Fighting for the Right to Strike
By Mick Sweetman
This past year has witnessed a renewed assault on unionized workers that should be seen for what it is: a co-ordinated attack on the right of workers to collectively bargain with their employers.
One of the opening salvos in this new wave of class warfare occurred immediately after the far-right ideologue Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto on a platform of “stopping the gravy train”—none-too-subtle code words for attacking public sector workers and the services they provide.
One of the Ford administration's first acts in office was to pass a motion at City Council asking the Ontario government to declare the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)–whose workers had gone on strike in the summer of 2008—an “essential service”. The Liberal government of Ontario was only too happy to pass this anti-union legislation. For the first time in Canadian history, public transportation workers were legally banned from using their main source of leverage: they can no longer strike. In the future, TTC contracts will automatically go into binding arbitration.
This should not be seen as an incident isolated to TTC workers, but rather as a clear attack on the right to strike itself. Seeing as the usual pattern for arbitrated contracts often produces higher wages and more benefits than those received through a negotiated contract process, the attack on workers' right to strike isn't about saving “taxpayers' money”—despite what far-right politicians claim. Rather, it is about imposing control on the working class as a whole and forcing us into a totally subservient position to the bosses.
Legislation that strips workers of our right to strike is designed to attack the fundamental weapon we have—the power to withdraw our labour. It is designed to take control out of our hands as rank and file union members and place it solely in the hands of professional union negotiators and government arbitrators.
In May 2011, Steven Harper's Conservative Party won a majority government at the federal level and the political terrain shifted further to the right. When 3,800 Air Canada customer sales and service workers went on a legal strike in June, the government threatened them with back-to-work legislation a mere thirteen hours later.
Faced with this hard-line approach, the union leadership recommended their members accept a contract that claimed some wins, such as the return of paid meal breaks, but deferred the primary issue of the strike–pension plans for new workers—to arbitration.
At the same time, workers at Canada Post–members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) –were engaged in a series of rotating strikes over similar issues: a two-tiered system for new hires' wages, benefits and pensions. Health and safety was another big issue, as Canada Post's new, supposedly “modern” sorting and delivery system had been accompanied by a huge increase in workers' injuries.
After the Toronto and Montreal CUPW locals staged a simultaneous one-day strike, Canada Post's management retaliated by locking out its workers across the country. Refusing to seriously negotiate, management created a crisis in the hope that the federal government would legislate the workers back to work.
The Conservative government was more than happy to oblige, quickly drafting some of the most repressively worded anti-union legislation that workers in this country have ever seen. Wages were frozen below the management's previous offer, and a government-appointed arbitrator was instructed to choose between the CUPW and Canada Post offers in their entirely—as if there was ever a chance that they would choose the union's offer. The arbitration process used the contracts of private courier companies for comparison, consistently stressing the need for “flexibility” in the workforce—ie. temporary workers and lower wages. It also focused on the need to ensure “the sustainability of the [Canada Post] pension plan” by “taking into account the solvency ratio” —which, translated into English, means attacking the defined benefits plan that union members currently have.
The back-to-work legislation also imposed huge daily fines of $1,000 for members, $50,000 for officers, and $100,000 for the union if the legislation was defied and workers remained on strike. These fines were calculated to bankrupt individual workers and compel union officers to enforce the legislation on the rank and file. The option of going to jail in defiance of the legislation, as former CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot famously did when CUPW defied similar legislation during a strike in 1978, was not an option under the new law. Harper wanted to make sure that this time there would be no new working-class heroes to rally around.
Despite this, there were rank and file efforts to challenge the legislation. As soon as the back-to-work legislation was announced, postal workers and supporters in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Ottawa responded by occupying the offices of Tory MPs in protest.
In Edmonton, a mass meeting of over 700 postal workers called by the shop-floor mobilization committee saw a motion pass calling on the national leadership of CUPW to pressure the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to call a nation-wide general strike. This motion also passed at the General Membership Meeting of the Vancouver local the next night and was distributed on the picket lines by supporters in Toronto.
In the end the union leadership recommended that members comply with the legislation and go back to work.
This is the context that we workers and labour activists currently find ourselves in—an international crisis in capitalism that attacks public sector workers and services around the globe in the name of “austerity”, while trillions of dollars are wiped out in a single day on the stock markets; a significant political shift to the far-right, ushering in conservative governments that will use the most draconian legislation possible to attack unions and workers; a union culture that has neglected rank and file organizing on the shop floor and grown dependent on professional union negotiators; and a capitalist class that no longer feels it has to respect the unions and instead has declared open class warfare on them.
So, the real question is: what are we as workers and labour activists to do?
The standard response of the union leadership—electing the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) to power—is a joke; the NDP have themselves passed back-to-work legislation while in power in various provinces, including Ontario. The grandstanding of the federal NDP opposition in Parliament during the debate on the Canada Post legislation was just that. Any government will attack workers' rights and order them back to work when they are in charge of the regulation and administration of the state for the capitalist class.
And if electing social-democratic parties to power is pointless, then what hope do we have for efforts to lobby or convince conservative governments for fair treatment? The clear answer to that question is “none at all”.
Given the unions' reliance on a professional leadership and professional negotiators, these bodies appear to have become experts in negotiating deals on behalf of their members. The problem is that the capitalist class no longer cares to make deals, and has instead adopted a strategy of locking out workers and then calling in the government to order them back to work.
If workers want to survive these attacks, we need to re-learn how to organize and fight on the shop floors and build strong rank and file networks of union and community activists that span different workplaces and sectors. Without a militant base, there is little hope that a general strike would be anything more than “a good show” —as former Ontario Premier Mike Harris referred to the tens of thousands of workers that marched past the Tory convention during the Toronto “days of action” in the mid-1990s.
If there are examples to study and lessons to learn, they come from initiatives like the work-floor mobilization committee in the Edmonton CUPW local. This unofficial committee spent years organizing on the work-floors of Canada Post, running organizing and stewards trainings and fighting the bosses (and winning) in work-floor “wars” between union members and management over forced overtime. It should be no surprise that when the lockout occurred, the postal workers in Edmonton were among the most organized, educated, and militant workers in the country. Already, the postal depots in Edmonton are the site of renewed resistance against management—who are again trying to impose forced overtime on the workers.
Another promising development can be seen in the solidarity that has been building between Air Canada workers at Pearson Airport and postal workers from the major Gateway letter-sorting plant in Mississauga. During their recent strikes, workers from both workplaces organized “flying squads” of workers to bolster the other's lines, in addition to maintaining their own. These workers understood that they were facing a common enemy in the collusion of the federal government and capitalist class. Importantly, there are current efforts underway to strengthen these ties and expand them to other unions and workers in the area.