by Megan Kinch
A union local of 22 people has been on strike for more than three months. They’ve already been replaced with scab labour. They’ve been called greedy and spoiled for demanding an increase in the starting rate of $12 and basic safety equipment for extremely dangerous and difficult work. They were arrested for handing out leaflets. They faced a court injunction that would ban them from making noise in a public park, and when the employer loses, they are sued for $4 million dollars. Their employer, Porter airlines, is a darling of the local elites, who prefer to bypass Pearson airport for quick flights to New York and Montreal.
Welcome to the new face of labour disputes, which looks more like the worker struggles that inspired Mayday in the 1880s, than the ritualized and symbolic modern strikes. But community members and workers from other unions are coming through with solidarity actions and donations, and the problems keep piling up for Porter.
Porter has effectively refused to bargain, instead trying every strategy to avoid dealing with the workers. Porter and the Toronto Port Authority tried to take out a court injunction which would have prohibited leafleting and loud noises in nearby Little Norway park. They lost. But then they sued the union for $4 million over their Twitter account. Both Porter and the workers have strategically used social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, with union supporters making memes and co-ordinating protest blitzes of Porter’s Facebook.
Big unions and the OFL have kicked in money and support to this ‘David and Goliath’ fight, but this struggle, and the larger struggle for justice in the workplace, isn’t going to be won with dollars. There has been a significant amount of solidarity shown by workers and community members, on the picket line and at the gates to the ferry, including unions with militant traditions such as CUPE 3903 and the IWW.
Jordy Cummings is an academic worker in CUPE 3903 and has been doing social media solidarity: “I spent three months on the picket line fighting for some degree of job security for precariously employed academic workers, and they ended up legislating us back to work. Little did I know that this was the beginning of the end of legal trade unionism in Ontario. The precedent was set with us, and now strikes are basically illegal. If a union does strike, they are legislated back to work within days or starved out and replaced, as with Porter workers.”
I spoke to Porter fuel worker Enrique Perez. He said that the main demand is not wages, but safety.
“We wrote a letter in April regarding the safety concerns, understaffing, high turnover rate, flight delays and worker injuries,” he said. “You need two people to fuel a plane but we end up having only one person because of staffing problems. That guy over there (points) fell off a plane and broke his arm. I had a night when I almost walked into a propeller. You really need people who’ve been around for a while to tell the new workers stories and sort of warn people.”
Perez said that Porter is refusing to acknowledge the complexities of the job: “Many complicated aspects to the job like where there is ice out, you don’t use salt, you have to use special stuff. They start us at $12, or with a DZ licence they pay 14.50. People are only getting $16 for driving a dumptruck. But this is also a dumptruck that is crossing runways when the planes are landing, carrying 50,000 worth of fuel. We drive it across the runways to put it in the fuel farms 3 times a day.”
Normally, a union is able to stop work by having a picket line which is allowed to halt vehicles for a few minutes on their way in and out of the worksite. This is the main protection against hiring replacement workers, known as ‘scabs.’ But Porter has used the police to break normal normal picket lines and even had people arrested for leafletting. Porter/Toronto Port Authority is also trying to get the right to have their own private police at the airport.
Striking for basic safety demands is something that was supposedly in the past. Canadian labour law is supposed to guarantee a safe workplace. Before the ‘labour peace’ compromise that followed World War 2, pickets lines and unions were often illegal, and had to be enforced through direct action. Unions had to fight private police in what were sometimes pitched battles. It hasn’t got to that point yet, but already picket lines are basically being made illegal through increasing anti-worker regulations.
James Taylor, strike coordinator for the Porter workers, had this to say about the arrest and the legal difficulties faced by the small union in trying to maintain a picket line. “Unfortunately as a small group we couldn’t picket the entire airport but we figured we could leaflet the passengers. So Mary and I tried because we’re staffers and didn’t want the guys to get arrested. We went over and handed out fliers on the sidewalk, it was pretty chill. The Toronto Port Authority told us to leave and said we were trespassing, and we said “no, we think we have the charter right to be here and distribute leaflets. The didn’t really enjoy those arguments. They got formal trespass letters to give us. In the meantime they called the duty officers and they had 8 or so cops there. They put us both in handcuffs and charged us with trespass and released us on the spot.”
Lawyer Glen Wheeler from COPE, the union the workers are with, called this “quite outrageous” and said that the court did end up upholding their charter right to hand out fliers.
The local community near the airport is also being drawn into a battle with Porter, who is trying to get permission from the city to expand the Island airport and fly jet planes. Rob Chamberland lives on a boat in a dock near the airport. He says that the people who will be affected aren’t having meaningful input into the decisions being made.
“Remember that there are three main communities, there are the islanders who mainly live on Ward and Algonquin Islands, there are the condo-dwellers, mostly new home owners, and then there’s the boaters, both liveaboards and your average weekend sailor. Then there are those who flock to the waterfront of the island for a day with nature. Life will now include jets, increased noise, increased pollution, and profit over community welfare. Airport expansion means the whole area becomes an industrial zone”
I spoke to Carrie Sharpe, who has been helping coordinate community support for the workers. She spoke about the attempted injunction: “What’s scary is that it was even on the table. This is an attempt to shut down dissent. Porter is trying to discourage dissent at a time when they have an application to have jets fly out of the airport and to fill in some of the lake. This injunction process has already had a chilling effect on mobilization, there will be people now afraid to protest island expansion…they are doing all this in order to shut down protests over the use of public assets for profit.”
Before legalized unionism, community and workers had to work together in order to get any kind of decent standard of living. It was brutal physical and legal repression of the Haymarket protest for the 8 hour work day in Chicago, back in 1886, that started Mayday protests for International Workers Day. Today, many workers still don’t have the 8 hour day and are forced to work more or less, and workplace safety is being rolled back. The old formalized picket structures aren’t working anymore. In this new era of labour disputes, workers and community members in solidarity (who are often workers themselves somewhere else) are going to have to jointly struggle against corporate impunity and greed. This is already happening with the Porter airlines strike, and with this year’s Mayday protest the solidarity is getting more solid!
In 1886, 127 years ago, European immigrant workers marched in Chicago to demand an eight hour work day. The massacre and execution of trade unionists that followed has been commemorated every year since, in almost every corner of the world on May 1st – International Workers Day.
Since then, working people have waged a continuous struggle, from social reforms to revolutionary alternatives. In this country, these struggles have produced important reforms including the minimum wage, pensions, a retirement age, and many social programs and rights including access to health care and primary education. International Workers Day is also a day to celebrate these victories, especially at this time when we are compelled to organize to protect these vital gains from capitalism’s latest offensive, so-called “austerity”. This agenda is being orchestrated from the highest levels of international finance right down to municipal governments, a program to advance the redirecting social wealth from state-sponsored social programs to the richest.
The colonial foundations of this country, including the systematic theft of land and attempts to destroy the culture and social fabric of indigenous nations, remains the most pressing internal issue in this country today.
The ‘Idle No More’ movement has brought the issue of internal colonialism to the world, and especially to the public in Canada that has largely ignored this reality. Indigenous communities continue to wage campaigns over land claims, the inexcusable number of missing indigenous women, as well reparations for crimes committed by the residential school system, just to name a few.
The Canadian state has also been increasingly playing a role as an imperialist political, economic, and military actor. While Canada has been active in foreign military campaigns since before WWI (participating in military actions in South Africa) over the last decade Canada has gone from being a major component of the military offensive and occupation in Afghanistan to also participating in the NATO-led bombing of Libya, with the prospect of military involvement in Mali, Syria with North Korea currently under discussion. Moreover, the Canadian state has backed and assisted in the proliferation of Canadian mining companies and their operations all over the planet. In many cases, not only do these companies engage in labour exploitation and environmentally destructive practices, which have catastrophic impacts to local communities and ecosystems, but they have also been connected to targeted acts of violence against workers as well as environmental activists, from Colombia to Tanzania.
There are many more – too many – examples of the injustices and crimes that occur here and around the world, crimes that are committed to maintain the capitalist order. All over the world, the wealthy and powerful are using the governments they control to push the same relentless, criminal agenda of pursuing profit at the cost of the rights and lives of people. Whether it be by robbing people’s money as they are doing in Cyprus, or by robbing a nation’s resources through military means as in Libya, or by unrelentingly attacking social programs and workers’ rights as is happening here, their agenda and their system must be stopped.
There should be no mistake. We are not simply talking about going back in time, rewinding the clock to the supposed heyday of the so-called “welfare state” in Canada. This welfare state was at the same time pursuing its genocide of indigenous peoples through residential schools and pursuing its criminal war of aggression against the people of Korea. We cannot continue to pretend that, as Stephen Harper said, “Canada has no history of colonialism”. We can no longer pretend that Canada acts as a ‘peacekeeper’ on the world stage and that transnationals are altruistically ‘providing jobs’ as they outsource jobs here while exploiting workers and resources abroad.
On International Workers Day, we march to build a Solidarity City. Solidarity City is a unified struggle for: Respect for Indigenous Sovereignty, Status for All, an End to Imperialism and Environmental Destruction, an End to Austerity and Attacks on the Poor and Working class, continued resistance against Patriarchy, Racism, Ableism and Homophobia and Transphobia’.
On this International Workers Day, the organizations of the May 1st Movement call for:
Support for the struggle for Indigenous peoples’ liberation including:
The defense of ancestral lands and support to frontline land defenders; and
The recognition of the right of Indigenous genuine self-determination, including their right to determine all their economic and political affairs.
Pushing back on attacks upon working class and poor communities including:
Rejecting all forms of the capitalist ‘austerity’ agenda, reject the cutting of services and trampling on worker and civil rights;
Curtailing police abuses and impunity by reducing of police budgets, dismantling of the bogus Special Investigations Unit, and its replacement with a genuine community-based civilian oversight groups;
Rejecting the continued neoliberal drive towards privatizations, eliminating public incentives and tax breaks for large corporations, and resisting outsourcing by placing regulations and restrictions on these practices.
Supporting concrete campaigns that address immediate needs of workers, including:
Extending access to services without fear of deportation, while fighting for regularization of undocumented people, and extension of permanent residency to any worker in Canada while re-regulating migrant labour to eliminate laws that exempt these workers from the rights and benefits that other workers enjoy; and
Increasing the minimum wage to $14.50/ hr, re-adjustment of social assistance rates to lift people out of poverty whiling indexing both of these to inflation.
Exposing Canadian Imperialism and reasserting our support for liberation struggles abroad including:
The withdrawal of Canada’s military from all foreign outposts and immediately halting any preparations for foreign military campaigns;
The subjection of Canadian mining companies to strict regulations to protect the rights of workers, the protection of the environment and communities where mining may take place, and the rights of people to benefit from any extraction that may take place;
The immediate halt to the practice of labour import which utilized temporary immigration status to regulate and discipline labour; and
The extension of different forms of support to liberation movements abroad from peoples organizations and social movements in Canada.
Of course, there are many other issues that impact different sectors of the working class in different ways and this is but a short list of changes we demand and deserve. Perhaps more importantly, we cannot expect the Canadian state to simply ‘give’ us these things and more. We stress the need for building people’s power in communities, in workplaces, on the streets and in the reserves, if we are going to actually achieve these.
This system is not and will not work for us, the majorities, the working people both here and abroad. We are the ones who build and make things, who perform the tasks and services that make societies progress, and it is our ancestral lands that are being plundered to feed this system.
This May Day, while the same class of politicians who live well off the public dime tell us that we need to tighten our belt and that we need to blame unions and immigrants for this mess, we need to understand that this system, and those that protect it, are the problem. We must stand with each other, in solidarity, so that when any government or corporation looks to trample on one community, one union or one group, we all stand together.
LIBERATION FOR FIRST NATIONS AND ALL OPPRESSED NATIONS!
HANDS OFF OUR SOCIAL PROGRAMS AND RIGHTS!
BUILD A SOLIDARITY CITY!
ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
by Steve da Silva
The moral backlash that Canada’s largest and most profitable bank, RBC, was met with when news broke earlier this month that they were using foreign workers to replace dozens of their IT staff has developed into a wider scandal that is engulfing virtually all of corporate Canada and all of Canada’s political parties.
It is no secret that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been growing rapidly, tripling in a decade to more than 338,000 workers by the end of 2012. As has been pointed out, this is a larger workforce than that of Canada’s smaller provinces.
The moral outrage sparked by the outsourcing of 45 of RBC’s IT staff reflects a sense of indignation amongst Canadians – as if a line had been crossed. Many seem to be reflecting a feeling that they’ve been lied to, and were under the impression that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program had been limited to jobs like being caregivers or tomato pickers (which are actually part of separate programs, the Live-In Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program), jobs that “Canadians don’t want” or in industries facing only temporary labour or skills shortages. After all, as the government website for the program reads, “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.”
As an employer, here is how you make a “Canadian” job suitable for a migrant worker: Drive wages down to rock bottom, break or block union formation, and minimize safety regulations. Then no one takes your job. But don’t worry! The TFWP will help you! Apply for a Labour Market Opinion from the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada saying that you couldn’t find enough workers in the required fourteen day advertising period, and bang! Not only do you have a cheap labour supply, but you have workers that are stuck with you as an employer, workers who can’t unionize, and who you can pay 15% less than the minimum wage. This trend is sweeping across the economy.
Temporary foreign workers are working in all sectors of the economy. In the weeks following the news, one source reported that eighteen of Canada’s largest fifty employers are on the list of users of the TFWP, including: Shaw, Sun Life, RIM, Maple Leaf, Air Canada, Canadian Tire, Financière Manuvie, Rona, Rogers, Sears, BMO, Bell, Thomson Reuters, Bombardier, Scotiabank, TD Canada Trust, Loblaws. Other notable employers of TFWs include Lulu Lemon, Hudson’s Bay Company, Bank of Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart, Telus, Enbridge, Sobeys, CN Rail, Porter, Tim Hortons, SNC Lavalin, CP Rail, McDonald’s, Suncor, and Talisman Energy. The total number of employers now using TFWs is 33,000. Other noteworthy employers on the list include the Bank of Canada, CBC, and the Girl Guides. With an official joblessness level sitting at 1.4 million people, it should become clear where this outpouring of indignation comes from.
Not only has the scandal spread to virtually all of corporate Canada, it has spread to all of Canada’s political parties too. After some righteous posturing from the Conservatives pretending as if they weren’t aware of such uses of the program and some vague promises about immediate reforms, they have now deflected criticism by revealing active support for the program by the opposition parties. The Conservatives released this past week a series of personal letters written by Liberal and NDP MPs – including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Status of Women Critic Niki Ashton, and NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar – making personal appeals for the use of temporary foreign workers in their ridings.
So all political parties have more or less supported the Program, and virtually all sectors of economy are using temporary foreign workers. Yet the moral backlash remains centered not on the super-exploitative and often abusive and dangerous conditions that temporary foreign workers have endured for decades, but rather on the concern that the TFWP has begun to cut into “Canadian jobs” and that it has far surpassed the mandate of the program to fill short-term labour or skills shortages. This is a line of thinking that is being actively encouraged by the media, with what seems like ‘two sides’ to the debate arguing over whether this or that job can or should be filled by citizens. And to the extent that this moral backlash in the media reflects popular sentiments of anxieties over people’s jobs and livelihoods, it is understandable. Rising consumer and student debts with fewer job prospects and employment insecurity is a reasonable basis for anxiety. But we can’t let those who are responsible for generating these social insecurities – all levels of government and the businesses that get them elected – leverage them for their own purposes.
The moment we workers – those of us who rely on our labour to survive, who make others rich by our work – buy into this logic of there being certain jobs that are suitable for “Canadians” and certain jobs suitable to foreign workers, we’ve already lost the battle. We’ve lost because we’ve already accepted that a divided working-class is acceptable, divisions which are only hardened by differing immigration statuses and racial lines.
But we don’t have to accept these divisions. Workers looking for real alternatives to capitalism and a way to resist capitalist “austerity” shouldn’t get pulled into this debate of where we draw around which jobs are okay for the super-exploitation of foreign workers. The capitalists and their governments will go on creating whatever hiring practices and wage systems are necessary, no matter how exploitative, to make their profits and “compete” in the global capitalist economy.
In any case, the job of workers is to organize against these capitalists. Just as immigrant workers did in militant and courageous ways in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, so too we will and must today. Hopefully today, with greater unity and support from workers with citizenship and status.
As the May 1st Movement and its allies have called for this coming May Day, we need a Solidarity City – a city of organizations and alliances united against capitalist austerity, imperialism and colonialism, and united through a network of people’s power in this city and far beyond it that is actually capable of bringing forth a new economy and a new society.
by John Clarke
As we approach May Day, it is worth considering the impact of the mounting austerity agenda on the poorest part of the working class and some of the ways the poor are fighting back as part of an emerging common front.
Since 1995, people living on social assistance in Ontario have seen their sub poverty incomes reduced by about 55%. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has responded to this by initiating the Raise the Rates Campaign to challenge cutbacks by the Liberal Government and to press for the restoration of social assistance. We joined with a wide range of local anti poverty organizations and with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Ontario) in this fight.
Towards the end of last year, the Liberals announced the elimination of the vital Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) that people on social assistance used to maintain housing or obtain it if they were homeless. It was replaced with a patchwork of locally administered, underfunded programs.
The Raise the Rates Campaign took up a huge fight on this issue. A week of action was organized in some thirty communities, with demonstrations, occupations and even road closings. This effort, along with other initiatives, forced the Government to put back $42 million in funding for the new programs. It was a partial victory but it showed that we are not powerless and can fight back successfully.
As a Provincial Budget looms, the austerity driven attacks on the poor from Queen’s Park are going to intensify and we will face greater struggles ahead.
Here in Toronto, the impact of economic downturn and social cutbacks has reached the level where homeless people are being left to die on the streets. Last year alone, there were forty two recorded homeless deaths. In recent months, we have challenged the appalling overcrowding in the homeless shelters. The response of the Mayor and administration was to claim that all was well and that the shelters were meeting needs.
OCAP and many allies mobilized to demand that the city government respond to the crisis on the streets. We held two occupations at Metro Hall and City Hall, setting up shelters for the homeless in both places. Police were used to clear us out but we didn’t give up. After months of community action, City Council voted to reduce the occupancy rate in the shelters.
We are not raising our voice against something we are powerless to stop. We are fighting to win. OCAP intends to build the size and strength of our resistance to poverty and austerity and to unite with communities and unions fighting back. Poor and working people did not create the crisis that has led to government cutbacks and we won’t let them make us pay for it.
by Noaman G. Ali
“I just want to help children,” a voice called out in English from a clothing store in Thamel, a tourist area of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.
I saw a young white woman walking out of the store, and my curiosity got the better of me. “You want to help children?” I called out.
It was a dark, cold January evening and the narrow streets were lit largely from stores which had no front walls and the signs that hung over them. The woman stopped and turned around.
“Yeah. There are these street girls—and not the glue-sniffing kind—they’re really nice street girls, and they don’t have shoes or socks so I want to buy them socks. That’s a nice thing to do, isn’t it?” she seemed to be pleading.
“I guess,” I said. “But you know there are other ways of helping people here?”
“Like what?” she asked.
“You know about the revolution going on here, don’t you?”
“No. What revolution are you talking about?”
“The communist revolution,” I said, referring to the Maoist movement that has dominated the country’s politics for the better part of the last decade.
“Communism? Isn’t that bad?”
“Why is it bad?”
“Because communists want to take things over and run things and tell people what to do,” she said with conviction.
I tried to explain a bit of what the Maoist communists in Nepal were about, but she wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t know about all of that,” she said. “I’m only here for one more day, and I want to do something nice.”
A few days later, in the small city of Birendranagar in the western district of Surkhet, I was squatting on my haunches watching as barefoot men, women, and children sat next to mounds of gravel and smashed at stones with hammers.
Bits of stone flew in all directions and kept hitting me in the eyes. It took me awhile to realize that these people were producing the gravel.
A toddler wearing a black shirt and no pants—never mind shoes—was hitting at a rock with a hammer as a playtime activity, imitating the older children and adults around.
Other youth, in their teens and early twenties, were collecting large stones and rocks and arranging them in blocks to build a bridge.
The sun beat down on our backs as I asked Veer Bahadur, a 49-year old stone-breaker with dusty, bandaged thumbs, to tell me about his life.
His 35-year old wife, Jitmaya Nepali spoke more. We communicated through a translator, a small-business owner who was showing me around the city.
They explained that they were from the Thapa, a caste of historically-oppressed indigenous (janjati) peoples. Completely landless, they were living in a hut thrown up on some land near the construction of the bridge. They had four children. Only the youngest was in school.
I asked about untouchability, the political, economic, and cultural system by which people from upper castes would refuse to touch people from the lowest of castes, make them do the worst of jobs, and generally treat them with disrespect and contempt.
“There used to be a lot of that,” Jitmaya said. “But there’s not so much of that now.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“The Maoists,” she said.
In the course of a ten-year long People’s War launched in 1996, during which they took control of some 80-percent of the countryside, the Maoists struggled against untouchability and for the rights of oppressed castes and nationalities, women, small businesses and, of course, workers and peasants.
Before the People’s War, Jitmaya explained, she used to do the same work, but earned much less than she does now. “There’s more earning now for us to eat.”
When it came to politics, though, Jitmaya asserted that whoever won the elections, it just didn’t do much for her and people like her.
Still, she noted, “The Maoists are all right. Congress and UML only look out for themselves and for the rich. The Maoists at least look at and talk about the wretched and the poor.”
The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or UML, were the largest parties in Nepal before the Maoists came onto the scene. Although they have opposed the attempts by Nepal’s monarchy to take total control, they have also leaned heavily on the highly oppressive semi-feudal landlords and sections of the bureaucracy to support them. The two parties are also often seen as being very close to India, whose control and influence is considered by many to block Nepal’s prospects for economic and political development.
Congress and UML’s reluctance to support the economic and cultural reforms needed to establish a true democracy played into support for the Maoists in the course of the People’s War. But when the monarchy took total control of the country in the early 2000s, the Maoists ended the War and joined hands with Congress and UML in a People’s Movement that decisively abolished the monarchy.
Surprising everybody, perhaps including themselves, the Maoists emerged as the largest party in the Constituent Assembly elections held in 2008. But the following years brought little political stability, as different parties cycled through Prime Ministerships. No administration could last very long—leading to intense dissatisfaction throughout the country.
“What’s politics got to do with us? Why should we go after politics? What will the Maoists do for us?” Balbahadur Viswakarma said when I asked him about his views on politics and the Maoists.
A couple of hours away from Birendranagar, in the “village development committee” of Maintada, Balbahadur is a labourer from the Dalit caste of “untouchables.” 50-years old, Balbahadur was squatting on a pile of rocks, which he was putting together to construct a home, when I went up to speak to him in Hindi.
“I have a little bit of land that can sustain my family for six months,” he explained. “The rest of the time I do this kind of work.”
His view on politics appeared thoroughly pragmatic. “We need development, we need jobs. We’ll vote for whoever gives us bread and livelihoods. The land we live on is not registered in our names, we’ll vote for whoever gets it registered.”
But his words further on betrayed some appreciation for the Maoists’ struggle.
“More people have gotten livelihoods as a result of the People’s War. Before the War, only the children of rich people got jobs and income. Those people who were already big leaders, or owned businesses, or had a lot of land.
“There was also a lot of untouchability and discrimination, but it was reduced as a result of the People’s War. Little people got the opportunity to speak out.”
Still, Balbahadur argued that the People’s War was not a success because the Constituent Assembly had proven incapable of producing a constitution.
Not only that, “Congress and UML are parties of the rich. They won’t do anything for the poor. Revolution is necessary. Things change so fast, but workers and peasants still need jobs, electricity, an end to load-shedding, irrigation. But not in this violent way. So many people died, there was so much loss, it’s not right.”
What is it about these Maoists that people could express, at once, their appreciation for their actions and skepticism about their intentions?
How are Maoists handling their departure from revolutionary politics and entry into mainstream politics?
And just who are these Maoists, who risked life and limb in a ten-year long People’s War against the police and army of Nepal?
Bimila Hamal was suffering from motion sickness and so she spent most of the bus ride to Surkhet half-asleep—on top of me.
Surkhet district is in the western part of Nepal, some fifteen hours west of Kathmandu by bus. The ride is bumpy and winds its way along precipitous mountain paths.
The 26-year old kept apologizing about giving me the trouble, and I sat there awkwardly trying to make sure she didn’t fly out of the seat every time the bus hit a bump, which was often. My head hit the coaster above me several times.
A screen at the front of the bus played a Nepali film, and Bimila was totally alert for one of the songs, explaining that she really liked it. From time to time her phone would go off to the tune of a sweet and sugary Hindi song.
An hour or two away from Birendranagar, as the daylight came up, the usually cheery Bimila turned sombre and pointed out a national park in the lush greenery of the hills and valleys below.
“There are elephants and tigers in this park,” she explained. “During the People’s War, we would have to march through these jungles, mostly at night.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
“No. The animals were afraid of us,” she said. “We were afraid of the police.”
Bimila was part of a Maoist artists’ troupe. She joined the Maoists when she was 13-years old, in the middle of the People’s War. Completely banned, the Maoists were totally underground.
Her nom de guerre is Sarala. It means simple.
“We would often walk at night and I was so tired that I would fall asleep while walking! Then someone behind me would bump into me and ask, what happened?”
I first met Bimila in Kathmandu, when delegates and observers were taking a break from the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist, held in mid-January. I asked her then about how and why she joined up with the Maoists.
Bimila is from a family of small peasants—poor, but not too poor. Her parents supported the Maoists and their ideology of equality and development. Her father was sometimes jailed, and to avoid police he was often not at home.
Bimila’s mother and her daughters faced the brunt of police repression. That just fueled even more resentment against the state and underscored the Maoists’ point that there could be no liberation under the existing political order.
“There was a lot of persecution. The police would harass us. They beat my mother because we would occasionally feed and house Maoist activists. The police slapped me around. My mother told me to go fight.”
So Bimila became a whole-timer (full-time activist) with the Maoists. Because she was young she wasn’t assigned to fighting. Instead, she joined in with the artists, and was trained in dancing. She was also trained in political and social science, public speaking and how to conduct mass work.
“There was so much injustice and persecution, I felt I had to go fight for liberation.”
For several years, Bimila explained, she and her comrades spent a lot of time walking from village to village, from district to district, from region to region, spreading the Maoist message through song, dance and theatre. “I’ve visited much of Nepal, on foot. People really loved us everywhere we went.”
The Maoists and communities that supported them were the frequent target of state repression, so even artists were trained in handling weaponry for self-defense, as well as in first aid.
Many of Bimila’s friends died in the People’s War, but she also remembered it fondly as a time of great camaraderie and solidarity. Bimila got married during the People’s War, and now has a five-year old son—named Soviet.
I bumped into Bimila a couple more times over the next few days, and when I learned that she was going to Surkhet with another comrade from the All Nepal Women’s Association (Revolutionary) (ANWA(R)), I asked if I could come along. That got me on the 15-hour bus ride to the western part of Nepal.
“Sometimes this peace seems like a dream,” Bimila told me. “In those years, I could never imagine that I’d be taking a bus on official roads to visit friends across the country.”
At one point in Surkhet, Bimila showed me two videos of herself dancing. One was filmed in one of the Maoists’ Base Areas during the People’s War. Bimila dances in a circle with other men and women in western Nepali style to a deuda, a man and a woman competing in singing verses—here, revolutionary verses. But in the other video, she dances by herself to a popular Bollywood song, at a picnic in peacetime.
After the War, Bimila resumed her education and is now enrolled in a B.Ed. program. I got the sense she’d like to be some kind of a performer. But, she noted, her husband encouraged her to continue as a leader instead.
Like so many others, Bimila is torn between the need to complete the revolution and the comforts of peace—“a morbid peace” because the efforts and sacrifices of the People’s War did not lead to the outcomes people fought for: No constitution, no government of the workers and peasants, no accelerated development toward equality.
Instead, the deep practices of the state came back, even when the government was led by Maoists. Politicians went back to the kinds of wheeling and dealing, corruption and scandals, and subordination to Indian expansionism that had led to the People’s War in the first place.
It seemed certain that the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (or UCPN(Maoist)) had abandoned its program of revolution. When those who were committed to the goal of revolution decided to split and to form the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (or CPN-Maoist, also called the Dash Maoists for simplicity’s sake) in 2012, Bimila sided with the revolutionaries.
Now Bimila is a regional bureau member of the Dash Maoists, a central committee member of the All Nepal Women’s Association (Revolutionary) and its district in-charge in Surkhet.
She often deals with cases of polygamy, violence against women, sexual harassment and alcoholism—these things go together all over Nepal—organizing ANWA(R) activists to empower women and to bring men around.
“First we try to persuade them, but if they don’t behave then we may slap them around a bit….” She laughed, somewhat apologetically, breaking out a brilliant smile, “Because we have to liberate women!”
Well, all right.
There was some mischief in Kanta Poudel’s eyes.
In Kothikada, on a peak overlooking the Surkhet Valley in which Birendranagar is located, the 30-year old schoolteacher was telling me about the situation of women in her region.
We weren’t alone. We were surrounded by over a dozen men and women listening to our conversation.
“There was violence against women in general and domestic violence as well. Our voices weren’t heard, many times we literally couldn’t even speak,” she explained.
Many of the women nodded or muttered in agreement. The men looked on.
“All we were good for was cooking food and cutting grass. We had no rights to property—in law, yes, but not in reality. Things have gotten better. They are not as good as they should be, but they have gotten better.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of democracy and peace. There has been education and general social change. Things change with time.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what about struggle?”
“Yes,” and here the twinkle in her eyes was betrayed by the slight, sly smile on her face. “Because of struggle—people’s struggle.”
Among the spectators was Kanta’s father, 72-year old Tikaram Devkota, a small peasant from an upper caste, a committed monarchist and an opponent of the Maoists.
Some ways down from Kothikada in Chhera, I met with 33-year old Balkrishna Bandhari, who owned a small roadside shop from which he sold food (noodles, rice and dal, so on) and basic condiments.
“Politics in Nepal is golmaal [a circular mess],” he said, as the sun settled and we sat around a fire. “What’s happening is bad and dirty. Politicians have no principles. They’re treacherous. And not just any one leader, all leaders are like this. There’s no constitution, no rule of law, no stability. Foreign companies won’t invest because of the war and so there are no jobs.”
“Isn’t foreign investment a problem?” I asked.
“Regulate it! But we need it. We don’t want it like British companies did to India, but we need jobs.”
I asked him what he thought of the parties. “I’m not with any party. I haven’t voted for anyone. There’s UML and Congress and the Maoists and the khaoists”—meaning ‘eaters’—“but I am not with anyone.”
I heard that kind of skepticism in politics from dozens of people all over Nepal.
“I am definitely not with the Maoists, although I had faith in the person of Baburam Bhattarai.”
Baburam Bhattarai is a senior leader of the UCPN(Maoist), and an accomplished academic and intellectual. He was finance minister from 2008 to 2009, and won widespread admiration for his performance, particularly by pressuring the bureaucracy to collect more taxes than had ever been collected by any government before. His administration also managed to control prices of petrol and other essentials.
But the first Maoist administration under the prime ministership of UCPN(Maoist) top leader Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal) was forced to leave government in a struggle with the army and other parties in 2009. Bhattarai then became prime minister in 2011, but instead of delivering on a constitution, he dissolved the Constituent Assembly in May 2012. To make things worse, inflation kept rising as joblessness increased.
Meanwhile, the struggle inside the party between revolutionaries and reformists continued.
In the course of the People’s War, Maoists had set up Base Areas, where the government forces could not enter, and in which they developed organs of people’s power from below. These included people’s councils for governance and administration, people’s courts, people’s micro-industries (including a people’s micro-hydroelectric project), and much more.
Even where the Maoists were not in full control, they had mobile people’s councils and mobile people’s courts, delivering quick dispute resolution rather than having people travel far to district courts. In many areas they took over land from large landowners and redistributed it to poor peasants. It was part of what made them so popular.
But upon ending the War in 2006 and entering the peace process, the opposition set conditions upon them to reverse the land reforms and to dismantle structures of people’s power. Prachanda and Bhattarai accepted this condition, saying they could achieve the revolution through other means. Though the revolutionaries in the party were skeptical, they went along with it.
But six years later, the struggle sharpened, especially after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The Maoists had suspended the revolutionary process so that they could play the game of parliamentary politics, only to find that they couldn’t play it that effectively. In fact, it seemed like Prachanda and Bhattarai had given in to the logic of the top-down parliamentary process rather than looking to build people’s power from below.
The revolutionaries finally broke in mid-2012, accusing Bhattarai and Prachanda of having no intention of walking down the revolutionary road.
“I used to like Bhattarai,” a small-business owner, who chose to remain anonymous, told me in Birendranagar. “But not anymore. Instead, I support the Dash Maoists,” he said, referring to the faction that had split by its popular name. He was not, however, a member.
I sat across the table from him, talking over dinner in a small hotel. I was having a hard time believing him. “You do know that communists want to take over property and redistribute it?”
“Let them!” he said. “There are people richer than me. Every day, I work from four o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night. What for? Eight to ten hours of work is enough But here in Nepal, only a small fraction of the population actually works. Everyone else just eats.”
I was confused. “You mean, most of the people work and a small fraction eat?”
“No. There are a few rich people who live off of exploitation, but go outside, what do you see? You see these youth doing nothing but standing around and playing carrom all day.”
He was right. Just next to the hotel was a dingy, seedy bar-café, with a carrom board outside, around which were half a dozen to a dozen young men. In fact, as I traveled through the countryside for long hours on buses, passing through small villages and towns I saw carrom board after carrom board surrounded by young men. In the city of Kathmandu, in district Nawalprasi in the south and, of course, in Surkhet, I saw it on the ground.
“There’s no electricity so they can’t sit at home watching TV all day. They have no jobs. There’s nothing for them to do but to play carrom, or to go get drunk. They have to live off other people’s money.”
He explained that despite belonging to an upper caste, he came from a poor, landless working-class family. His father worked in other people’s homes. He left Nepal at a young age to study in India but could not complete his university education. So he started working there when he was 18-years old, then in other parts of Southeast Asia, before very recently returning to Nepal. He was now 45-years old.
“I was compelled to go abroad, like so many youth. Our youth have no future in Nepal. They are wasted here. If the communists take my property to create development and jobs for everyone, then I am happy to give it all up!
“I took a loan to start this business, and I make a little bit of a profit that pays it off and feeds my family but everyone should work equally. My prime minister should work as much as I do—and I should work only eight hours.”
So what was his problem with Baburam Bhattarai? By all accounts he was a hard worker, and he was trying to invite foreign investment to the country.
“India’s rulers have always tried to dominate Nepal,” he explained. “India demonstrates friendship, but actually it loots our resources.”
He went on to explain how Nepal has entered into many unequal treaties with India, and that Bhattarai’s government had, in fact, entered into even more unequal relationships like this.
Nepal’s population is some 26 million, whereas India’s is over 1.2 billion. A lot of small business owners and workers flow into Nepal from India—while the reverse also happens. But the major threat appears to be the wholesale exploitation of Nepal’s resources by large Indian companies.
In fact, Bhattarai had signed onto the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) with India, which was roundly criticized even by members of the UCPN(Maoist), never mind the Dash Maoists.
Despite having the world’s second-largest potential for hydroelectric generation, Nepal lags far, far behind, with several hours of load-shedding in major cities and practically no electricity in rural areas. Instead of using state power to raise national capital in order to develop the capacities, Bhattarai’s government was continuing to sign over national resources to Indian companies.
“The Karnali River, I mean the river itself, was all but sold to an Indian company,” he explained. “I am not against foreign investment, let them develop the resources and take money—but then they restricted Nepali businesses from doing the same, they have to take permission from the Indian company! Let them take our money, but not our national property.”
In fact, the Dash Maoists have started a company to try and raise the capital necessary to develop the hydropower project and replace the Indian company, demonstrating the potential for Nepalis to form their own alternatives from the ground up.
“Instead of developing our own resources, Bhattarai has continued our dependence on Western powers.” He explained how the World Food Program was being relied upon to get food to remote areas in Nepal.
“What they need is roads, education, agricultural training, and whatever else is necessary to make them self-reliant and to make our country self-reliant. At first, we will be happy to work twelve to fifteen hours, if that’s what it means to stand on our own feet. How long are we supposed to last on handouts? The first day, okay; the second day, okay; but the third day? Who will keep giving us free food? They’ve ruined our habits. We’ve become dependent on others. We need business, we need jobs.”
To him, Bhattarai and Prachanda’s leadership had shown itself to be incapable and steadily more corrupt.
“They’re doing what other politicians have done, eating up our tax. There’s a 13% value-added tax on everything we buy. Where does it go? What are they doing with it? Prachanda and Baburam used to be like us, but now they’re living in palaces. They’re getting cozy with big capitalists who are themselves cozy with and depending on foreign powers.”
He repeated a joke popular among the Dash Maoists, “These are the Dash Maoists, but Baburam and Prachanda are the Cash Maoists.”
“Well, all right,” I said. “But development takes time. It won’t happen in a day even if the Dash Maoists come to power. So how can you blame the ‘Cash Maoists’ for that?”
“Yes, development takes time and will take time. But where is the Cash Maoists’ plan for development? Where is their plan for irrigation in agriculture, for electricity, for industries? There is no constitution now and that’s because those in power never accept demands unless we back them up with force.”
The next morning he took me around the city to meet with the stone-breakers and to see his own homes. He had a modest, solid home in which his sons lived as they studied—one of his sons had quit his studies and, typically, was working abroad—and another home was just a shack, out of which his wife operated a little store selling some biscuits, snacks and tea. Behind the shack was a tiny plot of land on which he wanted to build a solid house.
There were goats tied to slim trees and posts. “We’re raising these goats to sell them. You’ll find just about every middle-class family in Nepal doing three or four things to make ends meet,” he said. “The poorer don’t even have these options.”
He also showed me a couple of large plots of land he said were government owned. “There’s nothing going on here, they lie empty. Do something, anything. Build housing, give people a place to live. Start a factory, give people work to do. People in Nepal want development. Too many of them think it’ll come from shanti [peace], but unfortunately those in power have left us no choice but to get it through kranti [revolution]. I support the Dash Maoists, but ultimately all of these leaders put together won’t set the path. We, the people, are the ones who have to do it.”
“The geography really helped us,” Khagendra Rana said to me, as we stood on the roadside in rural Surkhet, looking at the majestic hills covered magnificently from bottom to top in dark green trees. “We would walk through these jungles on these hillsides.”
At one point as we drove through the hills, he perked up. “This is the spot where we ambushed about a hundred Nepal Army soldiers. There were maybe five of us. We retrieved a lot of weapons that time.”
I wasn’t entirely convinced. “How could five of you ambush a hundred soldiers?”
He explained. “They were in two trucks. We set up an IED on the roadside, that flipped over one of the trucks.” I looked down, it was a dizzying tumble into the lush green brush.
“The rest we scattered from up above.” I looked up. Rocks and trees provided extensive cover.
The 30-year old is a former guerrilla, he used to be a battalion commander in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). His nom de guerre was Jalan—it refers to a feeling of burning.
Jalan was in India over ten years ago studying to become a medical doctor when the People’s War picked up. He left his studies midway and came back to Nepal to get involved in the struggle.
“We started off by cutting the tails of the landlords’ and government agents’ horses and buffaloes. They would ride around on their horses and people would laugh at them,” he said with a mischievous smile. From there, the youth graduated onto more militant, and then armed activities.
“We had nothing but simple weapons at first. The clothes on our back, a t-shirt and a pair of pants. I didn’t even have slippers when I carried out that ambush. Afterward we went back to command and the villagers celebrated and got us flip-flops. I remember how proudly I received those flip-flops that day.”
At some point, we talked about courtship and marriage during the People’s War.
“During the People’s War, if you met someone you liked, you had to get the permission of your party committee to court them,” Jalan explained to me. “The courtship period had to be for one or two years, so that you could get to know your potential partner properly.
“Sometimes a party committee might suggest it was time for you to get married. That’s what happened to me. I wasn’t even thinking about it, but party leaders said I should start thinking about marriage, and even encouraged a partner for me.”
The party, in some ways, had come to replace the role of parents and families. It was the party that would approve and conduct marriages. “But it wasn’t to the kind of arranged marriage where people would be forced to marry.”
Bimila had told me how worried people would be for their partners. She married someone from the PLA, and because their assignments were so different—he, like Jalan, a roving guerrilla, and she a roving artist—she would often have no news of her husband for months on end.
They would meet at party functions, like secret rallies or meetings, or could arrange to meet if they found out their assignments were close-by.
The emotional toll of these fragmented relationships was heavy as well.
“I met my wife twice in two years before I got married to her; and I met her twice in the three years after we got married,” Jalan said. “When we would part, there was no guarantee that we would return.”
Over 15,000 people were killed or disappeared during the People’s War, mostly by government forces (though the Maoists seem to count both party and government combatants as martyrs).
“Once I led a mission of forty-seven men near Pokhara. Only seven returned. Thirteen were arrested. The rest died.”
Pokhara is the country’s second-largest city. The arrested were taken there.
“I myself was arrested,” Jalan said to me. “I still can’t believe how I escaped alive. I was surrounded on all sides by cops, but I broke free and lashed out. I injured seven of them. I jumped on a motorbike and got out of there. It was like a miracle.
“In the main city of Pokhara, I blended into the crowds and got out of there.”
“We were fighting for world revolution,” he sighed.
Bimila once said that her unit was told that after they liberated Nepal, they would go and help liberate people in other countries.
“We were told that, too,” Jalan said. “We were going to help liberate oppressed and exploited people around the world.”
But then, without the completion of the revolution, Maoist leaders completely disbanded the PLA. In 2011, Prachanda and Bhattarai signed a Seven-Point Agreement with opposition parties to effectively liquidate the PLA. A few thousand former guerrillas could opt to join the Nepal Army while others would be given compensation packages ranging from 500,000 to 800,000 rupees.
“In my cantonment, about half of us just walked out—we were about 1,500. We went to the main square in Birendranagar and burned the Seven-Point Agreement. I could have opted to become a major in the Nepal Army. I would have been getting training right now and a nice salary.
“But I fought for revolution. We gave up so much for the revolution, and in the end our leaders gave up the revolution. It was nothing less than a betrayal of the revolution.
“It was wrong of the party to turn Prachanda into a god-like figure. It was wrong for the now-leaders of the Dash Maoists to not tell us sooner about the contradictions in the united party.
“After the PLA was demobilized into cantonments, we’d get a monthly stipend of 3,000 rupees, and many of us would give 1,000 rupees back to the party in Prachanda’s name.
“During the War and after, we used to think that death was inevitable, but hoped it would happen only after seeing Prachanda’s face.”
The sense of betrayal runs deep among thousands of former guerrillas, as does the sense of loyalty to Prachanda. A sizeable portion of the former PLA broke with the UCPN(Maoist) and went over to the Dash Maoists, looking to complete the revolution. Many remained with the main party out of a sense of loyalty.
“There are honest PLA even in the Prachanda faction,” Jalan said. “One former commander burned his uniform rather than hand it over to the Nepal Army. He also refused to hand over his arms to the Army, depositing them directly with Prachanda instead.”
A third section simply took the compensation and abandoned both.
A former guerrilla couple I met at the Kohalpur bus stop on my way to Surkhet had used the compensation they received to start a small roadside café serving passengers who got off from buses for fifteen minutes. The wife sat nursing a baby, and the husband spoke to me as he prepared tea.
“We don’t have faith in either the UCPN(Maoist) nor the Dash Maoists. Let them earn our faith now. And if they want to revive the struggle then let it be in the streets. We’re done with guns.”
There was a tiredness etched onto the faces of even those former guerrillas who hadn’t abandoned the idea of eventually returning to arms.
Jalan showed me the river and the bridge that used to separate a Base Area from a “red zone” village, an area that was under Maoist influence but still very accessible to the government due to the main road.
The village was built on a hill that sloped down to the river. As we returned from the bridge and climbed up the slope toward the main road, the dashing Maoist was as out of breath as I was.
“I used to run daily when we were in the cantonments, but since then, not so much,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
After the end of the War, many of the guerillas had turned to civilian pursuits, even if they were in the cantonments. Many took up their studies again. Jalan had completed his B.Ed. and planned on getting his M.Ed. and eventually his PhD.
He had a daughter to look after now as well.
I bumped into some members of the UCPN(Maoist) at a hotel restaurant in Surkhet, while I was with Dash Maoist members. We sat at two tables next to each other, eating lunch.
Getting to the heart of the split between the UCPN(Maoist) and the CPN-Maoist means looking past the confusing jumble of alphabet that their names represent and looking at the subtlety of their different theoretical positions. I’m going to try and do that in this section, bear with me.
Narbahadur Bista, an elected member of the former Constituent Assembly and a regional committee member of the UCPN(Maoist), began commenting on the size of the Dash Maoists’ recently elected central committee.
The central committee is a representative body elected from delegates sent to a communist party’s general congress. The Dash Maoists had elected 51 central committee members at their congress. Although the UCPN(Maoist) was yet to hold its congress, its delegates would end up electing 99 and leaving it up to the provisional central committee to select an additional 55 or so.
Basically, Bista was saying that his central committee was bigger than Bimila’s. Bimila was responding that it wasn’t size, but what you did with the central committee that mattered.
In classic Maoist theory, the goal of a revolution in a “semi-colonial, semi-feudal” country is to rally the popular, democratic class forces—workers, peasants, middle-classes, and nationalist business classes—into a United Front, but under the leadership of the workers and peasants.
The United Front has to defeat imperialism and feudalism, both the actual representatives and armies of these forces, and the political economic system they embody. This means that the revolution must redistribute lands to producing peasants and then begin collectivizing farms to achieve economies of scale and production, and also must promote then appropriate the resources of the capitalists, in order to build the infrastructure necessary for a socialist society.
This, in a nutshell, is the theory of the New Democratic Revolution—a continuous but prolonged move from an underdeveloped economy to a socialist society.
In theory, a revolutionary party has to be tightly disciplined if it’s going to defeat the organization of the ruling classes—that is, the imperialists, the feudal classes, and the capitalists who are allied to them rather than to the nation.
So during the People’s War in Nepal, the Maoists had a very tight, highly disciplined underground party, even though it was vast and commanded the support of millions of people organized into all kinds of mass associations and unions.
Adding many people to the Central Committee makes more sense when the party comes to power after a revolution. But here, the UCPN(Maoist) was doing that before the completion of the New Democratic Revolution, meaning it was building A kind of a mass party more geared toward parliamentary elections.
That meant wheeling and dealing to bring a lot of people with vastly different theoretical and ideological positions into the same party. It probably couldn’t be focused in the same way on revolution any more.
It wasn’t all that simple for the Dash Maoists, either, given their broad membership of 160,000 or so. But they were trying. So did that mean that the UCPN(Maoist) was abandoning revolution?
“There’s no truth to that,” said Kamalesh D.C., a journalist and a district committee member of the UCPN(Maoist), who I met along with Bista. The Dash Maoists had left me alone with them.
“Marxism is not dogmatic, it has to be creative and respond to social phenomenon. We can’t apply it here as if this is Russia or China or Vietnam or Peru.”
The Maoists had ended the War because they decided that, although they had occupied most of the countryside, they simply could not penetrate the heavily fortified cities—large and small alike. So the party decided to enter into a peace process to gain access to the cities.
The idea was to launch an insurrection, and something of the sort was attempted in May 2010 but the Maoist leadership called it off after a few days.
“There is no fixed date of insurrection. What we are saying is that we have to use the People’s War and the nineteen-day People’s Movement [that overthrew the monarchy] as the basis to move forward,” Kamalesh said. “We have to preserve and institutionalize the changes, that is, the republic.
“Besides, we now think that peaceful change is possible. Armed bloody revolution is not in the interests of the people. If we hold the state mechanism in our control, then class struggle doesn’t need to take the same form everywhere.”
I asked Kamalesh how what he was saying, about peaceful transition to revolution through parliamentary government, squared with revolution, which was about smashing the old state institutions and their replacement with people’s power. In fact, at that time, the Supreme Court, in alliance with the status quo parties, appeared to be going after Maoists with a vengeance.
“Well, yes, not all state institutions are under our control, but we are in government. And we keep the class struggle going in all these institutions.”
“But why dissolve the organs of people’s power that were developed over the course of the People’s War? Couldn’t they be expanded into a people’s state?” I asked.
“The dissolution of people’s power was a step back. We had to take a step back so that we could take a step forward. We had to agree to the peace process, and that meant we had to agree to these conditions.”
This was one of the cruxes of the disagreement between the Prachanda faction and the Dash Maoists. The Dash Maoists saw the dissolution of institutions of parallel, people’s power as a tremendous mistake. It meant that from now on, the Maoists would have to play the political game by the rules of the existing political order rather than putting forward a politics of oppressed classes from a position of strength.
The point of New Democratic Revolution is that state institutions are under the control of the workers and peasants. But the UCPN(Maoist) appears to have a strictly economic approach to the question.
“New Democratic Revolution means what? It means capitalist revolution. For us to get to New Democratic Revolution we need to achieve economic development first, and we are doing that through the stage of the capitalist revolution.
“People are disappointed because they think that the New Democratic Revolution is complete, but it is not complete. We have to go to the people and tell them that the revolution is not over, we have to finish it. We may eventually need armed revolution to complete the transition, but just now there is no situation of armed revolution. It’s philosophical, we haven’t given it up.”
This is the other crux of the problem. New Democratic Revolution does not wait for the capitalist revolution to happen first. Workers’ and peasants’ control of the state is supposed to be the condition necessary for developing capitalist relations and replacing them with socialist relations.
In effect, it appeared to me that the Prachanda-Bhattarai UCPN(Maoist) position was that Nepal needed to achieve a capitalist revolution before workers’ and peasants’ power could be established, that the transition to socialism could be achieved peacefully and through parliamentary means.
In theoretical terms, this is the complete opposite of the positions that led to a crystallization of Maoism as revolutionary politics in the first place. In fact, the UCPN(Maoist)’s congress later passed precisely this line of capitalist revolution, sidelining the New Democratic Revolution.
What’s more, in my time there, Bhattarai’s focus seemed to be on building or improving roads in certain areas of the country—those likely to attract foreign investment. Prices for essential goods kept increasing and there was little respite for the poor. There appeared to be no effort toward developing and implementing social welfare programs.
In many areas of the country, agricultural land was being sold off not for productive purposes but for real estate development. In Nawalprasi I saw the board of a developer showing how a site was to be divided into plots for homes. Dash Maoists claimed Bhattarai and Prachanda were facilitating such processes.
Even if they weren’t, they didn’t appear to have a plan to stop them, and that might have been a result of their preoccupation with political matters.
But even under non-revolutionary, social democratic developmental theory, the state is supposed to take a more active role in guiding investment, pooling together capital, and making investments itself. It’s domestic investment, not foreign investment, that leads to substantial industrialization and economic development. Agriculture is supposed to be promoted through subsidies and focused planning, not replaced with real estate.
It seemed that not only had Bhattarai gone from being a revolutionary Maoist to a supporter of capitalism, he was doing it in a way that submitted Nepal to policy prescriptions of neo-liberal international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund! That could only end up benefiting the already-rich, as well as companies in large countries like India and the United States, not the masses of Nepal. Cash Maoists, indeed.
If this is the case, then what was the point of the People’s War and the whole fight for revolution? No wonder so many see it as betrayal.
“We draw a line on the blackboard and we ask, ‘Can you erase this line without rubbing it?’
“They say, ‘No.’
“So we ask them, ‘If you cannot erase this line without struggle, how can you change society without struggle?’
“Then we ask them, ‘If you go on the street by yourself and struggle, can you be successful?’
“They say, ‘No.’
“So we ask them, ‘If you cannot struggle without a collective, then why don’t you join us?’”
Bishal Giri, 23-years old, was explaining to me how he approaches and recruits students to the All-Nepal National Independent Students’ Union (Revolutionary) (in Nepali that mouthful is abbreviated to Akhil Krantikari). He was a member of ANNISU(R)’s Nawalprasi district committee, in the southern plains.
Bishal’s simple exposition reminded me of that Western woman who wanted to help barefooted children in Kathmandu.
Can social change be accomplished without struggle? Can it be restricted to a few charitable or NGO programs? Or does it require mass transformation?
The People’s War may have given a shock to some of the worst aspects of social discrimination against oppressed classes and women. But it doesn’t seem like it changed any of the class structures that made that discrimination so potent.
At the ground level, many people realize this, largely because they find themselves unable to feed their children adequately, or if they can feed them then to educate them, or to get them jobs even if they are educated.
For all the NGOs and charities operating in Nepal, people find themselves all the more pressured every day.
Meanwhile, having mobilized hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and tens of thousands of actual cadres, the Maoists did nothing with their enthusiasm and the political and administrative skills they developed over the course of the People’s War.
The Base Areas were dismantled. People’s power and people’s courts were dissolved. Land reforms were often reversed. Micro-industries and agricultural communes that had developed in the Base Areas, and that could have served as a starting point for a real people’s economy, were all but abandoned.
What’s worse of all is that the passion and movement of the masses was stopped in their tracks.
Cadres at the grassroots of the Maoist party recognized this, just as radicals in the leadership did. But it was primarily members of the artists’ front and the guerrillas—people like Bimila and Jalan—who pushed to have the debates at the top tiers of the party spread throughout its rank and file.
Ultimately, that cleared the ground for the Dash Maoists to break away and form a party seriously committed to revolution. There are two major obstacles they face.
Not only are they up against international powers, other parties that want to maintain social inequality and their own privileges, but they are also going to struggle against their former friends and comrades who were, once upon a time and not so long ago, right there with them fighting for revolution.
They also face the skepticism of the masses whose hopes were brought up when the Maoists first put forward and fought for their program of class, caste, gender and ethnic equality—only to be shattered and brought back to the ground.
The CPN-Maoist’s members know that they have to practically demonstrate that they are not hungry for seats or power, but that they are committed to serving the people and agitating for their needs and rights.
And they plan on doing just that, through agitations for Nepal’s sovereignty and for the rights of the people, and through programs that serve the people and organize their power autonomously from that of the ruling classes.
In the days, weeks and months ahead, they face the task of putting together the pieces of the once mighty struggle of the workers, peasants, women, oppressed castes and nationalities, to revive structures of people’s power, and to complete the revolution.
These artists, these guerillas, these students, these business-owners, these 21st century revolutionaries are not throwbacks to another era of armed struggles and people’s revolution. They fight not only for their own country but with a keen awareness of the fact that the success of their struggle can have reverberations around the world.
Where, in Libya, Syria, Egypt and all of these other places, people’s struggles seem to be heading to no popular and democratic resolution, they pose a model for revolution that puts the process firmly under the hands of the oppressed and exploited classes.
Just like Hugo Chávez was not merely the comandante of the Venezuelan revolution, but, because he stood up to neo-liberal policies on a world scale, a comandante of the anti-imperialist revolution worldwide, we need to understand that the Maoists in Nepal fight not just for themselves but for all of us.
Their revolution is not just their own, it is ours, too—a revolution to put people’s democracy and socialism back on the world’s agenda.
We can help them, at least a little bit. They don’t want our handouts—a few socks and shoes. They want us to put pressure on our governments to stop interfering in their country’s matters in ways that try and undermine the revolution. Hell, what they want is for us to make socialist revolution in our own countries!
Given the intensity and speed with which the political and economic system around is experiencing crises after crises, that may not be a long ways off. But as we prepare the ground for our own struggles, it’s up to us to give these revolutionaries in the Third World the moral and political support that they deserve.
Noaman spent almost a month in Nepal from January 7 to February 4 in 2013 for research and reporting. He can be reached at noaman [dot] ali [at] gmail [dot] com.
By Rhea Gamana
I used to say that activists, especially the youth, were just complaining, paralyzing the traffic, and that they should do more productive things rather than going out to yell on the streets. I used to say to myself that they should just go abroad and earn a living. Then they would have a better life and could be able to provide their families. I changed my attitude when I reunited with my mother. Now I understand why they do those things. I am now one of them.
My mother used to be a government employee in the Philippines, but since her salary wasn’t enough to provide for us, she decided to come to Canada and be a live-in caregiver. She left my brother and I behind. This is a common story for Filipinos.
In the last four decades, a Labour Export Policy (LEP) has been implicitly implemented to address the economic crisis in the country. This is not a long-term and people friendly solution to poverty.
The Philippine economy does not have a national industrialization plan to end underdevelopment. Instead it depends on remittances from overseas Filipino workers. Their numbers continue to rise under the administration of current President Benigno Aquino III. The LEP divides families. There are now 4500 leaving every day to work in different countries. The Philippines is the number one source country of migrants to Canada.
I was a good student and daughter in the Philippines. I took care of my family. Yet I was always sad that I couldn’t speak to my mother face-to-face if I needed advice from her.
When the time had come that we were going to reunite with her, I was nervous but happy. Prior to coming here in Canada, we attended a few orientations where they told us that Canada was a better place to achieve the future I wanted.
My Philippine educational attainment was considered nothing here in Canada. I had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English, and wanted to become a lawyer or a teacher. A week after our arrival here in Canada almost 7 years ago, I applied for a job at a fast food chain.
I resigned myself to working as a part-time cashier while waiting for the right time to go back to college. After working for almost a year, my workplace got robbed. I thought I would die that day. The robber pointed the gun towards my stomach, and hit my head on the cash register.
That day changed me. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and that lasted for three years. This was not what I expected from a country like Canada. It was not what was described to us in the pre-departure orientation session we received in the Philippines.
According to a study titled “Filipinos in Canada: Economic Dimensions of Immigration and Settlement” by Dr. Philip Kelly of York University, Filipino immigrants have the highest educational attainment of all migrant groups yet still tend to be deskilled. For example, if I was a nurse in the Philippines, I could only work here as a nanny or personal support worker. In my case, I wasn’t able to use my education here in Canada at all.
Research also shows that children of Filipino migrants make less money than their parents and have a lower educational attainment. According to Statistics Canada, 32% of first generation Filipinos have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28% of the second generation.
The Philippines is a semi-colonial country, which means that the country itself is not independent and remains under the control of Western imperialism. The Philippines is a semi-feudal nation. Big business landlords and elites exploit the natural resources and the cheap serf-like labour of the country. This results in the displacement of families who then migrate to urban areas or to other countries to find a better living.
It makes me wonder why the Canadian government only allows one family member to come to Canada if they need more people here.
The Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) is a program of the federal government allowing Canadians to import temporary migrant live-in caregivers, known around the world as domestic workers.
If they complete the program they can become Canadian citizens and sponsor their family through the reunification program. This takes an average of seven years, sometimes more. That’s a long time to be separated from your family. A long time spent taking care of the children of others, while your own need you at home.
This aspect of the program causes damage to family relationships, one that affects the children deeply—this I can tell you from personal experience.
Canadians need to be aware that we are part of this system. Not only here in Canada through our immigration policies, but also in the Philippines where Canadian imperialism contributes to forced migration. Part of our taxes goes to fund Canadian companies in the Philippines (especially in the mining sector), and Canadian military training of the Philippine armed forces to help protect those companies and forcefully displace Filipinos from the countryside through militarization.
I want a Philippines with true democracy and true independence. I want justice for the marginalized and underrepresented.
Today I am the Chairperson of Anakbayan-Toronto. We advocate for human rights, and we struggle for national industrialization that will keep Filipino families intact and ensure that no one will have to leave the country for a better life. I don’t want any child to suffer what I went through.
Anakbayan-Toronto will not stop calling for national industrialization and genuine land reform in the Philippines, This is the only way that Filipinos will be able to work decent jobs, and not have to leave the country.
By Soledad Superville
On Feb 13th a town hall meeting was held by students of U of T’s Transitional Year Program (TYP) to talk about the latest threat to the 43 year old program’s existence. The Provost (administration) of the university is attempting to break-up the program to merge TYP with the less successful Woodsworth bridging program, a move that has been heavily criticized by racialized students. It will lead to a loss of autonomy in making decisions on how to run the program and students will lose the close-knit community of peers and faculty that have been critical to their success.
TYP allows access into the university for the most marginalized peoples in society, particularly racialized, working class, gender and sexual minorities, disabled, Aboriginal people, refugees, and low income women and single mothers. It creates access to the university for all those who have been unable to finish high school, either because they’ve been pushed out of school due oppression in their schools or because they’ve been unable to study as a result of the struggle to survive while in poverty.
The Provost did not attend the town hall meeting, sending a representative in her place that presented a statement. The Provost stated that apparently there was “no decision to eliminate TYP”. In reality there have been huge cuts to the program. Over the past five years 4 full-time faculty members have retired but the Provost has turned them into barely part-time positions. These workers are doing the same if not more work as the previous faculty but for a fraction of the wages and without any of the benefits or job security that comes with full-time status.
By turning racialized educators in into little more than Wal-Mart style workers the Provost’s actions have gutted the long term stability and security of the program and the program’s capacity to meet the needs of the students and the marginalized communities they come from.
The Provost did say that that there would be more money for the budget, but only if TYP “formally unified” with the Arts and Science Program of Woodsworth College, which she claimed has “excellent” administrative support. Yet this means that TYP’s own racialized, working class, and disabled administrative staff (who students love and trust) are not wanted and their jobs will be cut. On top of this, full-time retiree pensions are paid for out of the $1.4 million TYP budget. This means that unless the Provost substantially increases the TYP’s budget it will be starved of funds necessary to pay for its day to day needs.
The entire part-time faculty of the program are racialized people whose negative experiences as educators mirrors that of racialized peoples everywhere in Canada. Racist hiring practices that have ghettoized racialized educators into spaces of lowly professional status have made them ripe for exploitation. Part-time members whose jobs are currently on the chopping block should have been in a position to apply for the full-time positions of those who have previously retired, in keeping with the University’s supposed commitment to employment equity.
Of the last 5 full-time positions left vacant by those who have since retired, 2 of these posts were held by racialized teachers, one African Canadian and one Aboriginal. Both of them taught classes related to their racial and cultural identities and group membership. Turning these teaching positions into casual labouring jobs means that the Provost’s office has made a racist assault on the life chances of African Canadians and Aboriginal peoples as a group.
White educators held 3 of these 5 full-time positions. White educators dominate positions of power at U of T. For the university to change the full-time status of jobs held by white educators to low income part-time status once they have retired and then to fill them up with racialized working class is to keep a racist, oppressive, class-based system of power going where racialized communities are oppressed as an underclass for the purpose of economic exploitation. It also hinders resistance because people are kept busy just trying to survive.
The destruction of TYP must be resisted. TYP’s destruction has implications for communities everywhere, particularly when the current school system that is a pipeline for pushing racialized low income students into the prison system. The time to act is now to demand an expansion of funding and support for the TYP program. It is time to take back the University as a public space that belongs to us the people and not to corporate elites and capitalist interests.
ZAD Movement in France Reflecting a Strong Anti-Capitalism
by Julie Gorecki, Basics Community News Service
PARIS – In the forests of the small French village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL), you’ll find farmers ignoring eviction notices, activists strapped to tree tops, and police barricades surrounding the area. When entering NDDL you see the word “ZAD” sprayed all across city walls and road signs. It means “Zone a Défendre”, or “Zone to Defend” in English. Stop signs are plastered with stickers that read “No Airport!”
The mobilization against the construction of a second airport outside of the French city of Nantes came out of a 2009 French Climate Camp. The aim, was the same as all other climate camps that had gained serious force in Europe at the time; self sustain, educate, debate and mobilize towards “system change not climate change.” Direct actions were planned in week one and executed in week two. It was here that climate justice activists started planning to block the development of the airport. The first step was occupying the land where the airport would be built. In the following months a small group indefinitely moved into the forests of NDDL and started constructing cabins. They sent out a call out across Europe mobilizing activists to join them in an anti-capitalist movement saying “NON!” to the new airport.
Three years later a wide range of leftist groups from France and abroad inhabits the area. It has become what some call a self-sustaining community of “eco-anti-capitalist resistance”, while others have labeled it “Europe’s largest post capitalist protest camp.” Whichever way you look at it, it has become a prime example of direct action for system change in Europe.
Today, groups present at ZAD range from the association of farmers, to trade unionists, radical environmentalists and anarchists. There is also a heavy dose of those who wear no political label but are deeply engaged, while artist activists are also out in good numbers. In the midst of this diversity of radical political stripes and sectors, there is a powerful solidarity between the inhabitants, who are now known as “Zadists.” They are united by one common end – challenge the exploitation of our current economic system by stopping the construction of an airport, do so by physically occupying the land where they plan to build it, and autonomously construct the alternative.
The result has been an array of self-made shelters ranging from mud huts, impressive wood cabins, to tree houses nestled high in trees. For those who live at ZAD permanently, construction has extended to things needed to make life good within the zone. Self-managed bars, communal vegan kitchens, art spaces, and a recently built nursery to make engagement with parents easier, are all examples of how developed this place really is.
ZAD’s level of organization is nothing less than outstanding, demonstrating the power people have when they come together. Camps, buildings, and intersections have all been named and put onto an easy to read map. Weeks are packed with endless seminars, workshops, and days of construction. Activities include countless topics such as anti-repression, dealing with state violence, to forms of art resistance and vegan cooking workshops. “Life here is mostly good. It takes some time to adjust to a few things, but the good things about it beat the rest. Like the calm, the community… knowing that I’m completely independent from the system while fighting it at the same time. It’s good. I’m happy here,” says Pierre, (a cover name, to protect his identity from police) who has been living at ZAD for about 8 months.
ZAD keeps this massive community connected with its very own pirated radio station called “radio klaxon.” Klaxon reports on where the police are located, updates on daily actions and reminds its listeners of the diverse message of ZAD by broadcasting shows on various issues concerning Zadists. That being said, the level of critical discussions about political views, ideologies, and how to live well together at ZAD do not go ignored. ZAD is based on fighting interconnected systems of oppression that not only exploit the environment but also minorities, marginalized people and women. Several collectives have formed on site to keep this significant systematic critique alive.
One of them is the women’s only “Women, Trans, Dyke” group who empowers women and lesbians in the zone. They have also held mixed anti-sexism and anti-homophobic meetings as a reminder of the several forms of capitalist domination many Zadists are fighting.
It is difficult to judge how many people live on the site, but it is said to fluctuate between 200-500 permanent residents, and with visitors and special events there can be up to 1000 people moving through the zone. Days of national mobilizing and action have seen up to 20,000 supporters.
However, in October of 2012, the government announced that before November they would evacuate ZAD for good. It wasn’t a good ecological start for newly-elected “Socialist” President Francois Hollande – acting like just another capitalist – who promised to put climate change high on his political agenda. More importantly Hollande elected Jean Marc Ayrault, the mayor of Nantes between 1989-2012, as France’s prime minister. Ayrault also happens to be the main man behind the airport project and has been pushing its development for decades. Protestors have developed the popular catch slogan “NON Ayrault’port”, as a creative alternative to “NO Airport.” However, with his new political powers Ayrault has only intensified his efforts in continuing the airport project.
Last October police forces numbering 1200 moved into ZAD under the code name “Operation Cesar.” Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets were their weapons of choice, leaving many injured. Bulldozers also rolled in crushing a high number of significant standing structures. Police elevated in cranes wrestled people out of tree houses. In many cases they used tear gas or pushed on pressure points on activists bodies to speed up the process. These expulsions went on for most of October and have continued sporadically since then. It was then that French mainstream media started paying attention to images of farmers and Zadists getting roughed up. Images of tear gas turning pristine forests into smoky battlefields were aired across the nation. Yet, the inhabitants stuck by their word and with great effort defended the zone. They built immense road blockades, locked themselves into structures, hung from difficult to reach trees, and stood strong in the face of police lines. On November 17th a call out was put out for a weekend of protests and action to rebuild all that has been destroyed at ZAD.
The response was tremendous. An estimated 30 000 showed up in the streets of Nantes, and then moved to ZAD in order to start reconstructing. Several structures were re-built and 40 tractors, chained tightly together, now form a protective ring around the welcoming camp “la Chataigne.” Thousands gathered in Nantes and across France the following weeks to make their voices against the construction of the airport heard.
“The citizens of Nantes don’t want this second airport. We are strongly opposed. Look at the protests! Look at the resistance! With today’s climate change we must develop industries that don’t contribute to the problem,” says Elisabeth, a life long resident of Nantes and supporter of ZAD.
The fierce resistance has ended the expulsions for now and today ZAD is as active as ever. They have been successful in holding down camp, and rebuilding what has been lost. The difference is that now they do so enclosed within police lines and at constant threat of another destructive eviction.
Tensions between the government and those resisting the airport are much older than the ZAD settlement itself. In the 60’s there were already quarrels between farmers and the state on changing traditional methods of farming within the region. Moreover, the same airport project the Zadists are fighting today was first proposed in 1972.
Resistance led by local farmers and residents has gone on since then, making the struggle more than 40 years old. Unlike the massive factory farms of North America that shell in extraordinary yearly profits, the farming industry in France still largely functions on a small-scale level. Farmers usually inherit their land from ancestors and the profession still has the reputation of hardly making a profit. Their average annual earnings range around 24 000 euros a year depending on what they’re farming. Most of the farms at ZAD are dairy farms, which are known to earn even less. The high rate of suicides among French farmers is a sad symptom of their struggle. Farmer’s unions form a significant part of the labour movement in France. In relation to ZAD, the ACIPA, a collective of 45 local anti-airport associations including far left political groups, and trade unionists, is the organization that has mobilized farmers and locals against the construction of the airport.
There are of course significant ideological differences between farmers and the tree squatting activists of ZAD. At certain times they have caused serious tension. Nevertheless, the movement has seen a remarkable level of unity and friendships evolve between all groups there. Farmers have been seen standing between lines of police and balaclava-wearing activists and in some cases have even opened up their farms to aid Zadists.
The attacks on the ZAD settlement itself have significantly increased awareness and support for the movement. Now it is being compared to the famous 1970’s struggle of Larzac, a movement of farmers who mobilized against the construction of a military base on their land. After 10 years of strong resistance, they won. Their victory was confirmed when the first-ever socialist president Francois Mitterrand came into office and obliterated the plan for the military base in Larzac. Today, Hollande has proven to ignore the footsteps of his predecessor, and instead stands against the many people he promised a much ‘lefter’ France. However, Zadists and supporters alike are looking to the victory of Larzac as inspiration and are not planning to back down any time soon.
January 14, 2013 on Radio Basics: Zig Zag on Idle No More / Toronto High school teacher Luis Filipe on teachers rank-n-file resistance to Bill 115
Feature interviews on today’s show with Zig Zag (warriorpublications.wordpress.com) on the “snakes in the grassroots” of #IdleNoMore and his analysis of the role of AFN Chiefs in the rising movement of grassroots Indigenous peoples; and Toronto high school teacher Luis Filipe, (a union executive member of the OSSTF local brank at Parkdale C.I. and member of Rank-n-File Education Workers of Toronto – REWT) on the ongoing resistance of teachers to Bill 115 and other attacks on the education sector.
Zig Zag interview begins 16:25.
Luis Filipe interview begins 42:10.
Six Nations hip-hop from Henny Jack, Tru Rez, Kardboard Kid, Pete Nyce & MC Sage. Filipino hip-hop from L.A., Power Struggle.
by Marlon Berg
At the recent International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS) conference in Toronto, the problems and possibilities of rebuilding the tradition of militant labour in Canada were discussed in a conference track dedicated to building a united front against the war on working people. The morning segment of the track featured short talks from a diverse array of working class militants from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Participating were various segments of the working class, from the most insecure and exploited temporary foreign workers and live-in caregivers, all the way up to unionized workers in professional or higher-paid positions who often see themselves as being middle class rather than working class, such as teachers and social service workers. The usual talk in the Canadian labour movement on these obvious and glaring divisions in the working class has been to simply say that we all need to be in solidarity with each others’ struggles, the speakers in this conference track and the participants in the small group discussions afterwards dealt with all of the complexities of how workers are often pitted against each other under capitalism.
For instance, in the case of those presenters and participants from the unionized, better off side of the working class it was openly recognized that the members of their unions can often be pitted against more exploited workers, particularly in the case of teachers and social service workers who serve working and poor people on a daily basis. The presenters recognized that for many working class people, teachers and social service workers are seen as representatives of oppressive and exploitative state institutions and the power of the elites, For many working and poor people, it is through these kinds of public servants that they most openly confront the power of the state and the ruling class in their everyday lives, with social service workers and teachers even affecting the home and family life of working class people. Also, while the all working families need an affordable, national daycare program, the upper echelons of unionized workers make enough money to hire a live-in caregiver from the Philippines.
However, those unionized teachers and social service workers who presented and participated also recognized the need to be militant in fighting for their own benefits and wages and highlighted the need to instill working class militancy and consciousness into their unions. Currently, many union members identify as middle class and feel timid about fighting to maintain their benefits and wages because they realize that many of the people they serve or teach do not have anything close to the same privileges. This went strongly against the kind of guilt-based politics that are often dominant among those public sector workers who identify as middle class but still care deeply about the oppression of those on the lower rungs of society. Instead, what was argued for by presenter Pam Doghri of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and other track participants who work as teachers or social service workers was a model of solidarity that went beyond middle class charity and called for teachers and social service workers to link up their own struggles for better conditions with the struggles of those more oppressed and exploited working people whom they serve.
One very interesting example that was brought up of how unionized workers could reach out to build solidarity with the rest of the working class came from Toronto Pearson Airport and Sean Smith, an experienced organizer with the Canadian Auto Workers union at the airport for many years. Recently, the benefits of airport workers at Pearson and across the country have been under attack from the major airlines and from the federal government, who have taken away their right to strike with back-to-work legislation, which has also been applied to teachers and postal workers in the past few years. Through the privatization of Air Canada, they have also forced the airport workers into many separate smaller unions as well as greatly decreased the percentage of Air Canada and airport employees who are unionized.
In response to this, rank and file members of the unions at the airport have formed an Airport Council of Unions (ACU) to work together and act in solidarity with each other when the different unions and bargaining units at the airport are in bargaining or out on strike. The ACU has also been in touch with a community organization in Rexdale called Community Organization for Responsible Development (CORD) and is trying to get one of their members onto the board of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) as a ‘labour’ representative to put pressure on the authority to develop a community-based hiring process in which local Rexdale residents who live near the airport are given hiring preference. The ACU hopes to use this to gain solidarity from local working class people around the airport so they can effectively fight back against the attacks of the corporate airlines and the government. This is exactly the kind of solidarity model that a lot of the labour movement is either missing or simply fails to understand, and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between CORD and the ACU develops.
From the other side of the working class that is less represented and has fewer benefits and rights, there were three presentations that also looked at the possibilities for linking up the struggle of these workers for basic workplace rights and often citizenship rights to the struggles of more privileged workers in a way that builds real solidarity rather than just looking for charity or financial handouts.
One of the best examples of this from this side of the workers’ struggle came from Lisa Schofield of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), which mainly fights for the rights of poor people and particularly unemployed working people to decent living conditions and benefits. Since Premier Mike Harris cut welfare rates substantially by 21.6%, which amounts to almost a 40% reduction today when we include the price increases that have come with continuous inflation, OCAP has been fighting to Raise the Rates back to what they were before the cuts, inflation included. As part of this fight, they organized a rank-and-file initiative among members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to get CUPE Ontario to sign on in alliance with the Raise the Rates campaign. This not only benefited OCAP, but also the rank-and-file workers who were actually able to get CUPE Ontario to sign onto this, as they had to build their own rank and file networks to get this passed at a convention and benefited organizationally from this work.
The other presentations by militants representing the more oppressed sections of the working class, including one by Mostafa Henaway of the Immigrant Workers’ Centre in Montreal and one by Connie Sorio of Migrante Canada, an alliance of Filipino migrant and immigrant organizations. These presentations also looked at the possibilities and contradictions involved in trying to unite the struggle of the more exploited and oppressed segments of the working class with the middle and upper segments who have more citizenship rights and are much likelier to have access to union representation in the workplace. Mostafa looked at how migrant workers doing skilled physical labour in Quebec on the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program are often actually in unions and pay union dues, even when they are officially brought in through a temporary agency and make less money than other union members. He explained how the unions would actually like to organize them because of how their lower wages obviously put a downward pressure on the wages of their other members, but they often don’t know that these temporary foreign workers are officially in their unions, as the companies that hire them don’t want the unions to know.
Connie Sorio talked about how in British Columbia, the B.C. Federation of Labour has come out with a position against the Temporary Foreign Worker program, but believed that this had more do with not wanting these workers to drive down the wages of unionized workers in British Columbia than actually organizing among TFWs for them to get the same benefits and rights as workers. She cited this as an example of how workers are often pitted against each other in the real world despite the vague ideas and slogans of solidarity common in the labour movement. She believes that working class militants will have to work to completely change this situation if we are really going to build a united front among the workers.
Some of the practical ideas for going forward with building a united front of working people against austerity and related cuts that came out of this conference track included focusing on rallying our organizations for a united march on International Workers Day (May 1st), developing a Living Wage Campaign that can unite all working people regardless of their employment status, and building a Community-Labour Unity Committee to work on uniting the broader struggles of working people in the community with union struggles in the workplace.
At the end of the day, everyone who participated had been forced to confront some of the contradictions that exist in the working class and the labour movement and to think of ways of working through these contradictions to build greater workers’ unity. This was actually one of the main accomplishments of the track and hopefully this will help us to actually build real working class unity in the years to come, when it will really be needed to beat back the capitalist and imperialist offensive on all fronts.