BY JOHN STEELE
TORONTO - Canada's capitalist rulers and their political servants reacted with outrage to the show of union power during the October 22-27 Metro Days of Protest against the austerity and anti-union drive of the 17-month-old Conservative government of Ontario Premier Michael Harris. This was the fifth and largest in a series of actions organized by the labor movement since last December. Since then, a discussion is unfolding among working people here over how to advance their fight.
On October 26, close to 200,000 workers, students and other youth marched past the convention site of the ruling Ontario Conservative party chanting "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Mike Harris has got to go!" The employers were particularly incensed by what they claimed were illegal strikes by tens of thousands of workers on October 25. Major plants and offices were shut down as well as public transit for the day, despite Ontario Labor Relations Board injunctions against picketing and other threats by government officials and bosses.
Harris at first tried to downplay the scope of the mobilization, claiming only 35,000 participated October 26. He claimed that the protest was made up of narrow "special interest" groups such as communists, Iraqis and Iranians. He was forced to issue an apology for his remarks in response to a press release by the Canadian Arab Federation condemning them. He added the city-wide protest actions will not deter his government from carrying out more cuts to health care, education, child care, workers' compensation, and other rights of working people.
During the October 26 protest, discussion began among
activists about the next steps to take in the fight against the
government. Some placards called for a province-wide protest
and strike. Other workers wore stickers that said "NDP-Labor
Solidarity," indicating support for the social democratic New
Democratic Party, to which most unions are affiliated outside
Quebec. In the last provincial election, the Conservatives
defeated Ontario's first NDP government, which had been elected
in the fall of 1990.
Union officialdom divides over tactics
Divisions in the union officialdom over to what extent labor should wage a fight against the Harris government and get the NDP reelected broke out into the open at a November 7 meeting of 50 officials of unions affiliated to the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL). The officials met with the OFL executive board and the co-chairs of the Metro Days of Action: Linda Torney, the president of the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto and York Region (LCMT) and Margaret Hancock, the Chairperson of the Metro Network for Social Justice.
The meeting produced two press releases. One stated that the Metro Days of Action were a "huge success" and would continue in "other communities across the province." It read that the OFL would meet with its "community partners" to determine the next Days of Action. The decision would be discussed at a December 10 meeting of the OFL executive board and affiliated unions.
A second release was issued at an unscheduled news conference, which rejected the "strategy of partial general strikes," and urged instead "target action against employers who ignore workers' rights by using scabs and locking out workers," permitted under Harris' anti-union laws. The release states that its signers "are opposed to a strategy that takes away from the need to be militant on issues that directly affect workers in their workplaces...[and] pledge that the goal of their efforts is to defeat the Harris government and elect new Democrats both provincial and federally."
The officials of 13 industrial unions who organized the second press conference and endorsed the second statement included: the United Steelworkers of America, International Association of Machinists, Power Workers' Union, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, Amalgamated Transit Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers.
Power Workers' Union president John Murphy said at the second press conference, "We're not going to participate in a blanket attack on communities," echoing the ruling-class attempt to paint working people who couldn't use public transit to get to work as victims of the Metro Days of Action. "We think that the idea of simply shutting down a city without weighing the impact of public opinion is working against the goals we're trying to achieve."
In light of the division, the LCMT unanimously adopted a resolution that stated: "The LCMT expresses concern over the second [anti-Days of Action] press release which threatens to divide the movement when the unity of mass action and political action finally seem an attainable goal."
The division reflects the tactical split among union
officials that took place at the November 1993 OFL convention
as a result of the NDP government's Bill 48 -called the
"social contract" - which ripped up the union contracts of
thousands of government workers and imposed wage cuts and
layoffs. Citing Bill 48, unions such as the Canadian Auto
Workers and those representing government workers did not
campaign for the NDP in the June 1995 provincial election. One
month before that election the LCMT refused to back the NDP.
Officials of many of the unions now opposed to more Days of
Protest continued to campaign for the NDP.
Would NDP defend workers' interests?
All sides in the debate in the officialdom over the effectiveness of mass protests assume the election of an NDP government would in some way strengthen the position of working people.
"We are not going into the next election not being able to support a political party," said Syd Ryan, president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a supporter of the wing of the officialdom in favor of more Days of Action. He warned that the NDP would have to support the goals of the protest movement to get its backing in the next election, or the movement would have to launch a more radical left-wing party.
The NDP is also being discussed on the shop floor in many plants. During one shift this reporter heard two different views on the question.
"The October 26 protest was good," said Machinists union member Sam Zaher, a mechanic a Ford Electronics. "But I don't have any respect for the NDP. They didn't do anything for working people when they were the government."
"Even though the NDP stepped on labor's toes when it was in power, it's still the only viable alternative because it's rooted in the unions," said Leo Mullen, who is also a mechanic.
Despite the differences over the Day of Action strategy, neither wing of the union officialdom presents working people with a fighting political perspective that draws a clear class line between working people and the ruling capitalist families and their governments. The fundamental problem, they say, is the right-wing Harris government's "corporate agenda."
However, the problem working people face is not simply a particular government in a particular province. The problem is the world capitalist profit system, which has been on a downward curve since the 1974-75 worldwide recession.With sharpening trade conflicts between the rulers of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, and other imperialist powers, major corporations backed by capitalist governments throughout the world are attacking the living conditions and rights of working people.
Auto workers in Canada came up against this reality in October, when the General Motors bosses forced them into a 20- day strike in order to strike a blow at their union in its drive to lower wages and cut jobs. Low profit margins relative to their competitors left GM's major shareholders no choice. GM workers had no choice but to set up picket lines and fight.
The Harris government is acting in the interests of the capitalist ruling class of billionaire and multimillionaire families that own the mines, mills, factories, banks and agribusiness across Canada. It has carried out some of the sharpest attacks against working people under the guise of balancing the budget. At the same time, NDP governments in Saskatchewan and British Columbia are attacking the rights of working people in the name of deficit-cutting, as did the previous NDP administration in Ontario. Recently, the B.C. NDP premier Glen Clark announced plans to fire 3,500 government workers in order to cut $750 million in government services. And behind the attacks of the provincial governments stands the federal Liberal government in Ottawa, which has cut billions of dollars in transfer payments to the provinces for social services and gutted unemployment insurance.
Conservative, Liberal, NDP, and Parti Quebecois governments all defend capitalist property relations, and therefore respond to the capitalist economic crisis by attacking working people in order to shore up the profit rates of the capitalist rulers. Their only differences on economic and social policy are over how far and fast to slash social programs and restrict union rights at any given point in time, taking into account the possible resistance of working people.
"The success of the Metro Days of Action strengthened the
struggles of working people," steelworker and Communist League
leader Susan Berman told a Militant Labor Forum here one week
after the protest. "The mobilization showed the potential power
of our unions when we take action in the streets on behalf of
all working people."
Independent working-class action
"We need more protests of this kind and more picket line solidarity with fighters such as the S.A. Armstrong steelworkers who are fighting to defend their union against the use of scab labor," Berman added. "What we don't need is to tie union power to the dead-end perspective of electing `lesser- evil' capitalist politicians of any stripe, including the NDP, despite its ties to the union officialdom."
Berman proposed that fighting workers and youth study and discuss the Action Program to Confront the Coming Economic Crisis published by Pathfinder press after the 1987 stock market crash.
"The proposals in the action program offer a perspective to unite our class on an international scale against our class enemies to overcome the divisions among us created by the capitalist crisis and governments," she said. "This program proposes an international fight to create millions of jobs by shortening the work week without cuts in pay; affirmative action programs to overcome job discrimination faced by women, Quebecois, Blacks, native people, immigrants and others; and a fight to force the cancellation of the debt of the Third World countries to the imperialist banks that is devastating the lives of millions of workers and farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
"In struggles of this kind our class can forge a working class leadership and mass political party capable and committed to taking the struggle all the way against the capitalist system itself - as our class did in the 1959 Cuban revolution that replaced the government of the capitalists with a workers' and farmers' government as the first step towards socialism," Berman concluded.
John Steele is a member of Local 2113 of the International
Association of Machinists.
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