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Assessing labour's fight against austerity

Ritch Whyman

August 29, 2014

Going into Labour Day is always a good time to take stock of what state the working class of Canada and Quebec is in. It has been six years since the economic crisis broke and employers doubled their efforts to make workers and the poor pay for the crisis.
It has been far from a quiet year, despite claims by pundits that the labour movement is dead and unions a relic of the past. However it was also a year in which potential breakthroughs were curtailed and gains were partial and mixed with many defeats. As we go to press several strikes and lockouts are looming and other ongoing.
Workers at the IKEA store in Richmond BC have been locked out for over a year and a half for resisting concessions. Teachers in BC returned to the picket lines demanding a fair contract after being pushed out last spring. Workers at Crown in Toronto have been on the lines fighting against a tiered contract, in Thunder Bay workers at Bombardier have continued their strike against tiering and concessions by rejecting a second offer by 81 per cent.
In Saskatchewan steelworkers at Cameco mines just voted overwhelmingly to strike if needed in early September. In Quebec municipal workers have been staging ongoing rallies and occupations against threats to roll back pension benefits. Players in the Ontario Hockey League are struggling to form a union. Baristas in Nova Scotia and now a store in Toronto have formed unions in the past year. CUPW continues to mobilise broad public and worker support for defending and expanding the postal service.
There have also been defeats including the ongoing crisis of plant closures. Kelloggs in London by the end of this year will close up completely with hardly a fight. Heinz in Leamington, US Steal blast furnaces in Hamilton, Unilever in Brampton, Saputo in Alberta and Quebec. The list is sadly a long one.
Days lost to disputes (1.5 million work days) were up 66 per cent in 2013 over 2012, and wage increases on average were also higher than inflation the first time three years higher. The down side to this was that the days lost to disputes were as much based on the dramatic increase in the length workers are out on strike as due to the amount of strikes against cuts. This could mean that employers fought harder to ram concessions through or that workers refused to accept any deal without a lengthy fight.
Ontario election
In Ontario unions from across the province mobilised and defeated the Tory agenda of bringing in right to work laws. Had the Tories won it would have meant massive attacks on workers rights in not just Ontario but across the country. The Tories attempted to blame unions for the economic crisis and failed after being confronted by a massive campaign inside workplaces and communities by union members.
Despite this vital success several union leaders have turned around and blamed this mobilisation for getting the Liberals re-elected with a majority. These leaders stupidly risk undermining the unity that was built in cities across the province to stop Hudak. Further they miss the fact that the Ontario NDP must take the blame for running a campaign that emphasised tax breaks for business over increasing the minimum wage. It was the ONDP that lost the election due to its refusal to address and link up with the anger at cuts and austerity and the growing anti-Hudak mood. Instead the ONDP actively courted Tory voters and said little about the attack on unions.
Canadian Labour Congress
Inside the labour movement the biggest change has been the defeat of Ken Georgetti at the CLC. The Candian Labour Congress convention marked the first time an encumbent has been defeated in a vote. Anger at the same old same old policies of Georgetti and his allies in various unions led to a challenge to his presidency by Hassan Hussieni, a PSAC staffer under the slogan “take back the CLC”. This struck a chord with activists across the country sick of union leaders refusing to mount any effective campaign against austerity.
In the end Hussieni withdrew allowing Hassan Yussef of UNIFOR, who had been a CLC executive member for 10 years, to narrowly win. Critical victories at the CLC for union members wasn’t who won the election, but the defeat of policies meant to strip local labour councils of any real decision making ability. Most importantly the defeat of Georgetti showed that union leaders couldn’t control their delegations which they had pledged to support Georgetti; instead hundred of delegates voted for candidates against their leaderships wishes.
Despite pledges to mount more effective resistance, the CLC has done little in the past five months to unite the series of strikes that have broken out against attempts to tier contracts. Workers at Crown in Toronto, Cascades in BC, Bombardier in ThunderBay, and elsewhere have all stood up and fought against attempts to drive down standards for young workers.
This is a dramatic change from a few years ago when several unions backed down without a fight and agreed to open tiering or in the case of the CAW at the big three tiering mascarading as “grids”. Sadly in the face of this perfect opportunity to raise the possibility of wider united fight for pensions, the labour leadership has generally been silent despite valiant efforts by the members on the lines.
Upcoming fights
The fall and spring 2015 have the potential offer a specter of larger fights against austerity if pressure is put on leaders to mobilise and fight.
In Ontario, the public service’s contracts expire with the Liberal government who has already stated there’s no money and nothing but austerity on the table. Teachers in Ontario also have contracts that expire this year. The possibility of defeating the Liberals and austerity exists in both these potential fights, especially if at the grassroots level activists between these unions start exploring joint actions.
In Nova Scotia healthcare workers go into negotiations facing a government that has stripped their right to strike. In Quebec municipal workers continue to face attacks on their pensions.  At the federal level PIPSC and units PSAC have contracts expiring or are still in negotiations.
On the industrial front key groups of workers have contracts expiring. Workers at US Steels’ Hamilton works are in negotiations under the threat of closure and the expiration of the legal (never followed) agreement of US Steal to maintain operations. Steelworker members at Vale mines in Thompson Manitoba face an employer who has been happy to try and tier pensions and benefits via long strikes like they did in Sudbury.
Workers in several trades at CN and CP rail go into negotiations under the constant threat of the Harper Tories’ threats to undermine any sense of collective bargaining. This at a time when the lack rail safety is at an all time high and derailments are occurring weekly. Any strike action by the rail unions could provide an opening for building unity between those fighting against the transfer of unsafe materials and workers fighting for better safety on the job. Further it could open more space for the left and movements to help sink Harper in 2015.
Possibilities abound in the latter part of 2014 and 2015 to fight austerity and cuts—like the fight to save Canada Post, which can build solidarity between workers in Canada and Quebec. But it will take more than changes at the CLC or words form leaders to make that happen. 2014 has shown that it’s possible to mobilise, as the OFL anti-Hudak campaign showed, against austerity and the Tories. 2014 has also shown that workers can’t rely on the NDP to campaign or defend workers rights or challenge the logic of austerity. To defeat the ongoing attempts to make workers pay for the crisis we will have to mobilise and fight at the base, and develop ways to build solidarity with every worker fighting back.

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