“Fighting Capitalist Austerity means challenging both the corporate bosses and the Labour / NDP bureaucracy”
Speech by Barry Weisleder, SA/LAS federal secretary, to SA work shop at PSF in Ottawa, August 22, 2014.
If the People’s Social Forum demonstrates one thing, it is that the appetite for fundamental change in this country is big and growing. And, at the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, I must say that it’s none too soon. Working people, the poor and the disenfranchised, women, youths, seniors and oppressed nations have had enough. We are sick and tired of the relentless attacks on our rights and living conditions, and the plunder of the environment, all for the sake of private profit maximization. Capitalism is a decaying, destructive and increasingly violent system. We see that from Gaza, to Iraq, to Ferguson, Missouri. We see it in the layoffs at Cisco Systems in Ottawa and Toronto, and in the plan to end home mail delivery across Canada. We see it in the greedy drive of the oil barons to build hazardous pipelines across aboriginal lands and through vital waterways.
For these and many more reasons, we in Socialist Action / LAS fight for the socialist transformation of society. Based on our understanding of history, which is the history of class struggles, we believe that the ruling 0.01% will not permit a peaceful, piecemeal conversion of present, class-divided society into a cooperative commonwealth. We believe that it will take a socialist revolution. To effect the fundamental changes needed to save humanity, civilization and all life on this planet from the jaws of plunder for profit, nothing less than a socialist revolution is required. And we contend that there can be no revolution without a revolutionary leadership in the form of a revolutionary party.
But the kind of leadership working people in this country have been getting is the very opposite. And that is half the problem we face. The capitalist system, with its relentless exploitation and oppression, is a given. The other half of the problem are the props that uphold the system. The labour / NDP bureaucracy is one of those props. That’s why we argue that the Fight Against Capitalist Austerity means challenging the labour and NDP bureaucracy.
Now here is a key point. Challenging the leadership does not mean walking away from, abandoning, or ignoring the unions and the labour-based party. To the contrary, it means being active in those organizations because millions of workers in English Canada and Quebec look to their unions and the NDP for leadership. Moreover, it is good that those organizations exist. If they were much weaker, or absent, the situation of the working class would be far worse, as it is in the USA. But challenging the mis-leaders of our class is not a task for cheerleaders or careerists. It is a task for honest workers and oppressed people who are willing to fight for a Workers’ Agenda, for good, secure jobs with decent pay and benefits, for a democratically planned, socially owned economy, and for a clean, safe, sustainable environment. Capitalism cannot provide those things. Pro-capitalist labour politicians won’t fight for them. So rank and file workers are obliged to organize inside our existing workers’ organizations to push aside those who are unwilling to lead, and to constitute a new, fighting, class struggle leadership.
The obstacles we face in the NDP are the same as the ones we face in the unions. How are they the same? Allow me to spell it out for you. The ruling body of the NDP between conventions is its Federal Council. It has 72 members. 31 of those Federal Councillors come directly from the labour movement, representing tens of thousands of affiliated members. Get the picture? The folks who have wavered and bowed under the blows of the capitalist austerity drive, are the same folks who have endorsed or condoned regressive NDP campaigns and policies, including support for oil pipelines from west to east, and defense of the Zionist apartheid state of Israel, even while it is smashing Gaza to pieces. You cannot effectively challenge one aspect of the problem without challenging the other. And you cannot change Canadian society without confronting and replacing both sets of mis-leaders. Of course, there are exceptional individuals at the top, but the exceptions prove the rule.
Now let’s be concrete and consider the record of the labour leadership in Canada. The prevailing theme is concessions. In sector after sector, from auto to steel, from forestry to railways, from the provincial and Federal Public Services to the Canadian postal service, bosses get the concessions they demand from labour.
There are militants here who can talk about OPSEU, CUPE, Unifor, CUPW and other unions.
I’m going to tell you about the teachers’ unions in Ontario. There we find an egregious example of class collaboration, and the strangulation of rank and file initiative.
In 2012 the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association brass agreed to concessions before the Ontario Liberal government enacted Bill 115 (the law which suspended collective bargaining and the right to strike for education workers) – and did so without conducting a vote of OECTA members. The 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 2012 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). In April 2013 OSSTF 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 resistance to austerity, education workers ratified the deals. But scandal dogged the leaders who did the dirty deeds.
Outraged members of Toronto OSSTF demanded accountability from their District Executive which donated $30,000 to four candidates who ran for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.
Members’ indignation pursued former OSSTF President Ken Coran. Coran angrily denounced the Liberals for violating collective bargaining rights. He did so right up to the front door of the Liberal Party leadership convention in February 2013. 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 distant third in London West. The NDP surprised the pundits by winning that seat, and the one in Windsor-Tecumseh.
While perpetrating treachery from on high, union officials curtail democracy below. An example is the ten year ban imposed on me. I’m not allowed to attend OSSTF meetings for ten years, including the bargaining unit I organized in 1983. This is for the ‘crime’ of speaking out of turn at a substitute teachers’ bargaining unit meeting in November 2012. I demanded job dispatch list data that the local executive refused to disclose for a decade! The executive consists mostly of double-dipping retirees.
Here’s a bit more background. In 2002, OSSTF officials removed the entire elected leadership of the Toronto substitute teachers’ unit on petty and false charges. They put conservative retirees in control. The right wingers surrendered an array of job security, wage and benefit gains in short order. In July 2013, activists from several unions launched a Campaign to Defend Democracy in Unions and to Rescind the 10 Year Ban. On October 30 the Greater Toronto Area Council of OPSEU voted overwhelmingly to support our Campaign, and to ask OSSTF to rescind the 10 year ban.
In OECTA, officials imposed a two year suspension of Richard Brock, the elected President of Halton District Catholic teachers, for opposing the Memorandum of Agreement with Queen’s Park in 2012.
The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters barred Brother Giancarlo Cessorronne for four meetings, until Jan. 2014, because he called the Treasurer of his Local a liar. That ‘crime’ occurred outside a union meeting.
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’ resistance to an agenda that harms the vast majority, including themselves ultimately.
Meanwhile, governments have been busy imposing back-to-work legislation. In 2011 they broke strikes on the railroads, at Air Canada, and at the post office, with scarcely a murmur from the labour movement tops. Union heads kept mass job action off the agenda.
Unions in Canada now encompass 31 per cent of the work force, 9 per cent less than in 1983. Average wages are now lower than in a generation.
Union leaders talk about confronting the threat of so-called ‘right to work’ laws (which would end compulsory deduction of union dues at source). Remember the TV ad campaign,“Together Fairness Works”, set to the tune of ‘Sunny’. Unfortunately, it side-stepped the need to fight rollbacks in wages, benefits and pensions, and the insidious lower wage rate increasingly imposed on new hires. Such concessions undermine the confidence of all workers’ (especially young workers’) in unions.
Is the 30 year pattern of retreat by Labour due primarily to an inherent lack of self-confidence? Are unions no longer suited to their task, as some academic ‘Marxists’ argue? Or does a sense of powerlessness simply flow from bureaucrats’ self-inflicted failures? The truth is that Labour’s retreat arises primarily 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 showed that. The global Occupy movement, and the cross-Canada Idle No More protests testify to that. What’s lacking, at the top, is a will to fight, or even to allow the ranks to discuss that option.
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. The Solidarity Caucus attracted much support. It helped to elect reformers to the union’s Executive Board. It did not win the re-affiliation battle. But the struggle continues.
In OECTA, in March 2013, 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 union officials who approved collaboration with the Liberals, who attacked teachers’ rights. The Liberal Party won a majority government in the Ontario election on June 12, with the help of the teacher bureaucrats.
In the Toronto substitute teachers’ bargaining unit, we have an Action Caucus – launched in 2003 when local control was undemocratically usurped. Our Action Caucus has been successful at winning policy and action resolutions at unit meetings. It has come close to getting its candidates elected. The ten year ban on me reflects the bogus executive’s fear of losing control.
In CUPE, rank and file members formed a Return to Militant Labour caucus, which was active at the CUPE national convention last Fall.
And keep in mind the example of Sister Lindsay Hinshelwood who ran for Unifor president at the Unifor founding convention in August 2013. She ran directly from the floor, without a fancy campaign, standing against concessions, for democratic principles, and she got 17.5% of the votes cast.
Then something startling occurred prior to the CLC convention. Brother Hassan Husseini ran for CLC President on a militant, democratic platform. He campaigned across the country and gathered significant support. So much so that it prompted Hassan Yussuff to run for President. Incumbent President Ken Georgetti, and his main opponents in the bureaucracy, pulled out all the stops. Nearly 5,000 union delegates gathered in Montreal in early May. For the first time ever, an incumbent CLC President was defeated, as was his slate. While Yussuff represents very little change, the mood in the ranks of labour is for change – more, rather than less.
So…. what do these various experiences suggest?
1. The fight against capitalist austerity and union concessions requires rank and file organization in all the unions, not just for change at the top, but 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, constitute 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.
How will a new generation of workers repair the damage done by the bureaucracy? Not by the so-called ‘left centre unity’ tactic advanced by the Communist Party. That tactic chains workers to the whims of liberals and opportunists. Also dead wrong is the Toronto Labour Council’s nearly exclusive focus on defeating Tim Hudak’s Conservatives who threatened right to work legislation. Don’t forget: Liberals are Tories too. Liberals curtailed collective bargaining, suspended the right to strike, and prorogued the Legislature. It is capitalist austerity that we must fight and defeat. Clearly, it will take more than an election to do it. It will take class struggle, plant by plant, community by community, through mass action, mass resistance and general strike action. That course logically leads to the fight for a Workers’ Government.
Unfortunately, the NDP is moving in the opposite direction. This was evident in the Ontario provincial election in the campaign led by Andrea Horwath – which may be repeated by Tom Mulcair in the federal election expected in 2015.
Now, Tim Hudak and the Tories got what they deserved. But the NDP lost the little power it had. It would have done better had it pulled the plug on Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne one year earlier. The NDP won three new seats, but alienated vast sections of its base, while losing three seats and major ground in Toronto.
The voter turnout was barely 51 per cent, a three per cent improvement on 2011, but a dismal result by any standard.
Key to the disappointment was the NDP’s feckless effort. Andrea Horwath waged the worst NDP campaign since Bob Rae attempted to defend his infamous Social Contract in 1995.
Horwath had no mandate to veer to the right of the Liberal Party in a vain attempt to appeal to Conservative supporters and the business class. She had no mandate to abandon the fight for social justice in favour of a crass appeal to consumerism.
The NDP platform emphasized “making life more affordable” by removing the HST from electricity bills, reducing car insurance rates by 15%, opening up a few more child care spaces, shortening hospital wait times, and offering a mere $1 increase in the hourly minimum wage. At the same time, Horwath defended the practice of bribing big private corporations to create jobs – without demanding any public ownership or democratic control of state investment.
Horwath projected a small increase in corporate taxation, but no plan to conscript the hidden, un-taxed billions of dollars – what a former head of the Bank of Canada calls ‘dead Capital’. That means the NDP proposed no way to fund a serious assault on poverty, on homelessness, or to end the deepening crises in public transit, education and health care.
Horwath and her strategists said nothing about phasing out nuclear power plants, stopping Line 9, satisfying the just claims of indigenous peoples, curtailing state surveillance, and terminating police repression of the kind that was unleashed during the G-20 Summit in Toronto. There was not even a hint that the problems faced today by the vast majority of Ontarions are rooted in the decaying and increasingly destructive capitalist system.
The ONDP Leader campaigned on ‘integrity’. But she failed to address her own democratic deficit. She ignored a party convention decision to be tougher on the Ontario Liberal budget of 2012/13. In fact, on her watch, party conventions provide less time for policy debate. And Horwath’s Election Planning Committee undemocratically prevents leftists from being NDP candidates.
While it is gratifying that the Progressive Conservatives lost big time, it is clear that the capitalist austerity agenda continues vigorously under Premier Wynne. Wynne bragged during the TV leaders’ debate that she had implemented “80 per cent of the Drummond Report” — a harsh austerity plan. Behind Wynne’s affable smile, the locomotive of the rulers’ public sector wage freeze, social cutbacks, 3Ps, and privatization remains firmly on track.
Corporate Ontario found a way to sanitize its brutal anti-working class agenda by hiding it behind the ‘progressive’ veneer of the province’s first female Premier, also Canada’s first lesbian Premier.
Now New Democrats, labour unionists, feminists, LGBTQ folks, environmentalists, socialists and social justice advocates must fight to take the NDP from the latter-day Tony Blairites, and re-direct the party to lead the battle against capitalist austerity, and for socialist solutions to the mounting problems we face.
That starts with the demand that Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath resign immediately. The situation calls for a full review of the party’s leadership and political direction, leading up to its November 14-16 convention in Toronto.
The question of Horwath’s future as ONDP leader is posed daily in the mass media. A leadership race is triggered by a vote of non-confidence in the leader. A confidence vote occurs at every party convention. If even 35% of the delegates vote for a leadership review (that is, if less than 65% vote to support the current leader), in all likelihood a leadership race will ensue.
It is clear that such a vote would open up a period of intense discussion about the future of the NDP.
So, what should socialists and labour activists do?
Just wait to see what happens? Conduct ‘business as usual’ by submitting resolutions to the Convention, few of which ever make it to the floor?
No. This is where a bold initiative is needed – which is what the NDP Socialist Caucus is providing with its demand that Andrea resign, and by insisting that a full review of the political direction of the party take place now.
Naturally, the removal of Andrea is no guarantee that another leader will change direction.
But what are the chances if the party ranks do not demand this? It would only help Horwath and her handlers to weather the storm.
The task of socialists is to ‘fan the flames of discontent.’ On what basis should we demand that the Leader resign? It should be done on the basis that there was no mandate to turn right; indeed, that to survive the NDP must turn sharply to the left.
What should be said to those who argue that it’s time to launch a new electoral party of the left? We say: Stand up and fight for your principles – but fight where it really matters. Don’t retreat into a fantasy world.
What is the record of new left-party initiatives in English Canada?
It ranges from tragedy to farce. The Waffle movement had 10,000 NDP supporters in the early 1970s. But within three years of its departure from the NDP, it had disappeared. The Campaign for an Activist Party, and later the New Politics Initiative, led by Svend Robinson and Judy Rebick in the 1990s, were top-down, undemocratic structures that gave up the fight and disappeared. Four years ago a small body of dissident NDPers launched the Ginger Group. After a brief polemic, it quit the NDP and launched the Socialist Party of Ontario. In 2011 it ran three candidates. In June 2014 the SPO ran only two candidates. The Communist Party of Canada ran 11 candidates on a left-reformist platform. None of those ‘left’ candidates got more than 200 votes. The NDP got 1.1 million votes, with no support from big business. Most of its votes came from working people in heavily working class districts.
Then there is the left-populist or anarchist perspective. It says “Just ignore the NDP”. The problem with that is many-fold. It is economist. It leaves the struggle for bread and butter improvements at the front door of the Legislature. It is anti-political, or at best, a stunted form of politics. Worst of all, it gives the present leadership of the working class a free hand to continue the sell-out. That includes so-called strategic voting, which favours the Liberal Party. We saw what that means when Gerry Dias, the President of UNIFOR, was shown on TV at the Liberal victory party congratulating Kathleen Wynne.
The NDP remains a workers’ party, which is obvious to anyone who has been to an NDP convention. But the NDP has a staunchly pro-capitalist leadership which is out of step with reality. It seems to be oblivious to the extremely destructive decline of late capitalism.
The struggle for a Workers’ Agenda will take place in the NDP, as it will take place in the unions. Not exclusively there, but there as well.
The battle against capitalist austerity continues. Quickly the Toronto Star warned Wynne to renege on her ‘progressive’ promises and instead to reduce the deficit – “to avoid a credit-rating downgrade.” The Star asks, “Will Wynne play Hudak-lite and cut public service jobs or government spending?” It darkly predicts “confrontations with public sector unions.”
Let’s hope that there will be confrontations – arising from resistence to the coming cuts. Let’s hope that union leaders, following the defeat of Hudak, do not go to sleep, as they did when the Bob Rae-led Ontario NDP surprisingly won a majority of seats in 1990.
One thing should be clear: for anti-austerity resistence to succeed there must be rank and file organization against austerity and concessions inside the NDP and the unions.
A critical test of that idea will occur at the Ontario NDP Convention in November. To prepare for that, the NDP Socialist Caucus will host an Ontario Conference on Saturday, September 6. It is already petitioning for a change of leadership and political direction of the party. It will decide on priority resolutions. It will select SC candidates for the ONDP Executive. It will plan the next edition of Turn Left, the SC magazine, for which a fund appeal is presently underway.
Can the Socialist Caucus make a difference? It has proven that it can. The SC won the federal NDP in 2006 to the policy ‘Canada Out of Afghanistan’. The SC led the fight at the 2011 NDP convention in Vancouver to keep ‘socialism’ in the party constitution, and again at the 2013 convention where we won the debate on ‘free post-secondary education’. We forced the Ontario party leadership in 2010 to conduct a review of public funding of Catholic separate schools, and held the only large public hearing on the issue.
Clearly, socialist revolution requires more than socialist resolutions. But change starts with joining the fight inside the main working class organizations.
Capitalism has nothing to offer workers, women, youths, seniors and the poor. The Occupy movement showed there is a hunger for change, and re-defined the notion of ‘majority.’ The Quebec students’ movement showed what a mass ‘social strike’ against neo-liberalism looks like. The current continental campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage inspires millions.
Opposition to Line 9, to the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the fight to save Canada’s postal services have the same potential. The global popularity of Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ indicates the wide disdain for growing inequality, and the appetite for a radical new direction. The defeat of Ken Georgetti’s executive slate at the Canadian Labour Congress Convention in May is further evidence of stirrings below the surface. The militant protest of municipal workers, fighting to defend their pensions, at Montreal City Hall this week, shows the way forward.
In our tortured world, anger and suffering there is aplenty. What’s lacking is leadership. Leadership is born in struggle. Join the struggle for a new leadership in the workers’ movement. That’s the key to changing this society. Let’s build a cross union, class struggle, labour left opposition. Join Socialist Action. Together we will win, and hasten the day of the socialist revolution.