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.
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 parties — the 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.