The Labour Movement and the Crisis

The Steelworkers are carrying on their historic and very brave battle with Vale-Inco up in Sudbury.  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.  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.  Canadian governments sit back passively through the whole saga (takeover, shutdown, and attack on Canadian workers).  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.  Go figger.  Almost makes me wish more companies were bankrupt.  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.  Generations of workers fought and died for the right to retire with dignity and security.  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.  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.  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!  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.  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.  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.  (I am a member of the L/LT editorial board.)  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.  Then there are 10 short articles from labour movement practitioners, talking about ten key lessons the labour movement needs to implement right now.  (Lesson #1 is “Drawing a line in the sand to defend past gains.”  It’s written by Fred Wilson from CEP, and discusses their heroic battle to hold the line in the Newfoundland pulp sector.  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.  His article discusses the need for active solidarity between private-sector and public-sector unions.  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.  I’d be interested in responses.  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.  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.

Many 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.


  • It is good to hear these words Jim, Sudbury is on my mind so much these days. The steelworkers from the local to the national have done an amazing job lasting this long. The community has suffered, the workers have suffered, and Canada has suffered because the mindset and actions of a group of corporate leaders that are bent on destruction.

    How can somebody buy up a $19 billion asset and proceed to destroy it in such a fashion is plain irrational. Does anybody in VAle have a clue of what they are doing here. I mean the community is on the edge of breakdown yet all we hear from Vale is the union leadership is racist and hood winked the workers.

    Again after the last rejection it is quite obvious that Vale has no clue about local IR and doesn’t seem to care about it either. There delicate diplomacy is with a bulldozer.

    The question is, as you pointed out, why did they approach their IR in such a fashion? And this is indeed a battle the private and public sector unions must help win. It will be a defining point in our labour history and we need to win this battle.

    We have been doing what we can at Labourstart and Radiolabour to bring an international and national coverage of the battle. But we need to have more unity within the Canadian labour movement to focus on this fight.

    The next step has got to be more government pressure. So far the liberals have been a joke at the provincial level, nobody has seen local MPP Bartilucci in months, and the fed level well we all know about Clements Valley of death comment. Somehow the pressure at the provincial level must be ratcheted up. The fed level, well that will be a tough nut to crack, I don’t think Harper has even acknowledged that Canada has a labour movement.

    The way through to the government that I see is the environmental viewpoint. Vale keeps throwing all this investment cost for environmental requirements in the face of the Union. So again, I make this point on the blog, why are we expecting the environmental adjustments and infrastructure investment to be made on the backs of workers. If as Vale states that they are facing some serious costs to meet these new requirements and now expects workers to absorb these costs, why is the government not stepping in to address these concerns.

    A lack of environmental policy mainly at the federal level and the provincial level is costing these workers a whole lot of pain, and the forgone costs of this striek could have been avoided. (if it is true what Vale claims that these costs pose this threat)

    So why is the government not getting involved?

    Anyway I could go on.

    Good work Bryan, your a dude as well.

  • Jim, thanks for writing this post. An easily overlooked aspect of this struggle is that, in addition to Sudbury, we are on strike against Vale over similar issues at Voisey’s Bay in Labrador. (So, the geographic separation from Newfoundland pulp is smaller than you might have thought.)

  • This is a terrific post, it should be a wake-up call to all of us who have not been giving it the attention it merits.

  • A small sign of hope – the European Trade Union Institute have just published a collection of short papers on left alternatives to the neo liberal model.

    A group of folks led by the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD are trying to further develop an alternative economic program – something we badly need as a basis for union mobilization.

    I’m writing from a very engaged special meeting of the Canadian trade union leadership to discuss restructuring and renewal – so there are grounds for hope.

  • Kelsey Kirkland

    Massey Energy Bought Workers Comp Insurance Coverage Shortly Before Mine Explosion

    The accident could also prove costly for Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who only recently had the performance pay portion of his compensation package upped significantly by the company’s board of directors from $900,000 in 2009 to $1.5 million for 2010 and 2011. Blankenship reportedly would also be in line to receive 81,500 Massey shares if certain performance targets are met for the year, and another 32,250 shares if a second set of targets are met. Among the performance areas considered are financial results, sales volume, and safety performance, all of which are likely to be problematic this year in the wake of the West Virginia disaster.

    Blankenship, a local boy who made good and became the first non Massey family member to head the giant mining firm, has been aggressively anti-union, as has the entire company. A bitter strike by the United Mineworkers in 1984-85, in which the company, backed by the Reagan administration, brought in scab workers and hired private armed guards backed by West Virginia State Troopers to harass and intimidate unionized workers, lead to a breaking of the union at the company, which is now largely non-union, and across the country.

  • The accident could also prove costly for Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who only recently had the performance pay portion of his compensation package upped significantly by the company’s board of directors from $900,000 in 2009 to $1.5 million for 2010 and 2011. Blankenship reportedly would also be in line to receive 81,500 Massey shares if certain performance targets are met

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