From the ground up (part two)

Our labour round table discusses social movements and electoral politics


Adriana Paz Ramirez is a Bolivian journalist, community organizer, and popular educator. She is a founding member of Justicia for Migrant Workers B.C., a grassroots organization advocating for the rights of migrant farm workers in Canada.

René Charest is a Montreal-based community organizer, a long-time union activist in la Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), and a political activist in Québec solidaire. He writes in Presse Toi à Gauche and Les Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme.

Deena Ladd is the coordinator of the Toronto Workers’ Action Centre. The WAC works with predominantly low-waged immigrant workers and workers of colour in precarious jobs who face discrimination, violations of rights, and lack benefits in the workplace.

Dave Bleakney is a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the national union representative for education (Anglophone). On matters of anti-capitalism, the dude abides.

Sam Gindin retired from the Canadian Auto Workers union in 2000 after 27 years on staff, the last 16 as assistant to the president. He held the Visiting Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University from 2001 to 2011 and is the co-author of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.

How do you view the relation between today’s major social movements – Idle No More, the Quebec student uprising, anti-pipeline/fracking struggles, migrant justice work – and the labour movement?

Dave Bleakney: I view it as currently mixed with hopeful possibilities. There is much to be learned from Idle No More, from the Indigenous struggles at Grassy Narrows and Barriere Lake, and from many other First Nations. The role of women in these struggles is far less subjugated than in the patriarchal practices found in union meetings. Traditional processes that can be incorporated into the way we do things could be very empowering and open up more inclusive discussion. It’s a cultural question.

Indigenous movements bring more than anti-colonial politics to the table. They bring an understanding of the relationships between all things – including production – amidst the reality of continuing land theft and destruction. Serious crimes continue to be inflicted against Indigenous peoples in an effort to fully assimilate them into the colonial system. There are so many tragedies, so many imprisoned, so many missing women. There’s the intentional erosion of prior and informed consent and the attempted extinguishment of these Nations’ sovereignty over their territories.

Labour, or at least sections of it, has been there again and again for good causes, but do we understand the colonial stakes of this unequal society? All these struggles – the radical students against austerity and for learning, anti-pipeline/fracking struggles – are linked to a colonial legacy that produced a runaway capitalism that the left has not fully come to terms with.

Labour has a tendency to be great “backslappers” but unions are defined by legalese and bosses, so they rarely deliver the troops or stand as equals. This is left to local activists, also consumed by front-line battles with their employers. Labour will have to come to the table as an equal and not a disconnected business organization or insular goodwill society. Building cross-allies with members of Human Rights Committees can help move things along from a different perspective. Building spaces where those in these struggles can speak directly with activists in membership is valuable. That builds connections, especially if there is social time afterwards.

Trying to move leadership first can be futile. After all, unions are consumed by power and management, even incorporating business management models in their day-to-day operations. Since a wide range of voices and ideas are not incorporated effectively in unions today, there is much to be learned and absorbed from these vibrant social movements that are so effective in providing hope.

René Charest: As I’ve said, the student uprising last spring was a missed opportunity for the labour movement. In terms of the other movements you mention, it must be said that these movements did not get help from the union movement to take off. There are certainly instances of temporary support from union locals or labour organizations, but these movements were not initiated by the labour movement. I insist upon this point because, before, in the ’70s, we saw the emergence of a number of social movements that were conceived within the Quebec labour movement itself.

It’s what Marcel Pepin and Pierre Vadeboncoeur of the CSN called second-front unionism (le syndicalisme de deuxième front). Insofar as we saw a movement from labour struggles to full social struggle – with the working class being attacked on all economic, social and political fronts – trade unionism had to open a second front. The worker needed to be defended not only in the legal terms of the collective agreement, but also as a citizen and as a consumer. And so regional labour organizations supported the creation of renters’ committees and committees of the unemployed as well as associations in defense of consumers. These committees succeeded in making important gains in Quebec in terms of social rights up until the mid ’90s.

Then, in the ’90s, a distance came between the labour and social movements. Quebecois activist Ghyslaine Raymond has recently published an interesting book on the 1995 socio-economic summit which was an opportunity for the union leadership to establish a social partnership with the Quebec government. The book does a good job of showing that the summit was the scene of a real divorce between the Quebec labour movement and the popular movements (anti-poverty groups and women’s groups). Now, I think that this divorce was an element which explained the decrease in struggle for a decade in Quebec. The unity of labour and social movements is a necessity. Not an appearance of unity in the media but a unity based on a strategic dialogue with the goal of social change in Quebec and elsewhere.

Deena Ladd: There is not much connection from my vantage point between these movements and the labour movement. There is an increasing understanding by union leaders who are connected to broader movements – and where there are union/community alliances – that these movements are critical for solidarity and there’s much to learn from them. But there is a lot of work to do to address how we work together. For example, how do we ensure that our solidarity work and organizing addresses the nexus of migration and labour market regulation, since migration and labour market policies are inextricably linked. Current labour markets are being completely restructured resulting in increased precariousness for migrant workers. Without this understanding I don’t think we can build a labour movement that can make the links with migrant worker justice or understand how to build a stronger social justice movement with racialized communities.

Adriana Paz Ramirez: In terms of migrant justice organizing we have seen that unions have stepped up and responded to the plight of migrant workers, and we can name a few important efforts: the UFCW support centres for migrant farm workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program; the Alberta Federation of Labour who set up the first Migrant Advocate Office pushing the provincial government to open an office to deal with grievances and concerns of migrant workers in the province; and the B.C. and Yukon Building Trade Union that unionized migrant workers working on the Richmond-Vancouver rapid transit line (the new SkyTrain line built up for the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010).

In general, however, the engagement and efforts of Canadian unions in supporting the struggle for migrant workers’ rights has been sporadic and raises legitimate questions and concerns about the approach to migrant workers. These tensions became evident during the incident related to the hiring of Chinese migrant workers by HD Mining to work at the Murray River Coal Project in Northern B.C. Officials from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union (CSWU) went to court to try to cancel the company’s authorization to employ Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs).

Their rationale is clear. In a CBC interview, Mark Olsen, the President of the Bargaining Council of the B.C. Building Trade Unions, argued that Canadian workers should get preference for these mining jobs and that the Chinese workers already in B.C. should be sent home. Officials of District Three of the United Steelworkers have put out a leaflet with the same message. Titled “B.C. Jobs for B.C. Workers,” it adopted the slogan, “Stop the sellout of our province.” The leaflet goes on to ask, “Is this the type of future we want for our country? A future where low-paid foreign workers with no rights or protection fill jobs that drive down Canadian standards and allow larger profits for already profitable mining companies?”

Whereas TFW programs are without doubt employer-driven initiatives put in place to serve the interest of Canadian capital accumulation at the expense of workers, the prevailing mentality in the labour movement raises the question of whether union reactions can be counted as acts of solidarity or exclusion. In my view it is clearly the second case. Sending migrant workers back home instead of including them in the labour movement isn’t a progressive move in the struggle for migrant rights.

Instead of trying to exclude Chinese workers, B.C. unions should be thinking about how to build links of solidarity with them. That’s what socialists and other industrial union activists in B.C. did a century ago, challenging the racism of the craft unions. In my years as a community organizer for migrant rights, I have never seen unions vocally advocating or joining the call of “Status for All” made by grassroots migrant organizations. Instead, I have heard unions call for the abolition of TFW programs, and while I can see where that call is coming from (from an acknowledgement that such programs are exploitative in essence) I don’t think the solution to this is the “Canadian jobs for Canadians first” approach or the idea that sending migrant workers back home is a victory for migrant rights.

In addition, it must be asked whether Canada’s unions, with their hierarchical and primarily white leadership structures, can effectively represent migrant workers and serve their interests. Are unions long-term allies of migrant workers, supporting their struggle not only here but in their country of origin, where the root causes that forced them to migrate are found? Should an independent migrant workers union be formed to better represent their interests by exercising their skills and building on their organizing culture and historical backgrounds?

These questions bring me back to the earlier question of what the labour movement can do to regain legitimacy by representing the grievances of all workers.

Sam Gindin: The relationship between these social movements and the labour movement is friendly yet distant, both culturally and in political terms. It obviously makes sense to connect them but in spite of the solidaristic rhetoric, bringing them together is often reduced to instrumental appeals. Movements need labour’s resources, connections to a mass base, and strategic potential; labour needs the energy of the movements and to overcome labour’s isolation. Such pragmatism is useful for temporary alliances but it doesn’t lay the basis for the kind of collective commitments that can match what we are up against.

We can put this slightly differently. First, no sustained links are possible without some fairly radical changes in both the movements (who don’t really accept the centrality of labour to social change) and the labour movement (which doesn’t really operate with a class analysis that includes life beyond the workplace). Second, adding the social movements and the labour movement together would be positive but it won’t in fact give us all that much. We need a new layer of politics that is more ambitious. This too would mean radical changes within the social movements and labour. Both that new layer of politics and the changes within the existing social and labour movements can only emerge alongside and as part of the development of a left with a larger vision – that is, a socialist left.

Is there anything to be done about the diminishing returns of electoral politics and the hollowing out of nominally social-democratic parties like the NDP?

René Charest: First of all, it is important to stress the need to fight the Harper government on all fronts, keeping in mind the significant social, political, economic, and ecological damage it is causing. I believe that it would be a mistake on the part of the Quebec left to renounce an alliance with the Canadian left under the pretext of making Quebec’s independence a priority. Regardless of the position on the national question, we must not fall into this strategic trap and use an issue to defend a political project that will not be achieved in the short term. The Quebec union leadership used this losing strategy against the Mulroney government in the mid-90s.

We must be able to build a united front against Harper in political, economic, ecological, and ideological terms. The initiative of Canada’s first People’s Social Forum which will take place in spring 2014 is encouraging. We must hope that large delegations from across the country will attend, including large delegations from Quebec and from Indigenous Nations. This event could be important in order to continue a strategic dialogue to adequately fight Canadian neoconservatism.

Yet, this strategy of the Canadian social forum is not enough. We must also penetrate the electoral level. And here it becomes very complicated! The answer cannot be clear because the political situation is not clear. We have experienced incredible events such as the election of 56 NDP MPs in Quebec during the 2011 federal election.

What has come of this event in 2011? Not much. Some MPs like Alexandre Boulerice have done good work to defend the rights of workers in Quebec and elsewhere, but altogether, this group of parlementarians has made little difference politically-speaking in Quebec.

What should we expect? It’s difficult to predict what will happen, but this uncertainty should not stop us from hoping that the Canadian left will develop clear positions in favour of workers’ rights and the recognition of the self-determination of Quebec and the Indigenous peoples of Canada. But is this position possible within the NDP?

Adriana Paz Ramirez: I think in general the electoral political system is in crisis, and this relates to the decline of the political left. My comments to the third question are also relevant to electoral politics, I think. I know the NDP has tried to engaged and take on some issues regarding workers’ rights but besides bringing up these issues in parliament and other spaces, what kind of groundwork are they doing to empower and support community-based organizations that advance workers’ rights?

Deena Ladd: I think it is critically important that our communities are strong and mobilized on the ground to push for our demands regardless of who is in power. In Ontario there’s a minority Liberal government and the NDP could be pushing for some key reforms, but it’s not happening. It’s vital to have strength on the ground to create an agenda that reflects our communities’ needs and where people can own the agenda and fight for it. I feel that is our priority at this moment in the struggle.

Dave Bleakney: We are almost all trapped within the confines of neoliberalism, a long-term strategic move by capital to create crisis and then gain greater control of production, trade, and finance. On the one hand we want a “lesser of the evils” in government, and on the other, we live in a fundamentally cutthroat and unsustainable society. As George Galloway has said, the mainstream parties are all “cheeks of the same ass.”

The fact less people are voting can be seen as an alarming trend. It can also be seen as less about apathy than a withdrawal and refusal to endorse an archaic and humiliating process. But if consent is withdrawn there, why is it not withdrawn elsewhere? I wonder about spoiled and declined ballots. Many years ago this information would be published with the election results. So this is, in a way, an expression of the farce that is our electoral system. Yet, if we are to smash the state where do we start?

It seems that we may fetishize which side of the electoral question we fall on (to participate or not). It may be more effective to work both within the system to deliberately and progressively expand it anyway possible while neutralizing corporate power, and to work extra-electorally to find the pressure points and weaknesses of the power holders from outside. These structures need to be chipped away both within and without.

Still, by focusing only on electoral politics labour surrenders power to the winds of what’s been called a 19th-century electoral theatre project, instead of defining labour’s power as an independent force that can respond in multiple ways to any crisis. Whichever way we operate, it’s useful to question the system and understand that investors and unelected forces direct our lives in ways we see and don’t see and these forces will ultimately hold any governing party hostage by threat. That means not only changing the party but the rules.

So nothing really changes until we change the system or a parliamentary party has enough popular force behind it to articulate revolutionary change. Either way, nothing happens until we make it happen, and a good start would be naming the system rather than pretending it is a benign one with the wrong leaders. We need to consider coming together to build a people’s constitution, from thousands and thousands of assemblies, a society with worker operated and controlled production, a grassroots expression of hope, something we can rally around that comes from the base and the most marginalized. That would be a good political project. We need confidence now. The hour is getting late.

Sam Gindin: If electoral politics through social-democratic parties seem bankrupt, it needs to be emphasized that neither have radical movements and labour militancy been able to stand up to neoliberal capitalism. The problem is not electoral engagement but the narrowness of electoral contests. And the problem is not the irrelevance of political parties but the limited notion of politics that they embody. The kind of politics we need is one that addresses class solidarity and builds the confidence and capacities of the working class to understand what they are up against, to strategize, and to act in the name of both defending themselves and moving towards transforming society.

In the context of this kind of politics, electoral contestation will ultimately be essential and the formation of a political party (or more than one) that embodies this vision and leads struggles both outside the electoral arena and within it will be fundamental.

This is Part 2 of our national round table on working-class power. Part 1 is here.

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