by M. Cooke
MONTREAL – “We are foreign temporary workers, any day we could be expelled. That’s why we need a strong and flexible association” said Enrique Llanes, a temporary foreign worker from Spain
Enrique was speaking to a group of over 50 temporary foreign workers who had gathered in Montreal this past Saturday to launch the Temporary Foreign Workers Association (TFWA).
They had gathered not only to fight for their rights, but also for the over 300,000 temporary foreign workers currently in Canada and those who will come in future years.
Mohamed and Helena, temporary foreign workers from Tunisia and Spain, welcomed the workers at the start of the day.
“I would particularly like to thank you for your dedication despite the cold and the distance” said Mohamed.
The workers had come from throughout Quebec: the Laurentians, the Eastern Townships, Chicoutimi, Quebec City, Montreal. These workers came from a range of industries including working as farmers, butchers, machinists, welders, translators, lab technicians among others.
Helena continued the introduction saying: “The obstacles temporary foreign workers face are infinite. The system is created to keep us misinformed and isolated”.
Shortly after, one after another, the workers introduced themselves and shared their experiences of working in Quebec.
One group of farm workers talked about recently discovering that their employer had withheld an average of 2 hours of wages per day for over 6 years.
Several workers complained about being tied to a single employer. One worker explained that the company had laid him off for 3 months, and due to his work permit he could not apply to other jobs, nor could he apply for employment insurance. He was forced to work under the table to survive.
In the legal workshop held earlier in the day, groups of workers shared stories about their employer forcing them to rent his apartments or else being fired.
Workers also shared stories of being told to apply as “single” despite being married and having children back home, putting their future plans to apply as permanent residents in jeopardy.
Other workers shared stories about language barriers. They were not allowed to take French courses and they could not access translation services at hospitals nor within some unions.
But these are only a few of the stories of what is happening throughout Quebec and Canada.
The number of temporary foreign workers has been steadily increasing in the past few years. In 2011, there were over 300 000 temporary foreign workers in Canada.
There has been a shift in the Canadian immigration system says Manon Perron, a union leader with the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN).
“Last week, I was in meetings with a top immigration bureaucrat and he told me that they are looking for workers, not citizens” said Manon Perron to the group of workers.
The temporary foreign worker programs are set up to bring cheap labour in to Canada. The workers work here for low wages and no benefits and once they are no longer needed, they are sent back to their countries.
In 2011 there were more temporary foreign workers than immigrants accepted into the country.
The launch of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association is a big step in challenging a program that is set-up to, as Helena said “keep [workers] misinformed and isolated”.
The association will provide workers with access to legal aid clinics, workshops on labour rights, as well as translation services.
In addition, the association will fight to address the policies that lead to the issues faced by foreign temporary workers. The association hopes to win access to employment insurance and health care, open work permits, easier access to apply for permanent residency, as well as the right to unionize.
Despite the obstacles the workers face, there was something electric about having workers from throughout the province meet with each other and begin building an association that would break the isolation and fight for their rights.
Frustrated delegates at CUPE National Convention launch ‘Rebuilding Militant Labour’ movement from the floor
by Steve da Silva, CUPE 3903 member
In ancient Rome, politicians were known to secure the votes of Roman citizens by doling out wheat (drawn from conquered territories, it should be noted) and providing cheap entertainment. This, the Roman poet Juvenal satirically referred to as “bread and circuses”. But what happens when bread supplies run out?
Last week, Canada’s largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), held its largest-ever convention in Quebec City to mark its 50th anniversary. As the austerity policies of capitalism continue their attacks on public sector workers and the working class in general, it sometimes felt like we delegates were being made to suffer a sideshow of countless speeches, video greetings, and a video montage of CUPE through the decades, as a diversion from the fact that CUPE’s leadership actually has no strategy for defending its members in these times. That is, of course, unless you consider the state of our union as an electoral and lobbying machine that is staking it all on an NDP victory in the 2015 elections a viable and comprehensive strategy.
“A Guided Democracy”
For five days, over 2500 delegates representing some 627,000 workers in hundreds of locals across the country – which cost locals millions of dollars in transportation, registration, and accommodation fees – spent well over half their time in their seats as spectators, listening to speeches and watching videos that quite frankly did more to entrench an incumbent leadership than it did provide time for debate around the future of our union.
In fact, the elected leadership would have been completely acclaimed were it not for the courageous young worker from CUPE 4600 Lydia Dobson, who disrupted what convention floor delegates were mocking as “a coronation”. Dobson challenged CUPE National President Paul Moist from the floor, even after an older CUPE staffer told the Young Workers Caucus that it would be “political suicide” to run against Moist. Dobson did so alone, and without the support of the Young Workers Caucus. Because she ran from the floor, Dobson was denied a right to make a campaign speech. Notwithstanding being a completely unknown candidate for the Presidency of Canada’s largest union, Dobson took 21% of the votes cast.
Dobson told BASICS, “I stand by my actions. I believe in direct action and think that it is imperative that our young workers NOT become intimidated and subjected to power structures and politics that do not represent our best interests. The commotion that this caused today is a blatant demonstration of our the complacency of our members to directed voting, imbalanced power structures and a guided democracy. It should not be shocking that there was a vote at an election.”
Sham democracy aside, many of the threats facing workers were enumerated throughout the convention, but with particular attention given to Bill C-377 and the looming threat of “right to work” legislation. While these two coming attacks on unions will deal a huge blow to the working-class, it is noteworthy that the effect of these two pieces of legislation would be felt first and hardest at the top of the union movement. Bill C-377, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Conservative MP and backbencher Blaine Calkins from Alberta, would impose financial reporting requirements that are far above what exists for any other entity in Canada, and is widely recognized as discriminatory towards and clearly aimed at destroying unions. Bill C-377 would strangle unions in the redtape of their reporting requirements, starving them of their resources; not to mention making it very difficult to certify new unions. It becomes clear how threatening this legislation would be to union bureaucrats who would see their resources wasted on paperwork, an attack that would eventually trickle down to rank-and-file unionists and workers in the form of weak, cash-strapped, defenceless organizations, and eventually defunct organizations.
Fights to be fought
If C-377 is the jab, “right to work” legislation would be the blow from the other side. The so-called right to work legislation, which PC opposition leader in Ontario Tim Hudak is promising, would starve unions of their dues from the other end by whittling down their membership, giving union members to opt-out of paying dues, even though they would be covered by a Collective Agreement.
However, with or without these deathblows to unions (at least as they exist in their current form), the attacks on workers are taking place everyday and are not limited to these threats on the horizon. Impossible to enumerate briefly, these consist of “austerity” cuts that lead to lost jobs, privatizations that break unions and cost taxpayers more in the long run by subsidizing corporate profits, two-tiered bargaining that sell-out young and future workers, the deterioration of workplace safety and conditions of work, and the shift from “defined pensions benefits” that guarantee hard numbers for people’s retirements to “defined contributions” plans that tell you what you must put in pension funds, but not what you’ll get out of them.
Then there are the conditions that affect workers outside the workplace and beyond their working years: record-levels of household, consumer, and student debt; cuts to social and community services; the environmental destruction of capitalism; the $34 billion loss of federal healthcare transfers to provinces if the Health Accord is not renewed in 2014; the genocidal-colonial violence faced by Indigenous peoples in their communities on reserves or in cities. CUPE members are experiencing all these attacks, and more.
Lobbying, Electoralism, and the Complete Absence of Working-Class Strategy
From the convention floor, the anxiety of delegates could be read from the numerous resolutions debated and passed speaking to and taking stances against the deteriorating conditions of workers. But there was no real space to discuss the strategic requirements to actually arm workers for the fight to successfully fight on many fronts. Opening up such a discussion would have subjected to scrutiny the complete failure of electoralism and social democracy to serve the interests of even the “middle-class” workers in the labour movement, leaving aside the broader working poor and hyper-exploited workers.
What is CUPE’s actual plan to fight on all these fronts? Lobbying and elections, basically. One the one hand, there is the public relations campaign called “Together Fairness Works,” which the Canadian Labour Congress has rolled out in the form of a national television advertising campaign from October 7 through November 17. The Fairness project is also directing the energy and resources of staffers and union activists to engage the rank-and-file members around the benefits of being in a union and the contributions of union to society (they mean, capitalist society!). “We need to reintroduce ourselves to our members by having one-on-one conversations about the value of the labour movement and their union,” guest speaker CLC President Ken Georgetti told the Convention. A perusal of the “Fairness” literature seems to reveal, however, that the architects of this campaign didn’t get the memo that corporations and banks are actually posting record profits through austerity and neoliberal policies. As long as “the economy” remains synonymous with capitalism, we lose to the political Right on the ideological terrain because a capitalist economy grows to the extent that it exploits labour.
On the other hand, there is the NDP and the 2015 elections. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair graced the membership with his presence and a speech - essentially promising nothing more than the status quo, holding back or reversing a select few of Harper’s attacks – but could not find the time to take a single question from Canada’s largest union.
The pillar of the convention was the “Strategic Directions 2013-2015: Proud of our Past, Ready for the Future” document, where one would expect to find an elaborated strategy. While identifying many aspects of the crisis faced by the working-class and CUPE’s membership, the document falls short on questions of how we will actually defend ourselves against the panoply of attacks coming from all directions. Insofar as there is any strategy in the document, it was limited to electoralism and tied to the success of the NDP. To the shock of many delegates, a first draft of the document actually read that “We know that the ultimate power over bargaining and strikes lies in the hands of the government of the day” – a statement that was slightly modified only by a revolt from the floor during discussion around the document. Despite opposition to that statement, the amended document retained a phrase from the first draft that basically amounted to the same capitulationist position: “As long as we do not have worker-friendly governments, anything we negotiate at the bargaining table can be taken away from us through legislation.”
“Why is labour the only partner still playing by the rules?”
So, when yesterday’s labour laws are legislated out of the law, what is to be done? Well, nothing but wait for the next elections, and vote. Maybe a bit of lobbying in between. In essence, the CUPE leadership’s stance seems to be passively accepting giving up the historic birthright of the working-class – its right to withdraw its labour as its ultimate source of leverage over capital – and just wait for the next elections. Such are the honest truths presented by a union leadership that is frankly unwilling to stick their necks out and lead us in the struggles that are necessary to defend our livelihoods, let alone fight the greater fights of radically transforming Canadian society to end colonialism, imperialist wars abroad, massive wealth inequalities, and Canada’s leading role in ecological destruction and climate change.
And why would they? Unjust labour legislation, like back-to-work legislation, is making illegal any strike that would actually make a difference and tip the balance of power back into the hands of labour. To break these laws would hurt labour leaders the most: their assets would be seized, they would be jailed, they would face fines that would within weeks of illegal action run into the hundreds of thousands or millions. Do we have the faith in leaders that get paid six figure salaries to lead these fights? According to our Convention’s financial statement, Paul Moist took home a $159,015 salary in 2012 alone, which doesn’t include benefits, and his office used over $370,000 in travel costs. Is it any wonder that the Russian revolutionary Lenin once referred to the likes of Moist as a labour aristocrat?
Frustrations Spark ‘Rebuilding Militant Labour’
It was the growing frustration of delegates with the lack of debate around a viable strategy that sparked midway through the convention a caucus of more radical CUPE members that began calling ourselves “Rebuild Militant Labour” - a caucus formed initially just to coordinate interventions at the mic.
By Day 3, however, with the problems with our union coming into sharper focus, and a growing number of people joining the conversation, Rebuilding Militant Labour (RML) put out an interim basis of unity, holding an impromptu meeting outside convention hours at the end of Day 4 that attracted almost one hundred people, representing much of the country, most of CUPE’s sectors, and the whole demographic spectrum of the union.
Kelly O’Sullivan, President of CUPE 4308, held up an image of a triangle encompassing labour, government, and capital, illustrating the postwar “social compromise” from the 1940s onwards. O’Sullivan asked the leadership why “labour is the only partner still playing by the rules” when capital and government have long ago abandoned the welfarist social contract.
“‘If not now, when?’ may sound cliché,” CUPE 4308 President Kelly O’Sullivan told BASICS, who represents personal support workers in Toronto. “We got the sense that the ‘now’ really is now. ‘RML happened at this national convention because now is the time. You could hear the frustration from the delegates on the convention floor and in casual conversation that we have had enough playing by the rules and that more militant action is needed. RML was a response to our own anger over lack of strategy in our union to not only protect ourselves from the attack on workers and community but also a narrow and limited focus on election of an NDP government in 2015 as the only coordinated response.”
Established on a strictly anti-capitalist basis of unity, according to its founding points of unity RML has taken on the mandate of developing a militant strategy beyond electoralism, entrenching amongst rank-and-file membership and “grassroots power”, and “a program of education for workers in our unions to understand how capitalism is the problem.”
At its founding meeting, RML organized an Interim Coordinating Committee under the mandate of coordinating the implementation of the points of unity in our locals and communities; developing an anti-capitalist educational program; coordinating our organization going into conventions in two years time, and preparing for a separate national convention of Rebuilding Militant Labour in late 2014.
The labour movement in its current form – strictly committed to the institutional arrangement of postwar social order – can no longer defend the working-class; and frankly, they never really represented the whole working-class to begin with. The bread line is closed. A growing proportion of workers can see through the empty promises of social democratic labour leaders and politicians. The circus no longer amuses. Nowhere in the world is social democracy stemming the tide of capitalism’s attacks.
It is time we return to the days when militant labour actually fought for another world, a world that would be free of class division and exploitation. The first stage on that road has always been called ‘socialism’, however you define it and whatever means you think we need to actually get there. If RML lives up to its name and mandate, we may just have one of the central means by which to resume that struggle where Canadian labour left it in the 1940s.
by Christopher C. Sorio (MIGRANTE Canada)
Migrante Canada (Ontario) which is an alliance of 19 Filipino organizations in Canada and have 5 members organizations in the province of Ontario, supports the campaign to increase minimum wage from $10.25 to $14.00 per hour.
For the last three years, the minimum wage in Ontario is pegged at $10.25 and there is a mechanism to address a review process that will look at the necessity of increasing minimum wage.
In a study conducted by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) in 2008 the report showed that calculates a living wage in Toronto should be more than $10.25 per hour.
The CCPA study which was conducted in 2008, by Hugh Mackenzie and Jim Stanford, calculated that a two parent family with two children would need to make at least $16.60 an hour, working full-time year round, in order to obtain a reasonable standard of living that promotes health, well-being and participation in the full life of their community.
The living wage for a single parent with one child would be $16.15.
According to Sonia Singh of Worker’s Action Centre, there are 544,000 people in the province of Ontario that subsist on a pay of $10.25 an hour, and more than 750,000 earn around $11 or $12 an hour. Singh further adds says many low-wage earners are older and have families to support. They are mostly women, recent immigrants, and people of colour.
This becomes very important, more so to immigrant newcomers in this province. Most immigrant newcomers are earning minimum wage and are at times working two or more jobs in order to meet the needs of their families.
Increasing wage increase will be good for poverty reduction for this province.
by Kitchener- Waterloo BASICSNEWS
“Ronald McDonald,” joined by approximately 30 other people, targeted a McDonalds located in Kitchener, ON, to demand a living wage for all workers. McDonalds is part of a larger lobbying group that wants to keep the freeze on minimum wage (which is currently $10.25/hr in Ontario), forcing workers to live in poverty. This action is part of a larger provincial campaign that seeks to raise minimum wage to $14/hr. According to Statistics Canada, full-time workers making only minimum wage have incomes that are 19% below the poverty line, with limited to no benefits.
“In KW alone, we’ve lost manufacturing jobs and tech industry jobs (ex. RIM), due to temporary agencies, precarious part-time work, and outsourcing,” says community activist Mark Corbiere. “While the cost of living increases and minimum wage stays the same, the gap between rich and poor increases at an alarming rate,” stated Di, a member of various community organizations.
Businesses from the targeted lobbying group include Tim Horton’s, Wal-Mart, Loblaws, and McDonalds, as well as others. For more information on this campaign or to get involved/sign the petition to raise minimum wage, please visit www.raisetheminimumwage.ca.
The following is an open letter to the Mayor of Leamington, John Paterson, from migrant justice organization Justicia For Migrant Workers. Last week, Paterson targeted Jamaican migrant workers for making “sexually aggressive” comments toward women. Paterson was quoted by the CBC as saying, “Maybe it’s appropriate back in your home town, but here’s it not. So stop.”
As the letter from J4MW shows, the mainstream media has left out a whole history of racist attitudes toward migrant workers. Leamington, a town close to Windsor, has a large proportion of temporary migrant workers hired mainly for agriculture. They have never been seen as part of the community and have been the victims of constant racism.
This racial abuse is connected to the migrants’ working conditions, where they are seen as temporary and disposable. Often, the terms of their contract are not honoured and they are dismissed without sufficient cause. They face difficult and dangerous working and living conditions. Although migrant workers form the backbone of Ontario’s agricultural economy, the Ontario government and Supreme Court have colluded to deny them their basic Charter and human rights to form unions.
Visit J4MW’s web site for more information. —Ed.
Open Letter to the Mayor of Leamington John Paterson over recent comments pertaining to migrant workers
by Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW)
Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is a non-profit political collective that advocates for the rights of migrant workers in Canada. J4MW has been actively engaging migrant workers in the Leamington area for over a decade. During this time, we have met thousands of migrant workers in this community.
Over the past decade we have followed with great interest the wider community’s response to migrant workers. Unfortunately, your recent remarks come as no surprise to members of our collective. In the past several years, the open hostility that your council has shown towards migrant workers represents the most blatant displays of anti-migrant sentiments we have ever witnessed. Recent comments in the media, have disparaged the use of public library facilities by migrant workers; made allegations that there are too many migrant workers ‘loitering’ downtown; and criticized the presence of too many ‘ethnic’ businesses serving the migrant worker community. In each instance ‘cultural differences’ have been used to justify the wider community’s adverse reaction to the presence of large groups of migrant workers in visible local spaces. To pass off this tension as a matter of difference based on one’s place of origin is disingenuous at best. It alludes to there being an equal and level playing field between migrant workers and Canadians. This completely masks the fact that all migrant workers in your community are:
(2) Bound to their employers
(3) Denied social and labour mobility
(4) Denied the ability of permanent residency
(5) Are separated from their families for significant portions of time
(6) Cannot exercise social and democratic participation in the processes that you represent.
Your analysis does not acknowledge the power imbalance in your community. You and your council are free to condemn and stigmatize migrant workers without any real and significant response from workers themselves; a population who have lived and worked in Leamington for fifty years, but continue to be considered temporary.
Your recent remarks pertaining to “lewd behaviour” of migrant workers cannot be taken in good faith. Instead of dealing with sexual harassment on an individual basis, you skip right to racialized stereotypes; drawing from some of the worst parts of Canadian history. It does not escape us that the community of Leamington once supported ‘sundown laws’ which made it illegal for Black Canadians to walk freely in the community after sunset.
It is apparent that your council would rather have migrant workers ‘out of sight and out of mind’; segregated from the white citizens of your community as much as possible. This de facto separation of migrants only reinforces the negative reputation that your community is earning under your leadership.
Recently, human rights violations were substantiated by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) in the form of anti-black racism and widespread attention has been paid to another ongoing case involving an employer who allegedly sexual harassed racialized migrant women. As Leamington has one of the largest population of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) in Canada these important cases directly impact workers in your community – yet your office took no public stance to acknowledge them. You and your council have been absent in discussions on racial profiling of the Asian population of Leamington where officers under your direction as Chair of the Police Services Board have acted as de facto Border Officials towards Asian residents of your community.
Your office has been negligent in improving road infrastructure that would ensure safe transport and greater road safety for migrant workers. Neither your council nor the municipality has grappled with the dangerous modes of transportation that migrant workers must endure.
Performing such simple tasks as phoning home, buying groceries or sending money home become feats of life and death.
Migrant workers have continued
by Moshe ben Velvl and Megan Kinch
Two of Canada’s biggest unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Canadian Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) have merged into a new mega-union, Unifor. They have sketched out an ambitious vision that promises to revolutionize the way unions have traditionally organized and the way they have related to the rest of society and the working class who are not organized in unions. Unifor is now Canada’s largest private sector union. But is it a new day for the labour movement, or is it business as usual?
Rank and file workers, especially in the auto sector, have long been demanding a more democratic unionism — for example, Soldiers of Solidarity in the United States. But in a disappointing turn, the “Unity Team” slate ran almost unopposed for 25 leadership positions at the Unifor convention. Long time union leaders Dave Coles of CEP and Ken Lewenza of CAW resigned their presidential positions shortly before the new convention, paving the way for the official choice for new president, Jerry Dias. Dias was being referred to as the new president before the convention even took place, as if it was just a formality. And that’s almost what it was. All of the leadership positions had “Unity Team” members acclaimed, meaning no one ran against them. All, that is, except for one.
Lindsay Hinshelwood, a rank and file worker at Oakville Ford and member of Unifor Local 707, threw in her hat to challenge the leadership at the last minute. Not only that, but she provided a real alternative vision to the business-as-usual attitudes.
Hinshelwood gave an interview to BASICS, in which she was also quite critical of the cheerleading culture being promoted at the convention:
At the CAW convention yesterday, Ken Lewenza gave the exact same speech. We didn’t address the issues that are really affecting us. It was the old cheerleading speech, we fought for this, we fought for that, rah, rah, rah, and meanwhile our economy’s been going backwards for the last 40 years. We weren’t addressing the problems and we weren’t offering solutions to those problems.
After Hinshelwood was nominated to run for the election, co-chair Dave Coles (the outgoing CEP leader) wasn’t even going to allow her to make a speech, supposedly because of time constraints and the fact that there were 24 more “elections” scheduled for that afternoon.
He only changed his mind after someone issued a challenge to the chair from the floor, meaning that he would no longer be able to run the meeting if it was actually put up to a vote and passed. He noticed that the rest of the room was very upset with the fact that he wouldn’t let her speak and probably would have ousted him as chair if he continued to refuse her this right. Hinshelwood had this to say about that important moment at convention:
I’m very proud that the crowd challenged the chair and allowed me to speak. I really appreciate getting the time to speak. And that wasn’t rehearsed, that just came out of my mouth without me thinking about it, and it was really great that the audience responded to it, so obviously people were identifying with what I had to say.
Hinshelwood’s speech made strong criticisms of the practice of the CAW heading into the convention, for agreeing to continuing concessions over the course of the past 15 years that would essentially sell out the new hires and lead to continually declining wages and benefits for workers in the automotive sector.
In the election for president of the union, Hinshelwood got 17.5% of the vote against Jerry Dias. This is an impressive number for a last-minute candidacy with no campaign literature or official backing.
This raises the question of how Unifor can claim to be forging a vision for new fights against corporations and governments, and new organizing drives, when the CAW leadership has shown little desire to actually fight against concessions that will hurt their members. In the last round of negotiations with the big three automakers in 2012, CAW leadership agreed to a concessionary contract without calling a strike in any of the three negotiations. This despite the fact that they had received strike mandate votes of 97% or higher at all three automakers, with Chrysler having a 99% strike mandate overall and the Chrysler Etobicoke plant garnering a rare 100% strike mandate vote. What a strike mandate vote does is give the union representatives a mandate to call a strike at any time during the negotiation of a new collective agreement. The fact that the CAW representatives at Chrysler failed to utilize a strike in 2012 as a bargaining tactic despite the obvious willingness of their members to do so does not provide much promise that the new union, Unifor, will do things any differently.
On the second day of the convention, Hinshelwood provided more concrete ideas about how to fight back:
I’d like to see improvements to the Rand Formula. Workers should have the right to strike between contracts. And I have a question about the Supplemental Workers (SWEs) in the union. For example the SWs on GM lines who pay union dues but are not covered under the collective agreement. How are you going to convince these workers who have no representation but pay dues to fight to protect the first-tier workers?
Currently, the Rand Formula only allows workers to strike at designated times when a contract is over and negotiations are occurring for the signing of a new contract. What Hinshelwood was calling for was for workers to be able to strike between contract negotiations at essentially any time, which has historically been the quickest and most effective way to deal with dangerous conditions or any violations of the collective agreement by the employer.
In this very short comment and question on the second day of the convention, she brought up two of the main problems with the way unionism has been done since World War Two. While Unifor is working to bring the SWEs into the union as regular full members with full union rights at work, the new leader Jerry Dias did not even respond to her first recommendation about the right to strike between contract negotiations and updating the Rand formula. This is despite the rhetoric of Dias and other leaders about the need to change the way unionism is done in this country and really go on the offensive.
It remains to be seen how Unifor will fulfill the tasks it has set itself in the coming years and how it can be changed by rank and file activists like Hinshelwood, who had this to say to BASICS about how Unifor could address these issues and the consequences that will result it if doesn’t:
They have to listen to the dissidents instead of trying to shut the dissidents down. The dissidents are speaking for a lot of people and a lot of people are afraid to speak within their unions because you get the ‘union shun’. And you have to acknowledge where you’ve gone wrong and you have to acknowledge what people are angry about and address that situation. Sometimes it’s okay to do some cheerleading, but not when we’re facing losing our country. When you drive workers down, your social structure declines, your infrastructure declines and your civil liberties disappear too.
by Steve da Silva
In the midst of the financial crisis, in early 2009 the Ontario provincial and federal governments dumped more than $10.8 billion in loans and debt forgiveness into bailing out General Motors (another $2.9 billion went to Chrysler) – which translated into an 11.7 % stake in the company for the two levels of government.
In late July 2013, the rumour mill had it that the two governments were now looking to sell those shares.
In 2010, the two levels of government got back over $1.1 billion USD when they sold off 35 million shares at GM’s initial public offering. But they still hold 140 million shares, making them the third largest investor in the company, currently valued at around $5.2 billion CDN. The stock would have to be valued at over $50 a share for Canadian taxpayers to get their money back. They stand to lose billions of dollars from the sale.
But thanks to the bailouts – and years of low-financing options with the help of low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada – the ‘big-three’ automakers in North America are posting record profits in the last couple of years. In early January 2013, Stephen Harper dumped another $250 million of subsidies to the auto sector.
In the panic of the financial crisis, various levels of government and the Canadian Auto Workers union leaders past and present were defending the bailouts as a necessary move to keep auto-sector production in Ontario and Canada. But with billions of dollars dumped into GM, jobs are still disappearing and production is still drifting south in search of more exploited workers. Jobs are no more secure than before the bailouts.
Since 2001, endless subsidies and concessions to the auto companies have done nothing to stop the nearly 60,000 auto-sector jobs that have disappeared. This has been the result of restructuring of the industry to move production to countries where workers can be paid far less, as well as boosts in productivity from replacing workers with machinery.
GM upset the Canadian government in December 2012 when it announced it was shifting the production of the Chevrolet Camaro to Lansing, Michigan in 2015, moving 1,000 jobs south of the border. The decision was announced a week after Michigan passed the notorious, union-busting ‘right-to-work’ legislation. The Canadian Autoworkers Union made major concessions in bargaining in 2006 to keep the Camaro in Oshawa. The other major plant in Oshawa only has production earmarked until 2017 according to the terms of the bailout agreement.
What’s worse, is that with the legacy of the bailout dollars set to end soon, industry analysts are speculating that GM may return to troubled times almost immediately as billions of dollars worth of liabilities hit them in the coming years: pension costs are set to soar as government funds for company pension obligations come to an end; the interest-free loans will come to an end; and payments to finance health care costs will no longer be covered by the government.
In effect, it’s been public tax dollars paying for the pensions of former GM workers while the company takes the credit. Currently, GM pays its pensioners through a combination of $200-million in annual company contributions and drawing down amounts from what is known as a prior year’s credit balance. The credit balance was created by a $4-billion deposit to the pension funds as part of the 2009 bailout. The credit balance is effectively a bank account from which GM Canada was allowed to draw for five years to finance its annual pension payments, thus avoiding hefty annual cash contributions. This balance is expected to reach zero around September 2014, at which point the company will have to start using its own money.
The $220-million in interest-free loans that the federal and Quebec governments gave the company for a shuttered plant in Ste-Thérèse, Que., also come due on April 1, 2017.
In late 2014, the first of five annual payments on an $800-million note that finances a trust fund set up to pay for health care costs for unionized retirees will also come due. Those payments amount to $1.28-billion over the five-year period.
Just last month, Canadian GM retirees won a court case against the company when it broke agreements and slashed health care and life insurance benefits in 2009 as part of its restructuring. GM said it would appeal the decision. The success of the class action lawsuit would place another $1.5 billion in obligations on the company.
Anyone who has bought into the neoliberal story about welfare programs sapping state resources should take a look at the big, fat elephant in the middle of the room: big corporations, despite their ‘free-market’ rhetoric, are the biggest drain on public resources.
In a couple of years, when GM starts to find itself wracked with its financial liabilities once again, the case will be made that it’s the fault of overpaid, unionized workers that the auto-sector is in trouble and why it’s necessary for the government to come to the rescue.
by Noaman G. Ali
For Muslims who want to create a socially just world, it’s time to rethink the way in which Muslims relate to ‘the poor’ during Ramadhan. We are told and we tell people that empathizing with the poor is an important aspect of fasting. As the story goes, Muslims experience (if only for a few hours) what millions if not billions of underfed people around the world go through. Those who are unable to fast are instead supposed to feed poor people. Not only that, Muslims are encouraged to give more charity during the holy month.
I was in Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s larger cities, on the first day of this year’s Ramadhan. I was in a market that would otherwise be crowded, walking around, looking for tafsirs [interpretations] of the Qur’an. It was really hot, around 40°C plus humidity, and I was feeling dizzy and even nauseous. It wasn’t the hunger so much as it was the thirst. Then I came upon workers who were unloading big sacks of grain off of trucks, carrying them on their backs or pulling whole carts with their bare hands.
I got in a taxi and I asked the driver, who was struggling with keeping away from tobacco, if those workers were fasting. He said only God knows what the level of their faith is. But what does faith have to do with it? Faith isn’t some kind of a bulletproof vest that enables you to bypass hunger and thirst while performing hard labour. It doesn’t free you from having to work to provide for your family. If anything, Ramadhan makes it harder, because the prices of basic foodstuff shoot up as demand increases. So workers have to find a way to make more money to pay for the same amount of food, or, they have to go into greater debt.
Wealthier Pakistanis move to colder areas with resorts, like Kalam or Murree, because they don’t want to have to deal with the heat. Pakistan’s richer tend to have better access to electricity, which can keep fans going, and may even have air conditioners. But the poor have none of that, power outages (load shedding) are common, so even if you can scrape by the money for a fan it won’t be working. In the cities, the shaded indoors can be crowded and suffocating, and the humidity means that you sweat a lot and get dehydrated easily. Imagine having to abstain from water for 16 hours in these conditions.
Outside of Ramadhan, I found that workers have it the hardest. I was supposed to meet a farm worker in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for an interview in June, but his people sent his apologies. He had suffered heat stroke. The doctor who came to see him had charged 500 rupees, when the worker’s casual daily wage was 300 rupees. This is the story over and over: workers barely make enough to scrape their families by on casual work, and there is practically no permanent work to be found.
Workers often go hungry — a 2011 study showed that 58% of Pakistani households are food insecure, nearly 30% with moderate or severe hunger. Their children often cannot afford to go to government schools — never mind private schools — because they are out looking for work or because they can’t pay the nominal fees. Meanwhile, workers toil in difficult conditions, often not getting paid on time or not getting paid at all by more powerful bosses. Workers can’t even go on strike because there is a whole crew of other workers desperately looking for jobs who would render any strike useless. They work in the heat, they work in the cold, they work all the time.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world are poor. The poor are not the minority. Many of them are un- or underemployed people looking to scrape together livelihoods by any means they can find, many are workers who build things or work in factories, many try to hawk wares and goods or start tiny businesses, and many are poor farmers without enough land or farmers with land who don’t get the prices they deserve. So many are women who put in long hours of work at home and then, the poorer they are, often working outside of the home as well.
So what does it mean to empathize with the poor during Ramadhan? The neat package of empathy with the poor during Ramadhan sounds kind of hollow. After all, check out some of the massive iftars [communal breaking of the fast] that people put on; or the fact that a lot of people put on weight during Ramadhan, even though we’re supposed to be eating less and praying more; or the fact that a lot of people spend the day sleeping and the night eating. What’s more, those few hours of fasting throughout one day are actually incomparable to the feeling and effects of chronic starvation and lack of nutrition.
This empathy story is directed at a middle-class audience; assumed to be the typical, average kind of Muslim. The poor may exist, out there, separate from the typical normal Muslim, and if they do form part of the Muslim communities it’s through this condescending relationship of charity. People are encouraged to give to the poor, but not to ask why they are poor in the first place.
Couldn’t a deeper form of empathy involve struggling against the conditions that produce poverty? This wouldn’t come from a place of charity but from a place of solidarity, from a sense of oneness rooted in acknowledging our differences, but seeking to overcome them through struggle against structures of oppression and exploitation. The struggle for good, permanent, well-paying jobs; the struggle for higher wages; the struggle against unsafe working conditions; the struggle for cheaper agricultural inputs and fair prices for agricultural produce; the struggle for land for the landless or better cooperative uses of the land; the struggle to socialize domestic labour performed largely by women; the struggle against imperialist aggression; the struggle against tinpot dictators and fake democrats — all of these struggles have a direct impact on poverty.
What’s more, these kinds of struggles have precedent in the Islamic tradition, in the Qur’an, Sunnah and struggles of pious people. But it is precisely these kinds of struggles that are not emphasized by most scholars these days. The kind of Islam being marketed and produced on television in Pakistan or Egypt or in glitzy conferences in North America is not intended for the poor majority of Muslims. It’s meant for a middle-class audience, and the kind of Islam on offer is personalized and meant to make people feel better about themselves. It’s one thing to revive the spirit, quite another to change conditions that produce class disparities. This kind of self-centered spirituality — which we find across all religious traditions — becomes reactionary and unjust when it tells us that we cannot change these ‘God-given’ conditions, and halts any attempts by the people to change these conditions.
Solidarity with ‘the poor’ — the oppressed and exploited majority — is the only way to break out of the cycle of self-absorption and to move toward a more just society. Otherwise, the message of empathizing with the poor during Ramadhan is little more than a shallow exercise to allow the minority of more privileged Muslims (or even the most filthy rich Muslims, who are actually part of the problem) to feel better about themselves; or worse, feign that they actually care about ‘the poor’. It’s time for Muslims to use Ramadhan to intensify the struggle for human liberation, not just from temptations of the flesh, but also from oppression and exploitation.
Noaman was in Pakistan for research.
by Steve da Silva, CUPE 3903, rank-n-file member
This past weekend the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) –Canada’s largest union, with 650,000 members – wrapped up its 50th annual convention. The milestone convention saw nearly half of its 5-day agenda taken up with celebrating the union’s past achievements and recognition and awards ceremonies. But the dark cloud of the austerity offensive cast a shadow over the attendees, with delegates anxious to get down to strategizing for the battles ahead.
The other half of the convention was dedicated to discussing the dozens of resolutions and campaigns representing workers in the various sectors organized by the union, with a particular focus on the union’s ‘2013 Action Plan,’ the centerpiece of the union’s strategy over the coming year in the face of major attacks being planned.
Among the countless attacks on workers in every workplace and sector, the greatest feared by union leaders are the plans of Conservatives at both provincial and federal levels to eliminate the ‘Rand formula’ – a law passed in late 1940s that ruled that every member of a unionized workplace has to pay union dues since they benefit from being protected by a union. Similar to such ‘Right to Work’ legislation passed in the United States, such a move would drain resources from unions. Eliminating the Rand formula would not spell an end to working-class resistance, but it would wipe away the ability of unions to mobilize resources – an especially troubling prospect for the handsomely paid upper-brass of the unions.
The opening day began with speeches from labour allies, including Sid Ryan, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour and continued with reports from CUPE National President, Paul Moist, and CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn. The Convention acknowledged Idle No More (INM) on its second day with a guest speech from one of its original Saskatoon founders, Sylvia McAdam. But this recognition did not extend to actually absorbing some of the most important lessons of INM: the power and effectiveness of street protest over political lobbying and reducing politics to electoral contests. McAdam, who was previously a strong advocate of exclusively peaceful protest, acknowledged how INM has had to adapt over time and cited INM’s new allies, such as the Defenders of the Land network, who INM joined together with in calling for a “Sovereignty Summer” to consist of direct actions such as blockades.
After more than two days of unwavering support for the NDP through speeches and presentations from the Convention organizers, opposition to the question of the union’s relationship to the NDP appeared immediately after a speech by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
Horwath was supposed to have given us time at the Convention “to hear from us,” but instead she presented at us for most of the hour. Many noticed how visibly nervous Horwath seemed as she began to field questions from CUPE Ontario members. After fielding a few very soft questions – about which she was nonetheless evasive and provided what seemed like scripted responses surely heard by countless others already – Horwath excused herself from the Convention of a union representing more than 200,000 workers for a “4 o’clock meeting” – leaving a couple dozen members at the mic with unanswered questions. CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn rushed to Horwath’s defense, assuring delegates that she had made it known to him in advance that she could only spare one hour. Members in queue were told to submit questions in writing to be forwarded to Horwath later.
But questions about the NDP immediately spilled over into the subsequent debate around the centerpiece of the convention – its draft ’2013 Action Plan’. Particularly contentious was the Action Plan’s call to support the NDP in elections – which while appearing on only a single line was the core of the document’s electoralism and which became the exclusive focus of the Action Plan debate at the Convention.
The text of the Action Plan opened with a call for ‘new tools’ for the union – and “a whole new scale of mobilization and a major offensive to preserve the rights of workers.” But instead, what was tabled was a document more or less reaffirming the orientation to the NDP and electoral contests.
One lunchtime workshop on the first day of the Convention was chaired by the NDP-oriented consulting firm Public Interest, which BASICS has in the past warned residents in Toronto social housing about, given their pro-”revitalization” stance and efforts to block grassroots tenants organizing. The consulting firm made a presentation to CUPE members on how to challenge Toronto wards most weakly held by conservative incumbents. And the union brass’s idea of “political education” was rolling out a campaign during the convention to sign up its members for training in upcoming elections.
Yet, reflecting a disconnect between rank-n-file delegates and the leadership, three quarters of the membership who lined up to vocalize their thoughts on the pro-NDP orientation expressed opposition to or questioned openly tying the union to the NDP. Among other critiques, delegates identified how Andrea Horwath’s support for the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government has hurt CUPE members and the working class; or how the NDP is often absent when actual labour confrontations arise.
Kelly O’Sullivan, President of CUPE 4308, a union of personal support workers, told BASICS that “NDP support for the Liberals has had a direct impact on delegates at convention – their support of an austerity budget with funding freezes for hospitals, lack of action on Ontario Northland are examples.”
O’Sullivan threw into question the connection of the NDP to the working class, and her locals members: “[Horwath’s] budget support with a call for a 5-day wait time in home care ignores the reality that our sector is and will continue to be predicated on low-waged precarious work for personal support workers – who are overwhelmingly women, racialized and working-class… This is another example of the disconnect between the lived reality of our members and the lack of connection the NDP has with the working class.”
O’Sullivan of CUPE 4308 observed that there was “no organized ‘left’ or socialist caucus within CUPE Ontario to support, advocate or intervene around action plans or develop strategies.” Yet in spite of this, a redraft of the Action Plan which removed reference to the NDP continued to draw more support than opposition in a subsequent debate. It was noteworthy point that NDP supporters at the Convention could not outnumber members standing up and questioning the union leadership’s unwavering support for the party. However, a compromise clause was eventually devised which reconciled the difference with a clause to support “NDP and pro-working class candidates.” One delegate remarked on the irony of calling for supporting candidates that are not covered by the phrase “pro-working-class.”
To be clear, this sentiment was clearly coming from the left, and not in favour of a more rightward leaning to the Liberal party, as has been the practice of the teachers unions.
Farid C. Partovi of Local 4772 told BASICS that we had “an important debate at the CUPE Ontario convention on the NDP in Ontario supporting the Liberal government’s budgets and policies that I think are in direct contrast to the public sector workers’ and the working class’s resistance against austerity agenda. The adopted action plan … includes progressive positions on numerous issues and actions; however, it does not directly tackle this serious problem. I think it’s long overdue for us as workers and CUPE members to seriously confront these kinds of politics and push for a progressive agenda that stands only for the interest of the working class as a whole and its fight against global capitalist exploitation, corporate agenda and neo-liberal austerity measures.”
As the austerity attacks continue to gut public services, starve communities, and attack the labour rights and wages of workers, the need for unity is pressing – but not unity around failed or failing strategy.
If public sector workers and the working-class in general are going to resist governments’ attempts to displace capitalism’s problems onto workers and the broad masses of people, we do indeed require “a whole new scale of mobilization and a major offensive to preserve the rights of workers,” as our Action Plan called for. But staking the union’s and the working class’s future on a party that hardly maintains a pretense of being of and for the working-class is beyond bankrupt, a matter of fact that rising numbers of workers are coming to realize.
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!