Will NDP and Labour rise to the challenges of 2011?

Beyond North America, labour is on the march and the left is finding its voice again. Well into the third year of the global economic crisis, growing opposition to capitalist policies is fueled by layoffs, social cutbacks, rising school fees, currency wars, environmental catastrophes, attacks on civil liberties and festering imperial military interventions.

So why do the accumulating conditions for a radical resurgence seem to spell trepidation and crisis for the labour-based New Democratic Party and for unions in Canada? Could it be that the labour leadership has been driving in reverse gear for so long that they find it difficult to stop, and shift into forward?

The problems are numerous. Many are self-inflicted. Instead of fighting the bosses, some union leaders are fighting one another. Conflicts over raiding (in the Canadian Labour Congress) and bids to undermine top elected officers (in the Ontario Federation of Labour) testify to that.

Instead of mobilizing the rank and file to reverse corporate bail-outs and tax gifts to the rich, union leaders tend to rely on weak ad campaigns, legalistic initiatives and token rallies. Instead of bolstering labour’s political independence, the tops play footsie (or cohabit) with Liberals. Instead of deepening workers’ democracy, the brass clamp down on the left, and treat the NDP membership like a milch cow rather than as a source of new ideas and energy.

This helps to explain the public cynicism that surrounds labour and its political arm in English Canada. It reveals why the party cannot translate its opposition to the war in Afghanistan, and its resistence to the attack on pensions, welfare and public services, into significant growth at the polls.

The likelihood of a federal election in Spring 2011 should be good news for the NDP. Party debts are paid and many of its candidates are already in the field. But the NDP vote in three federal by-elections on November 29 sank like a stone; it even lost its long-held seat in Winnipeg North.

Even more inauspicious was the municipal election disaster in Toronto where a voter revolt against the lethal combination of service cuts and tax hikes turfed the Liberal/NDP regime at City Hall in favour of a right wing populist mayor and allied anti-labour councillors.

As in west coast British Columbia, the Ontario NDP failed to channel popular opposition to a heightened Harmonized Sales Tax, which could have been done by demanding its abolition and its replacement by major tax hikes on the rich. Proposing paltry exceptions to the regressive tax, and steering clear of a radical critique of the bourgeois tax system, has allowed right wing populists to run wild with the issue, especially in B.C.

Dissatisfaction with BC NDP Leader Carol James within her own provincial legislative caucus forced her to resign from the top job. Her anemic response to the sales tax hike, which was a broken promise that forced Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell to quit in November, was only the tip of the political iceberg. James’ refusal to campaign in 2009 for reversal of Liberal provincial cutbacks, and her ongoing attempts to distance the NDP from its traditional labour base, while appealing to the business elite, which remains firmly aligned with the BC Liberals, proved to be her undoing as NDP leader.

This turn of events shows the potential to win the party ranks to the fight for a pro-labour, socialist agenda – a fight that can succeed only if it is actively waged.

In the meantime, the NDP is flailing away, still identified with the late-2008 aborted federal coalition with the Liberal Party, and still smarting from the split in the NDP parliamentary caucus over the federal gun registry. The social democratic leadership is so perplexed that Leader Jack Layton may even summon his MPs to vote for the next Conservative federal budget just to avoid precipitating a Spring election.

Internally, morale is low, reflected in stagnant membership figures. The undemocratic move last March by the Ontario NDP executive to postpone the party’s provincial convention by nearly two years likewise does not inspire confidence. Neither does the decision by the senior party executive to imposed a “re-vote” that overturned the win by leftists at the Ontario New Democratic Youth Convention (see article in Dec. 2010 S.A.)

The disorientation, confusion, even crisis in sections of the NDP reflect also the state of the labour movement, and vice-versa. At the BC Federation of Labour Convention, held Nov. 29 – Dec. 3, there was little word about the schism among the NDP tops. But division within the labour brass was evident when most of the CUPE delegation walked away for an entire session. This left the BC Government Employees’ Union in the hall even though the latter will be outside the Fed in January due to the imminent expulsion of the federal public service umbrella, the National Union of Public and General Employees, over non-payment of dues to the CLC. That is NUPGE’s response to a dispute over raiding of its affiliates by other unions in three western provinces.

On the positive side of the ledger, the BC Fed adopted a sharp critique of the global corporate agenda. But it did so without mapping out a mass action response to it. At the same time it voted to end its practice of hosting annual Fed conventions in favour of holding them only once every two years — a prescription for a less responsive, less accountable, and less democratic union federation.

It is the last thing workers want, highlighting the urgent need for a class struggle opposition in the unions and the NDP to mine the deep reserves of working class solidarity, to sweep aside the mis-leaders of our class, and to fight for a Workers’ Agenda against the employers’ relentless austerity drive. -Barry Weisleder

Stock Market Pension Plan is a Tory Scam

The latest brutal assault on the social wage is Ottawa’s reversal on the Canada Pension Plan. Instead of enhancing the CPP, which federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promised to do when he met with his provincial counterparts in Prince Edward Island last summer, the Tories are pushing a private sector scheme.

Leaning heavily on the capitalist economic crisis as a convenient crutch, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “Now is not the time for CPP premium increases.” Does Harper appreciate the cruel irony of asking impecunious pensioners to invest in the stock market which had three meltdowns in 15 years (1997, 2002 and 2008)?

The CPP, which provides a guaranteed benefit to all seniors, should be increased immediately. Why? Because…

  1. It is impossible to live on a basic pension of $11,200 a year.

  2. Sixty per cent of workers have no workplace pension.

  3. One-third of Canadians between the ages of 24 and 64 have no personal retirement savings.

  4. Only one in four taxpayers put any money into a Registered Retirement Savings Plan in 2008. After 25 years of stagnant or declining wages, it is hardly surprising how difficult it is for people to save on their own.

  5. 1.6 million Canadian seniors today live in poverty, with incomes below $16,000 a year.

Presently, the Canadian Labour Congress is campaigning for a doubling of Canada and Quebec Pension Plan benefits, to be phased in by small premium increases over seven years. The resulting $22,400 annual pension income would be an improvement, but still woefully inadequate, especially seven years from now, and beyond.

The CPP, which hasn’t been expanded since its inception 45 years ago, should be tripled, and the main burden of the contribution increase should be borne by big business and the rich. Yes, the class that has gained the most from two decades of corporate tax cuts, and that appropriated more than 30 per cent of the extra income generated during the so-called boom years (according to Linda McQuaig and Neil Brook’s recent book “The Trouble with Billionaires”), should pay for this and other pressing social needs.

Naturally, any increase in CPP benefits is opposed by the banks, financial institutions and insurance companies which have profited enormously by selling RRSPs.

Enter the Conservative federal government, and their political cousins in the province of Alberta. They propose a new Pooled Registered Pension Plan – a voluntary scheme to be administered by the financial industry. Small and large firms could use this to offer private pensions to their employees, who would pay into it, but get a pension based only on market performance. It would spread a growing disease, the focus of a bitter labour struggle at Vale Inco, and now at Stelco, in which management seeks to replace “defined benefits” with “defined contributions”. The latter embodies the possibility of little or no pension for the entrapped workers.

Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan, who was among two dozen protesters who occupied Finance Minister Flaherty’s office in Whitby, Ontario on December 19, called the Tory scheme “a gimmick to get the issue of pensions off the front pages.” Ryan was all too kind.

Actually, it is a wretched scam designed to rip off the working class and further subsidize financial Capital. It is a case of kicking workers while we’re down.

The appropriate answer to the conniving Tories, and to the more subtle but equally venal Liberals, is for workers to stand up and fight back. General strikes from Portugal to Greece, powerful and unifying actions scarcely reported in the North American media, show the way to defend pensions and other threatened social gains. -Barry Weisleder

Too much ‘sentiment’, not enough story

The surprise winner of the 2010 Giller Prize for best English-Canadian fiction, “The Sentimentalists” by Johanna Skibsrud (Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2010, 218 pages) is both an artistic and political disappointment. The judges went a little overboard with their laudable encouragement of the young poet-turned-novelist. They are apparently willing to overlook tortuous sentence structure, a painful over-indulgence in bracketed subordinate clauses, and dense lyricism that suffocates an interesting story-line. Frequent bursts of creative metaphoric prose do not rescue Skibsrud’s stumbling transition to the novel form.

“The Sentimentalists” could have channelled the intense public interest in war crimes, post-traumatic stress disorder and wikileaks. It is a tale told by the daughter of a Vietnam war veteran. Her dad, haunted by the horror of an actual massacre by U.S. Marines of a village of Vietnamese peasants in 1967, leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to a small Ontario town.

There the vet lives with the father of his soldier buddy, who died mysteriously, possibly the victim of an attempted cover-up. The daughter has issues too – a failed romantic relationship, estrangement from her frequently-absent, alcoholic father – but the more she learns about the horrors that contorted their lives, the more she concludes that the past is irretrievably subjective and ultimately unknowable.

This novel is a missed opportunity. It could have dramatized a compelling history that has contemporary resonance. It could have situated it in today’s big picture of power, profit and the system’s multi-million victims. Connecting past and present wars of imperial intervention, and linking the toxic fogs that they propagate, alas, is a job for another writer. -Barry Weisleder

Harper sticks it to the anti-war majority

by Barry Weisleder

In a bruising blow to government credibility and bourgeois decorum, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his minority Conservative regime extended the ‘mission’ of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan by three years, without even the formality of a debate and vote in the House of Commons. Only a formality it evidently would have been, since the Official Opposition Liberal Party has been pushing for an extension of the imperialist occupation since Liberal External Affairs Critic (and ex-NDP Ontario Premier) Bob Rae returned from his summer visit to Kabul and Kandahar singing the praises of the military’s civilizing influence abroad. (This was confirmed on November 30 when Liberal MPs voted with the governing Conservatives 209-81 to defeat a Bloc Quebecois motion, supported by New Democrat MPs, that expressed opposition to the war extension.)

Violation of the decision by Parliament in 2008 to withdraw all Canadian troops by the end of 2011 was widely predicted. The extension is now cynically presented in the guise of a non-combat “training mission” slated to end in 2014. Then, supposedly, the Afghan army and police will be able to fend for themselves against the insurgency. This is ‘Vietnamization’ by any other name.

Everyone knows that ‘training’ occurs in the field of combat, not just in a classroom ‘behind the wire’. The mocking change of rubric will not stem the flow of Canadian casualties, already encompassing over 1,600 mangled bodies and minds, and 152 lives snuffed out by a combination of road-side explosives, snipers and suicide bombers that operate on all sides of the ‘wire’ – to say nothing of the continuing toll on Afghans, tens of thousands of whom have perished in the conflict.

In a country consumed by war since 1979, training in the arts of armed combat is not lacking. The problem of the Afghan army and police, and those whom they target for recruitment, is that they don’t want to fight for a corrupt government propped up by foreigners. According to NATO documents, the military alliance believes it has to train 23 recruits for every 10 soldiers that stay with the Afghan National Army. Every year 20 per cent of the army and 25 per cent of the Afghan National Civil Order Police quit. Private security forces scoop up some trained soldiers. Some die in combat. Many defect to the Taliban or to other insurgent groups, which not only pay better than the $165(U.S.) a month NATO issues to enlistees, but offer the opportunity of fighting for the home side.

What would happen in a post-occupation Afghanistan? As brave Afghan ex-MP and outspoken feminist Malalai Joya told audiences in an October speaking tour across Canada, once the NATO armies of occupation leave, the Afghan people will be able to concentrate on fighting one enemy rather than two.

A reduced Canadian contingent of 950 soldiers for the ‘training mission’, down from the present 2,500 combatants, will still cost $500 million a year for their supply and upkeep. Another $200 million will go toward “development work” and transition costs. Close to $20 billion has already been spent or committed by Ottawa to the intervention. (What has Washington to show for spending $350 billion there so far?)

According to the latest Harris-Decima poll, 60 per cent of Canadians surveyed are opposed to any Canadian military presence in Afghanistan. Other polls show 80 per cent opposed to the latest extension of the ‘mission’.

Both the labour-based New Democratic Party and the nationalist Bloc Quebecois in Parliament have demanded withdrawal of Canadian Forces by June 2011. The NDP leadership had to be dragged towards that position by leftist and anti-war activists in the party. The shift occurred was confirmed at the September 2006 NDP federal convention in Quebec City where the NDP Socialist Caucus played a prominent role in pushing leader Jack Layton beyond an ‘out of Kandahar’ stance to an ‘out of Afghanistan now’ policy. Still, vestiges of liberal ‘peacekeeping’ illusions in the army and state continue to crop up in the statements of NDP officials. They commonly relapse into talk of ‘redeployment’ of troops to Africa, Haiti and other conflict zones.

Indeed, the Toronto Star stressed in a November 17 editorial, “the Commons never demanded a wholesale military exit when it ‘capped’ the Kandahar mission. It called for the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar by December 2011” and “emphasized the need to train and equip Afghan forces.” The Star, a staunchly pro-Liberal Party paper, says “the new mission is true to that call”. The NDP leadership, which played sotto voce at the time, now bears a portion of the blame for the rulers being able to camouflage their latest military gambit.

Autumn was a tough season for the Harper Tories: losing their bid for a U.N. Security Council seat to Portugal, losing a military air force base in the United Arab Emirates, and having to suffer two popular speaking tours across Canada by former British MP George Galloway who Canadian Border Security illegally barred from entering the country in 2009. Their latest bludgeon, extending an aggressive military presence abroad without even a public discussion, is all too reminiscent of Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament, twice. Recall, that was done in part to avoid accountability for Canadian Forces’ complicity with the torture of prisoners of war in Afghanistan.

The government’s sanctimonious invocations to ‘support our troops’ and ‘make sure their sacrifice is not in vain’ seem to shatter on contact with the reality of how veterans are treated. Thousands live in physical and mental misery, forced to battle Ottawa for adequate funding for medicine and shelter. The New Veterans’ Charter introduced by the Conservative government in 2006 replaced lifetime pensions to injured vets with a poor combination of lump sum payments and income support. This doesn’t sit well with the Tory base. Nor is the rest of the population impressed with the lack of ‘progress’ on democracy, clean government, women’s rights or finding Osama Bin Laden, the oft-touted initial aims of the intervention.

Concerning what the war is really about, the major commercial media rarely, if ever, mentions that Afghanistan is a potential energy supply corridor and a treasure trove of enormous mineral wealth. If NATO negotiates a modus vivendi with Taliban and associated forces to prolong the western occupation, those will be the reasons, none of which are humanitarian.

The November 20 NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal confirmed plans to stay in Afghanistan for decades to come. The challenge facing the anti-war movement is to mobilize the anti-war, anti-occupation majority into the streets. It is not enough to decry the Emperor’s nudity. Mass protest action is needed on a Pan-Canadian and global level to withdraw the troops and trainers, to end the occupation now. The Canadian Peace Alliance should take up the call of the U.S.-based United National Anti-War Committee for protest rallies and demonstrations on April 9, 2011. An international Day of Action against the imperialist war makers and war alliances should be a top priority.

Successful Toronto Trotsky School 2010

by Barry Weisleder

“Marxism versus Anarchism” was the biggest draw at the third annual Socialist Action Trotsky School in Toronto, November 19-20. The Saturday afternoon debate featured SA-USA leader Adam Shils, from Chicago, and Mick Sweetman, a member of the Ontario-based anarchist group Common Cause. It showed how such an encounter can be respectful of differences, and at the same time sharp and informative.

Both sides, including numerous audience participants, rejected the Black Bloc tactic of inflicting damage on commercial property, defended all victims of police violence, and argued in favour of mobilizing working people “at the point of production” against the current capitalist austerity drive.

Although serious differences remain over the need for a revolutionary party and a workers’ state to lead the transition to socialism, this all-too-uncommon conversation confirmed there is a basis for Marxists and anarchists to work together. That includes efforts to end the wars of occupation in the Middle East, campaigning to free U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and working to build a class struggle opposition in the unions to end labour concessions and to foster union democracy.

In all, over fifty people attended the two-day Education for Activists Conference held at the University of Toronto. The Friday evening talk on “James P. Cannon — Building the revolutionary party under North American conditions” was preceded by a rousing fund appeal by two Ontario New Democratic Youth Executive-Elect members. They collected more than one hundred dollars to subsidize travel for NDP youth members planning to attend a ‘re-vote’ conference imposed by Ontario NDP officials (at the behest of the deposed ONDY right wing) in an attempt to reverse the election of an activist, leftist slate on November 7 at the ONDY convention in Hamilton, Ontario.

Presentations on “The relevance of the ideas of Leon Trotsky” by this writer, and “What it means to be a Revolutionary Today” by Toronto SA executive member Julius Arscott, sparked animated and stimulating discussions.

The conference was capped by a very pleasant Social at a nearby pub. Participants kept the literature table staff busy handling a steady stream of purchases of SA newspapers, buttons and booklets. The welcome addition of one new member and three other people who expressed an interest in working closely with SA-Canada were additional signs of the success of the gathering. Our next major educational conference will be held in Toronto in May 2011.

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