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.