A memorable May Day Celebration in Toronto

Scores of people crowded into the Free Times Cafe on Saturday, May 1 for the 23rd annual Toronto Socialist Action May Day celebration. The politics, the music, the diversity of the gathering fittingly fulfilled the theme “Solidarity Against the Crisis”.

As the world descends deeper into economic depression, defiant slogans urged an alternative to labour concessions: Nationalize the auto giants, the big banks and the big oil/gas companies under workers’ control! Create jobs for all through public ownership, democratic planning and a shorter work week without loss of pay or benefits. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green energy efficiency. Fund health care, education and the arts, not imperialist wars of occupation. Hands off human rights and migrant labour. For a workers’ government. No to any NDP coalition with capitalist parties.

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, and Barry Weisleder, Socialist Action federal secretary. 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 who debuted selections from her new CD ‘Pirate Days’; Bill Heffernan, activist, teacher and song smith; Glen Hornblast, folk singer on the social justice scene; and Smokey Dymny, an IWW rebel troubadour. – Barry Weisleder

CAW concessions to Chrysler wipe out decades of gains

[by Barry Weisleder]

Thousands of Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) members at Chrysler plants in Toronto, Brampton, and Windsor, Ontario, approved another batch of labour concessions by 87 per cent on April 26.

Given the deluge of propaganda by big business media and politicians in favour of the rollbacks, it is surprising that as many as 13 per cent overall voted to reject it. Indeed, at Brampton, Ontario’s CAW Local 1285, 24 per cent of production-line workers who cast a ballot gave it a thumbs down.

The new deal delivers the cost savings of $19 per hour demanded by Chrysler and the federal Conservative government. Although no jobs and no new ‘green’ vehicle products are assured, and while Chrysler may still seek bankruptcy protection, the federal government pledges to give the company billions of dollars in aid.

The latest concessions wipe out decades of labour gains. They include reduced paid relief time, cuts to supplementary unemployment benefits, increased prescription drug fees, an end to semi-private hospital coverage, and the termination of car purchase and tuition rebate programmes. In addition, the wages of new employees will increase more slowly, and there is provision for the hiring of more part-time and contract workers at Chrysler plants.

These concessions occur on top of cuts already swallowed by the CAW at General Motors in a deal reached in March. That agreement freezes wages until 2012, reduces paid time off by 40 hours per year, scraps an annual $1700 bonus, cuts company contributions to union-sponsored programmes, and requires CAW members to pay $30 per month towards their health benefits.

Breaking from the pattern set with GM is a major departure for the CAW, which usually negotiates similar deals with all three of the Detroit-based auto firms. The CAW split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers’ Union in late 1984 over the UAW’s contract concessions.

The race to the bottom is far from over. Now GM wants the same breaks Chrysler got. And bosses outside the auto industry are wetting their lips.

So, what’s a union to do? Avoid following the CAW example of late. Since before the global market crash last fall, CAW officials have lobbied for protectionist barriers against Asian car imports, and demanded more government money for the shrinking North American auto giants. To that end, the CAW backed the Liberal Party in most ridings in the last two federal elections.

Once regarded as ‘progressive’ and ‘militant’, the CAW tops have uttered not a peep about demanding public equity for public investment in the car companies, let alone call for nationalization of the auto industry under workers’ and community democratic control.

Socialists and rank and file workers should sound the alarm and generate a big fight for public ownership as the alternative to subsidizing the corporate elite – before union concessions descend to deeper depths.

Court rebukes Harper on Omar Khadr case

[by Barry Weisleder]

Federal Court Justice James O’Reilly ordered the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to seek the return of Canadian Omar Khadr from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr has been held at Gitmo for nearly seven years, without trial, for allegedly killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when Khadr was 15 years old.

Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Guantanamo military tribunal process under former U.S. President George Bush “constitutes a clear violation of fundamental human rights.” The U.S. Supreme Court made a similar ruling. U.S. President Barack Obama wants Guantanamo shut down.

But Harper shrugged off the April 23 court order to request Khadr’s repatriation, and is pondering an appeal. Harper’s stonewalling comes on the heels of other actions that speak volumes about the character of the Conservative government and the P.M.

Those actions are: 1) A vicious repeat attack on civil liberties; 2) Cancellation of funding to an ethnic organization due to the antiwar views of its outspoken president; and 3) Blocking the visit of a popular British parliamentarian due to his opposition to foreign wars of occupation.

In the first place, the Conservatives are moving to restore Draconian police and court powers that existed under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The act expired in 2007 under a five-year sunset clause. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson plans to reinstate those powers, including preventive arrest for 72 hours of persons the authorities think are about to commit a terrorist act, and up to a year of detention if the person in question refuses to accept court-ordered restrictions on his freedom. ‘Investigative hearings’ that could force people to testify would be part of this law.

Holding people without charge, and compelling them to testify even if they incriminate themselves, are a gross violation of civil liberties. The previous law was allowed to terminate when it was apparent that it did not protect public safety, and that it only contributed to a climate of victimization in the service of a right-wing, pro-war agenda.

Pursuit of that agenda seems evident also in connection with the government’s decision to cut funding to the Canadian Arab Federation. CAF President Khaled Mouammar called Tory Immigration Minister Jason Kenney a “professional whore” after Kenney criticized the presence of Hezbollah and Hamas flags at anti-Israel rallies in Toronto. The Conservative government is renown for its uncritical support for apartheid Israel, including the recent Zionist state assault on Gaza that led to the massacre of over 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

The Arab federation received a $447,297 contribution from Kenney’s department to operate a settlement program in Toronto for two years, teaching new immigrants language and job searching skills. Mouammar told the media that Kenney’s decision will hurt newcomers to Canada, not just Arabs. Arabs make up only 5 per cent of those who receive CAF’s settlement services, which Mouammar said were among the best in the Toronto area. Mouammar described Kenney’s decision is “vindictive” and accused him of promoting Islamophobia internationally.

“This government is anti-Arab and anti-Muslim,” he said, adding that the federal government has refused to meet with the Canadian Arab Federation or the Canadian Islamic Congress since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power.

The third and most recent ugly outrage was the decision of the Canadian Border Services Agency to bar British MP George Galloway entry to Canada, where he was scheduled to speak in four cities. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney refused to use his powers to overturn the ban. He claims Galloway is barred, not due to his opposition to the wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but because of support for terrorism.

But Galloway, five times re-elected to Parliament, now leading the leftist RESPECT party, does not politically support Hammas, which Ottawa labels as terrorist. He only supports the right of the Palestinian people to elect to government the party of their choice, which happens to be the Hammas party. It won a majority of the seats in the Palestine Authority election of January 2006.

Even in the pages of the very right-wing National Post, writer John Ivison felt compelled to point out that if “the grounds for inadmissibility include acts of espionage, subversion or terrorism”, that “donating a fire engine, 12 ambulances, a fishing boat, trucks full of medicine, blankets, shoes and children’s toys to the people of Gaza hardly seems to fit the bill.”

Although the ham-fisted policy of the Tories gave Galloway’s anti-imperialist views a much bigger audience (his voice and image were transmitted via the internet to thousands of people at meetings in Canada, after a legal challenge failed to have Galloway admitted to Canada), Kenney’s position nonetheless sets a dangerous precedent.

Along with the other nasty initiatives, it seems to set the stage for a period of escalating censorship and repression that at least one wing of the Canadian ruling class deems necessary in order to curb dissent and protest as the economic crisis deepens. Where have we seen this picture before?

Bosses fire pregnant women workers

[by Barry Weisleder]

There is a disturbing surge in cases of pregnant women being fired by bosses, with the economic crisis cited as the excuse. The Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre, an independent agency funded by the province to provide free legal services to people experiencing discrimination, reports it is now receiving 10 to 15 calls a week on this issue. Nearly 50 years after Ontario enacted the Human Rights Code to prevent such discrimination, some bosses brazenly violate it.

Consuelo Rubio of the OHRLSC told the Toronto Star (April 24), “We actually have an e-mail from one employer saying, ‘Sorry, but with your little bundle, I don’t think we’ll be able to (re)hire you. We want a permanent solution.'” Most firings seem to occur soon after women announce they are pregnant, says Rubio. That puts women’s maternity leave benefits at risk, since to qualify for full benefits they must work 600 hours within the 52 weeks before filing.

This outrageous and illegal conduct extends to mistreatment of injured and disabled workers. The legal centre is investigating the case of a car parts plant in Peterborough, Ont., that laid off 18 unionized employees—all of whom had either claimed disability benefits or were on modified work assignments because of an injury—and hired 18 ‘healthy’ workers.

The truth is, the best remedy for bad bosses and capitalist economic depression is the same—and it isn’t more lawyers.

A May Day Celebration in Toronto, Canada

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!

Barry Weisleder,
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?”

Well?

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!

Ligue pour L'Action Socialiste