To Build Our Future, We Must Remember Our Past

Today’s labour movement faces many challenges. We take on multinational corporations who have consolidated their power and global influence during an era of ruthless neoliberal expansion. The threat of capital flight- corporations shifting production to countries with lower costs- has strong-armed many unions into swallowing bitter concessions in hopes of maintaining production levels and staving off job loss. Hard fought gains of generations past are routinely sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism. We celebrate these contracts as victories, but we ought to call them what they really are; the wholesale sellout of an entire generation of workers by people who are unwilling to stand and fight for basic union principles. If we need proof that our strategy is failing, we need look no farther than the decline in living standards of our members relative to the generation that preceded them. Global corporations have escalated their tactics and we have failed to respond accordingly. This concessionary bargaining has fractured our union and left new and old workers alike feeling disenfranchised from the only force capable of winning justice for workers- the collective strength of our union.

The first place we must look if we are interested in changing the future for workers is our past. We have a proud tradition of militant resistance in the unions that came to make up Unifor. From the historic UAW Ford strike that brought us the Rand Formula in Canada to the push back from CEP surrounding a decimated paper and pulp industry, we know that things can only change when we put ourselves on the line and boldly defy corporate and governmental interests. Nothing is handed to workers on a silver platter- everything we have was fought for tooth and nail by multiple generations who believed in true solidarity and took brave chances for the betterment of our future. No good favour with the powers that be has ever gained true justice for workers and the history of not only the Canadian labour movement, but also the global labour movement can attest to this fact.

The workers who bled and died in the streets to advance the working class are forsaken when we give anything less than our all in the stand for our union principles. When the Toronto Typographical Union struck in 1872, unions were illegal and their leaders were imprisoned on conspiracy charges. It took 10,000 people in the streets to free them and eventually forced the hand of the government to create the Trade Union Act which laid the foundation of today’s union movement. I ask you this: do our current national leaders have the same courage and resolve? The answer is a resounding “No”, and I welcome any of them to argue otherwise in public debate. The record of concessions to employers and traitorous donations from our president Jerry Dias to anti-immigrant and anti-worker Conservative politician Kellie Leitch speak for themselves.  The lack of public criticism for this from other leaders on the National Executive Board is an absolute affront to everything our union should stand for and speaks to the lack of true democracy in the upper echelons of our union. By not calling out this cut-and-dry sellout of our membership, they have effectively become complicit in it.  In an effort to maintain labour peace, they have forgotten that an economic war is fought against workers every contract, and that without sticking steadfast to our union principles we are fighting a losing battle against the greed of executives and shareholders.

Make no mistake- our labour is what turns the world of industry and only through global resistance to the status quo can we ever dream of winning real justice for workers. Only by realizing our potential strength and flexing it can we ever get ahead. Right now, we’re not even holding our ground.

With an in-depth class analysis and will to fight uncompromisingly for workers, Solinet was created to advance these discussions and reignite real workers power. There is growing support across the union for these ideas. We have three main objectives that serve as our guiding principles. I will briefly discuss the importance of each one and welcome any and all constructive criticisms. This is a space for no-holds-barred discussion about our collective future. No single one of us have all of the answers but we owe it to ourselves and future generations to apply a critical lens to our current situation as workers.

Rank-and-file democracy

  • Real debate, membership engagement, a culture of activism and militancy, not self-advancement and self-enrichment.

Without real meaningful debate we are left impotent in front of the challenges we face. In our union much of what we actually experience is best described as controlled democracy. Critical perspectives are punished through barriers such as exclusion and alienation. Workers are stripped of appointments by leadership because they challenge the ideas of our accepted doctrine- a failing doctrine- and through this system that awards obedience over substance, many of our greatest minds are squandered in obscurity. Until rank and file workers rise up to challenge this corrupt practice, there can be no meaningful victory for workers; only polished excuses for why we couldn’t do better for our members.

Working class politics

  • Unifor policies and political engagement that advance the interests of our members as part of the working class. No support for parties that act for the corporate class.

When we discuss the dire need for true working class politics, we need look no farther than the embarrassing relationship our union has with the corrupt, anti-worker, federal Liberal government. When we invited Justin Trudeau to our National Convention we gave the Liberals an undeserved platform to obscure their anti-union policy and pro-corporate propaganda in front of many of our most influential members. Many of our leaders posed for “selfies” with a corporate shill of a Prime Minister who refuses to enact anti-scab legislation, who promotes free trade deals, who champions increased military spending and pipelines.

The strategy of course, is to stay on the good side of the government in power in order to get some favours. But when we look at the history of the labour movement it becomes exceedingly clear that we get nothing by begging for crumbs, when we should be demanding bread. Really, we should be preparing to take over the bakery. Everything we have has come about when we have found ways to unleash the strength of the working class. Given that the blood, sweat, and tears of our work controls all of industry, the simple fact remains: we don’t need pro-corporate politicians. Anything less than absolute rejection of these anti-worker parties is a slap in the face of every life lost in the fight for real justice for workers.

Bargaining for solidarity

  • Bargaining strategies that build unity among our members by reducing inequalities in wages, benefits and pensions, not increasing them.

When we look at the sacrifices that have been made on the backs of new workers, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are not bargaining for solidarity; we are bargaining for survival. Our strategy gets us from A to B while corporations are bargaining from A to Z. Until we draw a firm line in the sand and refuse to abandon core union principles such as equal pay for equal work, we simply cannot expect to have a strong union. We must reject the use of new workers as cannon fodder in tough negotiations and remember our proud history of struggle. Until that day is brought about by rank and file workers and genuine leadership, our movement will stumble and fail.

It is for these reasons that Solinet exists, and it is from the many new perspectives that it will continue to grow. We reject self-advancement and self-enrichment. We stand for genuine working class power and hope that you join us as equals in the fight for working class justice. Until that day comes, we are here to stay with an unapologetic analysis of our union’s direction.

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Protest Greed of Bombardier Top Execs

In April, Bombardier senior executives took greed and arrogance to new heights, when they announced they were giving themselves a 50% pay increase.

Quebecers protest Bombardier “Robbing from the poor to give to the rich”

People were outraged, especially in Quebec, where a survey showed 93% agreed the increases should be cancelled.

It is not hard to understand the anger. In 2016 the Quebec Liberal government had handed Bombardier about $1.3 billion – no strings attached. Then, this year, Justin Trudeau handed over federal loans totalling $372 million. Bombardier took all this public money and then announced that they would be eliminating 14,500 workers worldwide.

The five top executives were slated to rake in $43 million Canadian for 2016, up from a paltry $29 million in 2015. Leading the way is CEO Alain Bellemare with a salary of $9.5 million, up over $3 million.

Alain Bellemare, CEO Bombardier

Quebec Solidaire, a socialist party, collected thousands of signatures on a petition calling on the provincial government to renegotiate its deal with Bombardier. The Liberals rejected this out of hand, as well as defeating a motion by the Parti Quebecois asking the Bombardier executives to forego the pay raise. The federal Liberals also defended Bombardier. Justin Trudeau said the federal money was needed to ensure “good long-term jobs” – he must mean good jobs for his friends the execs.

Unifor represents many Bombardier workers – but our leaders were not in the forefront of the protesters. Our leadership was doubly compromised – they had supported Bombardier’s demands for public money, and they desperately want to avoid embarrassing the Trudeau government that they have been in bed with.

Unifor should go beyond attacking the greed of the Bombardier executives, and raise the demand for nationalization. Public ownership is the best way to ensure that public investment ensures good jobs and positive social objectives.

We should also be shaming the long list of corporate CEOs that have been enriching themselves, while they impose “austerity” on workers. Here is one more example:

Jochen Tilk – CEO, PotashCorp

Jochen Tilk, CEO Potash Corp.

Tilk took a 34% pay increase to $5.2 million last year, then shut down a New Brunswick mine, axing 400 jobs, and laying off 140 workers from another mine in Saskatchewan.

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Trudeau’s Embrace by Unifor Leaders: a Step Backwards for Canadian Labour

Justin Trudeau with Jerry Dias at the Unifor Convention, Aug. 24, 2016 in Ottawa.

(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received four standing ovations during his short address to the Unifor Convention in Ottawa August 24. Why would Canada’s largest private-sector union give such a warm reception to the leader of the corporate-owned Liberal Party of Canada? Unifor was created 3 years ago through the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers (CEP), although the CAW was the dominant partner.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President, began his introduction of Trudeau with a denunciation of the previous Stephen Harper government “that I honestly believe did not like Canadians”. Dias said he was “enthused” to welcome Trudeau because when he met with him, Trudeau “talked about the importance of the labour movement … if we wanted a strong economy”. Dias asked the delegates “The first week after being sworn in – did he go meet with the business community? Did he go meet with the chambers of commerce, the banks, the oil companies? No no – he came right to the CLC headquarters right here in Ottawa and met with Hassan, myself and the other labour leaders.” Hassan Yussuff is the head of the Canadian Labour Congress, and was on the Unifor staff for many years. Yussuff spoke later in the Convention and heaped more praise on Trudeau: “Everything that the new government has done since they’ve been elected is to undo the ten years of damage that that bastard [Harper] did to this country… It is nice to have a government in this Ottawa that they’re not attacking workers anymore”. It is odd that Canada’s business leaders have not noticed that the Prime Minister is favouring labour over them.

Unifor is practicing “lesser evil’ politics to an extreme that is unusual for the Canadian labour movement. In fact, the Canadian Labour Congress was a founding partner in the creation of the New Democratic Party in 1961. The Canadian labour movement has historically championed the NDP as a party of labour, an alternative to the pro-capitalist Liberal and Conservative parties. The founding leader of the NDP, Tommy Douglas, is well known for his dramatization of the story of Mouseland, whose moral is that the mice must see through the charade of choosing between black cats and white cats to be their rulers. “Presently there came along one little mouse who had an idea… He said to the other mice. ‘Look fellows why do we keep electing a government made up of cats, why don’t we elect a government made up of mice?’ Oh, they said, he’s a Bolshevik. So they put him in jail.” Well Tommy, these Unifor/CLC ‘mice’ have decided they are better off being ruled by the white cats after all. And so we were treated to the unsettling sight of Jerry Dias staring deeply into the eyes of Justin Trudeau.

What are the implications of the Jerry/Justin bromance for Unifor, for the Canadian Labour movement and for the prospects of progressive political change in Canada? Here are six ways that turning the Unifor Convention into a Justin Trudeau photo op has been a step backwards:

1) Canadian Union of Postal Workers

The Unifor Convention was an opportunity to put the struggle of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers front and centre. But that might have been embarrassing to Trudeau who has been in power almost a year and has done nothing to curb the rabid-dog management at Canada Post.

The CUPW waged a courageous battle against Canada Post and this week achieved a remarkable victory – forcing Canada Post to maintain defined-benefit pensions for the next generation of workers. The issue was still in doubt during the Unifor Convention, and is critically important to many Unifor members who are under pressure from employers to eliminate defined-benefit pensions, or who have already been forced to do so for newer workers. Defined-benefit pensions have been cut in half for new hires at Ford and Chrysler for the last four years, and have been eliminated at CAMI Automotive (which is owned by GM) and replaced with riskier defined contribution pensions. Some 500 workers at GM Oshawa hired over the last ten years are classified as temporary (Supplementary Workforce Employees, or SWEs) and get no pensions at all.

The Convention could have had a feature speaker from the CUPW to highlight their struggle, and build solidarity for a labour movement battle for decent pensions for all workers. Instead, the heroic battle by postal workers barely got a mention.

2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership and CETA (European Trade Pact)

The TPP is a “trade” agreement designed to benefit corporate interests, weaken the ability of governments to put limits on corporate domination, and to support and expand the US sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the fact that Unifor has been waging a public campaign against ratification of the TPP, the Unifor leaders couldn’t bring themselves to directly challenge Trudeau on the issue during his visit.

In fact, the Trudeau government’s position on international trade deals is basically identical to that of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper – support whatever the US asks it to do. In 2013, when Harper announced a trade and investment pact with the European Union (CETA), Trudeau congratulated him and promised that his Liberals would support the deal in principle. According to Linda McQuaig, “CETA will undermine Canadian democracy, handing foreign corporations a powerful lever for pressuring our governments to, for instance, abandon environmental, health or financial regulations, while leaving Canadian taxpayers potentially on the hook to pay billions of dollars in compensation to some of the wealthiest interests on earth.” Trudeau is scheduled to sign CETA in October in Brussels. Yet instead of focusing attacks on the Trudeau government for continuing to promote these deals, Unifor leaders were praising him for being different from Harper.

3) Syria

Advocating that workers should support Trudeau and his government, makes it impossible to promote an independent working-class view of world affairs. At the Unifor Convention delegates showed strong support for Syrian refugees, including families that are being supported by Unifor. But nobody at the Convention pointed out that the Canadian government has helped to create those very refugees by providing military and financial support to the US so-called “Global Coalition”. True solidarity with the victims of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the millions of refugees from the fighting would mean opposing Canadian government support for the US illegal efforts at regime change.

4) Saudi Monarchs and Israel

Treating Trudeau like a celebrity also makes it virtually impossible to critically examine other areas where his government has followed in the footsteps of Stephen Harper in supporting right-wing, undemocratic governments that are creating instability and war. Trudeau has continued to support the regime in Saudi Arabia and provide them with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry which is being used to kill civilians in Yemen. And of course, Trudeau continues to be a staunch defender of Israel, with his party voting en masse for a Conservative motion to “condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”. BDS is an attempt to use peaceful tactics to pressure Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and accord equal rights to Palestinians in Israel.

5) Labour Party or ‘Strategic Voting’?

The most serious problem with supporting the Liberal Party is that it undermines independent labour politics. Labour leaders concluded more than a century ago that capitalist parties would never act on behalf of workers. The working class needs its own party. As long as the labour movement was aligned with the NDP this idea was alive, whatever the shortcomings of the NDP. But when labour leaders argue that it doesn’t matter who gets in as long as the biggest evil is defeated, we stop building a party that will really represent workers.

The CAW began promoting “strategic voting” in Canada some 20 years ago, and this has been toxic to labour politics. Now Trudeau can be invited to be the star guest of the Unifor Convention, and there is no discussion of the class interests that the Bay Street Liberals represent.

6) Lack of Democracy in the Union

In order to have a successful showcase for the Liberal Prime Minister, the Convention was stage-managed to limit dissenting voices. The Convention was turned into a spectator event. The time filled with videos and guest speakers, and the delegates became an audience.

As a result many resolutions were pushed to the end, and many of them were not discussed at all because time ran out. That means the remaining resolutions were referred to the National Executive Board, which suits those leaders who don’t want the delegates to make the decisions.

Another indication of the sham democracy of the Unifor Convention was the selection of the top officers. Every position was acclaimed. There were no opposition candidates or opposition program. Despite talk of diversity, the top two positions in the union, National President and National Secretary Treasurer, were occupied again by two older white males.

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