by Bruce Allen
At the end of August 2013 a new union, called Unifor, will be launched in Canada with a membership of over 300,000 workers. At a convention in Toronto, the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), will officially merge, creating the largest private sector union in the country.
Ostensibly, Unifor will be more powerful and influential than either of its founding parts. It will have more members and more resources at its disposal. But that means only that it has potentially greater power and influence. The merger in no way guarantees that these qualities will be fully realized. Size is certainly not synonymous with effectiveness. In fact, increasingly there are compelling reasons to view this merger with considerable apprehension. In fact, the more one sees of this merger and the process giving rise to it, the more there is cause for concern.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the merger process. A short time ago CAW National President Ken Lewenza, when interviewed by the Windsor Star, had the audacity to claim the merger process could not be more open and transparent. If he actually believes that, he has a unique concept of openness and transparency. CAW rank and file members have next to no idea what is going on. Even local CAW leaders have largely been left in the dark until very recently. Many readily acknowledge this.
The merger process has in fact been driven from the very top of the two unions downwards and effectively shaped behind closed doors. Few even know who are the people on the committees which have been assembling the terms of merger of the two unions. Certainly the rank and file have not in any way shaped the process, nor have local union leaders. The bureaucracies of the two unions have exclusively shaped the process. Only now are they engaging, in a very limited and controlled way, local union leaders and members via a series of information meetings and a conference call. The membership has essentially been told they can’t just show up at a meeting of their own union to discuss the new union they are about to become members of, and pay union dues to, and be profoundly affected by.
Consider the following. Initially, fourteen information meetings about the merger were scheduled to take place across Canada. Half were in Ontario. Only one meeting each was held in the provinces of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. None was held in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. This was hardly conducive to accessibility and transparency.
But the most damning thing is that neither individual members nor local unions can send resolutions to the founding convention of the new union. What this effectively means is that the bureaucracy of these two unions is going to present a complete merger package to the delegates to the founding convention. Basically, the delegates will be told to take it, in its entirety, or leave it. Thus, the delegates chosen by the membership will have a choice between rubber stamping the entire merger package, or voting against it and effectively scuttling the merger.
This is not the worst of it. When the critical vote is held, if brutal past experience is indicative, there will be an element of intimidation at work. The person chairing the convention will likely make it a standing vote. Delegates vote by standing up to vote, rather than by raising a hand — never mind having a secret ballot. Thus, delegates who want to vote against the merger package will find themselves having to stand up with the eyes of everyone in the room glaring at them.
These things must be stressed because the process reveals that there will be a real absence of democracy in the new union which structurally, and in practice, will perpetuate the absence of meaningful democracy — which has been absent in the CAW at the national level since its inception, exemplified by the fact that, at the CAW’s national council meetings, not one recommendation of the national president has been voted down since 1992.
Consistent with all of this, another thing is noteworthy. Back in 1985, when the then Canadian Region of the UAW broke from the UAW to form the CAW, large general membership meetings were held where the union’s rank and file could go to microphones and express their views without facing a wall of intimidation. They actually debated the issue of forming a new union, and then voted on it. The vote was by a show of hands, not forcing people to stand up to vote. Nothing comparable is happening this time around.
What this reveals is a considerable regression in terms of there being democracy within the union. What this shows is that rather than moving towards a stronger, more influential and democratic organization, what is emerging is one big unaccountable, self-perpetuating, privileged bureaucracy over which the rank and file will have very little control.
Despite this generally bleak picture, there is some reason for hope. That hope lies in the fact that this union is being arbitrarily cobbled together by the bureaucracies of the two unions with huge unresolved issues.
Foremost among these is the question of political action, which centres on the future relationship to the NDP. They have no answer for this question and it is certain to spark intense debate.
I am hoping this debate will lead to what veteran CAW and socialist militant Joe Flexer used to call “an outbreak of democracy.” The task then will be to pour gasoline on the fire and break things wide open. That opening should include challenging the longstanding embrace of contract concessions by both organizations, and the tepid, selective support given to social movements resisting the austerity agenda.
Only if these things are done will the merger constitute a historic step forward for the labour movement. It is imperative that they are done.
The obvious lesson from the May 27 British Columbia provincial election is ‘don’t trust opinion polls’. But what can we learn from the NDP campaign, besides the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs is not the only team capable of blowing a huge lead late in the game? *
Consider the observation of Tara Ehrcke, president of the Victoria Teachers’ Association (affiliate of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation). “My greatest disappointment about this election was not the outcome, but the fact that not a single party stood up and spoke out for a radical re-evaluation of the massive inequity in our society. No political party really spoke to the need to tax the wealthy and to reinvest that money in services that benefit everyone, collectively. Like every election in my adult memory (back to the Premier Bill Vander Zalm days of the eighties), the debate was between a neo-liberal party of the right, and an NDP trying to be a Blairite party of the centre who speaks left to a left audience, right to a right audience, and promises nothing to anyone for fear someone might not like it.”
Reporter Justine Hunter wrote in the May 16 Globe and Mail (BC Edition): “Over his two years as leader, Mr. Dix developed an agenda that was designed not to spook voters. The slogan was change, “one practical step at a time.” He courted the business community with the promise that he would not try to move too fast.
“It was a bad campaign,” said Innovative Research pollster Greg Lyle, a former Liberal campaign manager. The New Democrats were offering incremental change that was hard for voters to get excited about, he said. “He could have built a movement for a compassionate revolution.” Instead, he mounted a defensive campaign aimed at holding a perceived lead in the polls.
“It was a fundamental error, believing that their vote was solid.”
Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star columnist, put it best on May 16. He wrote:
“British Columbia’s election was many things….it was also a test run for the new, moderate, incrementalist NDP — the NDP that, in its federal form, Jack Layton refashioned and Tom Mulcair inherited. Indeed, three members of Layton’s brain trust — Brian Topp, Brad Lavigne and Anne McGrath — held key positions in the campaign.
“So the fact that this new, moderate NDP managed to lose badly in B.C. — in spite of its early and overwhelming lead in the polls, in spite of voter fatigue with Clark’s Liberals — casts a long shadow.
“The NDP was determined to portray itself as bland. Dix may have been Glen Clark’s chief of staff during the tumultuous ’90s. But his campaign motto this time was minimalist: “one practical step at a time.”
“His promises — such as one to ensure that nursing home residents receive two rather than just one bath a week — were underwhelming. It was at its core a strangely defensive campaign, as if the NDP were saying to voters: “We know you’re sick of the Liberals and wary of us. But don’t be frightened. You can vote for us without fear of our doing much.”
“To that end, Dix presented himself in his stump speeches as softspoken, amiable and cautious. His message was: under the NDP, things will change but marginally. The strategy didn’t work.
“First, the NDP can’t escape its own past. By any reasonable standard, it ceased to be a socialist party long ago. But no matter how many times it tries to purge its constitution of anti-capitalist language, a good many voters still view it as a party of the left.
“Christy Clark’s Liberals seized on this… My guess is that the New Democrats nationally will run into the same problem during the 2015 federal election campaign. It will be difficult to convince those who mistrust left-wing parties that the new, moderate NDP has changed its spots.
“Second, by focusing on incrementalism, Dix gave B.C. voters few positive reasons to vote NDP. The centrepiece of the party platform was the worthy issue of skills training. But Clark’s Liberals offered education goodies, too.
“Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats, who prefer equally bite-size pieces of practical policy to broad vision might want to reflect on Dix’s failure here.”
That brings us to the budget of the Ontario Liberal minority government, which Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath decided to support in the third week of May.
Let’s be clear. Premier Kathryn Wynne’s budget is a capitalist austerity budget. There is a 1% cap in annual programme spending; a 3% allowable annual rise in tuition fees; zero growth in hospital base funding; 2% growth in annual health care spending; $100 increase in the monthly Ontario Child Benefit (instead of the $200 promised in the Liberal poverty reduction plan), and income testing of seniors’ drug costs. A 1% hike in social assistance rates; 0% increase in the minimum wage. And, of course, all of this is built on a 2 year wage freeze across the public service, and on the imposition of unjust terms and conditions forced on Ontario education workers, including suspension of collective bargaining and the right to strike. A working class party that supports such an agenda ends up paying a big political price. Just ask Bob Rae.
For what they’re worth, the latest opinion polls, following NDP endorsement of the buget, show the Liberals up, and the NDP dropping into third place, well behind the Tories. The NDP Socialist Caucus slogan sums it up best: To survive, the NDP must turn left.
* If the judicial recount confirms the NDP win in Coquitlam-Maillardville, the B.C. Liberals will end up with 49 seats in the legislature, the NDP 34, and the Greens and independent Vicki Huntington one each.
The result would be almost identical to 2009, when the B.C. Liberals won 49 seats, the NDP 35, and Huntington won in Delta South. The final popular vote breakdown was: B.C. Liberals 44.14 per cent; NDP 39.71 per cent; Greens 8.13 per cent and Conservatives 4.76 per cent.
The crusading pro-choice doctor, Henry Morgentaler, died in Toronto, May 29, 2013 at the age of 90. His death came three months after the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Supreme Court decision striking down Canada`s federal abortion law. That victory for women`s reproductive rights was the product of more than 20 years of struggle in which Dr. Morgentaler played a key role.
Born in 1923, Morgentaler grew up in Lodz, Poland, the son of trade union organizer affiliated to the Socialist Jewish Bund. In 1939, at the age of 16, his family was thrown into the maelstrom of the Nazi occupation and the impending Judeocide. Morgantaler`s father perished early on and so subsequently, did his mother and sister. But Henry and his brother managed to survive their internment at Aushwitz and Dachau.
Morgentaler emigrated to Canada in 1950, settling in Montreal. In doing so, he chose to throw in his lot with a country and a province still rife with anti-semitic prejudice. Israel did not attract the young Morgentaler, and in this sense he took his stand with the tradition of Jewish universalism rather than with the exclusivity and colonial ambitions that underlay the Zionist project.
Having completed his medical studies in French at Université de Montréal, Henry established a practice in the working class east-end of the city. There, he encountered the burden of unwanted pregnancy and the desperation of women who sought to end it. He re-oriented his practice first to contraception, and then began to perform abortions in his clinic in defiance of the law. He had earlier joined the Humanist Society and became a prominent public pro-choice advocate.
In 1970, his clinic was raided and he was arrested. Consecutive trials resulted in jury acquittals, until the jury verdicts were overturned by the Supreme Court and he was sent to prison. During his 10 month incarceration, he suffered a heart attack. Upon his release, he returned to providing abortions, finally securing an amnesty in 1976 from the first Parti Quebecois government. Thereafter, doctors performing abortions in free-standing clinics were granted immunity, rendering the federal law null and void in Quebec.
On the basis of that hard-won victory in his home province, Morgentaler launched an offensive in English-speaking Canada in the mid-1980`s, opening clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. He continued to defy the state and powerful anti-choice forces until his Supreme Court victory in 1988.
Canada is one of a handful of countries in which access to abortion is not constrained by law. Access is still restricted because of geographic or funding disparities. Nevertheless, the 1988 judgment represented a great advance for women`s physical and mental health and has produced a generation who regard abortion as an established right for all women.
One could criticize Morgentaler`s limited political perspectives or his personality quirks, but he was a true hero willing to sacrifice for a cause in which he and millions of others believed. His life is testimony to the important role exceptional individuals can play in history. At the same time, most of the commentary that greeted his death has given short shrift to the social and political factors that came together to make this breakthrough for reproductive rights possible.
At the very time that Morgentaler was establishing himself professionally in Montréal, Quebec was on the cusp of a national and class awakening that shook the foundations of Anglo-Canadian domination that had prevailed for almost two hundred years. Not the least of the many facets of this rebellion, was the determination of Quebecois women to throw off the yoke of the patriarchal system supervised by the Roman Catholic Church that was an integral part of their national oppression. To this day, conservative religious forces have been unable to restore their former ideological authority, including in matters of sexuality and gender oppression.
The arrival of so-called second wave feminism was an absolutely critical factor in the abortion rights struggle in Canada and Quebec. A key initiative was the 1970 Abortion Caravan, culminating in 35 women chaining themselves to the gallery benches of the House of Commons. In Canada, as elsewhere, the women comrades of the organizations affiliated to the Fourth International were important builders of the abortion rights campaigns. During the contestation of the 1980`s, a socialist feminist leadership schooled in that tradition, successfully fought for two important positions: the insistence on mass action in the streets to counter the anti-choice mobilisations, and the importance of defending the clinics from anti-choice harassment . These tactics were advanced not against, but parallel to the lobbying efforts of the mainstream pro-choice organizations and Morgentaler`s own legal challenge. Thus the unity of the movement was preserved at the same time as a mass response to the right-wing offensive was put into operation.
Socialist feminists took the struggle as well into the main institutions of the labour movement, notably the Ontario Federation of Labour and the New Democratic Party (NDP). Bringing the labour movement on side helped shift the balance of forces in English-speaking Canada where there is a partial but nonetheless significant political polarisation along class lines.
In the end these factors were critical: the removal of Quebec as a reactionary backwater and the rapid embrace by the vast majority of Quebecois of unrestricted access to abortion, coupled with a more polarised atmosphere in the Rest of Canada with powerful anti-choice forces but also a strong pro-choice response driving a wedge through society. These were sufficient to shift the consensus in Canada`s highest court and to break the resolve and ability of the bourgeois parties to keep some sort of statutory limitation on women’s right to choose.
In this respect, women in Canada and Quebec are in advance of their sisters in the United States and Mexico. On this issue at least, the relationship of forces is more favourable north of the 49th parallel, reflecting weaknesses in the Canadian bourgeois state.
However, no social advance is safe in this crisis-ridden epoch of capitalist decay. The failure of the NDP and the labour movement to challenge the offensive by the employer class have produced an aggressively right wing government with a majority in parliament. The religious right figure prominently in the Conservative Party. Anti-choice forces are re-grouping, ever alert to tactics which would erode the right to choose.
Harper’s political instincts tell him a frontal assault on abortion rights is to be avoided. He keeps the anti-choice zealots in his caucus on a tight leash. But he has permitted a number of private member’s bills to see the light of day. The latest of these takes aim against the phantasm of sex-selective pregnancy termination, trading on racist stereotypes about Asian parents. Of course, over 95% of abortions in Canada are performed before the sex of the fetus can even be ascertained. Of the remaining, almost all are terminations for genetic anomalies.
The anti-choice forces purport to defend women, laying a trap for the unwary. They are searching for potential wedges with which to pry open the lid that was closed to them in 1988, while hiding their true agenda which remains the obliteration of women’s reproductive rights.
Harper pretends to be above the fray. In reality, he offers a platform to the anti-choice zealots. In the international arena he has withdrawn funding from any organizations that include safe abortion in the measures they advocate for improving women’s reproductive health. And the anti-woman agenda of the Tories is further underlined by its cancellation of the universal child care program, abandonment of pay equity legislation, cuts to funding of dozens of womens’ groups and refusal to hold a public inquiry into missing aboriginal women.
It is always more difficult to defend a social advance that is taken for granted even though it enjoys widespread support. That is the case with abortion rights in Canada today, including in Quebec.
How can we counter the renewed right-wing anti-choice offensive?
If the struggle of the women’s movement and Henry Morgentaler teaches us anything, it is the importance of mass action, of not ceding the streets or public platforms to a powerful and ideologically motivated enemy.
Socialists want to see all abortions funded under medicare and oppose any move toward de-funding. That includes opposing the exclusion of refugee claimants from abortion coverage, part of Ottawa’s shameful attack on refugee health rights.
We support making abortion services more accessible for rural and geographically isolated women and in the meantime covering travel costs to centres where abortion is available.
For free access to safe abortion in all countries. Solidarity with women internationally, struggling for maternal health rights which includes abortion.
Take the defense of abortion rights once again into the unions and the NDP, the mobilisation of whose ranks was so integral to past advances.
Robbie Mahood is a leading member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste in Montreal. He is a former physician abortion provider in Winnipeg and Montreal.
Right wing governments in Canada seem to be on the ropes.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s regime is mired in scandals, the latest centred on a $90,000 payoff by his former chief of staff to cover-up misappropriation of funds by Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. Three Tory Senators accused of padding their expense claims now sit outside the Tory caucus as ‘independents’ while the RCMP investigates.
Toronto’s ‘stop the gravy train’ Mayor Rob Ford claims he doesn’t use crack cocaine. But two Toronto Star reporters, and the owner of U.S. web site Gawker, swear they saw hizzonner in a video sucking the smokey contents of a crack pipe. Five staffers quit the Mayor’s office in the two weeks after the news broke. Ford insists there is no such video, but according to inside sources, he confided to his staff that he knew the location of the hidden video. And one of the people pictured partying with Ford was found by police dead of gun shot wounds.
Montreal’s mayor, Gérald Tremblay, resigned in early November in the midst of an eyebrow-raising inquiry that revealed widespread corruption among city officials, contractors and members of organized crime. Just a few days later, Gilles Vaillancourt, the head of Quebec’s third-largest city, Laval, quit in the same context.
The Ontario minority Liberal government was rocked by revelations that it spent nearly $1 Billion to cancel the construction of unpopular gas plants west of Toronto, just to save Liberal seats in the Fall 2011 provincial election. After months of denial, and failure by former Premier Dalton McGuinty to release thousands of pages of incriminating evidence, new Premier Kathryn Wynne apologized for the wasteful fiasco.
Media pundits call it a right wing meltdown. It’s entertaining. It sells papers. In the case of Toronto, there was even a side benefit — it helped to kill a harmful downtown mega-casino project. But, looking at the big picture, scandal is no cure for austerity. Severe cutbacks and attacks on employment insurance, pensions, public services, environmental protection, scientific information-gathering and civil liberties continue apace. The fact is, such measures are integral to the corporate agenda in force, regardless the political stripe of the ruling party.
The situation in Toronto further illustrates the deeper problem. Liberals and social democrats, the main city council opposition to Ford’s wilting ultra-right wing, are chomping at the bit. They yearn to introduce new gas and sales taxes. They promote service fees, parking levies and road tolls to fund rapid transit projects urgently needed to relieve traffic gridlock.
Instead of proposing to tax big business, giant banks, wealthy developers, rich property owners and untaxed religious institutions, Ford’s opposition and the business media agitate for regressive taxes (the kind not based on ability to pay), which hit workers, seniors, students and the poor the hardest.
All of which goes to show what the real problem is. It’s the system. It matters little which eccentric leader, or authoritarian big wig, or capitalist party happens to be at the top.
Scandals are just a sign of divisions in the ruling class. They can be interesting, even mildly satisfying when they (however temporarily) humble the arrogant.
But scandal mongering is no substitute for mass action. Working class political action is what’s needed now to stop labour concessions, to reverse social cuts, to restore and extend democratic rights – in short, to win a Workers’ Agenda.