After years of relative quiet on the industrial front in Ontario, the labour movement is springing back to life. The betrayal of the movement against Mike Harris’ Conservative government left Ontario’s labour movement in a depressed state. It is only now beginning to revive a decade later. Mike Harris’ cuts to social programs took place amidst an economic boom. Now that the economy is stagnating, the real effects of Harris’ legacy are becoming clear. The general uncertainty of life for the average worker in Ontario is beginning to affect the direction of the struggle. The first waves of strikes are popping up in Ontario, expressing years of pent up frustration.
The militant character of the recent strikes in Ontario is a sign of things to come. Though this is still only the very beginning of a resurgence in labour militancy, the movement is starting out on the right foot. At the end of last May, Toronto transit workers walked off the job in a wildcat strike. The strike threw Canada’s largest city into chaos as buses and commuter trains shut down. Though the strike only lasted a day, the impact was massive. It is estimated that the cost of the strike to the economy was 40 million dollars. A week later, another strike was threatened. In the heat of the moment, Rick Ducharme, general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, was forced to resign. This was a key victory for the labour movement and it came with a valuable lesson: militancy works.
Quebec has been in a heightened state of class struggle for the last four years. The election of Jean Charest and the Liberals sparked a whirlwind of class struggle. Charest’s anti-labour policies, combined with a stagnant economy, have forced the working class into struggle. The process is similar to the ones that took place with Gordon Campbell’s government in British Columbia and Mike Harris’ government in Ontario. Mass demonstrations and strikes against cuts to social programs have become a daily reality in Quebec.
There are rumblings of discontent on the prairies. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been the bastion of the right wing of the NDP. The NDP governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have attempted to find a middle road between capitalism and socialism. In practice, this always means giving in to the will of the free market.
In 1991, when the NDP came to power in Saskatchewan under the leadership of Roy Romanow, the government looked more like a conservative one. They implemented a program of cuts to social programs and privatization in order to balance the budget. As hospitals closed and anger built, many of the party activists left in frustration. This allowed the bureaucracy to strengthen its grip on the party and gave them more room to maneuver.
Since then, under the leadership of Lorne Calvert, the party has continued in power doing very little to address the problems of the working class. This process is reaching its limits and the working class is tired of waiting. Early this year, Saskatchewan was brought to the brink of a public sector general strike. First, the prison guards walked off the job in December; they were shortly followed by highway maintenance workers as the movement snowballed. Six weeks into the strike, they reached a mediated settlement with the government. This new opposition is an important turning point in Saskatchewan. Even more recently, the government backed down from the “available hours” legislation designed to help part time workers. Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour complained that, "By backing down to the corporate bullies, the (Lorne) Calvert government has abandoned the very people who need a courageous government in their corner."
With the trade union movement turning on the NDP bureaucracy, it is only a matter of time before they are kicked out. It is already clear that the NDP will suffer a serious defeat in the upcoming election. But the leadership may also suffer the same defeat inside their party. The labour movement is still the key to the NDP in Saskatchewan, despite the best attempts of Calvert & Co. to distance themselves from it. In the coming elections, the NDP will be ousted by the right-wing Saskatchewan Party which will turn towards an all-out attack on the labour movement.
In British Columbia, the anti-Campbell movement appears to have come to an end. Gordon Campbell’s government has been a dismal failure. The main aim of the ruling class was to break the back of organized labour in BC. Taking the Harris government as their model, they intended to defeat labour in such a way that it would be demoralized for years. This plan backfired. Far from being defeated, the working class of British Columbia rose to the challenge. Mass demonstrations crippled cities as Campbell attacked public sector unions and tore up the labour code.
The Liberal government was forced to back down on a number of occasions and Campbell’s attacks were actually counter-productive from the perspective of the ruling class. Instead of the pacified labour movement that they were hoping for, the government actually succeeded in radicalizing the rank and file and exposing the more bureaucratic elements of the labour leadership. The right wing of the labour movement has been exposed to the rank and file for the parasites that they are, and a general understanding of the need for militant action has set in amongst the labour activists.
Facing ever more militant reactions from labour, the Campbell government came up with an exit strategy for their class war. Luckily for them, the economic boom gave them room to maneuver and they were able to buy class peace. The government backed down from the major showdown that was expected in the spring of last year and instead handed out large signing bonuses and acceptable wage increases in the form of long term contracts.
Today, the movement has dissipated and the continuing but fragile boom in the west has allowed for a temporary cease-fire. This uneasy truce could fall apart rather quickly when the economic boom subsides. The legacy of Campbell’s government is a radicalized labour movement, which now has the experience of class struggle and a healthy skepticism of its leaders. When the struggle picks up again (and this could be sooner rather than later), it will be on a qualitatively higher level.
Though the political situations may vary greatly from province to province, there is one overriding theme. Every time the working class embarks on the road of struggle, their efforts are deliberately and systematically sabotaged by their own leaders. The present leadership of the working class has been trained, not in the school of struggle, but in that of bureaucracy and legalism. In the absence of mass struggle, the leadership has grown further and further from the rank and file.
The blind alley of legalism
The various layers of leadership who have risen through the ranks of the labour movement over the last two decades have been trained in a historical vacuum. To them, being a trade unionist has very little to do with walking the picket line or leading demonstrations. A good trade unionist, to the bureaucrat, is someone who is skilled at the negotiating table, has an in depth knowledge of their collective agreement, knows how to file and win legal grievances and can do it all while balancing the budget of their local. These so called leaders have no vision of struggle or mass action from the rank and file, but rely solely on the legal system to advance the cause of their members. Once you accept this principle, you accept defeat.
The leadership of labour is capable of rationalizing the most reactionary measures in order to keep their members at bay. From a legal stand point there is nothing to be gained from a strike. A strike, to a bureaucrat, serves only to drain the bank accounts of the union. And this money is needed to file legal challenges in the future, not to mention pay their inflated salaries. To them, the only positive role a strike can play is as a bargaining chip, and even then this is a very dangerous card to lay on the table. Thus arises the old warning among labour leaders, “You can take them out, but can you take them back in?”
To a Marxist, of course, this mindset is ridiculous. They have forgotten the very basics of trade unionism: all of the power in a union comes from the organization and action of the members. The capitalist class serves no productive purpose. The working class carries out every productive task at any company and when organized, they have the power to cease production. This is the basis of trade unionism.
There is, of course, another major flaw to the legal approach to unionism: the bosses write the laws. Big business funds political parties to carry out their will. Thus the entire legal system is designed to keep the labour movement down. They are playing with a stacked deck. The irony to this whole scheme is that all of the rights that have been won by labour have been won through struggle. The laws which the present labour leaders are struggling to work within would not exist today if it wasn’t for the mass mobilizations and struggles of yesterday.
In the next installment the authors analyze the crisis of Reformism.
- The Class Struggle in Canada, Political Perspectives for 2007 — Part Three: The Crisis of Reformism by The Fightback Editorial Board (27 June 2007)
- The Class Struggle in Canada, Political Perspectives for 2007 — Part One: The Canadian Economy by The Fightback Editorial Board (21 June 2007)
- Perspectives for Canadian Workers 2006 by The Fightback Editorial Board (07 June 2006)
- Canada and the Crisis of International Capitalism, Political Perspectives 2005 by The Fightback Editorial Board (Apr. 2005)