Labor Standard: Information, Education, Discussion

Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder

Below is the Northern Lights column to appear in the May 2011 edition of Socialist Action newspaper, including an initial assessment of the May 2 federal election in Canada. To subscribe to SA monthly newspaper, at $20 for one year, first class mail, send a message to this writer, or visit:

Build on Historic Gains for NDP

Voters in Canada made history on May 2 when they catapulted the labour-based New Democratic Party into Official Opposition status. Relegated to distant third place is the former main party of business rule, the Liberal Party. Its leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his own Toronto seat and resigned as party leader. And despite a mere 1.8 per cent increase in its share of the vote, the autocratic right wing Stephen Harper Conservatives gained a majority of seats.

The election produced a fundamental realignment of forces that dashed any thoughts of parliamentary coalition. Voters tossed aside class collaborationist “strategic voting” schemes. The new left-right polarization makes the NDP a government in waiting, with the onus on the party to show that it represents real change for working people.

Perennially in fourth place, New Democrats soar into the new Parliament in second spot with 102 seats, backed by 31 per cent of the votes cast. The Conservatives captured 167 seats and 39.5 per cent of the votes. (In the 308 seat House of Commons, 155 is a majority.)

The Liberals suffered a crushing defeat, winning only 34 seats (down from 77 MP s in 2008, and 103 in 2006) and 23 per cent of the votes. The bourgeois nationalist Bloc Québécois nearly disappeared. It held onto 4 seats (a steep nose dive from 49). Its leader Gilles Duceppe, lost in his riding too and promptly resigned. The capitalist Green Party won its first and only seat, for Leader Elizabeth May in British Columbia, despite attracting over 4 per cent of the ballots across the country. Such distortions argue forcefully again for replacement of the archaic, Westminster-style, first-past-the-post system, by a system of direct proportional representation.

This result, flawed as it is, still expresses a seismic shift. Stunning gains achieved by the labour-based NDP, nearly doubling its share of the vote, more than tripling its seat total to an historic high, gives the federal NDP Official Opposition status for the first time in history. It comes fifty years after the birth of the party resulting from the partnership of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress.

In terms of class politics, the NDP electoral breakthrough places an obstacle in the path of the capitalist austerity drive. The “orange wave” raises working class expectations for better times in a situation of growing economic polarization amidst crumbling physical and social infrastructures. But the realization of those expectations depends, especially given the Tory majority, on class struggles outside Parliament, with which the NDP can and should be totally identified and involved.

Conservative pundits hail the Tory pick up of 24 seats, aided by a small bump up in the polls and the collapse of the Liberals and the BQ, as a major advance that landed a majority government on their third try in five years. On this basis, Harper’s party (an amalgam of the former hard-right wing Reform Party and the reactionary remnants of the destroyed Progressive Conservative Party) claims a strong mandate for more jails, jets and austerity. The claim, however, is entirely overblown, and can be smashed if challenged on the streets and in the work places.

So, why the sudden shift? After a sleepy start, the campaign ignited around the TV leaders’ debates, one in English and one in French. Popular revulsion over the status quo, combined with broad discontent over Tory bullying and Liberal re-cycled promises, passed the breaking point. Cynical attempts to target “ethnic” voters, demonize the opposition, and obscure critical issues produced uneven effects. Months of vicious political attack ads by the two main capitalist parties frayed loyalties in both camps, while annoying many non-partisans. “Vote mobs” organized by social media savvy youths set out to stimulate participation. They rallied thousands of youths to the idea of political change, injecting an element of excitement into the process. Turnout for the election was 61.4 per cent, up from a dismal 58.8 per cent in 2008.

But the biggest change factor, arguably, was popular disgust with frozen wages, shrinking pensions, shrivelling social benefits, and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of full-time jobs. While the rich got richer from tax cuts and obscene CEO bonuses, and by pillaging the treasures of nature, the rest of us did a slow burn, watching as our living standards sank.

At the same time, the NDP should be credited for making positive moves. Leader Jack Layton, unlike his predecessors, campaigned openly to form a government, not just to win “a few more seats.” He fought to reverse gigantic Tory and Liberal give-ways to big business. He promised that greater revenues from the rich would pay for better health care, pension improvements and post-secondary education access. The NDP tax plank (despite its limitations) resonated so well with the population that the Liberals, under Leader Michael Ignatieff, nearly copied it.

But Layton’s most adept move was to tap the leftist sentiments of the Québec electorate. French-speaking Québécois, particularly workers, possess a collective consciousness shaped by national oppression and a keen aversion to the strictures of the Canadian state. For once, the English-Canada-based NDP took this into account.

After years of dithering and policy reversals, Layton asserted that he would repeal the undemocratic Clarity Act, recognize a declaration of Québec independence after a sovereignty referendum win, and support asymmetrical federalism. That means Québec would be treated as a nation, and not just another province in Confederation. It includes a guarantee that Québec will have no less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament after re-distribution.

The NDP Leader committed to ensure that French would be the working language in federally-regulated industries in Québec, such as railways and banks. Layton pledged to fight for rules that would require future judges appointed to the Supreme Court to be fluent in French. He promised to support efforts to plug the loop hole that allows English private school students in Québec to skirt Language Law 101 and, after a couple of years, transfer to an English-language publicly funded school.

While it is wrong to read massive NDP gains in Québec as signaling the end of the sovereignty movement, they do reflect a disconnection by pro-independence Québécois from the strategy and economic policies of the capitalist Parti Québécois and the Bloc. The shift may presage big gains by the leftist, pro-sovereignty Québec Solidaire at the next provincial vote.

In the meantime, a majority of the NDP Parliamentary Caucus, 59 of 102 MP s, consists of francophone Québécois. One is 19 years old, another is a former communist candidate, and the vast majority are strong Québec nationalists completely new to the federal party. Jack Layton may, or may not succeed in taming this corral of tigers.

As is often the case, in the commercial media personalities trump political content. Media fixation on the alleged assets and foibles of politicians usually benefits the bourgeois parties. This time it backfired. Many comedians make a good living ridiculing Stephen Harper as a heartless, humourless martinet, and by portraying Michael Ignatieff as a vampire-like opportunist on temporary leave from a teaching gig at Harvard U. Jack Layton, a colon cancer survivor who walked through the election campaign with a cane due to recent hip surgery, emerged as a sincere, honest, likeable guy who “won’t give up until the job is done.” Nonetheless, this superficial approach to politics can bite, as well as feed progressives.

Equally dangerous is the tendency to exaggerate the evils of the Conservatives to try to justify a “strategic” vote for the Liberals, or to favour the formation of a bourgeois coalition government, arguments which failed to take root. Still, the NDP brass is its own worst enemy in this regard.

When Jack Layton told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that the main difference between the NDP and the Liberal Party is that the Liberals didn’t keep their promises and the NDP is more trustworthy, he was wrong. The difference is actually profound. The corporate elite simply do not back the NDP. It’s no accident. For them the issue is class, embodied in the NDP connection to the labour movement in English Canada.

Layton’s comment was a sad admission of the illusions harboured by the current leadership of the party. Moreover, it underscores the task we face as workers, poor people, students, seniors and youth. That task is to replace the Liberal-look-alike policies of the NDP with socialist policies to meet the needs of society’s vast majority.

In the dying days of the campaign the NDP Leader began to issue excuses to forestall the implementation of NDP policies. Investment in rapid transit, social housing and urban infrastructure would be contingent on anticipated revenue from a new cap-and-trade carbon tax (bad environmental policy in any case). The proposed doubling of Canada Pension Plan benefits, and the much-touted promise to train new doctors would be dependent on the cooperation of the provinces. Instead, Layton should insist on taxing the rich, cutting the military, and transforming eco-harmful private monopolies into publicly-owned, green industries run democratically under workers’ and community control. Start with Big Oil, auto, mining and the banks. Use their billions to meet the needs of millions.

Clearly, the right has made gains by moving to the right. The left, to make gains, must move to the left. Not just in words, but in deeds.

That means challenging the pro-capitalist direction of the labour and NDP leadership. It means opposing any talk of NDP merger with the Liberal Party, or any coalition for government with a capitalist party. In a bourgeois coalition the NDP would have to carry the can for war abroad and austerity at home. Instead we need an NDP government committed to socialist policies. That’s what many of the thousands of new members who will stream into the newly buoyant labour party will seek.

Historic gains for the NDP make it time now to step up the fight for a Workers’ Agenda and a Workers’ Government. On the crest of rising hopes and expectations, the socialist left can organize to gain a bigger-than-ever hearing for a class struggle programme inside the unions and the NDP. Don’t make excuses. Make waves. Join the NDP Socialist Caucus and fight for socialist policies at the NDP federal convention in Vancouver, June 17–19.

Profit System Fuels World Food Crisis

Globally, more than 935 million people go hungry every day. The dramatic rise in food prices adds millions monthly to the starving mass. It precipitated the “Arab Awakening” from Tunisia to Egypt. It sparked food riots in Bangladesh, and now confronts Afghanistan with a 50 per cent shortfall in funding for food operations.

Food prices soared 36 per cent over the past year, according to the World Bank.

Why? Severe weather and crop diseases certainly took their toll.

But other causes are man-made (even if you think climate change is not). Market speculation and the diverting of farm land to biofuels are two of the causes, and they are no freaks of nature. They are the products of capitalist greed.

Corn, cassava, canola and sugar are increasingly used to make ethanol to power cars and trucks.

“Global maize prices rose about 73 per cent in the six months after June 2010,” said the World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Team. Forty per cent of the U.S. corn crop now goes into ethanol.

Using food to make fuel is profitable for business, but as a substitute for oil, it’s like flipping humanity from the frying pan into the fire — with no reduction of the impact of carbon-burning on nature.

Since world population is predicted to top 9 billion by 2050, the urgency of increasing food production cannot be overstated. At the same time, the hypocrisy of the capitalist rulers should never be underestimated. In 2008, leaders of the G20 countries pledged $22 billion over three years to help poor countries increase food production. According to the World Bank fund set up to administer this money, only $400 million has so far been received.

How long will the starving wait? How long can capitalism get away with murder?

Do corporate tax cuts produce jobs?

A succession of Liberal and Conservative governments claimed that cuts to corporate taxes are the surest way to increase capital spending and job creation.

So, what happened?

While corporate cash flow rose, capital investment as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) showed a long term decline, according to a study released by the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

Governments slashed the combined corporate federal-provincial tax rate from 50 per cent in the 1980s to 29.5 per cent in 2010. Before tax reforms in 1987, fixed capital spending stood at 12.7 per cent of GDP. Since then, investment actually fell to 11.7 per cent of GDP.

Thus, not only is there no proof that lower corporate taxes stimulate more investments, leading to more good jobs, it appears that the opposite is the case.

So, where did the “excess” money go? Apparently, it went into the pockets of rich shareholders and CEOs.

What’s next? During the federal election campaign the Conservative Party promised to further reduce the federal tax rate to 15 per cent in 2012. The Liberal Party, which dropped the business levy from 28 to 21 per cent between 2000 and 2004, now propose to restore the rate back to 18 per cent.

The New Democratic Party said it would keep the combined federal-provincial corporate tax rate below the U.S. federal rate, which is 35 per cent for companies with profits above $18.4 million. The question is: to what extent is the NDP brass prepared to alienate its social base just to keep its implacable enemies on Bay Street at bay?

Toronto rallies against war and the Rob Ford agenda

For the first time in about three years, protest against the wars of occupation hit the streets of Toronto, in solidarity with the actions initiated by the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC) in the USA on April 9. Opposition to NATO bombing of Libya was quite visible, but the dominant theme of the action sponsored by the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War was “Canada out of Afghanistan,” and “Fund human needs not war.”

Over 300 people rallied on University Avenue from noon to 1 p.m., across from the U.S. Consulate, and then walked to Dundas Square to join a much larger Ontario Federation of Labour-sponsored rally in-progress. Unions and their community allies gathered there to protest anti-labour policies, public service cutbacks and the privatization agenda of Toronto’s new right wing mayor Rob Ford.

After 2 p.m. up to 10,000 people, carrying hundreds of picket signs and dozens of union banners, paraded down busy Yonge Street, and west along Queen St., to rally at Toronto City Hall Square.

While the antiwar contingent was a small component of the demonstration, its message was welcomed enthusiastically by participants and by the throngs of downtown shoppers.

Socialist Action members and supporters carried SA and YSA banners in the march, and collected over $160 from the sale of newspapers and buttons. The SA badges “Canada Out of Afghanistan Now,” “Capitalism Fouls Things Up, Eco-Socialism or Extinction,” and “Workers’ Solidarity — In Unity there is Strength” accounted for the lion’s share of sales. Members distributed hundreds of leaflets publicizing Rebel Films, the SA May Day Celebration and the Socialism 2011 Conference, as well as the SA call for a critical vote for the NDP at the May 2 federal election.

Overall, the Canadian Peace Alliance and Québec’s Collectif Échec à la Guerre coordinated antiwar rallies in more than a dozen cities and towns. Actions were held in Comox, Vancouver, Grand Forks and Castlegar in British Columbia, in Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa in Ontario, in Montréal, Québec, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Hopefully, in the months ahead, there will be better publicized, dedicated antiwar actions in Toronto, as part of a coordinated cross-country effort. UNAC has set October 15 as the next date for protests across the USA, which would be a fine plan for the Canadian and Québécois movements to adopt, too.

Postal Workers deliver 95% strike mandate

“We hope the sky-high strike vote and the record turnout of our members will put pressure on Canada Post to negotiate,” said Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ National President Denis Lemelin in a statement released April 18 on the union’s web site.

He was referring to the inspiring 94.5 per cent vote in favour of going on strike if necessary to obtain a good collective agreement.

CUPW members know they are in a serious fight. Management wants to pay new employees 30 per cent less. It wants to reduce their benefits, weaken their job security and sick leave, and eliminate many other past gains.

The results of the vote show that postal workers will not accept these rollbacks. In this respect, they are setting a powerful example for the entire labour movement.

Noteworthy is the fact that Canada Post is about to celebrate its 16th consecutive year of profits. The corporation also plans to make huge productivity gains through modernization. Postal workers deserve to share in the benefits.

Negotiations continue, with the aid of a government-appointed conciliator. If an agreement is not reached, CUPW has the right to strike as of midnight May 24.