Labour Day 2013 marred by unions bowing to austerity

And the downbeat goes on. In sector after sector, from auto to steel to forestry to railways to the Ontario and Federal Public Service, to the federal postal service, bosses usually get the concessions they demand from labour.
In the latest move, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union agreed with General Motors to organize special early retirement buyouts at its two assembly plants in Oshawa, Ontario. This is designed to accelerate the automaker’s drive to replace higher-paid veteran workers with workers earning low wages. Temporary workers will get about $10 per hour less than their counterparts, receive an inferior benefits program, and be barred from enrolling in the pension plan. New hires will begin work at $14 per hour below the regular-tier rate, will receive reduced benefits, and also will be ineligible to participate in the pension plan.
To supplement threats at the bargaining table there is the hammer of strike breaking law. Government back-to-work legislation in 2011 broke strikes in the railway, Air Canada, and at the post office, with scarcely a murmer from the labour movement tops. Union heads kept mass job action, urgently needed to counter the anti-labour coups, off the political agenda.
Unions in Canada now encompass 31 per cent of the work force, 9 per cent less than in 1983. Average wages are lower now than in a generation. Morale is even lower.
Some union leaders talk about confronting the threat of so-called ‘right to work’ laws (which would end compulsory deduction of union dues at pay source). Meanwhile they side-step the need to fight rollbacks in wages, benefits and pensions, and the insidious lower wage rate increasingly imposed on new hires. Such heinous measures undermine all workers’ (especially young workers’) confidence in unions.
Is the 30 year pattern of retreat by Labour due primarily to an inherent lack of self-confidence, to ingrained passivity, or to false consciousness on the part of working people? Are unions no longer suited to their task, as some academic ‘Marxists’ argue? Or does a sense of powerlessness simply feed off bureaucrats’ self-inflicted failures? Does Labour’s retreat arise from an aversion to struggle by union officials?
Plenty of evidence suggests that where a good, strong lead is offered, large numbers of people are willing to fight the austerity agenda of growing social inequality. The massive Quebec students’ uprising, the global Occupy protests, and the cross-Canada Idle No More movement testify to that. What’s lacking, especially at the top, is a will to fight, or even to allow the ranks to exercise the option.
Treachery, Authoritarianism undermine Teachers
In the teachers’ unions we find a particularly egregious example of class collaboration, and the strangulation of rank and file initiative.
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association brass agreed to concessions before the Ontario Liberal government enacted Bill 115 (which suspended collective bargaining and the right to strike for education workers) – and did so without conducting a vote of OECTA members. Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario followed suit. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation tops mounted token protest rallies, and simultaneously negotiated local concessionary deals. In York and Niagara districts, members voted in November to reject the deals that mirrored provincial take aways, despite heavy pressure from Federation headquarters to accept. In February 2013, OSSTF suspended its ‘political action’ protest (chiefly the boycott of extra-curricular activities, which impacted mostly on students and parents), and in April capitulated to the province’s demands, with minor tweaks. ETFO, the last holdout, gave way on June 13. Discouraged by the unravelling of what began as a common front of resistence to austerity, education workers ratified the deals. But scandal dogs the leaders who did the dirty deeds.
Outraged members of Toronto OSSTF are demanding accountability from the District 12 Executive which donated $30,000 to four candidates contending for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.
And members’ indignation pursues former OSSTF President Ken Coran. Coran angrily denounced the Liberals for violating collective bargaining rights, right up to the front door of the Liberal Party leadership convention in February. Then Coran stood as a Liberal candidate in the byelections held on August 1. Was his candidacy a reward for services rendered?
As it turned out, Coran came a dismal, distant third in London West. The labour-based New Democratic Party surprised the pundits by winning that seat, and by making an even bigger breakthrough in Windsor-Tecumseh. The Conservatives captured Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and the Liberals retained Ottawa South, and Scarborough-Guildwood in Toronto. All five contested constituencies had been held by Liberal Cabinet Ministers. The loss of three is a serious blow to the scandal-plagued Liberal minority government at Queen’s Park, now reduced to 50 out of 107 seats, with Tories holding 37 and the NDP 20. Most observers expect the next Ontario-wide election will occur in Spring 2014.
While perpetrating treachery from on high, union officials curtail democracy below. The latest attack is a ten year ban on this writer from attending OSSTF meetings for the crime of speaking out of turn at a substitute teachers’ bargaining unit meeting in November 2012. At the time, I demanded job access data that the local executive (consisting mainly of double-dipping retirees) refused to disclose for 10 years!
A decade ago, OSSTF officials removed the entire elected leadership of the Toronto substitute teachers’ unit on petty and false charges, and put conservative retirees in control. The latter surrendered an array of job security, wage and benefit gains in short order. On July 25, activists from several unions launched a Campaign to Defend Democracy in Unions and to Rescind the 10 Year Ban. For more info, please visit:
The fact is that the teachers’ top brass, and most of the entire labour leadership, would rather suppress militant members than fight austerity-minded bosses. Bureaucrats put a premium on tight control — even if it means weakening workers’ resistence to an agenda that harms the vast majority, including ultimately themselves.
Going Forward
So, how can workers organize in a non-sectarian way to challenge both the bosses and the labour traitors? Fortunately, some positive examples exist, pointing the way forward.
In the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, rank and file members organized a large and inspiring Solidarity Caucus. Its mission: to get OPSEU to rejoin the Ontario Federation of Labour, to which it stopped paying dues without good reason. The caucus attracted much support. It helped to elect reformers to the union’s Executive Board, but it did not win the re-affiliation battle at the April 2013 OPSEU convention. The campaign continues.
In OECTA, in March, convention delegates defeated and replaced the President who signed the bad deal and denied members a vote.
Meanwhile members of OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario formed a cross-union caucus, the Rank and file Education Workers of Toronto. REWT initiated actions to protest government policies, and is now demanding accountability from officials who approved funding and other forms of collaboration with the governing party which attacked teachers’ rights.
And in the Toronto substitute teachers’ bargaining unit, the Action Caucus, which was launched in 2003 when local control was undemocratically usurped, has been increasingly successful at winning policy and action resolutions at unit meetings. It has come close to getting its candidates elected. The ten year ban reflects the bogus executive’s fear of losing control.
What do these experiences suggest?
  1. The fight against capitalist austerity and union concessions requires rank and file organization in all the unions to promote mass job action to win a Workers’ Agenda.
  2. Rank and file organization should be based on policies, not personalities. It should actively strive to replace the current mis-leaders on political grounds. Abstention from struggle in the union arena, or giving political support to this or that wing of the bureaucracy, are a betrayal of the fight against austerity and concessions.
  3. To change the overall direction of our unions, it is necessary to build a cross union, class struggle left wing. This has been the approach of revolutionary socialists in the unions in Canada and the USA since the 1920s, pioneered by the Trade Union Education League. The TUEL, which was active prior to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party, provides an example that every worker-socialist should study.