By Roger Annis
The following article was published on the websites of Socialist Voice (www.socialistvoice.ca) and the Socialist Project (www.socialistproject.ca). Further below are daily reports from the CLC convention.
The triennial convention of the Canadian Labour Congress held in Toronto from May 26 to 30 revealed the positive changes that have edged their way into the labour movement in recent years. It also showed the weighty obstacles that stand in the way of the organization’s transformation into a more militant, fighting force on behalf of the working class.
On the positive side, a number of resolutions reflected the social rights work and spirit of solidarity on important issues by Congress affiliates, union activists and social movements that overlap with the labour movement. Chief among these was a resolution opposing Canada’s participation in the imperialist war of aggression in Afghanistan. It was adopted by a large majority of delegates and it calls for an end to that war and the immediate withdrawal of Canadian soldiers. (The resolution and the debate surrounding it can be read on this author’s blogsite).
The CLC’s support to women’s rights was symbolized by a ceremony presenting a lifetime humanitarian award to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a pioneer in the struggle for women’s right to abortion. Important women’s rights resolutions were adopted, such as one in favour of a universal, affordable childcare program in Canada. The CLC and its affiliates have campaigned on this issue.
Notwithstanding feeble policy resolutions (more on this later), the convention devoted a lot of time to discussion on the urgent climate change crisis and to the harsh social and economic conditions facing Indigenous peoples in Canada. It examined the unique challenges facing unions as the number of part-time and “temporary” jobs grows, while hundreds of thousands of “temporary” workers from other countries, allowed into Canada to work in low-paid jobs, are deprived of legal citizenship rights, including the right to join trade unions. The convention was marked by frank debate on these issues.
Other examples of progressive resolutions and sympathies among the 1,700 delegates and dozens of affiliates of the Congress gathered in Toronto could be cited. But this would describe only a part of what the convention revealed and potentially misdirect those seeking a program to lead the labour movement forward. The overarching conclusion to draw from the convention is the growing gap between worsening economic, social and political conditions faced by workers today in Canada and the world, on the one hand, and the still-limited will and capacity of trade unions to fight for effective improvements in these conditions.
An action plan for change
The convention adopted an Action Plan on its final day that was prepared by the newly elected executive council of the CLC. It reads, “The CLC will mobilize the affiliates, federations and labour councils to lead a broad, diverse and inclusive movement for social change.”
The document highlights five areas of attention—renewing and expanding trade union membership and unity; fighting for women’s equality; defending and expanding public services; fighting for jobs and environmental protection; and opposing the war in Afghanistan, including by building solidarity with the peoples of that country. It concludes, “…let us commit ourselves to continue to work in solidarity to achieve our goals and build a society that meets the needs of working people and their families.”
The Action Plan does not describe how the Congress could mobilize its members to achieve these goals. It says the Congress will devote resources and attention to supporting the New Democratic Party in federal and provincial elections. In Quebec, the picture gets muddier because the plan says the CLC will support the “political choices of unions in Quebec.” Those choices happen to be support for two parties—the Bloc québécois federally and the Parti québécois provincially—that have neither meaningful ties nor accountability to the unions.
The NDP in power has been a disappointment to workers. It has attacked social programs and workers rights, such as in British Columbia and Ontario during the 1990s. The NDP governments in those provinces demobilized and discouraged the working class, leaving it vulnerable to even harsher attacks by the governments that succeeded them. The same pattern has just repeated itself in Saskatchewan.
If the NDP today is unable to inspire and mobilize workers to elect it to office, it’s because it doesn’t want to challenge the domination of the capitalists and the laws of their market system over economic and social life.
Two examples, among many that could be cited, illustrate the Action Plan’s shortcomings. One, the tar sands projects in northern Alberta are responsible for some of the worst environmental and humanitarian destruction on the planet. But the CLC and the NDP fail to fight for the one thing that could end the destruction—a planned and orderly shutdown of the entire project and a massive reorientation of the Canadian economy away from reliance on fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy production. This necessarily requires proposals to secure alternative training and employment for workers in the tar sands, including for the workers from abroad who have earned the right to stay in Canada if they so wish. Such a reorientation of the Canadian economy would require a head-on battle with the oil companies, not to mention leaving NAFTA.
Two, the Indigenous peoples in Canada are engaged in unprecedented struggles against calamitous social and economic conditions. These struggles illustrate, and are demanding, forms of political sovereignty. The federal and provincial governments have responded by criminalizing their causes and arresting or threatening their most outspoken leaders. The CLC convention featured guest speakers that delivered powerful and moving condemnations of Canadian government policy. Policy discussions on Indigenous rights issues were informed. But the convention did not take a stand in support of the most important of the current battles, such as the sovereignty struggles of the Haudenosaunee peoples in southwest and southeast Ontario (Six Nations and Tyendinaga, respectively), and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) people in northwest Ontario.
More generally, the Action Program fails to project a struggle for a radically different society, one based on social justice and respect for the natural environment.
Labour needs an authoritative voice
One of the challenges facing the labour movement today is unity. In the years after its foundation in 1956, the Canadian Labour Congress was a central voice of the unions and the working class in Canada. In 1961, it co-founded the New Democratic Party with the goal of fighting for a government that would represent workers’ interests. The prospects for a new, progressive party of the working class looked good in the early years of the NDP, including in Quebec. This made the role of a unified labour central like the CLC all the more relevant.
Today, the labour movement speaks with many voices. The autonomy accorded to the CLC affiliate in Quebec, the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), is a progressive development over the past several decades that reflects a recognition of the national rights of the Quebecois people. But it does not follow that there should be two distinct trade union movements in Canada with little common purpose. That is what has evolved, by default. It was quite a surprise to this observer to see how limited was participation at the CLC convention by delegates from Quebec. Less than ten percent of reports and contributions to this year’s CLC convention were in the French language. Despite the formal availability of translation services, it was, for all intents and purposes, an English-language convention.
Many CLC affiliates have evolved to become mini-labour centrals of their own. Unions such as steelworkers and autoworkers, to choose only two examples, include members from every walk of life. Industrial unions are organizing non-industrial workers under the pressure of the decline of employment and union membership in their respective industries or an inability to convince unorganized, industrial workers of the value of union membership. It’s wrong if this gets in the way of having a recognized voice of the entire labour movement.
Organizing efforts would be much more effective if they were part of a common plan of action by the labour movement as a whole to create or support existing unions in those unorganized sectors.
Trade union independence
A recent and disturbing trend in the union movement has seen some unions engage in sweetheart deals with companies in search of the almighty dues dollar. The CAW’s deal with Magna Corporation earlier this year comes to mind. So too the attempt by the Steelworkers to gain representation at the Dofasco steelmaker in Hamilton (see Socialist Project, February 3, 2008 and July 3, 2008).
In the retail grocery business, the United Food and Commercial Workers union has received automatic representation in the spin-off budget stores of the major grocery chains, on condition of accepting lower-wage collective agreements. This stems from the pressure on the retail industry of the non-union Wal-Mart juggernaut. The low wages and poor conditions contained in these agreements dampens workers’ desire at Wal-Mart or other unorganized companies to join unions. How can the labour movement inspire Wal-Mart workers to join the UFCW? What can be done to win better conditions in the retail grocery sector?
Left currents within the CLC
Organized left forces at the CLC convention were weak, given the opening to radical thought and action that otherwise characterized convention proceedings.
A left caucus of delegates came together on the eve of the convention to discuss a published program issued by activists in the labour council in Toronto and elsewhere in the country. Titled “An Action Agenda,” it posited a need to struggle, “To Build Labour Power in the 21st Century” (www.labouraction.ca). Some 150 delegates met for an initial discussion of this program and had a positive exchange of ideas. But there were no follow-up meetings of this character to assess and direct a fight for the ideas of the program on the convention floor. And when it came time to elect a new executive council of the CLC, the caucus presented no candidates. The outgoing executive was re-elected by acclamation.
The Action Agenda said that three things were needed in order to win labour power in the 21st century: “grass-roots mobilization in both the workplace and the community”; commitment by CLC affiliates to “provide the leadership and resources necessary to build and sustain long-term campaigns”; and “the ability to combine formal electoral organizing with the building of popular movements.” This falls well short of a description of what “labour power” would look like, and how it could be achieved.
“Labour power” must ultimately mean “government power.” To create a society of social justice, working people — our social movements, trade unions and political parties — must take government power out of the control of the capitalists and wield it to lead a transformation of society, out of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism and into socialism.
How can workers in Canada move towards such a goal? Are parties such as the NDP or the Bloc and Parti québécois a help or a hindrance along this road? What lessons can be drawn from countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, whose people are fighting a life and death struggle for socialism today? Such questions are not addressed in the Action Agenda, nor were they featured in the caucus discussions.
A recent step towards labour power in Canada was the formation in 2006 of a new, progressive part of the left in Quebec, Québec solidaire. Although it is not clear whether this new party will continue in a positive direction, the lessons of its first two years nonetheless warrant serious discussion. Unfortunately, members of the party were not in attendance at the CLC convention — or, if they were, their presence was unknown to delegates.
Can workers/unions win political power in Canada?
So what kind of political program is needed today in the labour movement in Canada? Here are some ideas offered in the hope that the discussion begun in Toronto will continue and deepen. •The CLC and the labour movement need a forceful policy of international solidarity that supports trade unions and popular movements fighting for social justice. Unions in Canada must offer meaningful solidarity to peoples in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia that are fighting for new societies, and to peoples in Haiti, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan who are suffering directly the consequences of imperialist war and occupation. The Canadian government and ruling class are a predatory force in the world. For that reason, the union movement should reject the illusion that Canada and its armed forces, as presently constituted, can be a “peacekeeping” force in the world. •The CLC needs to base its action plan on a strategy of unity and mass mobilization. There is a vast, untapped reserve of strength and creativity among the millions of working people (unionized and non-union wage earners, students and youth, farmers, the unemployed, Indigenous peoples etc.) that the unions must find ways to reach and mobilize. •The sovereignty struggles of Indigenous peoples are growing in importance and must be actively supported by the union movement. The CLC should bring the weight of its affiliates to bear to fight against the criminalization of the Indigenous rights movements by federal and provincial governments. •Finally, unions and working people need to fight for a government that will join the worldwide struggle for social justice.
The New Democratic Party was founded in 1961 for just that purpose. The CLC was at the center of that founding, and it remains central to the party today. But the NDP has never risen above minority status in the federal Parliament. There are two reasons why. The party has a timid and pro-capitalist program that discourages working class participation in politics and rejects mass mobilization as a means to confront capitalist rule. And it has historically opposed the national rights of the Quebec people, making it a minor force in political life in Quebec and condemning it to permanent minority status in the federal Parliament. A wide-ranging discussion on political strategy is required if the labour movement is to transcend the limitations of a simple pro-NDP electoral strategy for political power.
The CLC convention was an important gathering point for ideas and action proposals. The desire for a more combative labour movement, expressed by so many delegates, is a hopeful sign for the future.
Roger Annis was a delegate to the 2008 Canadian Labour Congress convention.
DAY ONE OF THE CANADIAN LABOUR CONVENTION
By Roger Annis, Delegate from IAM Local 11
Sunday, May 25–The first day of the CLC convention began today with a number of pre-convention events. This is a report on three of those events. You can read this online at http://rogerannis.blogspot.com/
Machinists Union caucus
The International Association of Machinists (IAM) held a caucus meeting for all its delegates. The meeting was focused on proposed changes to the constitution and structure of the CLC in order to address several key problems that have arisen, including disputes between unions when some, such as the CAW, engage in destructive raiding practices against other unions, and creating better representation of affiliated unions on the Executive Council of the Congress.
Along with other unions, the IAM is supporting a call for a more activist and fighting labour movement. They are distributing a printed appeal entitled, “Yes We Can: Action for a Change.”
Three guest speakers from farmer organizations in western Canada were invited to speak to the caucus meeting about their campaign to prevent the attempt by the federal government to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board, which is the equivalent of a collective bargaining agent for grain farmers in Canada.
“An Action Agenda to Build Labour Power in the 21st Century”
A 90-minute pre-convention meeting attended by some 200 delegates was held to discuss the issues and challenges facing the labour movement in Canada, centered on a published “Action Agenda: To Build Labour Power in the 21st Century.” The meeting was jointly chaired by Carolyn Egan of Steelworkers Area Council and Evalina Pan of the Thunder Bay (Ontario) Labour Council.
The Action Agenda is published at http://www.labouraction.ca/. It consists of a series of radical principles to guide trade union action in the coming period and a call for the CLC to adopt such a program. One of the demands of the program is a call to end the war in Afghanistan and for working together with the Canadian Peace Alliance toward that goal.
The meeting began with four short presentations on recent campaigns and issues. Presenters included Denis Lemelin, national president of CUPW; Noradine Bulay of the “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign of Local 75 of UNITE-HERE; Susan Lambert, vice-president of the BC Teachers Federation (who recounted the history and achievements of the 2005 teachers strike in BC); and Julie White, Research Director of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union.
Julie White talked about her union’s support for measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The union represents 35,000 workers in oil refineries and other energy industries, so a major issue faced by the union is the job losses that would result if major polluting industries are shut down or radically re-engineered. She made brief reference to the Alberta Tar Sands environmental calamity but did not indicate what position, if any, the union has taken on those projects. She called for an end to oil and gas exports to the United States and said energy prices should be kept low in order to benefit the competitiveness of industries in Canada.
The two co-chairs followed with comments on how a struggle against destructive climate change can also be a struggle for jobs and an economy based on principles of social justice and environmental respect.
Presentations were followed by one hour of very informed contributions from participants at the meeting, focused on how to apply the principles enunciated in the Action Agenda.
Organizers of this meeting are convening another such meeting on Tuesday evening.
Human Rights Forum
The first evening forum of the convention took place this evening on the topic of human rights. This was a very well attended forum with some 300 delegates and rights activists in attendance. I could describe it as a celebration of those fighting and organizing for rights; a most inspiring gathering.
The evening opened with music from Indigenous (Native Indian) singers followed by a young South Asian woman singing five of her own compositions, all touching on social justice.
Hassan Yussuff, chairperson of the CLC human rights department gave a summary of the evolution of human rights in Canada in the past several years. He noted, among others, the abandonment of the Canadian government of Indigenous rights at the United Nations and increasing attacks on democratic rights in the name of “the war on terrorism,” including discrimination against aerospace workers manufacturing military products.
The evening ended with several informed and inspiring guest speakers. One of them was Ovide Mercredi, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He spoke on the recent jailings in Ontario of leaders of three Indigenous communities who are opposing incursions onto their lands by mining and forestry companies, including those know as the “KI Six”. He urged participants to attend a large and important rally in Toronto tomorrow to protest these arrests.
Hassan Yussuff thanked Mercredi for his talk and explained decisive actions that the CLC has taken to support the causes of the arrested leaders, including supporting the rally.
A closing note
Typical of the wonderful people attending this convention is a municipal worker from Ontario who had just returned from a solidarity delegation to Cuba. Twenty five union members went on delegation. It was initiated by the Kingston, Ontario labour council. He was deeply impressed by the achievements of Cuban society in education, health care, culture that he observed during the ten days he was there.
DAY TWO OF THE CLC CONVENTION
Monday, May 26, 2008
By Roger Annis, delegate of IAM Local 11
(You can read this report online at http://rogerannis.blogspot.com/)
Today was the first full session of the convention. There are close to 1700 delegates and fraternal delegates in attendance from 31 international unions, 14 national unions, 7 provincial unions, 12 provincial labour federations and 130 municipal labour councils.
President and Executive Council reports
The first two reports to the convention were from President Ken Georgetti in the morning and the Executive Council in the afternoon. The Council submitted a 26-page report to delegates. It reports on the activity of the Congress since the last convention three years ago, presenting a positive assessment.
Most contributions to the discussion came from leaders of national unions speaking in support of the report. One dissenting voice was sounded by delegate Willie Lambert from the Autoworkers union in Ontario. I had considerable sympathy for his point of view.
CLC president Ken Georgetti reported in his morning speech of the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Canada over the past several years. Most people in the labour movement anticipate continued decline in the economic outlook for Canada. Lambert argued that workers in Canada and internationally are up against powerful corporate interests that will continue to degrade workers’ jobs, salaries and democratic rights. The labour movement needs a more active and determined fightback, he argued, and a vision for a radically-improved society and world.
The first session of the convention to discuss resolutions was in the afternoon. Unions have submitted hundreds of resolutions to the convention. They are grouped into 14 categories such as international issues, women’s rights, climate change, poverty and inequality, and many more. I will report on these categories as they are presented.
Two events at the convention affirmed the CLC’s commitment to continue to struggle for women’s equality. A noontime march and rally was held in the streets of downtown Toronto, and in the evening the second of the public forums of the convention was held, on womens’ equality. I was unable to attend the evening session because I attended an Indigeous rights rally (see below).
Several modest resolutions were presented and discussed in support of Indigenous rights, including in support of an apology by the Canadian government for the residential school policy. Emotional testimonies were delivered by several Indigenous delegates when speaking of the residential school system and their personal experience. Several speakers, including Rolf Gerstenberger, president of Steelworkers Local 1005 in Hamilton, pointed out that “apologies” by the Canadian government for the residential school policy or other past injustices are hardly adequate. He called for support in particular to the ongoing sovereignty struggle of the Mohawk people in southwest Ontario.
That evening, a rally launched a tent city on the lawn of the provincial legislature in Toronto to protest the criminalization of Indigenous rights protests and to affirm Indigenous sovereignty and rights. Some 1,000 people attended, including dozens of delegates from the CLC convention. One of the speakers to the rally was Ovide Mercredi, past president of the Assembly of First Nations. He is a forceful and articulate spokesperson for this movement.
This issue is a very serious one. There are three Indigenous peoples in Ontario whose leaders are sitting in jail or fighting to stay out—the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) people in northern Ontario, and the Ardoch-Algonquin and Tyendinaga (Mohawk) people in eastern Ontario.
Nationalize oil industry?
A resolution was presented calling for nationalization of the oil industry and was adopted. But this is not the revolution in policy that it may sound like. Most speakers to the resolution interpreted it as being a call for a privately-owned petroleum industry in which the prices of refined products would be regulated and more refining would take place in Canada before export to the United States. It would be a marvellous thing if the CLC were to launch a campaign for oil nationalization; I seriously doubt that this will happen in any short term.
DAY THREE OF THE CLC CONVENTION
May 27, 2008-05-27
By Roger Annis, Delegate of IAM Local 11
(You can read this report online at http://rogerannis.blogspot.com/)
Day three of the CLC convention opened with a special address by Phil Fontaine. He is the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. His speech was a forceful and moving condemnation of the poverty and social distress among Canada’s app. 1½ million Aboriginal people.
His speech paid particular attention to the situation of Indigenous children. One in four lives in poverty; less than half graduates from high school. Fontaine said that more children—27,000—live in the custody of social services agencies today than were in residential schools at the height of that program.
He cited the report by the Auditor General of British Columbia earlier this month that exposed scandalous treatment of Indigenous children at the hands of the province’s social services department. Eight percent of children in the province are Indigenous; they make up 51% of those in custody.
The CLC distributed a statement to delegates calling for support for the second National Day of Action to end poverty of First Nations. This year, the action will take place on May 29. A motion to support the Day of Action was approved in a unanimous standing vote.
Fontaine concluded his speech by calling for participation in the May 29 action and announcing a soon-to-be published seven-point plan of action to confront poverty. Included is a call to abolish the federal Indian Act.
There was no mention in Fontaine’s speech, nor in the CLC statement, of the current confrontations between Indigenous communities and the federal and provincial governments, notably the struggle of the Six Nations Mohawk people in Ontario and the three other communities in Ontario mentioned in my report yesterday whose struggles for sovereignty have been criminalized.
Economic situation in Canada
Mike McCracken, an economist and president of Infometrica, gave a special address on “Jobs and the Economy”. This was followed by the introduction of a CLC policy paper, “Labour’s Agenda for Good Jobs,” and discussion from delegates.
I found the policy paper and discussion entirely lacking. There is a growing awareness in the world that the greed and profit-driven economic system that dominates the world—capitalism—is leading us to an economic and environmental abyss. Poverty and economic insecurity is on the rise. And we are learning increasingly of the consequences of the unlimited trashing of the world’s environment. The mortgage debt crisis in the United States is likely just the beginning of a more profound financial crisis.
Faced with this, the labour movement needs to place on its agenda a vision for a society and economy based on social justice and that begins to repair and undo all the destruction of the environment of the past 200 years of industrial capitalism, in other words, socialism. And to get that, we need to discuss how we win a government that would begin such a societal transformation.
It so happens that we already have a few governments in the world, in South America and the Caribbean, from which we can learn important lessons in this regard–Cuba, the success, all proportions guarded, of whose society is widely recognized in the world, and the other countries of the ALBA economic and social alliance in Latin America, including Venezuela, whose economies are still at the beginning stage of a transformation toward social justice.
The policy paper was debated. I appreciated the contribution of Bruce Allen of the CAW in Ste. Catherines. He spoke in opposition to the policy paper, saying it was entirely lacking in presenting a vision for an alternative society and for a struggle to get there. Willie Lambert also said “no” and added more valuable comments.
The first report of the World Committee of the convention was presented this morning. The committee has approved or condensed the resolutions submitted by affiliates into 27, including excellent resolutions opposing the war in Afghanistan and demanding withdrawal of Canadian troops and expressing solidarity with the embattled peoples of Colombia, Haiti, Somalia, Burma and the Philippines. Unfortunately, the resolution on Palestine, as amended by the Resolutions Committee, presents a mixed message of timid support to the embattled Palestinian people, saying that their political representatives share an equal blame with Israel for the violence and chaos in historic Palestine.
The convention discussed only one resolution in this session. It opposes the recently-approved Security and Prosperity Partnership between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. During the discussion, one delegate described the significance of the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela.
More discussion of women’s’ rights
The afternoon session began with a talk by Armine Yalnizyan, an economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. She spoke on “Women’s’ Economic Equality” and gave a review of the increasing poverty that women in the workforce are facing (eg. in privatized hospital services) and the stalling of efforts to reduce the income gap between men and women which sees women earning, on average, 70% of the salary of men in equivalent occupations in non-unionized employment. In unionized employment, women earn 93% of the salary of men, on average.
Following discussion, the convention approved a document entitled, “The Growing Gap: Inequality, Poverty and the Fight for Women’s Economic Equality.” Further discussion was held on poverty and pay inequality affecting women and several resolutions on this were approved. Labour councils across the country will focus this year’s Labour Day events on these issues.
Constitution and structure of the CLC
A lengthy discussion was held at the end of the day on a proposal by the Executive Council of the CLC and Constitution Committee of the convention to establish a commission to review the constitution and structure of the Congress. What follows is a short summary of an issue that, admittedly, I understand only partially.
Two issues concern the initiators of the proposal—stronger measures within the CLC are needed to prohibit raiding of affiliates of the CLC against one another; and stronger powers are needed for the CLC to deal with “rogue” unions, that is, unions acting in violation of basic union principles such as respecting the right to strike. The second-largest affiliate of the CLC—the National Union of Government and General Employees—is not attending the convention out of protest against the inability of the CLC to discipline another affiliate that raided one of its components. So the issue is of some urgency.
This was easily the issue that had the sharpest disagreements among affiliates. But the debate was respectful and genuine. There were strong pro and con opinions of the proposal. Smaller unions and labour councils feel they will have too little voice in a review process. They also want important issues such as funding of smaller labour councils to be addressed, and the CLC leadership is perceived as insensitive, if not opposed, to this concern. Many delegates are also concerned that the right of workers to democratically choose to change their union affiliation be respected.
It was noteworthy that not a single contribution to this debate was in the French language. It would seem that these issues are not a big concern in the province of Quebec. More importantly to note, though, is the glaring language disparity in the proceedings of the convention. I would say that no more than ten percent of contributions at the microphones are in the French language, and that’s a generous recollection. This contrasts quite sharply with my recollection of CLC conventions from 20 and 30 years ago. I think it is fair to say that this CLC convention has less participation of Quebecois workers than at any other time in its 52 year history.
Forums on antiwar, challenges before labour movement
Immediately following the end of the convention session at 5:30 pm, two important forums took place. These were “parallel” forums, meaning they were not part of the official agenda but very much in the spirit of the convention. One was “Labour Against War”, featuring a leader of the dockworkers in California. Their union, the ILWU, staged a one-day strike and shutdown of west coast ports in the U.S. on May 1 to protest the war in Iraq. Close to 100 people attended that forum.
The other forum drew some 50 people and was titled, “Putting the Movement Back in Labour: Crisis and Challenges for Workers Struggles and Organizations”. This is the one that I attended. It featured four very informative presentations that, sadly, time and space do not permit a summary in this report. The presenters were Stephanie Gude (Indigenous rights struggles and defence), Iliam Burbano (building international solidarity), Marco Luciano (organizing unorganized workers and workers outside of unions), and Herman Rosenfeld (the fight against concessions and defending the right to strike). The forum was sponsored by Migrante Ontario, No One Is Illegal Toronto, CUPE Socialist Caucus, Socialist Project Labour Committee, and Labour for Palestine. A lively and informed discussion followed the presentations.
DAY FOUR OF THE CLC CONVENTION
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
By Roger Annis, Delegate of IAM Local 11
(You can read this report online at http://rogerannis.blogspot.com/)
The fourth day of the CLC convention began with two sessions on climate change. CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi hosted a one-hour panel presentation of three guests—Clayton-Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation, and Jeca Glor-Bell, president of the Sierra Club of Canada.
Thanks to two reading sources—my subscription to the weekly magazine New Scientist and the blog site Climate and Capitalism, itself linked to the Ecosocialist International Network—I consider myself informed on climate issues. I recently wrote an article on the absurd claim of the British Columbia government and its apologists to be leading the charge on reversing climate change. (You can find that article at: http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=265
I found the panel discussion was novel and informative.The panelists gave informed opinion on matters such as carbon taxes and emission-trading regimes that allow polluters to purchase the right to continue their destructive practices. Dale Marshall said he supports carbon taxes; Thomas-Muller and Glor-Bell said that taxation of fossil fuels can only be a useful tool if tax revenues are directed to assist society, especially its poorest members, to adjust to change, eg by significantly expanding affordable public transit.
Thomas-Muller explained that environmental issues are issues of fundamental human rights, including Indigenous peoples’ rights and sovereignty. He called for building a popular movement to oppose climate destruction and forge an alternative path for society.
A good discussion was held on the Alberta Tar Sands. Thomas-Muller said Canadians are being “held hostage” by current and future Tar Sands projects in northern Alberta. Workers in the zone are being poisoned, “ethnocide” is being perpetrated against the Indigenous population, the rapid rise in price of Canada’s currency is causing significant losses in manufacturing employment, and the unions face a difficult challenge in defending the rights of tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers being brought to Canada to work in the Tar Sands or work the jobs the Tar Sands workers leave behind as they move north.
A delegate asked if “clean coal” exploitation or nuclear power offer an alternative to oil. “No such thing” as clean coal, replied Thomas-Muller. It’s a dirty fuel, and the suggested “carbon capture and storage” technology is a ruse—the technology simply does not exist. As for nuclear power, he explained there is no way of safely disposing of nuclear waste. Indigenous territories are more often than not the dumping ground of such waste.
It was a good exchange, but two limitations were evident. One, the only rational response to the Tar Sands debacle is to SHUT DOWN TAR SANDS EXPLOITATION AS RAPIDLY AS POSSIBLE. And, two, the political dimension of the climate crisis was not sufficiently described. The environmental challenge is so vast, and the resistance to change is so deeply embedded in the current economic order, that it is illusory to posit that climate calamity can be avoided by tinkering around the edges of the capitalist order. Only a government radically committed to social justice can undertake the vast reorganization of society required to avert climate calamity. It’s no accident that only one country in the world today—Cuba—is anywhere close to achieving harmony with the biosphere. It is thanks to Cuba’s nationalized and planned economy that this has been achieved.
Disappointing policy paper and resolutions on climate change
Following the panel, a policy paper was presented for discussion and vote. It is titled, “Climate Change and Green Jobs: Labour’s Challenges and Opportunities.” I voted against it. Although it describes the Tar Sands as “the single most destructive development project anywhere on Earth”, the paper proposes, “The Canadian Labour Congress will actively push for a drastic and dramatic slowdown on any further expansion in the tar sands.”
The paper proposes a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. But this will be impossible to achieve while Tar Sands projects continue; necessarily including natural gas expansion in British Columbia and northern Canada, new, massive “shale gas” projects in northeastern British Columbia proceed as planned; and with coal mining and burning expansion underway in several areas of Canada.
The paper proposes a pollution trading regime, albeit an arguably improved version of the failed trading regime already in place. More generally, the paper does not provide a description of the enormity of the change required in society. Its proposed solutions are, in my view, band-aid. It was adopted nearly unanimously
A five-point resolution on the Tar Sands was then proposed, and overwhelmingly adopted. It proposes:
* “Regulate” the Tar Sands to “protect the environment”,
* “Minimize” the impact of Tar Sands on aboriginal communities
* Limit unrefined raw oil exports in favour of refining in Canada
* Moratorium on “future” Tar Sands projects
* Support to Indigenous peoples struggling against Tar Sands developments.
No delegates spoke in opposition to the resolution.
Special humanitarian award
The afternoon session opened with a ceremony to present a humanitarian award to Dr. Henry Morgentaler. He is the Canadian doctor who was at the center of a decades-long struggle to win the right of women to access to abortion services. Kudos to CLC leaders for this.
Two presentations were heard in favour of a universal, public drug insurance plan. Lorne Calvert, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan, spoke of the experience of his government that lost an election in late 2007 despite his party’s proposal to introduce a public drug plan.
Calvert was followed by Professor Marie-Claude Prémont of the School of Public Administration in Quebec. She described the present pharmacare plan in Quebec, a plan in which citizens pay a fee for medications and the plan is administered by private insurance interests. The professor argued for universal access administered by the government.
Following the presentations, a policy paper was presented for discussion and vote to the convention, entitled “Public Health Care-Now More Than Ever!” The centrepiece of the paper is the call for a public, universal drug plan. It was approved, along with resolutions opposing the privatization of health care services.
Rights of temporary, foreign workers
A comprehensive resolution was discussed and approved that commits the CLC to defending and representing the rights of temporary, foreign workers. An attempt to strengthen the resolution with proposals to expand social and political rights for temporary workers was unfortunately defeated.
DAY FIVE OF THE CLC CONVENTION
Thursday, May 29, 2008
By Roger Annis, Delegate of IAM Local 11
(You can read this report online at http://rogerannis.blogspot.com/)
(You can contact the writer at [email protected])
Day number five opened with the presentation and discussion of a ten-point political action policy paper. The paper reaffirms the CLC’s support to the New Democratic Party and it speaks of other forms of political action to achieve legislative change for improved labour legislation, women’s rights, and Indigenous peoples’ rights. It reads:
“In this time of increased corporate power, hostile media, anti-labour politicians and governments, our affiliates must continue to build labour’s political activism and heighten efforts to influence the broader community. The Congress and affiliates must increase the desire of union members and their families to be part of something that engages them and ultimately creates a more equitable and just Canada.”
The profound attacks on peoples’ rights that mark the new (read, same old) world of globalization, the “war on terrorism” and environmental calamity require new and far more activist strategies to not only hold onto the accomplishments of the past but move forward to a radically new vision of government and society. I believe that the submitted policy paper falls short of this challenge.
In the debate on the paper, a delegate from the CUPW spoke to the political divisions within the labour movement today. The CAW, one of the largest affiliates of the CLC, supports “strategic voting” in support of the Liberal Party. In Quebec, the CLC’s affiliate, the Quebec Federation of Labour, supports the Bloc Quebecois federally.
The delegate also spoke to failings of the New Democratic Party to defend trade union rights. For example two New Democratic Party provincial governments, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, refuse to implement anti-scab legislation.
Rolf Gerstenberger of Steelworkers local 1005 in Hamilton spoke to the same problem. He said he was in favour of the policy paper but faces a problem. His local union holds weekly discussion meetings on “how can workers and trade unions gain more power” in society. Participation at the meetings varies from 50 members to several hundred. But a dilemma has been introduced into these discussions—a “crime against workers” was committed during the recent strike of transit workers in Toronto when they were ordered by a unanimous vote in the Ontario legislature to end the strike. The NDP voted for the legislation. He said the vote shows that workers and unions have no reliable representatives in the Ontario legislature.
A significant new political party of the left was founded in Quebec in 2006, Quebec solidaire, but it has no presence at the convention. No delegate from Quebec spoke in the debate on the political action policy paper.
Address from Australia
The convention heard an address via video link from the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow. She is also the president of the newly-created unitary international labour federation, the International Trade Union Confederation. She gave a summary of the campaign that Australian unions waged last year to defeat the ultra-reactionary government of John Howard and elect the Labour Party back into office.
I was in Australia during that election campaign and wrote a comprehensive article on it. You can read that at http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=220.
Speech by NDP Leader Jack Layton
Following a vote in favour of the paper on political action, Jack Layton, federal leader of the New Democratic Party, addressed the convention. His speech outlined the key social rights that he said the NDP supports and fights for—public health care, radically-improved employment insurance, universal, quality day care.
His speech spent some time on Indigenous people’s rights. Like Phil Fontaine earlier in the week, he spoke movingly in favour of necessary improvements to social rights but made no mention of current confrontations over political sovereignty and criminalization of political rights struggles between Indigenous activists and supporters and provincial and federal governments.
Layton spoke of the growing job losses in manufacturing in Canada. He said the answer to this crisis is for the federal government to devise industry-specific plans that use public money to support companies in financial difficulty.
Layton touched on environmental challenges. He called for “slowing down” Alberta Tar Sands projects and said that private investment in new alternative energy industries was a big part of the solution to job losses.
Apart from a brief reference to human rights violations in Colombia, there was no mention in Layton’s speech of international affairs.
Prior to lunch, the World Committee presented its second and final report. A composite resolution on Afghanistan was presented that reads as follows:
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) will demand of all political parties in our Parliament to take steps immediately to end the military occupation in Afghanistan and to implement the disengagement of Canadian forces and to bring home our Canadian soldiers from the illegal war in Afghanistan.
The CLC will assist affiliates to educate and mobilize their membership to oppose the Canadian military intervention in Afghanistan.
The CLC will continue to work with partners in the Canadian Peace Alliance to educate Canadians about the war.
The CLC will build solidarity with Afghani workers, social justice and women’s organizations.
Because Canadians have a proud history of committing our Armed Forces to the role of peacekeepers dating back to the end of World War 2.
Because there are no clear objectives, accomplishments or benefits for Canadians in this war in which dozens of young Canadians and hundreds of innocent Afghan citizens are being killed.
Because our young soldiers are dying in a war in Afghanistan in the role of invading army with no mandate from Canadian citizens.
Because the Harper government’s military intervention in Afghanistan is not contributing to establishing peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Because the Canadian government’s military campaign is based on supporting American political, economic and military interests rather than on contributing to establishing peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Because the Canadian government’s military campaign is based on supporting American political, economic and military interests rather than on contributing to peace in the region.
Because the actions of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization occupation is increasing the violence in Afghanistan.
Because the massive amounts of money spent on the military in Afghanistan would best be used for funding health care, education, job creation and social services.
Because the labour movement has always been at the center of any struggle for peace and justice.
The first speaker was a leader of the Union of National Defence Employees, an affiliate of the PSAC. The union’s delegates would support the resolution; it became clear, which is a significant and welcome shift in position from this union. He expressed the union’s concern that a withdrawal from Afghanistan be carried out in a manner that protects the safety and security of its Canadian troops and civilian personnel.
A young delegate of the Steelworkers in Toronto made a hard-hitting contribution condemning the predatory character of Canadian foreign policy. She spoke in defence of the Palestinian people and against the oppressor Israeli government.
Dave Coles of the CEP (paperworkers) union condemned what he called an illegal occupation of Afghanistan by Canada and other big powers.
Another UNDE member spoke in support of the resolution but made a vigorous defence of the Canadian military role in Afghanistan. Her daughter is presently engaged in Afghanistan. “I encourage you to support the military, support my daughter,” she concluded, to considerable applause.
Dave Bleakney of CUPW detailed the “war crimes” and destruction of Afghanistan being perpetrated by Canada and the rest of the foreign occupation. He also spoke of the degrading of democratic rights in the countries of the occupying forces in the name of the “war of terrorism.” The resolution was adopted overwhelmingly.
Next, a resolution was presented calling on Canada to increase its contribution to foreign aid to .7% of Gross National Product. I spoke and summarized the record of failure and betrayal of Canadian “aid” and intervention towards the peoples of Afghanistan, Haiti and Palestine. I said that international solidarity in the unions should be focused on supporting the capacity of trade unions and other popular organizations of oppressed peoples to struggle for political power and sovereignty.
National Day of Indigenous Protest
During the lunch break, several hundred delegates joined a march of app. 1000 people through the streets of Toronto to mark the National Day of Indigenous Protest and affirm Indigenous political sovereignty. Among the many banners and contingents on the march was one from the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium in eastern Ontario. They are united with the Ardoch-Algonquin people in opposing a proposed uranium mine project.
Expanding union membership
In the afternoon, Robert Hickey of Queen’s University gave a special presentation on the fight to expand trade union membership. He reported that union membership in Canada has grown by 660,000 in the last ten years. But during that same time, union density has dropped from 33.7% to 31.5% of the salaried work force.
Hickey sounded a warning that the worsening of labour laws and deterioration of the economic situation would cause declining union membership if we do not make a sharp and fundamental turn in organizing efforts. For example, union density in manufacturing and forestry has fallen to 23% of the workforce. Since the 1980’s, the average number of new, union certifications per year has fallen by almost 50%.
Hickey reported that his research has found three elements that are common to successful organizing drives:
Providing the necessary resources to organizers, including experienced staff who share experiences with targeted workers, eg women, youth and workers of minority nationalities.
Having a committee inside of the targeted workplace.
Establishing benchmarks by which to measure success and failure.
Three other features that Hickey identified were–bringing new leaders into the unions; providing real and meaningful support to organizing drives; and integrate organizing work into all of our activity.
A policy paper was introduced and approved following a lengthy and informed discussion, entitled “Organizing: Growth and strength.” One delegate spoke against the paper, saying it was not bold enough.
One of the successful union organizing drives in recent times has been the creation and growth of the UNITE union in New Zealand. I wrote an article on this inspiring story in October 2007 that you can read at http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=228.
Lengthy discussion continued on resolutions for the right of unions to organize and strike. Sid Ryan of CUPE Ontario made an impassioned speech saying that bold action was needed to defend the right to strike. It was reported to the convention that unions in Saskatchewan are facing threats by the new Saskatchewan Party government to severely limit the right to strike. Ryan argued that unions in that province should begin to prepare strike action to oppose the legislation.