BC Federation of Labour convention opens
By Roger Annis, Monday, November 24, 2008
VANCOUVER–Just over 1,000 delegates and guests opened the annual convention of the BC Federation here today.
The full force of the collapse of world financial markets has yet to hit the province of British Columbia. But the decline of the U.S. economy and the consequences of seven long years of a right-wing government under Premier Gordon Campbell have already taken a heavy toll on working people in the province. This fact, and the prospect of a provincial election to take place in six months, lends an urgency to convention deliberations.
Capitalist assault on working people
The province’s principal industry–paper and wood products—has seen the loss of 20,000 jobs in the past two years. Poverty and homelessness have increased sharply since Campbell’s first election in 2001. The minimum wage has been frozen at $8 per hour since then. British Columbia has had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada for the past four years.
Several tens of thousands of health care workers saw their jobs privatized and their wages nearly halved by Campbell’s Liberals following a defeated strike in 2004. Health and education services have declined. British Columbia is a growing emitter of greenhouse gases, notwithstanding the government’s impressive “greenwashing.” Its claim to be “green” is entirely undeserved, but most environmental groups in the province have signed onto the claim.
The hardest hit by the Campbell government have been the original inhabitants, the several hundred thousand Indigenous people living within the provincial boundaries. The Campbell government set the tone for attacks on aboriginal rights when it staged a racist plebiscite in 2002 purportedly setting guidelines for treaty negotiations with Indigenous people. The vote passed with only one third of voters participating.
Federation president’s Speech
BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair’s delivered a featured speech that kicked off the convention. It summarized the difficult challenges facing the working class in the province. Layoffs in forestry, government cuts to health and education services, attacks on the rights of temporary foreign workers, poverty and the risible minimum wage in British Columbia-these and other important issues were addressed in the speech.
Sinclair also talked about the world economic crisis. “Capitalism is to blame,” he said when summarizing the devastating collapse of the world financial system and its consequences for the economic cycle. He returned to this theme several times. Capitalism as a system has failed.
But it seems there is an overwhelming reluctance among leaders of the labour answer to draw the appropriate conclusions from the failure of capitalism, for in the same speech, Sinclair repeated several times, that, “If the corporations don’t clean up their act and start providing jobs and sustainable economic development, then we will step in and do it for them.”
“If” they don’t start providing economic progress? Why the “if”? Their system has proven itself spectacularly incapable of running the world. So what are we waiting for?
Indigenous sovereignty and women’s rights
Two pressing social issues dominated discussion on the first day. One was women’s rights. A comprehensive report from the Federation women’s committee was presented and discussed, with the fight for affordable child care getting particular attention.
The other issue was Indigenous rights. A moving and symbolic signing ceremony was held of a “protocol of solidarity” between the Federation of Labour and organizations of Indigenous peoples in the province. (The text of the protocol will become available in the coming days.) Moving talks were delivered to delegates by Ed John of the First Nations Summit, Stewart Philip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and Shawn Atleo of the BC Assembly of First Nations.
Stephen Lewis speaks
A typically moving speech to the convention was delivered by special guest Stephen Lewis. He is an iconic, lifetime social democratic leader in Canada who has also served as a United Nations special representative on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. His speech reviewed the social and economic carnage stemming from the present crisis. Echoing Jim Sinclair, Lewis declared, “I have believed all my life that the capitalism is a wretched social and economic system.”
Speaking on the climate crisis, Lewis said, “Having carefully studied the issue, I am convinced that an environmental apocalypse is in the offing sometime between 2030 and 2050 if the world does not make the fundamental changes that are needed.”
Lewis’ talk was long on critique of the present economic order, but short on solutions. After explaining in stark and horrifying detail the terrible conditions of poverty he has observed in Africa, he said, “I honestly don’t understand how the world works and how it could produce such horrors.”
He ended his speech with a call to support non-governmental organizations such as CARE, Save the Children, and OXFAM. According to a growing number of international critics, ngo’s such as these are increasingly a part of the international system that is strangling the peoples of the Third World.
2010 Winter Olympics debacle
Apart from the crisis in the forestry industry already mentioned, the most visible consequence of the recent financial collapse is the financial debacle now surrounding the 2010 Winter Olympics that will open in just over one year in Vancouver. The Games are now shaping up to be a financial debacle that will leave taxpayers in British Columbia and Canada with a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off. (For detail, see this author’s article on the recent municipal election in Vancouver at: http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=344)
The uncomfortable reality facing the trade unions in the province is that they and their political party, the New Democratic Party, supported the bid for the Games. The unions have just completed a successful electoral campaign that brought two parties supporting the Games—Vision and the Coalition of Progressive Electors—into office in the city of Vancouver. How will the labour movement explain itself as the financing of the Games comes apart and stiffs taxpayers with an enormous bill to pay?
Some new voices
There are some 90 delegates to this convention under the age of thirty, compared to 38 at the last convention. One of those young delegates, Harsha Walia, spoke to the convention during discussion of the women’s rights reports. She is a delegate from BCGEU and a well-known activist in No One Is Illegal. She added valuable commentary to the report of the committee and received a standing ovation from delegates.
Mike Palecek, delegate from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and an editor of Fightback magazine, spoke during a resolution calling for the nationalization of the oil industry in Canada. He spoke on his recent visit to Venezuela and the experience of workers there in fighting for the nationalization of their industries by the Bolivarian government of President Hugo Chavez. He, too, received a strong ovation.
The resolution on nationalization passed overwhelmingly.
Roger Annis is a delegate to the BC Federation of Labour convention. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAY TWO OF BC FEDERATION OF LABOUR CONVENTION
By Roger Annis, Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Two important discussions took place on the second day of the BC Federation of Labour convention.
The first discussion was climate change. A “working group” of the federation presented a report that was followed by lengthy discussion. This session was a bare-bones beginning that will require much expansion if the federation is to truly take on the issue in all of its gravity.
The committee report is focused on support to a “cap and trade” system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It frames its position in the terms of the Western Climate Initiative, an institution bringing together provincial and state governments in central and western Canada and along the west coast of the United States. As I and another delegate pointed out in discussion, cap and trade does not automatically ensure emission reductions. Companies can actually reap considerable profit from a free-for-all cap and trade system unless it is organized to ensure that revenues would be directed back to even more emission reductions.
Furthermore, experience in Europe has shown that companies can use cap and trade to export their pollution to other countries, including by purchasing credits in dubious emission-reduction schemes in poor countries.
The committee report made no reference to the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world–the tar sands of Alberta—nor to rapidly expanding greenhouse gas-emitting projects in British Columbia. The latter include rapidly expanding oil and natural gas production in the northeast of the province, huge sales of rights to shale gas exploitation in the same region (production is still hypothetical), and methane gas exploration in the northwest that has met stiff local opposition in recent months.
The absence of reference to these issues by the committee report is hopefully a sign of work to be done and not one of blind negligence.
The second discussion was also lengthy, on the role of young workers in the labour movement. This was a truly inspiring session. A report from a recently-constituted youth committee of the federation was delivered, followed by a discussion period in which more than a dozen young delegates took part.
The report and the contributions by young delegates to the discussion period were proof of the visionary decision by the federation in 2006 to place a priority on building a youth committee. That decision has yielded a very rapid success. The youth committee and its members are without doubt destined for great achievements.
Among the campaigns of the youth committee are:
* An ongoing campaign to win a $10 per hour minimum wage (with more and more reference to $11 per hour).
* Ongoing education campaigning in high schools to inform students of their rights as workers.
* Organizing young workers into unions.
* Expanding a “Gen U” email and telephone network to link young workers and union members.
* Holding an annual Young Worker Conference sponsored by the Federation of Labour.
The international solidarity forum of the convention took place on Tuesday evening. The guest speaker was Patsy Sorenson, director of the PAYOKE organization in Belgium that campaigns against human trafficking. Her presentation was very moving. Unlike in Canada, significant progress has been made in Belgium to combat the exploitation of women who come to that country as virtual sex slaves.
A second presentation that evening was delivered by an activist in the building trades unions. He detailed three struggles that have been waged recently in BC for the rights of temporary, foreign construction workers and the vital role that unions played in assisting those workers.
This was a very informative evening, but I nonetheless question the choice of topic. I would have preferred to see an evening devoted to one or more of the pressing foreign policy issues in Canada today, namely Canada’s role in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the ongoing deterioration of social and economic life in Haiti under United Nations and Canadian tutelage, and the recent signing by the Canadian government of a free trade agreement with the human rights-violating government of Colombia.
Next week, The Canadian Labour Congress and other unions are holding a public forum in Vancouver on the situation in Columbia.
DAY THREE OF BC FEDERATION OF LABOUR CONVENTION
By Roger Annis, Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Day three began with discussion of a report of the Political Action Committee.
A section of the committee’s report was the Federation’s “Count Me In” campaign. Initiated several years ago, the purpose of the campaign is to stimulate political discussion among workers in workplaces and communities.
The Federation of Labour is an affiliate of the New Democratic Party. “Count Me In” is a campaign to generate support to the party. Rather, it is to raise awareness and discussion of the most important issues affecting working people. Supporters of the NDP in the labour movement are confident that a careful study of key issues will logically lead workers to vote for the NDP as the only major party that comes close to the issues that concern us.
A delegate from my union, Alistair Haythornwaite, spoke in the discussion and made some important points. He said, in part, “The Machinists union recognizes the absolute necessity of political action. Workers cannot leave this field of battle to the exclusive realm of the apologists of finance capitalism, colonialism and imperialist war.
“Workers need a democratic constitution for Canada, its nations and peoples, that sweeps aside our colonial legacy and makes sets a priority on the welfare of the population.”
Haythornwaite said it is important for unions to carry political activism into the post-election period as well. “All too often,” he explained, “we take attention off of our elected representatives once in office. We know that can lead to unfortunate consequences.”
He gave several examples of political action by union and other social activists in the Cowichan Valley region of Vancouver Island. His wife, Eden, was reelected this fall as a local school trustee.
A debate was held among delegates on different proportional representation voting systems. Next May during the provincial election, there will be a plebiscite on a form of proportional representation called “Single transferable vote.” The political action committee submitted a resolution opposed to STV and in favour of a different proportional representation system that will not be on the ballot, called Mixed Member Proportional. That resolution was defeated.
An appendix to the Political Action Committee report details the merits of each system. I don’t know if this will be available online following the convention. You can read about STV on Wikipedia, including at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote
Speech by president of the Canadian Labour Congress
Ken Georgetti addressed the convention and focused his remarks on the economic crisis in Canada. He said the crisis is a result of corporate greed and, “frankly, incompetence.”
Georgetti criticized the refusal of the Canadian government to dialogue with workers and their unions. He said that workers and unions need to be part of the discussions to solve the economic crisis. He did not, however, indicate what the Congress would do if the refusal to consult unions continues.
He outlined a four-point economic plan that the CLC will campaign for:
* A federal government program for job-creating infrastructure—roads, energy refits, etc.
* Such a program must have a “Made in Canada” procurement policy.
* Significant improvement in access to unemployment insurance and job training for laid off workers.
* A pension guarantee fund to be created by the federal government and paid for by a new, financial transaction tax.
There were few dry eyes in the house following lunch when the session opened with guest presentations by family members of victims of two horrific workplace accidents on BC farms. On March 7, 2007, three women farmworkers of Indian origin died in a traffic accident while being transported to work in an unsafe vehicle. On September 5, 2008, three workers of Vietnamese origin died from asphyxiation on a mushroom farm. Two others were permanently disabled from the same accident.
The daughter of one of the mushroom workers outlined three rights that her family wants applied for all workers—the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to necessary training to work safely, and the right to access safe working equipment. She called for a law to enshrine these rights and a public inquiry into the circumstances of the six deaths mentioned above.
The provincial government has refused the calls for a public inquiry and has refused the requests of family members that the Federation of Labour join them in any discussions with the government and its agencies.
Finally, the convention rejected a constitutional amendment that would shift the conventions of the Federation from annual to biannual.
Roger Annis is a delegate to the BC Federation of Labour convention from the Machinists union.
FINAL TWO DAYS OF BC FEDERATION OF LABOUR CONVENTION
By Roger Annis, Friday, November 28, 2008
Policy discussion yesterday began with the crisis in the forest industry. Since the election of the provincial Liberal Party government in 2001 and its re-election in 2005, 54 sawmills, paper mills and wood manufacturing plants have closed in the province. Ten thousand jobs have been lost in 2008, 20,000 since 2001.
Delegates identified three reasons for the decline in the industry. One is the sharp downturn in the U.S. housing industry. Lumber exports to the U.S. from British Columbia dropped from $7.4 billion in 2005 to $6.7 billion in 2006, and the downward trend continues.
A second reason is deregulation and commodification of the system of allocating the right to cut lumber. Previously, tree cutting rights would be allocated to companies on condition that the wood fibre be processed locally. The Liberals have loosened the “coupling” of cutting to processing. One result has been a massive increase in the export of raw logs. Another has been escalating prices of tree cutting licenses as “decoupling” makes them attractive to speculators. Forest companies holding licenses are even beginning to make their lands available for real estate exploitation.
A third reason offered for the job decline is the trade agreement signed between the U.S. and Canada in 2006 to resolve a long-standing trade dispute over competing accusations of subsidies and favourable tax regimes for the lumber industries in the respective countries.
A just-published study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives reports that forest companies in Canada have paid some half a billion dollars in export duties since the 2006 agreement. The same companies have received $2.5 billion in duties charged and held in reserve during the lengthy trade dispute. (I would like to refer the reader to a factual, comprehensive article explaining this subject free of political bias, but I can’t find one.)
The discussion featured a lot of angry testimonies by forest workers of the devastation of their jobs and communities. What was striking was the absence of any proposal for what to do except for one—to vote for the NDP in the provincial election next May and expect that it will solve the crisis.
There is no lack of will to struggle by forest workers. In 2004 and again in 2007, forest workers waged difficult and lengthy strikes against company efforts to impose cuts in working conditions and benefits. In both cases, the strikes did not receive enough solidarity and workers lost ground.
NDP leader speaks
Carole James, leader of the provincial New Democratic Party, addressed the convention and vowed the party would “retake the province on behalf of working people” in the May, 2009 provincial election. Great expectations are building towards the election of the party in 2009 and the expectation that it will repair the extensive social damage of the past eight years.
James made two specific pledges in her speech–one, to immediately legislate a ten dollar per hour minimum wage, and two, to build 2400 units of social housing in the first year of an NDP government.
Debate on economic crisis
The convention received the document “Canadian Labour Congress Response to the Economic Crisis” that was issued in September and it discussed an emergency resolution submitted by the resolutions committee.
The resolution proposes measures to protect the hardest-hit victims of the deepening economic crisis. It does not, however, address the most egregious examples of local impact of the economic and climate crisis, including the looming financial debacle of the 2010 Winter Olympics; expansion of oil and gas production in the north of the province and planned shale gas production in the same region; and the ongoing devastation of jobs and communities in the forest industry.
Discussion under the report of the Community and Social Action Committee heard testimony from front-line workers in social services. This is always one of the great values of attending a convention of the BC Federation of Labour. One learns to appreciate the deep humanity of those who work under near-impossible conditions to provide services from a government that is cutting deeply into these same services.
Harper government wage freeze, attack on union rights
The last topic of the day on Thursday was discussion of an emergency resolution responding to the just-announced “economic update” of the federal Conservative government. The resolution calls on the three opposition parties in Canada’s Parliament to vote down the measures contained in the “update”. It calls on the opposition parties to form a coalition government whose economic policy would be geared to meeting the needs and concerns facing working people in economic difficulty. The Conservative measures include a freeze of the salaries and right to strike of federal government workers for at least two years, a sell-off (read privatization) of public assets at firesale prices, and restrictions on female federal government workers fighting for pay equity.
The convention resolution was discussed for 45 minutes. One delegate from the postal workers union criticized it, saying it should include proposals for public protest action.
The vote on the resolution was near to unanimous. In a point of order following the vote, a delegate from the postal workers stated for the record that some delegates of the union voted against the resolution out of a principled opposition to any proposal for a government coalition with the Liberal Party.
Convention hears from Ottawa
This morning, it was reported to the convention that the Quebec Federation of Labour has joined the call for the three opposition parties in Parliament to vote down the Conservative government and form a coalition government to replace it.
NDP Member of Parliament Don Davies spoke to the convention in place of Jack Layton, unable to attend due to events in Ottawa. He spoke strongly on issues of trade union rights and criticized the federal government “economic update” for failing to provide stimulus to the economy and for its violations of trade union rights. He held up the course of the incoming administration of President-elect Barak Obama in the U.S. as an example to follow.
“We are going to work to bring coalition government to this country,” he said, to repeated standing ovations.
Davies gave a factual account of the scope of the financial collapse and its fallout. “We believe that markets can bring prosperity,” he said, “but they can’t do it alone.”
“We believe in strategic investment in the economy.”
Davies announced a five-point economic plan announced Thursday by NDP leader Jack Layton:
* Financial regulations to protect homeowners and consumers. * Invest in the “new energy” economy and implement a national cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
* Invest in high technology companies and in companies that are “strategic” to the economy, such as in the automobile industry. Financial support to companies will be done on condition of receiving “an equity stake and a seat at the board of director’s table.”
* Renegotiate trade deals to favour companies that operate in Canada. Similarly, subsidies and bailouts should favour companies that produce in Canada.
* “Massive investments” in infrastructure projects, including public transit and house construction. Invest in the social infrastructure—education, health care, etc.
Davies spoke for a host of other progressive measures, including a federal minimum wage, a federal law outlawing strikebreaking, and emergency action to combat the poverty and denial of rights to Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“We need a fairer and more prosperous Canada,” Davis concluded, “and with your help, the New Democratic Party will lead a fight for this.”
Roger Annis is a delegate to the BC Federation of Labour convention from the Machinists union.