thoughts on recession, socialism and me, part 2

It was the title of the talk that caught my eye: How Can Workers Fight Back in a Recession?

I feel helpless. We all do. Our lives are being squeezed, made more difficult, for many of us ruined, by forces beyond our control.

I'm angry - but I'm also afraid. Compared to most people in our society, I'm not very materialistic. But there are things I want to do, goals and dreams I want to accomplish for which I need income, and right now those plans are increasingly out of reach. I've already adjusted my expectations downward. Will I have to do that again and again? Will the goal eventually be basic survival?

I'm afraid - but I'm also angry. This global economic crisis is the predictable result of an irrational system that benefits too few at the expense of too many. There are resources enough for all, but they are controlled for private profit, rather than public good.

When I'm angry and frightened, I try to do something about it. That's part of what I get from activism. It combats feelings of helplessness. I need to be out there fighting, surrounded by others who are also fighting.

I was thinking about fighting back, because right now, in my own life...

... 48 people were let go from the company where I work, leaving the rest of us to work much harder for the same compensation, with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads,

... our evening transportation allowance has been cut, making our commutes longer, more stressful, and less safe,

... I'm already underemployed, my day-job doesn't cover my expenses and I have to make up the difference with whatever extra work I can find,

... the minimum standard for freelance writing work hasn't increased since the early 1980s,

... and in fact, writer's fees have decreased, and paid writing opportunities have become increasingly scarce, in some fields nearly vanishing,

and through all this, I know I'm very lucky, relatively speaking, because my partner and I are both still employed.

I was thinking about fighting back, because right now, in other people's lives,

... on my way home, the cab driver tells me how the firm's transportation cutbacks will devastate his income, and he was already struggling,

... a huge percentage of unemployed people aren't even eligible for Employment Insurance,

... Employment Insurance isn't enough to live on,

... Ontario may renege on its next minimum wage hike, balancing its budget on the backs of those who can least afford it,

... and on and on. The further down the economic ladder one is, the harder this economic depression hits, the more impossible it is to climb out of it. For too many people, this will never end.

Thoughts like these were swirling through my head when I put the IS talk on my calendar.

The two people who spoke that night, Chantal Sundaram and Carolyn Egan, gave me their notes to post here. They said much that wasn't in their notes, but this was the general background of their talks.

From Chantal Sundaram:
How do workers fight back in a recession?

I was lucky to be in France for the founding of a new anti-capitalist party in the wake of the biggest strike movement France has seen in years, that has some lessons for us.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy used to be known as the "French Ronald Reagan". Last July he said that France had changed so rapidly under his leadership that "these days, when there is a strike, nobody notices anymore".

Sarkozy noticed last Jan 29 when 2.5 million people took part in a one-day general strike and demonstrations across France to protest his leadership.

And not just the effects of the economic crisis, but Sarkozy's handling of it: the government has found 26 billion euros to bail out France’s banks while thousands of workers are being laid off, a 10% unemployment rate, falling wages and cuts to pensions and public services, and mean-spirited things like the cutting of 3,000 jobs among professionals who specialise in helping children who have difficulties in nursery and primary schools.

But in the lead-up to the general strike, even Sarkozy started speaking about the need to find a "more moral" version of capitalism, because the neoliberal version of capitalism "isn't working".

Now, his biggest political adversary is a 34-year-old postal worker who ran against him in the last election as an open revolutionary and is now polling at 18%.

People say that France is exceptional, but in particular...

In 2006, millions of youth mobilized to defeat the CPE (casualisation of youth labour); riots in suburbs by youth of colour; huge mobilizations of high school students against education reforms: they successfully defeated reforms of the high school curriculum.

In December, when Greek students were rioting and occupying campuses in Greece, Sarkozy expressed concern that we could be on the brink of a new May 1968.

Maybe not yet, but students and youth have been passing the torch on to workers.

In fact, the defeat of Sarkozy's school reforms was really the result of action by both students and teaching unions together, including a one-day strike in October.

So the one-day general strike in January was actually just the latest in a series of escalating labour actions and even multiple-day strikes in various sectors against job cuts, government reform plans and decreased purchasing power because of the economic crisis - so it didn't come out of nowhere.

In fact, there was already a labour victory against plans to introduce laws on Sunday working, causing them to be delayed.

Early in the new year, as the general strike movement was gearing up, some MPs and Ministers expressed concerns about how broad the movement was, feared that the strike movement would escalate into a wider movement of opposition against the government: "People think public money is being given to bankers but nothing is being done for them, so they support those taking to the streets."

In fact, polls published in the lead-up showed that 69% of French people said they "supported" or "sympathised with" the strike actions, despite the fact that only about 10% of the French workforce is unionized (compared to over 30% in Canada).

I remember being impressed with this during the Days of Action movement in Ontario, which was going on at the same time as a massive general strike movement in France against cuts to social programs with only a third the union rate.

The Jan 29 strike was called by France's eight major trade unions and pulled in teachers, postal employees, transport and media workers, civil servants, hospital staff, bank staff, car industry and shop workers, even lawyers, judges, and journalists; and in many smaller towns groups of workers from small private firms demonstrated for the first time.

So not only across public and private sectors, but also well beyond organized labour.

They were joined by school and university students, as well as some of their parents, on marches.

On the day there were over 200 demonstrations across France, with slogans like: "The crisis is them – the solution is us."

The movement can easily go well beyond organized labour because it's against the crisis as a whole, i.e. not just its effects but about how government is dealing with it, which gives the movement a character that's not just economic but political, and even somewhat ideologically opposed to what's going on in the global system and how it's manifesting in France.

But there is also a concrete focus on the economy: the eight major unions issued a joint document listing demands on both the government and company managers. Here are some of them:

- Any state aid to companies must be conditional on them supporting jobs and salaries.

- Companies that reduce working hours or ask staff to take leave as ways of coping with a slowdown in activity must negotiate such arrangements with the workers. Staff on a temporary break from production should be offered training.

- The government must immediately drop plans to cut 30,000 public sector jobs by not replacing some retiring employees.

- State stimulus measures must be directed at consumers, not just firms. They should revive the economy through consumption.

- The government must repeal legislation that has relaxed rules on the 35-hour working week.

- The government must withdraw its bill proposing to make it easier for shops to open on Sunday.

- The European Union must be at the forefront of efforts to curb financial speculation, get rid of tax havens and increase transparency on financial markets.

An offensive struggle, but these are still defensive demands...

Following the strike day, Sarkozy appeared on TV and incensed the unions enough that they resolved to go ahead with plans for another one-day general strike in March.

But Sarkozy's strategy has combined attacks with some tactical retreats, and he allowed himself to be forced to the table to negotiate with the eight major trade unions and a number of employers' representatives on February 18 (unique for a state to set up national negotiations between workers and employers on the crisis).

Result: a kind of "bailout" package for the poor, which Sarkozy unveiled to the nation on live prime time news that same day of the meeting with unions and employers' reps: he announced new measures worth 2.65 billion euros ($3.4 billion) to help vulnerable people across France weather the crisis, such as tax breaks for low income households and extra benefits for the jobless and big families.

But he rejected union demands for a hike in the minimum legal wage and vowed to stay the course of structural reform.

Despite the concessions, there is still another nation-wide one-day general strike planned for March 19.

And also an ongoing strike movement in the universities that emerged days after the general strike, not just by students, but by university workers, lecturers and researchers, against job cuts and reforms of their job status that would see university presidents have more control over their professional lives (in France, teachers are civil servants), and some university unions are even pushing for an "unlimited" strike (meeting of French university presidents at Sorbonne while I was there...).

Sarkozy will be under enormous pressure, also because of the unlimited general strike already going on in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which entered its 42nd day yesterday, and has now spread to Martinique.

The strike is also over the economic crisis, and for higher benefits and higher pay for low-income residents, but it has an added anti-colonial/anti-imperialist dimension against the white French minority that enjoys better conditions that the Afro-Caribbean majority.

That's a lesson on how workers can fight back in a recession: hit them from all sides: it was no doubt a factor in forcing Sarkozy to the table with unions, to avoid things spiralling into unlimited strike action in France.

And just as Sarkozy was sitting down at the negotiating table on Feb 18, a union representative in Guadeloupe was shot dead.

In his televised address after talks with union leaders, Sarkozy spoke only briefly about Guadeloupe, paying lip service to the "anxieties and despair" of the people there, and that he would address the people of Guadeloupe on the radio.

But despite this pressure there are dangers: today, union leaders are continuing their demonstrations in Guadeloupe, but more and more businesses are re-opening, and the president of the French Confederation of Business Enterprises in Guadeloupe has predicted that up to 14,000 people could lose their jobs as a result of bankruptcies triggered by the strike.

In this context, the strike in France on March 19 will be all the more important in determining whether the movement will advance or retreat.

The New Anti-capitalist Party is trying to take the vision of a just society even further in appealing to the growing desire to see collective ownership and redistribution of wealth.

From the Guardian, about Olivier Besancenot, 34-year-old postal worker and leading figure of the new party:
Besancenot was given a hero's welcome by protesters during last week's nationwide strikes and demonstrations. Chewing gum and dressed in leather jacket and jeans, he explained yesterday that his shifts had been interrupted for 10 days by a workers' strike "for better pay".

Asked whether it felt strange to deliver letters in Neuilly, France's wealthiest and most conservative town, he shrugged. "Well, you know, it's work. I guess even the rich need their public services."

From Carolyn Egan:
The working class is under attack in this country. There have been 129,000 job losses in the month of January alone, mostly in manufacturing but also in service, retail and the building trades. This has been on top of hundreds of thousands of previous layoffs.

Only 45% are able to collect unemployment insurance. In some sectors as few as 25% are able to collect.

The system has been gutted in past years and the neo-liberal agenda is being pushed forward by governments ideologically committed to privatization, cutting services, and pushing back workers demands. They are taking advantage of the economic crisis to continue their attacks.

The auto workers are under particular pressure with federal ministers like Tony Clement telling them that they have to do their part and share the pain, accepting concessions when the CAW has shown that wages are only 7% of the cost of making a car. If they are defeated it will have an effect on workers in every sector.

The horror of the capitalist system is glaringly obvious whether you are a laid of worker with EI benefits running out, a student who can no longer bear the cost of school, an agency worker trying to maintain two jobs just to keep your family afloat, or someone who lays awake at night not knowing what the next week or month will bring.

The economic crisis has sent the rich and the powerful into a blind panic as they see their assets and profits disappear overnight. Whatever there claim, they have no solutions to the problem except one: make workers pay the price through unemployment or reduced wages or conditions. The class divide is clearer and clearer.

Fear is stalking the world but so too is resistance. We have seen how workers, students and immigrant communities in France have risen up and are fighting back, and it’s not just happening there.

In Ireland, workers at Waterford Crystal occupied their workplace because they were being denied there severance. This militant resistance sparked 200,000 marching in the streets of Dublin against the government.

In Chicago, workers at Republic Window and Doors occupied their plant, also being denied severance. Bank of America which was the recipient of bail out monies urged the employer to bilk the workers. A solidarity rally by other unionists at the bank upped the ante and the workers won their demands. Numbers of them had been involved in earlier mass demonstrations for amnesty for people without status.

A year and a half ago workers in southern Ontario occupied plants primarily Steel and auto workers in workplaces such as Collins and Aikman, Masonite demanding just severance The militancy and class solidarity were palpable and you got a glimpse of the power of the working class and what we mean by socialism from below.

But these were defensive struggles and we know that deep recessions have contradictory effects on workers consciousness. They create anger and fear at the same time. The anger can erupt into sudden struggles that are more militant. The fear can lead people to avoid struggle, hunker down and try to wait it out.

Which of these factors predominates is not preordained. in advance. It depends on concrete circumstances - the way the crisis hits particular industries or sectors—past traditions of struggle — the general political mood and the degree to which there is some sort of fighting leadership or rank and file organization.

Confidence can be built by a victory that inspires, locally or around the world. A particular action can be the spark to a much broader fight back. The shooting by the police of a teenager in Greece led to huge demonstrations and fightbacks because of the volatility of the situation people were facing and the depth of the crisis.

This is possible today in Canada as well. There is a much greater opening to a criticism of the market and the capitalist system itself. But nothing is automatic.

We also have to be aware that there can be right wing responses to crisis. We have seen that in Britain with demonstrations calling for "British Jobs for British Workers" a backlash against Italian and Portuguese workers from the EU, blaming them instead of the bosses and the government for the effects of the crisis. Anti-immigrant sentiment. We have to be aware that when we raise demands for jobs, domestic content and local procurement for the manufacture of wind turbines, subway cars etc we must always put it in the context of internationalism and class solidarity.

Our enemy is not the workers of China, Mexico or any other country but the corporate owners and their governments who are trying to continue to make profits at our expense.

There have not been general strikes or mass demonstrations in the streets in Ontario but there has been growing resistance locally.

We have seen the 2000 PMP workers barricade their workplace for days demanding severance, surround the federal Minister of Labour, and sparking a movement for expanded EI benefits. They have inspired laid off Steelworkers to follow suit and organize among the 6000 in Toronto who have lost their jobs forming “Workers Without Jobs” as a voice of laid off workers.

We have seen PSAC workers at Canada Post mount a courageous battle against concessions, rejecting the first tentative agreement and holding out as longs as they could with picket line support.

A while back activists at the Toronto and York Region Labour Council looked for an issue that could link union and none union workers. After talking with a lot of people, we decided to see if the fight for a $10 minimum wage could be the spark to bring people into action. The employers came out fighting. and they fought hard saying it would lead to greater layoffs, businesses would be shutting down. The same scare mongering we always hear whenever workers make demands.

But the support was broad and deep and it led to real links between union and non union workers. Meetings took place in neighbourhoods across the city — Malvern, Parkdale, Davenport, Regent Park, Rexdale and others. A bill was moved in the legislature, because of the growing pressure and we won, not everything but a 28% increase in three years.

That led to activists intervening in the CLC convention last June with a Labour Action Agenda, trying to test the sentiment and connect with other rank and file workers who and wanted to fight. We leafleted at the entrances and held side meetings which attracted hundreds of workers talking about local campaigns, deteriorating conditions and the need for action. We intervened at the mikes and gave confidence to ourselves and others that there was an appetite to fightback against the attacks.

This led to an organizing effort to counter the huge job losses, connect with agency workers, the unoganized to build a coalition in Toronto "Good Jobs for All" with both union activists and community members particularly communities of colour who were being hard hit. During the organizing, the economic crisis deepened.and more and more came out to the meetings. Late November we held a conference and over 1000 workers came out representing the diversity of the Toronto working class.

They endorsed a "Good Jobs for All" Declaration and continued to organize. Activists organizing International Women's Day in Toronto took up the call "Good Jobs and Dignity for All" with a march and rally that brought thousands into the streets.

One of the most exciting campaigns to come out of the coalition is around Employment Insurance. This was a major demand on the Harper government during the last election and it was ignored. The Montreal Labour Council recently called the Toronto and York Region Labour Council due to the connections we made at the CLC convention asking if there would be a taste in English Canada for a campaign around EI.

And there is. Rallies have already begun in Toronto. Similar action are planned in other cities. On March 21st there will be a huge rally at the Hamilton Convention Centre protesting the shut down of the US Steeol plants in Hamilton and Lake Erie. Workers are busing into the city that has been devastated by the impending layoffs.

In Toronto there will be public forums in low income neighbourhoods in Rexdale, Brampton, Parkdale to organize within communities in the same way as happened during the minimum wage campaign. Hopefully this will lead to national actions.

We have to defend the CAW workers, fight for good, green jobs for all ,tackling both the economic and the environmental crisis, build a campaign to improve EI, start occupying the factories once more and inspire workers that they can fight back and win in these tough times. Steelworkers just occupied a mattress plant for two days.

We may not yet have seen the huge demonstrations in France, Greece or Ireland and there is tremendous fear about what the future may bring but the circumstances are such that they could erupt, and involvement in local campaigns that can make a difference in peoples lives can be the spark to much larger mobilizations.

The central thing that we need to understand is that the crisis is not simply a fault of a lack of financial regulation or bankers greed. It is the capitalists system itself that is in crisis,and we must take advantage of the turmoil to put across socialist arguments while seeking to be at the centre of the many forms of resistance as our rulers try to make working people pay for the crisis.

In the discussion that followed, someone pointed out that economic crisis dovetails nicely with militarization. Military recruiting is easier in tough times. But war costs a fortune, in both economic and human terms. We need good jobs, and we need peace.

The speaker quoted an unemployed neighbour as saying, "It's Alberta or Afghanistan". That's something we have to fight back against, too.

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