November 19, 2015

“REAL CHANGE” and The Ontario Federation of Labour Convention: Commentary from the Ontario Trade Union Commission, Communist Party of Canada

By:  Ontario Trade Union Commission, Communist Party of Canadalink:

The Ontario Federation of Labour Convention takes place from November 22 to 27, after unprecedented infighting, disaffiliation, dues strikes and back-room skirmishing. There will be a new leadership, guaranteed because the outgoing president Sid Ryan is not standing for re-election. But masked by the thrust and parry of trade union bickering and outright slander, usually delivered in the mainstream media, is the rather one-sided clash between social activism and social compliance. The pity is that after the smoke clears, even the combatants may not know what the fight was about or what was won or lost. That is because the contradictions preceding the convention were obscured by oblique sham issues - a created "financial crisis", hidden cameras and implied sexism - constructed for the purpose of obscuring the real problem.

            The real issues flow out of the objective attacks on working people and how labour reacts to these attacks. The weapons of attack are: NAFTA, CETA, TPP, precarious work, the attack on collective bargaining, de-industrialization, privatization, the attack on the ecology, and thirty years of wage stagnation and a decline in the stability of life. The neo-liberal corporate agenda. Labour has had a mixed response at best, but within that mix are the seeds of the conflicts and contradictions that will shape this OFL Convention. The ghost of Wayne Samuelson or the ghost of Sid Ryan? The inertia of rest or the inertia of motion?

            The last decade has been marked by unexpected militancy erupting in the Occupy Movement, Idle No More, the Quebec students struggle, the G8 demonstrations and hundreds of important engagements and environmental struggles. These movements have recruited labour support, and influenced labour, but none of them originated in or were led by the organized labour movement. Labour has fought a rearguard struggle marked by defensive action at best and concession bargaining at worst. The most organized section of the working class has been, with the exception of teachers and some other public sector unions, in a secondary role and generally in retreat. Why?

            Why is it that with 40% of the working class precariously employed, contracted out and super-exploited, the percentages of the organized in an expanding workforce have dropped ten points in 30 years? Are today’s workers genetically or biologically different than their grandparents who built the labour movement? Or is it because we have a different leadership with different priorities?

            The answer lies in the ideological contradiction between parliamentary struggle farmed out to the NDP, and advocacy for independent political action expressed by massive street-level mobilization. It should be obvious that what works, like the Quebec student strike, would be the acid test. But not so. No matter how successful, street level struggles seem to embarrass labour leaders and social-democratic politicians. They prefer antiseptic lobbying and endless petitions that beg for “fairness”. At the G8 Summit struggles, youth activists shared wire detention cages while top labour leaders had guest status at the cocktail parties.

            The scenario of the NDP throwing away the BC and Ontario elections, now repeated in the Liberal majority federally, should cast some doubt on this methodology. But the response has been to undermine and replace leadership that attempted mass mobilization and partnership with the social justice movements. While the Liberals constructed a fantasy of “real change” for a hungry electorate, the NDP moved to the right for a balanced budget and responsible government.

            The Liberals are a party of capital; while they talk of “real change”, that change will be within the parameters of the neo-liberal agenda. While the “iron glove” of Stephen Harper may be replaced by the “velvet glove” of Justin Trudeau, the “fist” of the ruling class is still there.

            But what of the maligned precarious and unemployed legions of youth? What of the indigenous people and the missing and murdered indigenous women? What of the Hamilton Steel pensioners? What of the 60% of unemployed who are denied benefits? What of the working families who cannot afford hydro? The list goes on, including the future displaced victims of CETA and TPP.  Can the working class afford to lobby and beg for fairness for another four years to see if the Liberals will destroy capitalism? What is the chance of that? The cards are dealt and the die is cast. The Liberals are the party of big business, we already know that. But what is the role of labour? What is to be done?

            If labour adopts a policy of co-operation and conciliation, it will be pulled constantly to the right in parallel with the unrestricted flow of capital and the destruction of sovereignty imposed by CETA and TPP. Even if the trade unions and the NDP express official opposition to these deals, without massive mobilization and extreme economic pressure, the results are inevitable and predictable. The dream of working class unity will be spelled out in the reality of poverty, degradation and despair. Without a Common Front, a partnership with the social justice movements, Indigenous movements, LGBTQ organizations, women’s organizations, with labour as the catalyst, the outcome is sadly predictable. Even with this kind of unity the fight will be hard. Without it the fight is already lost.

            In short, the working people need a marching song not a lullaby. We need leadership that will mobilize, not go back into hibernation. We need independent political action, not contracting out. We need mobilization and social pressure that tells the government that it cannot rule us without concessions to our demands, that we have the ability to force “real change”, and we don’t have to beg for it.

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