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Labour and the fight against austerity

Pam Johnson

December 16, 2014

It has been six years since the global economic crisis of 2008, which produced bailouts and tax cuts for banks and corporations in Canada. For workers, it has produced devastating and sweeping attacks on wages, benefits and trade union rights. The market driven neoliberal agenda of the previous two decades that attempted to prop up sagging capitalist profit has morphed into a sharper, harsher project of austerity.
In Canada, the austerity agenda has come down from employers and all levels of government following on an already protracted crisis, especially in the private sector, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Combative tactics by employers including lock-outs, unilateral imposition of contracts and demands for huge wage cuts and concessions have become the norm.
The “truce” between employers and workers that characterized the post WWII period after Canadian workers fought for and gained industrial trade unionism is dead. Capitalist crisis and the austerity agenda has ratcheted up anti-union and anti-worker sentiment to new levels.
Federally, the Harper government enacted back-to-work legislation to shut down strikes by postal workers, CP Rail and Air Canada workers. Harper has proposed anti-union bills to open trade unions to unprecedented financial scrutiny and challenge union dues checkoff and a hugely unpopular plan to end door-to-door postal service.
Provincial governments of all political stripes have enacted anti-worker legislation stripping bargaining rights from BC teachers and Ontario teachers. NDP governments in Nova Scotia and Manitoba have toed the austerity line enacting tax cuts for corporations and concessions for workers.
Global and local resistance to austerity
The impact of austerity is global and workers outside of North America who faced it first have fought back. Dozens of general strikes in Greece, the Arab Spring, mass protests and strikes in Spain, Italy, Brazil and South Africa have raised resistance and are continuing.
There has also been resistance in North America. In the US, workers and students occupied the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin overlapping the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Within months of this, the anger at Wall Street sparked the Occupy movement. In 2012, a rank-and-file led strike by Chicago teachers strike was won. In 2013, a $15 minimum wage campaign was built by non-unionized retail and fast food workers and is continuing to gain steam. In Seattle, a socialist city councilor was elected on this platform sparking a $15 minimum wage victory for Seattle city workers.
There has also been resistance in Canada. In 2012, the Quebec student strike morphed from a fight against tuition fee increases to a referendum on austerity which brought down the Quebec government and reverberated across Canada. At the end of 2012 and into 2013, the Idle No More movement for indigenous rights and sovereignty also broadened into a challenge of the austerity agenda.
Where is the sustained fightback in Canada?
Despite the deep anger and frustration of workers, growing disparity and the widely held view that the 1% are benefiting at the expense of the 99%, there have been only intermittent moments of struggle that has not produced a sustained level of militancy to date.
There is general frustration in the labour movement that the trade union leadership has failed to respond to the austerity attack. Some activists are questioning the relevance of trade unions to be able to act in workers’ interest at all. Some question the willingness of Canadian workers to fight. Many go back and forth between denouncing the leadership for inaction and falling back into uncritical support or demoralization.
How do we assess this situation? Ralph Darlington, a British socialist, characterized a similar situation in the UK: the crucial problem that trade union activists and socialists are confronted with at the moment is “the big gap that exists between the level of workers’ anger at austerity and employers’ attacks on the one hand, and the lack of rank and file confidence to engage in struggle without a lead from the trade union bureaucracy on the other.”
But, it would be too simplistic to say that labour leaders are merely holding back masses of workers waiting to move into action. More critically, it is also not the case that Canadian workers are demoralized and beaten down by austerity and unwilling to act.
While austerity is a harsher, sharper attack on workers than we have seen previously, it also does not represent a structural transformation of capitalism. So objectively, workers are facing the same, but more acute, exploitation by employers and supported by the state that forces workers to pay for its crises.
But subjectively, the role of trade union (and social democratic) leaders and the nature of the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file that currently exists, does explain, in part, why the anger at austerity has not turned to resistance in the way that we hope.
Workers’ consciousness and resistance
In terms of workers’ consciousness, what we have seen in this protracted capitalist crisis is a polarization in which some workers are pushed to the left and some to the right and many are pushed and pulled in both directions.
Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks called workers consciousness “contradictory” and described it as the combination of their real material experiences and the historical weight of ruling class ideas and social relations that have supported the development of the capitalist system. These contradictory ideas are a continual push and pull on workers consciousness.
So even with a relentless anti-union, anti-worker message from right wing governments, employers and the media, there is also a rising level of solidarity and recognition of the needs to support workers’ struggle. An example is an international solidarity effort organized for Steelworkers in Alma, Quebec striking against global corporation, Rio Tinto. Workers from Ontario, UK, South Africa and Australia supported the strikers gave this struggle a global profile.
Recent long strikes by workers at Vale Inco, Porter Airlines and currently at Crown Metal Packaging, indicate a willingness to fight on the picket line. Non-unionized workers, like the barristas in Halifax who successfully fought unfair working conditions and unionized, show the appetite to fight. The popularity and immediate mainstreaming of the slogan “99% vs 1%” from the Occupy movement points to rising class consciousness.
But this period of acute crisis has also pushed some workers to the right. In Europe, neo-fascist parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece and UKIP in the UK that scapegoat immigrants, play on economic fear and insecurity have made electoral gains. In the US, the right wing populism of the Tea Party and in Canada politicians like Toronto’s former mayor, Rob Ford have similarly exploited fear and insecurity.
Most workers, however, hold an uneven and mixed combination of ideas. An example is the worker who actively supports progressive actions of the union but also holds homophobic, sexist or racist ideas. These contradictory ideas can produce a degree of paralysis and passivity on the part of workers. But, it would be a mistake to assume that this is a static state of affairs.  
Gramsci makes a distinction between “normal times” and “abnormal ones.” Periods of crisis can disrupt the coherence of ruling class ideas. What appears to be ‘common sense’ and is uncritically accepted at one moment can quickly shift when workers are thrown into the collective activity of struggle.
Are trade unions still relevant in the fight against austerity?
When we see evidence of a rising level of consciousness and struggle among workers it is hard to understand why it has not translated into a more generalized resistance. A growing layer of activists have placed blame for the lack of escalating struggle on the sluggishness of the trade union leadership. It is the reality that trade union leaders, whether they are left or right, do not necessarily see themselves as the leaders of militant struggles.
Their role as negotiator with the employer and the fact that leaders are removed from the day to day experience of workers disconnects them from workers’ reality.
However, endless criticism of the leadership by activists exacerbates the notion that it is only trade union leaders who can initiate action. Despite the reality of the compromised position of the trade union leadership, the existence of trade unions as mass organizations for workers, although they are not revolutionary, is still critical to mount a challenge to austerity.
In Ontario, the recent sound defeat of Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives running on an anti-union Tea Party-like platform was achieved, in part, by a united effort of the organized labour movement. It shows what is possible when workers unite. The Chicago teachers strike victory in 2012, against huge odds, is another example of how trade union militancy can be rekindled.
Another reality is that the composition of trade unions in Canada has changed since the birth of industrial trade unionism in the 1940s. Currently the highest level of union density is in the public sector, a transformation from the time when unions were concentrated in the manufacturing base. A majority of these workers are women, many are racialized, immigrants and often part time. A significant feature of the Hudak defeat was the role that public sector unions played and the fact that they were the main target of Hudak anti-worker agenda.
Even bureaucratic unions provide some minimal support to members through collective agreements. But, most importantly trade unions provide a member network that can be developed and mobilized.    
Building the rank and file networks and the role of socialists
The current contradiction that exists between the palpable anger of workers and the lack of activity is the organizational capacity of workers that will give the anger an effective political expression. A key question is how can the conservative tendencies of the labour leadership be overcome.
For the growing layer of activists and socialists ready to act despite sluggish leadership in their union, rank and file organizing is the key to start building a labour movement that can fight austerity. Rank and file organisation can perform two functions: 1) it can act as a pressure on the trade union bureaucracy, making action more likely, 2) it can, if necessary, allow workers to fight independently of the bureaucracy by taking unofficial action.
In periods of heightened struggle, workers can develop rank and file movements consisting of workers mobilised at the base of unions. Rosa Luxemburg in her work, The Mass Strike, talks about the moment of mass action by workers as ‘historical’ process rather than an isolated event. Although the real material conditions of workers will be the conduit for action, the historical context of that action will shape the direction of the struggle. A recent example is the Chicago Teachers strike in 2012 when a rank and file caucus organizing at the base was able to pressure then, take over the leadership with broad support from the membership.
Trotsky referred to this as the “fundamental” process of revolution in which workers comprehend their situation through a series of “successive approximations.” Organized socialists are critical to help shape rank and file activity in this direction but also to understand that building these struggles will be a process not an event.

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