Dr. Dawg

Open class warfare erupts in Canada

| Disqus Comments

Harper Caterpillar.jpg

The by-now-notorious lockout in London, Ontario by the American corporate giant Caterpillar, and another in Quebec by the UK colossus Rio Tinto, signal a new make-or-break era for organized labour in Canada.

The race to the bottom is picking up speed. Make no mistake: if corporations are permitted to get away with 50% wage cuts when they are making record profits, the ripple effect will be deadly.

Business commentators urge us to take the pessimistic view—nothing can turn aside the irresistible force of capital. Right-wing columnists aver that unions are no longer relevant. And the Conservative government, which maliciously intervened in two private sector labour disputes in 2011, is curiously quiet when unions have less immediate clout at the bargaining table.

Harper’s sheer crust is breathtaking:

“This is a dispute between a private company and the union and we don’t comment on the actions of private companies,” Harper spokesman Carl VallĂ©e responded Wednesday in an email.

Spare us, please, the notion that this is a jurisdictional matter. Certainly the two provincial premiers involved are not covering themselves with glory by letting these workers and their families twist in the winter winds. The federal government, however, has all sorts of means at its disposal to bring pressure to bear on these foreign corporations on behalf of these workers—cancelling generous tax breaks would be one of them—but that would require the kind of even-handedness that it has never shown during its current anti-labour crusade.

Take, for example, the 50-week lockout in Hamilton by US Steel that ended last October, here described by labour economist Jim Stanford:

The company starved out the union with far-reaching demands to gut pensions and other long-standing provisions. The economic cost of that bitter, lopsided dispute didn’t slow the company, nor did it spur any level of government to action.

I estimate that the direct loss to GDP resulting from the lockout in Hamilton was four times larger than the effects of a one-week full shutdown at Air Canada. Indirect spinoff losses made the steel lockout even more painful. If government were truly concerned with “protecting recovery,” why didn’t it intervene? True, steel falls within provincial (not federal) labour jurisdiction. But Ottawa had plenty of leverage if it wanted to act - not least U.S. Steel’s galling violation of the production and employment commitments it made when it took over the former Stelco Inc.

In Hamilton, where workers held little power, the government stood idly by. It seems it’s only when workers have some leverage that it acts powerfully to “protect the economy.”


Yet the matter shouldn’t be seen as hopeless, despite all the anti-union hype. When unions first came into being, savvy business types predicted an inevitable, swift defeat for the movement, hastened along by often murderous troops and police. That didn’t, of course, take place: general strikes and fierce physical resistance by organized workers forced governments to mediate by providing limited recognition—while ensnaring them in complex regulatory frameworks that, over time, sapped their strength.

The result in Canada, too often, was the softening of the general membership, made even softer—it must be admitted—by the automatic dues check-off mandated by the Rand formula. Frankly, that historic ruling made union leaders lazy: no longer having to make the union case to the members on a daily basis, they too often permitted the rank-and-file to snooze.

And now Canadian workers are paying the price. The labour movement is mired in old tactics and strategies that have become merely ritualistic at this point: one-day wonders of mass protest, “action plans” that never leave the paper they’re printed on, strongly-worded press releases.

The workers on labour’s front lines—picket lines, that is—are left to fight alone the day after the big Days of Protest. And they almost inevitably get eaten alive by the corporations and their government allies.

The Harper government’s Minister of Labour, Lisa Raitt, has already blown the trumpet of war. To survive, organized labour, too often an oxymoron at present, must cast aside the tactics of the past and head directly into battle.

Obviously this is easier said than done, and as a former labour leader I was frequently irritated by activists shouting in the wilderness for radical measures when no one was listening (even more irritated because I had been one of them). But Caterpillar and Rio Tinto are here to tell us that the time for a serious internal debate has arrived. What form it takes, and what comes out of it, are obviously for the members to decide, but the choice, to be blunt, is a fundamental change in approach—or oblivion.

Return to the home page

blog comments powered by Disqus

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 8, 2012 1:03 PM.

You go, girls! was the previous entry in this blog.

Neo-nazi to assist at Calgary gun show is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 6.3.6