The Labour Movement and the Crisis
The Steelworkers are carrying on their historic and very brave battle with Vale-Inco up in Sudbury.Â Last week’s huge solidarity rally was a sign that the rest of the labour movement is finally waking up to the threat that this battle poses to all of us.Â Imagine a profitable global company like Vale, buying up a precious Canadian resource at the peak of the bubble for an outrageously inflated price, then squeezing the hell out of the people who actually dig the stuff out of the ground in order to offset their resulting high costs. Â Canadian governments sit back passively through the whole saga (takeover, shutdown, and attack on Canadian workers). Â The concessions being demanded by this profitable multinational (headquartered in labour-friendly Brazil, yet – which just goes to prove yet again that capital has no loyalty to anything but the bottom line) are much worse than what was demanded from autoworkers by companies (GM and Chrysler) that were in bankruptcy protection. Â Go figger.Â Almost makes me wish more companies were bankrupt. Â Among the many offensive demands placed on the union by the company, their demand that the defined-benefit pension plan be abandoned is especially outrageous and egregious. Â Generations of workers fought and died for the right to retire with dignity and security. Â Defined contribution plans like the one Vale is proposing put retirees at the mercy of the speculators and take-over artists (like Vale themselves) who drive equity, commodity, and foreign exchange prices over their never-ending roller-coaster.
The Steelworkers need and deserve all our support. Â Together, we will last one day longer than Vale.
The whole epic battle reinforces, for me, the biggest irony of the whole global financial crisis and resulting recession. Â Doesn’t it seem strange that workers’ organizations are on the defensive in so many places?
After all, workers and unions didn’t create this crisis… financiers did!Â So why are unions taking so much heat, as the recession does its painful work (including its side-effects on governments’ fiscal bottom-lines).
It’s bitterly ironic that the architects of this crisis can take advantage of the fear and uncertainty it produces, in order to further reinforce their agenda.Â That’s exactly what Naomi Klein predicted in Shock Doctrine.
In my book Economics for Everyone, I stated that “In my view, the ability of workers to protect and strengthen their unions will be essential if they are to limit and eventually reverse the negative economic and social consequences of neoliberalism” (p. 110).
I think that conclusion rings more true every day — which makes it all the more essential for unionists to find ways of successfully fighting back, despite the opportunistic assault against us.Â To that end, I recently helped to coordinate a special forum of short articles on the labour movement and the crisis for the Canadian labour studies journal Labour/Le Travail.Â (I am a member of the L/LT editorial board.)Â The idea is to analyze the historical moment from the labour movement’s perspective, to consider some successful examples of fighting back, and to identify the key challenges we must collectively overcome if we are to avoid having the tables turned against us.
The forum starts with an introduction from me. Â Then there are 10 short articles from labour movement practitioners, talking about ten key lessons the labour movement needs to implement right now. Â (Lesson #1 is “Drawing a line in the sand to defend past gains.” Â It’s written by Fred Wilson from CEP, and discusses their heroic battle to hold the line in the Newfoundland pulp sector.Â But I’d say the Steelworkers are doing an equally brave job on that score, up in Sudbury.)
One of the authors in the forum was Gil Levine, the first and long-time director of CUPE’s Research Department, who recently passed on.Â Â His article discusses the need for active solidarity between private-sector and public-sector unions.Â Gil stayed passionate and engaged until the end, as witnessed by this contribution; this was one of his last written works, and we’re honoured to have it as part of the set.
Here’s the full L/LT forum. Â I’d be interested in responses.Â I think it’s fair to say that despite outstanding examples of resistance (such as the fightback in Sudbury), the labour movement in Canada (and many other countries, of course) has not adequately responded to both the threat and the opportunity embedded in the global recession. Â We’ve got to be more ambitious, forthright, and active — or else this recession, incredible as it may seem, could end up strengthening the hand of the same vested interests who created it.
ManyÂ thanks to Bryan Palmer and his team at L/LT for hosting this forum, and making a contribution to dialogue and debate inside our movement.