marxism 2011 program notes: workers rising: from wisconsin to ontario

These are my notes from the 2011 Marxism conference in Toronto. The series starts here.

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Workers rising: From Wisconsin to Ontario
Panel Discussion, May 28, 2011

Allen Ruff

Allen spoke again about the worker uprising in Wisconsin (see here), with more analysis.

He noted the absence of "struggle unionism," contrasted by service or business unionism. These union fights are top-down, defensive, demobilized, and bureaucratic. The defensive posture is reflected in the rhetoric which calls on workers to "take back" and "stop the attacks on the middle class".

Allen noted - correctly, I believe - that almost everyone in the U.S. sees themselves as middle-class. USians don't identify themselves as workers or working-class. This has always been an obstacle to organizing.

The dominant ideology in the US is one of deference to power, to authority, whether that authority be elected officials, courts, police, or bosses.

Wisconsin and other states are out to dismantle unions - because if they dismantle unions, they dismantle Taft-Hartley.

Gary Howe

Gary is the Vice-President of United Steelworkers Local 1005. At the time of his talk, the members of Local 1005 had been locked out by U.S. Steel since November of 2010. The lock-out ended almost a year later.

That is just a small piece of the story. For Steelworkers, as for all workers, it has been one struggle after the next, as their wages, benefits, pensions, and job security are continally attacked. Layoffs and lockouts have become the norm.

In the last seven years, Howe said, the company has been under three different ownerships. All continue to take money out of the company (and out of the country).

The CEO of U.S. Steel was recently awarded an 8.6 million dollar raise. But the company won't index employee's pensions so they can spend their senior years with a bit of dignity.

Gary described the local's militant approach as "Just Say No" and "No Means No": no concessions, no layoffs, no givebacks.

In contrast to the business unionism described by Allen Ruff, what has Local 1005 done differently?

- Union brass held weekly informational meetings for the rank-and-file, and decided to be completely transparent - to tell the membership everything about negotiations and plans. This was a huge departure from normal practice, and it was extremely successful.

- They created weekly information leaflets, which locked-out workers would hand out on the streets of Hamilton. At first there was a negative reaction, but as the public became more educated - about the company's profits, and how they were treating the workers - the mood improved.

- Workers controlling the lift bridge into the plant held up boatloads of coke, which slowed down production. The company tried a lot of negative spin in the media, but public opinion held in favour of the workers.

Gary talked about the long history of companies hiring scabs to pit workers against each other until workers "are forced to submit to their corporate blackmail". But, he said, "giving up is not a plan".

Carolyn Egan

Carolyn Egan wears many hats, including serving as president of the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council. She talked about moving beyond protests of the austerity agenda to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to talk about changing the nature of government.

Why should workers, women, and racialized communities pay for the economic crisis that they had no hand in causing? Why not nationalize the banks and the corporations? Government serves an economic ideology intended to serve capitalism, corporatism and the super-rich.

Workers, meanwhile, are caught between fear and anger. We fear instability and poverty, fear that we must take whatever we can get or be left with nothing. But we angry at what feels like our powerlessness. Governments rescue the rich, fostering more cynicism in the public - which leads to less engagement. It's the everyday version of the Shock Doctrine.

Contrast treatment of poor and workers - losing homes, losing jobs, benefits, pensions - with treatment of banks and corporations. The government is testing the waters to see what they can get away with. They are testing us to see how much we will take.

But resistance, Carolyn says, is not automatic. Workers can fight back, but only we're organized, and if we recognize all our struggles are the same. Take Local 1005: their fight is our fight. If they lose, we all lose.

CUPE416 in Toronto did door-to-door organizing, public education. "It's a process we're involved in, not an event."

We also need to keep up pressure on union leadership to take action. Nothing is automatic or spontaneous.

We all marvel at the resistance put up by Greek workers. But unions in Greece are no more militant or leftist than unions anywhere else. The difference is the pressure the rank-and-file puts on the leadership. "The leadership there ran to catch up with the militancy of membership." The huge general strike in Greece was preceded by hundreds of smaller, local actions. Those actions included immigrant workers and "precarious workers".

We are looking for nothing less than a shift in consciousness.

Rob Ford wants us to join him in the politics of envy. We need to foster the politics of solidarity.

We must forge links between the people who provide public services and the people who use them, to see labour and the community as partners.

In hard times like these, people look for an alternative to this system that is built on exploitation and oppression (although they might not articulate it that way). It's our job to help them find it.

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