Spartacist Canada No. 172
Defend the Unions Through Class Struggle!
Capitalist War on Public Sector Jobs, Services
Claiming a need to “balance the budget” and “keep Canada competitive,” the ruling class is bringing down the austerity axe on tens of thousands of government jobs from coast to coast. As in the U.S. and throughout Europe, the capitalists are trying to make the working class pay for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression—a crisis that was caused by the capitalist system itself. This one-sided class war has brought massive unemployment and poverty, which the rulers have wielded to further weaken the trade unions.
First the capitalists ravaged the private sector unions, whose leaders have proved utterly incapable of mounting an effective defense. Now they are targeting what the Globe and Mail editorialists haughtily call the “voracious public sector unions.” With 71 percent of public sector workers in unions, governments at every level are intent on extracting huge concessions, putting labour’s hard-won gains—seniority rights, pensions, health plans, sick benefits—on the chopping block. Unless there is some serious working-class struggle, which alone can beat back this ruling-class offensive, it is about to get much worse.
With cuts of $4 to $8 billion planned for this year alone, the Harper Conservative government’s onslaught against workers and the poor continues unabated. While rewarding their friends with tax cuts and other largesse, the Tories have already cut housing, job training and health care for Natives, as well as programs for the elderly and unemployed and more. So deep are the cuts to Service Canada that hundreds of thousands of already desperate unemployed workers are being made to wait weeks, and in some cases months, for their first EI cheque. According to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, federal government cutbacks will lead to more than 100,000 job losses over the next three years.
In recession-ravaged Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government is preparing an austerity campaign that could well exceed the brutal cuts of the Mike Harris Tory regime in the 1990s. A government-commissioned report by former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond calls for a wrenching 16.2 percent cut to Ontario government spending over the next seven years. Drummond, a key player in the federal Liberals’ massive cuts to jobs and social services in the 1990s, calls his hatchet job “pretty much unprecedented in Canadian post-war history.”
Drummond took particular aim at health care and education. Teachers will be forced to work more years and get lower pensions on retirement; some 10,000 non-teaching staff face the loss of their jobs. Drummond proposes that when collective agreements are renewed, the government take away accumulated sick time from teachers—a larcenous grab of some $1.7 billion. After years of cutbacks and layoffs of nurses and other front-line staff, hospitals are to be further starved of funds and the door to privatization of health care opened wider. The bosses will be able to get rid of large numbers of workers by eliminating programs, gutting seniority rights and expanding management’s right to discipline and fire.
As the rulers take aim at the pensions of those who still have them, old people are being vilified for every imaginable fiscal woe. Harper & Co. are now planning to make the already paltry Old Age Security program unavailable before the age of 67. Truly, the capitalist class destroys the human beings whose labour it exploits: workers must either die in the harness or live out their days as paupers. And with the ravages to the health care system, there may well be fewer people around to collect such pensions as still exist. Ghoulishly, Drummond’s report advises doctors to start talking to their middle-aged patients about “end of life health care.”
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) is right that these attacks will “guarantee levels of destitution and desperation not seen in Ontario in living memory.” But what the ruling class gets away with depends on the level of working-class opposition. An effective defense of jobs, pensions and unions requires hard class struggle—including preparation for strike action across the public sector—that draws in the unemployed, oppressed minorities and the poor.
Instead of such urgently necessary class struggle, the union tops offer their own solutions to the capitalists’ budget deficit. Typical is OPSEU’s call for “higher taxes and at the very least a fair tax system.” The union misleaders couple an acceptance of capitalist austerity with loyalty to the NDP social democrats or even the capitalist Liberals. It is a bitter irony that in the 2011 provincial election, nurses and teachers unions backed the McGuinty Liberals, who are now unleashing this firestorm on them.
Like most of the union misleaders, the reformist left slavishly backs the New Democrats. The Fightback group, which is an organic part of the NDP, perennially calls for the “NDP to power on a socialist program.” Such calls simply breed illusions that capitalism can be reformed to serve the interests of the working class. The NDP aims not to champion the cause of the workers (let alone establish socialism), but to administer the system of capitalist exploitation. In this spirit, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath answered Drummond’s report by repeating her election vow to balance the Ontario budget. Another NDP MPP, Sarah Campbell, called it “a starting point.” Two decades ago, Bob Rae’s NDP government, ruling as the open agents of the capitalist class, ripped up union contracts, jailed striking workers and went after welfare mothers, immigrants, the old and the sick.
There have been protests, most recently against the austerity blitzkrieg of right-wing Toronto mayor Rob Ford. But the potential power of the unions has not been brought to bear. For the labour movement to beat back these attacks it will take a bullheaded fight based on the understanding that in this class-divided society, the interests of capital and labour are counterposed and irreconcilable.
Toronto: Ground Zero in War on
Public Sector Unions
The recent course of events in Toronto offers a painful cautionary tale of how a quiescent and defeatist labour leadership disarms and weakens the potentially powerful unions in the face of concerted attack. Rob Ford came into office over a year ago vowing to get rid of 7,000 workers, contract out union jobs and slash social services. Ford is a crude buffoon, but his goal of dealing a body blow to Toronto’s civic unions is widely shared by the bourgeoisie and he has so far met with few obstacles.
There was a great outcry against Ford’s demand that every city agency and department cut its budget by 10 percent. Many of the proposed cuts, such as eliminating nutrition programs for 14,000 poor kids and slashing HIV prevention programs, were gratuitously cruel. Others, like the huge cuts to transit, were simply irrational. The city unions had a significant role in these protests, but their fighting power was dissolved by the union tops into the “community,” mirroring the “99 percent” populism of the Occupy movement. A tiny fraction of the most egregious budget cuts were shelved, but overall the city bosses got what they wanted: deep cuts to jobs and services. Criminally, this outcome was trumpeted as a victory by various union leaders and fake leftists. Typical of the latter were the International Socialists (I.S.), who made the absurd claim that this was “a huge setback to the Ford agenda” and “showed that people can fight City Hall” (Socialist Worker, February 2012).
The city played hardball from the start, threatening to lock out the workers and run scabs to enforce their union-wrecking. In the face of this, Mark Ferguson, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 416, representing outside workers, quickly offered a three-year wage freeze and other givebacks. By his own account, the union “was making offers from the start: on wages, hours, scheduling and employment security” (National Post, 11 February). The only question was whether Ferguson could give away enough to satisfy the labour-haters at City Hall. As it turned out, he could and did.
In mid-February, when the city’s negotiators threatened to impose a contract that would have all but destroyed the union, the union tops cried uncle. With their backs to the wall and with no perspective of struggle, Local 416 members approved a contract that makes unprecedented concessions including a significant erosion of job security. The deal eliminates many of the impediments to contracting out and getting rid of unionized city workers. At the ratification vote, the union leadership declared, “We Beat Them Back.” To the contrary. Even though the union was not busted and its fighting capacity was not destroyed, this contract is a big defeat. Its consequences will reverberate throughout the labour movement, most immediately against the 23,000 inside workers in CUPE Local 79 and 2,300 library workers who are facing equally harsh demands.
Ford’s election was prepared by multiple anti-union attacks under former mayor David Miller, a social democrat associated with the NDP who was backed by both the union bureaucrats and the reformist left. In 2006, when transit workers in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 were driven to a wildcat strike, Miller joined the anti-union hysteria, demanding massive fines from the union. Two years later, when the ATU struck again, the city demanded the province enact strikebreaking legislation, for which the provincial NDP caucus voted unanimously.
In 2009, Miller & Co. targeted Locals 416 and 79, aiming to destroy sick benefits and gut seniority rights. Though the city bosses won a crucial concession in terms of sick benefits, the two unions—which struck together—were able to beat back the worst of the attacks because they fought tenaciously. The 2009 strike subsequently become a lightning rod for the bosses’ media and right-wing city councillors in their campaign of anti-union vitriol. Since then, it’s been open season on city workers. As public taunting of transit workers became a local blood sport, Ford got the McGuinty government to pass a law making transit strikes illegal. This easy win against the ATU—achieved with the acquiescence of the Local 113 leadership—paved the way for the broader drive against city workers. Epitomizing the labour tops’ abject defeatism, a few months ago Local 416 leader Ferguson told the media, “we learned our lesson in 2009” as he offered to seek “efficiencies” and help the city save money off the backs of the workers.
An all-out fight that mobilized the power of the city unions in defense of the transit workers could have turned the tables on Ford and his cronies. But such a struggle, breaking through all the laws designed to tame the labour movement, would have meant a confrontation with the government and the capitalist state—centrally the cops and courts. Such a perspective is anathema to the labour misleaders, many of whom regard bourgeois law as holy writ. Worse yet, they embrace the police and prison guards—the armed fist of the capitalist state—not just as allies of the working class, but as fellow union members. These labour-hating thugs have no place in the unions! Yet OPSEU actually organizes prison guards, while Ferguson addresses the Toronto police as “brothers and sisters.” The one exception to Ford’s budget slashing was the cops, who got an 11.5 percent pay hike.
Playing by the bosses’ rules assures defeat. Take compulsory arbitration, which today is promoted by sections of the union misleadership as being in the interest of the workers. The whole purpose of arbitration is to take away the workers’ most powerful weapon—their ability to withdraw their labour through strike action. Beginning with the very right to form unions, all the major gains that labour has wrested from the bosses in the past century were once “illegal” by the norms of bourgeois “law and order.” Hard-fought strikes galvanize the rest of the labour movement and, when victorious, tear up the bosses’ anti-strike laws and injunctions.
There Will Be Class Struggle or Defeat
The social power of public sector workers is not that of industrial workers, who can directly stop the wheels of production and thus of profit from turning. But public sector unions include transportation, utility and other workers who provide the means and services by which the economy runs—the infrastructure vital for a modern industrial economy. A serious labour counteroffensive would put paid to the supposed “public outrage” against the trade unions. Such a struggle would find many allies among those whose lives and futures have been blighted by the capitalists and who know on some basic level that a defeat for the unions will only bring them further ruin.
This truth highlights that for the working class to beat back these attacks and triumph over the bankrupt rule of capital it must consciously organize the active support of all the oppressed. The working class must champion black youth facing police terror, desperate refugees and immigrants, Muslims targeted by the imperialists’ “war on terror,” Native peoples, women and gays. It must advocate independence for Quebec in order to clear the road to anti-capitalist class struggle in both English Canada and Quebec. Such a perspective requires, in the first instance, a struggle to replace the current pro-capitalist misleaders of the unions, who have brought defeat after defeat, and a sharp break with the politics of the NDP.
We desperately need a revolutionary workers party. Such a party—multiracial and internationalist—would mobilize the power of the working class to smash the bosses’ austerity attacks across the country. Armed with a vision of struggle for a new society, the working class can rally all of the oppressed in a victorious war against the oppressor of all—the capitalist system. For workers revolution and a socialist North America!