Scores of people crowded into the Free Times Cafe last night for the 23rd annual Toronto Socialist Action May Day celebration. The politics, the music, the diversity of the crowd were all superb.
Speakers included: Jorge Soberon, Consul General of Cuba in Toronto, John Clarke, Organizer, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Anitta Satkunarajah, NGO relations co-ordinator, CanadianHART, Tamil community, Nchamah Miller of the Communist Party of Colombia, Ali Mallah, Vice-President of the Canadian Arab Federation, member of CUPE, and V.P. (Alternate) of CLC, Niraj Joshi of the Toronto Haiti Action Committee. The event was chaired by Elizabeth Byce, federal Treasurer, NDP Socialist Caucus, and retired member of the Toronto Local, Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
Wonderful, world class singers and musicians entertained the crowd. The performers included: Jon Brooks, 2008 Porcupine Winner ‘Mac Beattie Award’, 2007 Canadian Folk Music Award Nominee ‘Best Songwriter’; Marianne Girard, roots/alternative country singer-song writer with 2 CDs attracting praise; Bill Heffernan, activist, teacher and song smith; Glen Hornblast, folk singer on the social justice scene; and Smokey Dymny, an IWW rebel troubadour.
Below is a copy of the speech I delivered to the gathering on behalf of Socialist Action.
Happy May Day!
federal secretary, Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste
Socialist Action greetings to May Day 2009
The global economic crisis is still in its early stages. Already it has devastated so many lives. Millions are without jobs, housing and food. Comparisons come to mind. In the depths of the 1930s the unemployment rate in Canada was 25%. The stock market had lost 90% of its value. It took a world war to mobilize Capital, to destroy competition, and to end the Great Depression. The programmatic response of the CCF in 1933 was the Regina Manifesto. It stated that “the CCF will not rest until capitalism has been eradicated.” It called for public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. Perhaps it’s time to go back to the future.
What are some features of the present global economic crisis, and what is to be done about it? Major world markets have lost 50% of their value. Major US banks have failed. Giant corporations are on the verge of bankruptcy. Under-developed countries are deep in turmoil. The industrialized world is moving rapidly beyond mere recession. The U.S. economy shrank by 6%, Japan by 12.7%. The Canadian GDP will shrink by 3 per cent this year. Unemployment will rise to 10.5 per cent next year. Kevin Page, Parliament’s budget officer, predicts that in the first half of 2009, total jobs in Canada will fall by 380,000 – half of them in manufacturing. Statistics Canada has another measure of unemployment. When you add to the ‘officially jobless’ three more groups – discouraged workers, those waiting to be re-called, and the involuntary part-time workers – it turns out that the real rate of unemployment was up sharply in February 2009 from a year earlier. It went from 8.9 to 11.7 per cent. So, what will it be this summer? 15 per cent? For youth, immigrants and visible minorities it’ll be much higher. In aboriginal communities the numbers are right off the chart.
Tommy Douglas once described depression this way:
“In an economic downturn, a worker tightens his belt. In a recession, the belt is replaced by suspenders. In a depression, the bankers take away the suspenders, and your pants just fall to the floor.”
There’s also a lot of talk about Liquidity. Here’s a definition:
“Liquidity occurs when you look at your retirement funds and you wet your pants.”
The nature of the present crisis, say establishment economists, is a credit crunch – over-extended credit, toxic debt. Marxists say that is an over-simplification, superficial. The real roots of the crisis reside in the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. Production under capitalism occurs without a plan. It is production for profit, as opposed to meeting human needs. It breeds over-production. Giant monopolies, which no longer compete for price, produce a mass of useless and wasteful things. Those products are foisted on a consumer market of workers with frozen or declining incomes. We are nagged 24 hours a day to buy stuff that often we can buy only on credit.
Over the past 20 years the economy shifted from real production to financialization. That deepened the system’s dependence on debt as a prop. Toxic debt, highly leveraged, was criminally sold and re-sold. Added to this are escalating military expenditures. War spending can support production, but for only so long. Such factors made the bubble bigger. Then the bubble burst. But the crisis was coming anyway. Fundamentally the crisis is a feature of the business cycle. Its scope is now more global than ever. The crisis is rooted in a system of chronic over-accumulation, overproduction and business anarchy. That awful system is monopoly capitalism.
The capitalist rulers stand to lose a lot in an economic crisis. That’s why they turn to politicians like Obama. But they can also use a crisis to kill competition, to re-launch production, to revive their wretched system. They do that by making workers pay for their crisis. They know how to apply the Shock Doctrine. They use economic shocks to hammer down popular expectations and to roll back past gains of the working class.
We see many examples of this. Slashed wages. Reduced or cancelled pensions. Foreclosed mortgages. Jacked up fees. Curtailed benefits and services. Administrators are test flying the idea of raising university and college fees by 25%. U of T is imposing a yearly flat fee, regardless of course load. The federal government slashed the CBC budget. Welfare is kept at a starvation level. Then there’s the Ontario Liberal budget: tax cuts for corporations, and “harmonized” sales tax increases for everyone else.
As well, governments turn to repression. The feds re-introduced so-called anti-terrorism laws. They use detention, security certificates, secret trials, and deadly Tasers in the hands of trigger-happy cops. They bar British MP George Galloway. Colleges ban anti-Israeli Apartheid posters on campus. Politicians vilify Muslims and Arabs, and cut funds to an ESL programme run by the Canadian Arab Federation because the CAF president criticized Tory Minister Jason Kenney. The authorities unleash waves of arrests of Muslim and Black youths based on scant evidence. They arrest native leaders who oppose uranium mining on their lands, limit the right to strike for workers in Saskatchewan, cancel pay equity for women workers at the federal level and in Quebec, and let’s not forget the imperialist war in Afghanistan and the Canadian cops occupying Haiti.
The rulers didn’t wait for the depression to put on the big squeeze. They engineered a widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. Basic social benefits and expenditures were attacked, eroded, and clawed-back.
During so-called Boom times…. we were going backwards fast.
Remember how Employment Insurance was supposed to be a safety net? But only 43% of those who lose a job qualify for benefits; in Ontario only 32% qualify; in Toronto it is only 24%. In 2007 the E.I. surplus was $54 billion. Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it.” Isn’t that a despicable example of attacking people when they’re down?
Prime Minister Harper, in his ‘stimulus budget’, after suspending Parliament, froze premiums and extended EI coverage only 5 weeks, while giving billions to the auto giants. Auto workers are told they haven’t sacrificed enough. The logic behind this was revealed in a speech Harper gave in Edmonton in early April. He said “as soon as the recession ends, our country will face a long-run challenge of labour shortage”. In other words, he’s telling the bosses to slash wages and benefits now, to give themselves a cushion for when labour will seek to bid up wages, etc. It’s a tactic in the war against workers. It’s about profits. It has nothing to do with economic recovery.
We do see the beginning of a fight back here. In 2007, workers in southern Ontario steel and auto parts plants, like Collins & Aikman Corp., and Masonite, occupied their factories, demanding just severance. Last Fall, in Chicago, workers at Republic Window and Doors occupied their plant and won back pay. In mid-March, at Aradco in Windsor, Ontario workers occupied the plant, and other unionists surrounded it, to get severance, holiday pay and other monies owed. It was the sixteenth time this had happened to CAW members in the last eighteen months in the auto parts industry. But Chrysler got a court injunction, and moved the parts and tools south. The union got about half of the outstanding $1.5 million. These are defensive struggles — strong at the base, weak at the top. But what if unions here started fighting, not just for severance, but for public ownership and democratic control? Well, that’s the next chapter. We see it coming.
Around the world there is a growing storm of revolt. We’ve seen the sudden fall of governments in Iceland and Latvia, and widespread rebellions in Greece and across the EU, with millions in the streets. In France, some workers have held bosses hostage until their demands are met. Massive and prolonged general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French Antilles, were victorious. Latin Americans are engaged in a full scale revolt against neoliberalism, led by Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. The aspiration of a new socialism for the 21st century is envisioned also in Bolivia and Ecuador, and practised in Cuba. The IMF and the World Bank are being crowded out of Latin America by ALBA which fosters fair trade and mutual assistance. The revolution in Nepal raises new hopes in Asia. China itself is experiencing unrest on a huge scale.
Remember the Chinese saying: ‘A crisis is also an opportunity.’ Will this crisis be an opportunity for the Left in Canada?
How can it be an opportunity for the Left unless we challenge capitalism, root and branch?
And if we don’t challenge capitalism now, then when the heck should we challenge it?
Some apologists for capitalism say “We’re all socialists now. Even the US and UK governments have nationalized the banks”.
But those apologists are a little confused. Socialism isn’t about nationalizing debt. Socialism aims to nationalize wealth, to take democratic control of real assets, and to re-organize production to serve human needs, and do it on the basis of workers’ and community control.
Let’s start with the auto industry. When Ottawa and Queen’s Park go to the rescue of Big Auto should we trust the designers of the Hummer? Should we trust the brains behind every gas-guzzling SUV?
Our view is that there should be no public investment without public equity. We say it’s time to get public control for public tax money, most of which comes from workers. It’s time for democracy in the work place, and for social responsibility over the big economy.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
Why should society continue to be a slave to this madness, to the irrationality of the capitalist mode of production? Even if recovery occurred tomorrow, why should we allow this destructive insanity to repeat every ten or twenty years?
It is time to break the logic of capitalist business cycles, of capitalist waste and oppression. It is time to put an end to profit from war and environmental destruction. Socialist Action advocates a number of concrete measures. We say: No to labour concessions!
Put people before profits. Nationalize the banks and Big Auto. Create jobs through public investment, public ownership, democratic planning and workers’ control. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green, energy efficiency. Repair our disintegrating roads, bridges, railways and port facilities. Make E.I. more generous and more accessible. Raise the minimum wage to $16/hour, indexed to the cost of living. Shorten the work week to 30 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Abolish student debt. Make all education free. Protect pensions. Fund health care and the arts. No corporate bail-out. Open the company books. Steeply tax corporations, speculators, and the rich. Abolish the GST. Uphold aboriginal land claims and local self-governance. Hands off migrant workers. End the occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti. Impose boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid and against the genocidal regime in Sri Lanka. Reduce the Canadian military to a disaster-relief, search and rescue force. Get Canada out of NATO now!
To achieve a socialist alternative at a time when world conditions cry out for one, we must challenge the pro-capitalist direction of the unions and the NDP. A good place to start is to reject any NDP coalition with the Liberal Party or with any party of the business class. Coalition with capitalist parties would spell the demise of the NDP as a political force. It would further reduce its accountability to the most class conscious section of the working class. It would quicken the unravelling of medicare, public education, environmental safeguards, labour rights, women’s rights, civil liberties and consumer protection.
We need a fighting perspective for the working class, for the unions, and for the NDP as a labour party. We need a real debate that puts capitalism on trial. That is what we aim to do at the NDP federal convention in Halifax in August. We’ll be developing our policies and strategy at the Socialist Caucus conference on Sunday, May 10 at OISE U of Toronto. We invite you to join us there. Ours is a call for democracy, anti-militarism and socialism.
But a call is not enough. We need finances and human resources to spread this message far and wide. We need to wage the fight for policy and action across the workers’ movement, and we need to take it into the streets and work places where the coming battles will be decisive.
We need a real revolutionary socialist party to campaign for change, everywhere and every day. We need to forge a leadership of the working class that can win. This cannot be done without you. So now it’s your turn to get involved.
We used to ask the question: “What are you waiting for, a depression?”
The crisis is here. Rebellion is in the air. Socialist Action needs you now. Together we can build the party that will cleanse this planet of exploitation and oppression forever. Join us tonight. The winds of change are blowing our way. Together we will win.
Long live international workers’ day!
Solidarity against the crisis!
Long live the struggle for freedom, social justice and workers’ power!