at up to £500 a day, the cleaner receives no more than £2.50. Cleaners have protested such conditions recently with pickets and leafleting outside these buildings, including top city banks. Some of the contractors targeted have already agreed to make some concessions. (For an example of such a campaign in Canada, see Socialist Voice #97)

In December grant workers detained at Harmoundsworth made headlines with a militant protest against conditions at this notorious prison, which has a filthy record of abuse, solitary confinement, and suicides. The rioting was sparked by prison officers who refused to let these people see a TV report of their own prison!

‘Rescue the Unions’

In the United States, immigrant workers carried out a mighty uprising in 2006, including several mass strikes, which constituted the greatest uprising of the U.S. working class in sixty years. Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, summed up the significance of these actions on May 6:

“The struggle for the rights of immigrants and against discrimination expressed in public demonstrations that mobilized millions of people and in the historic May Day protest — a date that never before had been expressed in this way in the United States — brings to the forefront a political force that now cannot be easily ignored….

“To free the immigrants from their exploitation becomes, therefore, essential for the emancipation of the workers in the developed countries. To forge a union between both exploited sectors, in an area that has had advances that are still insufficient but whose importance cannot be underestimated, is today a task that cannot be postponed.

“To rescue the role of the labor union, true bulwark of civil society, and to guarantee the rights of all workers, without exceptions, to organize oneself is an indispensable response to a capitalism that ever more openly casts off its ‘liberal’ mask and demonstrates the perverse face of tyranny.” (www.counterpunch.org/alarcon05082006.html)

Successful recruitment among immigrant workers will change the unions profoundly – with the potential of revitalizing the working class as a whole. With a strong base among immigrant workers, the unions will be well placed to oppose attacks on immigration by the government and to counter the super-exploitation of immigrant workers by the bosses. If unions are in the thick of these struggles, they can strike massive blows against the employers and set labour on the path of growth and increasing strength. We are seeing signs of this today.

Unions Must Champion Immigrant Rights

But to do this — in Alarcón’s words, to “rescue the role of the labour union” — the unions must themselves change profoundly. Many unions today are incompetent to reach to workers outside their own ranks. Union campaigns tend to be exclusively devoted to legal packages and cheap loans for its membership, rather than hitting the streets and fighting to win the millions of unorganized. Too often, when the government lashes out against immigrants, union officials stand by in embarrassed silence. Unions must be outspoken defenders of the rights of all workers, regardless of where they were born or whether they are documented.

Within a framework of action, we can begin to discuss with co-workers and unionists how the question of immigration can be resolved in a revolutionary spirit. We will have a good occasion for this in March 2007, when No One Is Illegal is holding a trade union conference to discuss immigration controls. The conference, to be held in Liverpool, has initial sponsorship from seven local trades councils. The conference announcement explains: “The well-known slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’ means what it says. It does not mean ‘Only workers with the correct immigration status unite.’ ”

Conference organizers are rightly concerned with slogans such as “No to harsh immigration controls,” which could suggest support for “fair” controls. Workers should be outspoken in the call for “No borders.” We should call for full civil rights to anyone in the UK, regardless of whether the government considers them legal or illegal, and the right for working people to travel freely wherever we choose.

The No One Is Illegal conference is a good beginning. We should urge unions to send delegates. (Contact info@noii.org.uk)

The conference can take as its starting point the need to defend the political and economic rights of all workers, whether documented or not, whether born here or elsewhere. And to achieve that goal, labour needs a targeted campaign that focuses energy and resources in building a broad alliance for immigrant rights.

In this framework, we need to work up specific demands to counter the oppression of immigrants, such as:

  • Stop deportations. Release inmates of immigrant prisons.
     
  • End police harassment of immigrants and their detention on phoney “security” pretexts.
     
  • End waiting periods for citizenship and access to social services.
     
  • Open up professions, technical trades, and other job trusts that generally exclude immigrants.

Build the March 31, 2007 Conference!

(No One Is Illegal is organized internationally: for links to its branches, see http://noii-van.resist.ca/links.html)

Toronto Hotel Workers Score Union Breakthrough

City-wide Mobilizations Make a Difference

By Chris Schenk

On September 28, 800 hotel workers from across Toronto converged on the Sheraton Centre hotel, across the street from City Hall. Hundreds of hotel guests and thousands of people heading home from work faced a huge picket line. Music and chants created a festive atmosphere, but the picket line also showed the angry determination of hotel workers to win.

Recent months have seen many similar actions at hotels across Toronto, all part of the “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign of unionists organized in UNITE-HERE. Their efforts have now won contracts at the Sheraton and two other major hotels. The agreements mark a significant step forward for the unionists and stand in marked contrast to the many setbacks absorbed by workers in Canada in recent years.

‘Hotel Workers Rising’

The hotel workers’ strategy is to unite in solidarity across hotel companies and even across cities in their battle for better wages and improved working conditions. No single group of hotel workers is strong enough to stand alone against the hotel owners, which now include some of the largest companies in the world.

Local 75 of UNITE-HERE has launched a coordinated campaign in 30 Toronto hotels where contracts expire this year. The campaign was made possible by a victory won in the previous round of bargaining, where workers achieved common bargaining dates. Additional gains included significant pay increases, trusteed benefit plans, reduced workload, and improved job security.

The determination of union members tipped the balance in that campaign. At one medium-sized downtown hotel, for example, the mainly Filipina unionists engaged in a “walk and work” in which they picketed the hotel before and after their shifts for five long months. The pickets occurred twice a day: once in the morning with pots and pans – the wake-up picket – and then an after-shift picket with a 12-foot inflated rat, “’cause this place is a rat hole” (for details see Schenk, in Precarious Employment, pages 335-352). They won dismissal of the anti-union hotel manager, in addition to all of their bargaining demands.

Meetings and Street Actions

The UNITE-HERE campaign this year is based on continual activism of union members. Bargaining-unit meetings have been held in each hotel, and hundreds upon hundreds of hotel workers have taken part in mass rallies, demonstrations, and countless picket lines. Hotel employees’ consciousness of themselves as workers is undergoing remarkable, if uneven, change.

More workers than ever understand that their interests are different not only from those of their hotel employer, but from those of all hotel employers. Indeed, many profess that workers’ interests are different from that of all employers.

Hotel Workers Rising, a campaign under way in cities across North America, aims to ease their workloads and improve the poverty-level living conditions of some of the most exploited workers. Hotel workers, particularly room attendants, are overwhelmingly immigrant women of colour. Their median wage is $26,000 gross income per year, which compels many with families to work a second job.

In addition, corporate chains such as Starwood, Hilton, and Marriott have introduced what are termed “heavy beds” with larger and heavier mattresses, duvets, extra sheets, and five pillows, making rooms more strenuous and time-consuming to clean. As a result, many workers suffer from work-related pain.

Transnational giants have consolidated their hold on the hotel industry. The overall lodging industry “earned an estimated $20.8 billion in profit before taxes in 2005 and those earnings are expected to increase by 21% in 2006.” (UNITE-HERE fact sheet) The transnationals have put these immense financial resources to work in developing sophisticated resistance to unions and organizing drives. (See Steven Tufts’ account in Paths to Union Renewal, page 201-220)

Contract Gains

Nonetheless, the mass picket of September 28, following on mobilizations over many past months, turned out to be the final straw for the Sheraton Centre. On October 2, the union negotiating committee announced to their co-workers the highlights of a tentative settlement that incorporated most of their key demands, including:

  • Establishment of a minimum wage for all workers of $15 an hour, which affects the large low-paid classifications such as room attendants cleaners, dishwashers, and cashiers.
     
  • An across-the-board wage increase of 12.5% for all employees, including those bumped up to $15 per hour, over the four years of the contract.
     
  • Work by the hour instead of by the number of rooms cleaned – a key demand in reducing workload.
     
  • Job security: no layoffs due to sub-contracting.
     
  • Total seniority will now count, instead of just department seniority.
     
  • A Transportation Allowance to subsidize a public transit pass.
     
  • Two personal days per year by the end of the contract to help all workers, especially those with families and children.
     
  • All major renovation projects in the Sheraton chain to be done by unionized construction workers.
     
  • Increased pension contributions.
     
  • An innovative guarantee by Sheraton to workers in all new facilities that it manages or constructs that workers will have “the right to join our Union without the company interfering.”

In addition to these concessions, Sheraton cancelled the discipline meted out to over 200 workers who protested and rallied in the lobby of the hotel on September 21.

Sheraton hotel workers overwhelmingly ratified their new contract, with 80% in favour.

The Sheraton contract – the first hotel settlement in Toronto this year – sets a new standard for hotel work throughout the city. It has now been followed by contract settlements at the two Hilton hotels in Toronto: Downtown Hilton and Airport Hilton. Hotel workers will continue to fight to make sure all hotels in Toronto follow the pattern settlement. Workers at the Sheraton Centre and the Toronto Hiltons are committed to helping other workers achieve substantive improvements in the 27 hotels whose contracts are expiring.

Some of these employers are determined not to give way. For example, Toronto’s Delta Chelsea Hotel has just unilaterally suspended the grievance and arbitration procedure for workers in the hotel. It suspended over 70 workers in August during the International AIDS conference for choosing to wear a red AIDS ribbon plus a Hotel Workers Rising button. Community and union pressure forced the hotel to back down.

As union members, hotel workers, or community members, we need reaffirm our commitment to joining forces and taking collective action against any hotel that attempts to undermine the hard-won gains of hotel workers.

Road Forward for Labour

Hotel workers across the city are benefiting from a remarkable level of support from other union and community activists. In turn, through their work with new immigrants and the improvements gained in working and living conditions in the service sector, hotel workers are inspiring others and building a stronger labour movement.

As difficult as it may be for so many hotel workers trying to hold down two jobs, balance family life and at the same time engage in collective action, their only way forward involves more of the same class-versus-class approach. The mass solidarity in the streets by hotel workers needs to be complemented by even more active solidarity from other unions both public and private sector.

Union activists and progressive community members can help make a difference by joining and supporting the rallies and mass pickets across the city. It is only in this way that hotel workers will rise!

For further information on the Hotel Workers Rising Campaign go to www.hotelworkersrising.org/torontof.

To get involved in the struggle to improve conditions in the hospitality industry, or to be added to the email update list contact Local 75 at acalver@unitehere.ca


Written sources:

Schenk, Chris. 2005. “Union Renewal and Precarious Employment.” in Precarious Employment: Understanding Labour Market Insecurity in Canada. ed. Leah Vosko, Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Tufts, Steven. 2005. “Renewal from Different Directions” in Paths to Union Renewal. ed. Pradeep Kumar and Chris Schenk, Peterborough, Broadview Press and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives