Northern Lights

August 2009

by Barry Weisleder


Below is the August 2009 edition of Northern Lights, a regular column from Canada by this writer, which appears in the San Francisco–based monthly newspaper Socialist Action. To subscribe to the newspaper, please visit the SA web site: www.socialistaction.org

It’s time for the NDP to
Put Capitalism on Trial

Capitalism isn’t working. The proof is overwhelming. Across Canada, 1.5 million are unemployed, not counting discouraged workers and the under-employed. The numbers are expected to rise well into 2010. The International Labour Organization warns that the number of jobless worldwide could reach 239 million this year, and that young people will be the hardest hit. The system’s spin doctors are trying to fool the public by talking about “recovery”. But when pressed, the big shots admit it is a “jobless recovery”.

The failure of Canadian and global capitalism is evident in advancing climate change, impending environmental disaster, and the spread of drought and famine. It is apparent in the brutal imperial wars of occupation, in the growing gap between rich and poor, and in the assault on democratic rights wherever popular resistance takes to the streets.

Clearly, years of cuts, concessions, privatization, and tax breaks for giant corporations did nothing to solve the biggest problems facing society. They simply made the rich richer at the expense of workers. They emboldened the ruling elite to demand more, stimulated corruption in the highest places, and extended the life span of a dying, wasteful and outmoded system that puts profits before people every time.

Even if “recovery” from the current world economic depression occurred tomorrow, the fact remains that capitalism condemns humanity to recurring cycles of recession/depression. It sentences us all to endless crippling wars, eco-disasters, glaring inequalities and obscene oppression.

So, why continue to make excuses for the system? Why continue to tinker with the mechanisms of a death machine? Why keep Capital on life support at the expense of Labour? As former NDP MP Svend Robinson famously said, “Capitalism is like a rabid dog that should be put down.”

The time has come to stop scratching at the surface. We need to expose the fundamental flaws, the deep-rooted contradictions of the system, and to fight for a socialist alternative.

It’s time for the NDP to put capitalism on trial. That’s the task facing delegates at the party’s federal convention, August 14–16, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

We can easily demonstrate that capitalism is killing the planet and its inhabitants in a multitude of nefarious ways, and that to survive the working class and its allies are compelled to replace the system root and branch. It’s the truth that needs to be told, with the power to conquer misinformation and fear, and to give voice to millions.

The NDP can lead the fight for a future worthy of humanity, but not if its leaders mince words and make opportunistic concessions to the powers that be. NDP support in the 2008 election campaign peaked at 22 per cent, compared with 15 per cent now. The idea of entering a coalition government with the big business-controlled Liberal Party dealt a severe blow to the NDP’s independence as a party of the working class. Since then, the party leadership has echoed the lame lamentations of the labour brass, when what is desperately needed, in addition to fixing E.I. and saving pensions, is a bold campaign to turn government bail-out money into public equity — towards the nationalization, under workers’ and community control, of auto, steel, oil and the big banks. Make Capital pay for a massive public works effort to convert to green energy, to repair roads, bridges, railways and ports, and to build social housing. That is the way to defend and expand employment, and to meet human needs by democratizing and planning the economy.

As the NDP Socialist Caucus has argued since its foundation in 1997, and which we re-state today with greater conviction than ever, to survive the NDP must turn sharply to the left. Increasingly, this is an argument for the survival and prosperity of humanity as a whole. If you agree, please join us in fighting for socialist policies.  Visit:  www.ndpsocialists.ca

Obama’s spin doctor has no business at NDP convention

The decision by New Democratic Party officials to feature Barack Obama’s director of communications, Anita Dunn, at the NDP federal convention, reveals a major misconception.

The Democratic Party, USA, is no friend of working people anywhere. The invitation to Dunn only clouds the horizon and compromises the independence of the NDP from the corporate rulers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

While the election of Obama was a blow against racism, he is a willing captive of Wall Street and the Pentagon. That much is clear seven months into his presidency.

Although Obama promised to end the occupation of Iraq, close the Guantanamo prison camp, take steps to reverse global climate change, help working people overcome the economic crisis, and extend health care coverage, his actions belie his words.

Obama accepted George W. Bush’s policies on military tribunals and indefinite detention. He repudiated torture, but he won’t prosecute any torturers. Gitmo remains open. His “cap and trade” bill allows corporate polluters to exceed limits on carbon-based emissions by buying government-backed credits to compensate. According to the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, 85 per cent of the energy credits would be given away to business through 2026. In any case, the market-based gambit will not reduce emissions.

The bail-out of the banking system is an extension of Bush’s Wall Street rescue plan – a huge transfer of wealth, involving trillions of dollars, from working people to Capital.

Obama’s health care “reform” spares the venal and all-powerful health insurance industry. His plan, like Hillary Clinton’s earlier version, will force individuals to buy insurance. At best, it will offer a “public option” that would compete with private insurance. Excluded from consideration is a government-run, single-payer health care system, like the one in Canada and virtually every other industrialized country.

In terms of foreign policy, the U.S. President is simply re-booting the imperial project that will plunge America and south-west Asia into a multi-year commitment even more disastrous than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Obama sent 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Some 130,000 U.S. combat soldiers remain in Iraq, re-classified as non-combatants and trainers, entrenched in massively fortified bases and airfields. In addition, 150,000 or more U.S.-paid American mercenaries perform their deadly deeds unimpeded, the largest privatized army in U.S. history. In June, Congress approved $100 billion in “supplementary” funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – contradicting the claim that stability and victory of the U.S. and its puppets is imminent. The 10,000 more troops requested by U.S. General McKiernan could soon be on their way to the Pakistan border.

Af-Pak” is already Obama’s war, like the Vietnam quagmire belonged to the 1960s liberal Democrats Kennedy and Johnson.

How can one explain these moves?

Obama is a cagey opportunist who campaigned to the right of his Democratic primary opponents. His bail-out of the banks, while forcing insolvent, unionized auto companies into bankruptcy, and compelling workers to sacrifice wages and benefits, shows the Democrats are the party of Wall Street, not of Main Street.

American big business gave millions of campaign dollars to Obama and the Democrats to offer cosmetic change, to introduce modest and temporary reforms if necessary, and to preserve corporate rule and the private profit system at any cost. The Democrats want to replace the Republicans as the preferred party of the business class for the foreseeable future, and they act accordingly.

Is Obama the same as Bush? Clearly not. But he and his party do not represent the change most Americans want and need. Moreover, the Democratic Party has proven itself, for nearly a century and a half, to be the graveyard of social protest movements in the USA.

As the global capitalist crisis deepens, it is evident that working people need an independent political voice – a labour party based on the unions and popular organizations of the oppressed. In English-Canada, working people made a class break with the Liberal Party and the Canadian establishment by founding the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1932, and the NDP in 1961.

Regardless Anita Dunn’s putative “insights” into campaign techniques and media manipulation, Obama’s spin doctors and handlers have no business at an NDP convention. Labour unionists, social change activists and New Democrats should confront the tools of corporate rule, expose their rotten policies and practices, and fight for working class political independence from the parties of Capital, north and south of the 49th parallel.

Liberal-NDP Coalition in Toronto “stinks”

Last winter there was much ado about the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition federal government. According to Conservatives, it would have violated democracy and bankrupted the state. According to NDP officials, it would have mitigated the economic crisis and provided a very progressive alternative to Harper. The truth is that both claims were wrong.

Do you want to know what a Liberal-NDP government would be like? Look no farther than the malodorous mess in Toronto. Among other things, the unholy alliance that governs Canada’s biggest city allowed basic services to erode, gave the rich a tax holiday, provoked a civic workers’ strike and led a frontal assault on labour’s past gains.

Mayor David Miller, a former NDP member, backed by a coalition of Liberal and NDP city councillors, forced a strike on 30,000 inside and outside city workers (including ambulance, parks and recreation, child care, water, welfare, and garbage collection workers). How? By trying to jam over 110 pages of labour concessions down their throats. The proposed take-aways included attacks on seniority rights, limits on transfer and promotion rights, a freeze on cost of living increases, a two-tier wage structure, and an end to banking sick days.

Over 70 per cent of the work force, represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 79 and 416, are women. The average annual income for city workers is $40,000. None have severance pay. Most of them do not enjoy compensation at retirement for unused sick days — the hot button issue that was disingenuously used to portray the municipal workers as “privileged”.

The result of the strike, which ended on July 31 after 40 days, is a 6 per cent raise over three years, one more designated holiday, wage protection for any workers moved to a lower-rated position, pay for rest breaks missed (in courts, children’s services and homes), improved vision care, and a long-term phase-out of the banked sick time (current full-time staff can continue to accrue sick days, or cash them in now, or have their sick days frozen, to draw upon as needed, with a buyout at normal termination; no sick days banking for new hires, who gain a short-term disability plan).

In other words, CUPE members withstood most of the city’s take-away demands, and traded off a concession for some small gains. It was a political defeat for Miller and his “progressive” coalition which alienated both Labour and the hard right wing. Could this fiasco, and the suffering inflicted on city workers and residents, have been avoided?

Toronto, like almost every other city, province and central government in the capitalist world, is suffering a financial crisis. Toronto’s chronic under-funding malaise was not born yesterday. Massive cuts in transfer payments to the provinces by Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, were deepened and accelerated by the Chretien/Martin Liberals in the 1990s with the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). Then the provinces off-loaded to their cities responsibility for infrastructure costs associated with airports, water, sewage, mass transportation, police, welfare, and more – but without the money or tax tools required to cope with it all. So, cities had a huge expenditure problem. And they faced a choice: mobilize residents to fight the changes, or just comply with the neo-liberal corporate agenda.

How did Toronto politicians respond? They cut services, like street cleaning and snow removal, and limited public access to swimming pools, arenas, community centers, and libraries. They reduced water testing and park upgrades.

It gets worse. City Council implemented a range of regressive, consumption-based flat taxes on all citizens, while at the same time reducing commercial property taxes, undervaluing business land assessments and providing major grants and financial assistance to business.

One of the flat taxes Miller instituted, under the provisions of the new City of Toronto Act 2006, is the Municipal Land Transfer Tax, which ranges from 0.5 per cent to 2 per cent of each sale price. Another is the Personal Vehicle Ownership Tax, a registration fee, on top of the already-existing provincial registration fee.

The city gave generous property tax breaks to big business. These include subsidies, tax incentives and/or deferrals for costly environmental clean-ups, such as for empty industrial lands (“brown-field remediation”), as well as tax incremental equivalent grants (TIEGs), which involve rebates and minimal property taxes for major commercial developers. Such tax give-aways cost the city billions of dollars in lost revenue. Meanwhile small homeowners and tenants face steeply rising taxes, rents and fees, and public services continue to deteriorate.

The Toronto Board of Trade lobbies the city to contract-out more city services and work, and to privatize capital assets like Toronto Hydro, Enwave and the Toronto Parking Authority (worth over $60 billion). But private services end up costing consumers more, and a one-time cash injection from an asset sale doesn’t solve an ongoing under-funding crisis.

So the city turned to cutting its wage bill. It imposed an annual zero, 1 and 1 per cent raise on its non-union staff, and sought to limit unionized municipal workers to a similar increase, and to curtail their benefits to boot. City councillors take home over $99,000 a year. They gave themselves a 2.4 per cent raise, and negotiated (or approved arbitrated) yearly increases of 3 per cent for police, firefighters, public housing, port and parking authority workers.

Did David Miller target CUPE members to win brownie points with the provincial Liberals? Perhaps he has an eye on an Ontario cabinet position. Or perhaps this is just an inescapable consequence of his alliance with, and dependence upon, large corporate and financial interests.

Regardless, Miller’s “progressive coalition” of New Democrats and Liberals is following in the footsteps of “third way” governments led by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Bob Rae. It tries to make workers pay for the crises of capitalism that we did not cause. Moreover, Toronto city bosses are taking advantage of the current economic depression to weaken unions and further lower the standard of living of all working people.

Miller’s Liberal-NDP coalition was backed by the Toronto and District Labour Council at the 2007 municipal election. This is what you get when Labour subordinates its organization and interests to a capitalist coalition. While the NDP has committed many crimes when it held the reigns of government on its own, the party can be held accountable by its Labour and popular base when the latter are organized to fight for a Workers’ Agenda. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, is accountable only to Bay Street.

For that reason it is crucial that working people break the NDP councillors from the Miller regime at Toronto City Hall, oppose an NDP alliance with any capitalist party, and fight for NDP governments committed to socialist policies at all levels. That is the perspective needed, combined with mass action, including sympathy strikes, in support of workers resisting concessions. That’s how to defend Labour’s gains and to make Capital pay for the crisis it created.

The Summer of the Strike

Across Canada, resistance to the employers’ agenda is visible in a growing number of labour-management disputes. Most, but not all, are strikes against concessions demanded by bosses trying to take advantage of the global economic crisis.

An exception was the two-day strike by 340 Via rail engineers that stopped passenger train service across Canada, July 24–26. The dispute is now going to binding arbitration by agreement of the parties. Some 2,000 unionized ticket agents, maintenance and on-train service workers, laid off by Via during the strike, are back at work. About 12,000 people ride the trains daily. The striking engineers, represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, were reportedly close to an agreement on wages, but they want two consecutive days off per week, training in federal rules and changes in equipment technology. For two and half years management dragged its feet at the bargaining table, until the workers decided to pull the plug. If the arbitrator splits the outstanding differences, it will be a union win.

But it was the fight against concessions that spurred about 3,600 employees of Vale Inco, most of them at the company’s flagship Sudbury nickel mines, to walk off the job on July 13. According to United Steelworkers director Wayne Fraser, the union is opposed to several concessions Vale Inco wants, including elimination of bonuses to workers when the price of nickel is high, plus the imposition of an inferior pension plan for newly hired workers (with defined contributions, instead of defined benefits). It is a battle over future profits for the Brazilian iron-ore giant Vale do Rio Doce, which bought Inco in 2006 for $19.4 billion. Nickel soared above $24 (U.S.) a pound in mid-2007, fell to $5 (U.S.) pound in late 2008, but is rising again, reaching $6.68 on July 13. The USWA’s Fraser said that around $7 a pound, the company is “going to make huge money.”

A number of other strikes are battles over concessions too. The biggest one involved 30,000 City of Toronto inside and outside workers, which ended on July 31 as described above.

A similar war raged for 101 days in Windsor, in the south-west corner of Ontario, just across from Detroit, ending on July 24. Windsor city bosses tried to cut real wages and benefits, but CUPE Locals 82 and 543 retained retiree benefits for the 1,800 current employees, won a 6.3 per cent raise over four years, and improved job security, while conceding reduced post-retirement benefits to new hires who reach age 65.

At a Zellers warehouse in Toronto, 325 workers represented by the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) rejected a company demand for a wage cut of $8 an hour, along with benefit concessions. The distribution center’s material handlers went on strike July 17. Zellers is owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

CAW Local 567 members at Cision Canada in Ottawa are resisting company demands for major concessions. The 25 workers at the media transcription service went on strike on May 5. Harry Ghadban, CAW Ottawa area director, said the company is demanding the elimination of the cost of living adjustment (COLA) clause, elimination of the bonus clause and rollbacks in severance language, sick leave as well as shift language. Ghadban said the workers are determined to win a fair and equitable agreement.

On June 14, Cadillac Fairview, a cross-country office and shopping center giant, locked out 61 engineers, building operators, skilled trades and maintenance workers in two bargaining units at the Toronto Dominion Center, represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP). After more than a year of bargaining, the workers were locked out because they refused to accept massive concessionary demands from Cadillac Fairview. Those include that members reapply for their jobs and accept a new six-month probationary period (putting older, injured and vocally pro-union workers at risk), plus the elimination of skilled trade job classifications. CEP Local 2003 members continue to picket the TD Center, which has hired “a third party service provider” (scabs) to do the work.

Meanwhile, a 93 per cent strike mandate, and a vigorous public campaign, achieved a victory for 7,000 Liquor Control Board of Ontario workers represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) in mid-July. LCBO management proposed to take away job security (by “temporarily” laying off full-time workers during slow periods) and to continue to “casualize” jobs by creating a two-tier system of part-time workers with no benefits. Not only did the bosses back down in the face of a strong strike mandate and an effective “Our Communities Need Good Jobs” campaign, but promised to create more full-time positions at the 610 LCBO outlets across Ontario, give benefits to part-timers, and provide the same 3 per cent annual wage increase won by Ontario Public Service workers last year.

Lack of struggle often produces the opposite results. Some 450 Globe and Mail newspaper employees, including editorial, circulation and sales staff, members of CEP Local 87-M, ratified a concessionary deal that averted a strike on July 2. The new contract imposes a two-year wage freeze, followed by increases of 2, 2.5 and 2.5 per cent through to June 2014. New employees will have to join a defined contribution retirement plan instead of the existing defined benefit pension plan. The union did stop the lengthening of the work week, restrictions on outside activities, and the weakening of job security language.

So the pattern in the Summer of the Strike is mixed, but it tends to show that it pays to fight back.

Auto workers at GM and Chrysler took it on the chin in 2008 and 2009, and Ford workers are now being asked for more concessions.

Hopefully, Ford workers will take their cue from fighting railway workers, civic workers, miners and others, and tell the auto bosses exactly where they can put their demands.

All workers resisting concessions are struggling for the greater good. They need and deserve every form of solidarity, including support rallies, marches and sympathy strikes.