If you were in any doubt, it is now clear where Stephen Harper – and every Conservative MP (because they do as they are told) – stands on ‘labour relations’ in Canada.
He is firmly on the side of management (or more specifically, the CEO class) (just in case you had your doubts). Harper’s perspective is understandable: while he has always been consistent (in putting elite interests first), he does value working Canadians (for photo-ops), just as long as they don’t get ideas above their station, like Air Canada customer agents and those uppity letter carriers.
Whether legal or illegal, trade unions are the oldest, democratic organisations of the working class. They are the one and only way that workers have any chance of getting anything close to their fair share of what they produce or from the services they provide.
I know it feels like the 1930s all over again, where ordinary Canadians had to fight the state for their basic rights, before they became law: the On-to-Ottawa Trek; labour camps in British Columbia; the Regina police riot. These were aspects of what many would call ‘class war’ because it was the rich and the state against working, unemployed and starving Canadians.
Their rights to free speech and free assembly were stolen by the state. Just as they were stolen in many countries throughout Europe in the 1920 and 1930s, as fascists and reactionary parties in countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Germany, outlawed unions and political parties, and imprisoned socialists, communists, anarchists, homosexuals, Roma, religious minorities, liberals and democrats. (Of course, these regimes varied in the degree of their authoritarianism.)
People often forget that private corporations were supported by these right-wing regimes throughout Europe, including the Nazi Reich, because of a fear of communism. Fascists often set up ‘corporate’ or ‘yellow’ unions to control workers to the benefit of private corporations because the working class – and even the peasantry in many places – were getting quite ‘uppity’ (you know, ideas above their station in life).
The right to strike, even if it had existed, was frequently met with indiscriminate and brutal violence. In the Netherlands, it was the Dutch trade unions that organised to oppose the Nazi deportation of Jews in February 1941 and the Nazis just opened up with machine guns on the workers. Trade unions, alongside socialist, anarchist and communist organisations provided the main – sometimes the only – resistance movements in most countries under Nazi occupation (frequently the others joined shortly before the Allies rolled in to liberate their towns and cities). In many cases, there was a ‘class war’ going on within those countries as the wealthy and the elites sided with the fascists, even when they were being occupied.
The economy was part of the excuse of ‘the national interest’ because of the Great Depression and frequently these reactionary and fascist groups focussed on ethnic and religious minorities as the source for various problems, not just economic ones. (By the way, this is NOT some facile attempt to equate Harper’s Conservative Party to any fascist or reactionary party in Europe in the 1930s because the situation at present is different and the Conservative Party is very different to what the old Tory Party, of even a generation ago, was. However, their view of workers and the ‘common [wo]man’ are revealed in their approach to the issues that matter.)
But, it took a second world war of working people fighting fascists and their allies to win fair treatment, dignity and respect and the post-war social contract of: full employment with good jobs; healthcare; decent housing; and the welfare state. These objectives were achieved, in part, because the ruling classes of Europe, Canada and the United States were still worried that the USSR might be a threat and win over working people (it is hard to understand its appeal for younger generations, such as mine, but at one time, those who had faced and fought the fascists and reactionaries, the Soviet Union appeared as a possible alternative to western capitalism).
However, it is important to remember that corporations are not adverse to dealing with authoritarian regimes by any means. In fact, many have actively supported military and fascist regimes. It’s important to remember this because workers’ rights are as key to the rule of law in any democracy as the rights of women, gays and lesbians, children, ethnic minorities and others. Rights are rights because they are not negotiable.
Unfortunately, Harper’s use of back-to-work legislation (or threat of) in these two labour disputes (Air Canada customer agents; Canada Post workers) sets a precedent for the State taking one side in labour disputes. This creates an imbalance. It will set back labour relations at the very least. On the other side, workers will have to organise ‘illegally’, just as they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries and under reactionary, fascist and authoritarian regimes (as happens today in Communist China); workers will have to use every possible means at their disposal to influence management.
If postal workers are going to get less than what Canada Post offered them, why bother negotiating? Well, of course, you cannot APPEAR not to negotiate. So, Canada Post can appear to be even more reasonable than Harper!
But, really, what incentive does CP have to negotiate? Or any corporation for that matter? Remember, Harper spent millions on security over the G8/G20, and did not appear concerned about the indiscriminate and brutal use of force against peaceful protestors or even innocent Canadians.
Is Harper trying to copy the Chinese? They have unions that are controlled by the Party/State (i.e. ‘yellow’ or ‘company’ unions) and because of unrest since the global financial crisis, the Communist regime has been forced to increase workers’ wages.
(By the way, has anybody else noticed? If Communism is so bad, why do all the corporations move to China? Supposedly, corporations – or capitalism – is equated to democracy here in the West, yet all the big corporations have been quite happy to move their production lines there. Indeed, they get on rather well with the top apparatchiks! I’m not sure how much democracy the Chinese workers got. But, oh, big profits for CEOs!
The example of China demonstrates that corporations are not interested in democracy any more than they are interested in paying more than the minimum they can get away with. They want a workforce that can be controlled – or at least can be stopped from going on strike or demanding more of the profits made from their labour. It’s what Franco did, Pinochet in Chile, the Mexican governments since the 1950s, and so on.
I’m sure Harper will be rewarded for his actions by the corporate elite when he is finished being a politician (as well as getting a real gold pension – never mind the plates!). Once you’ve been Prime Minister, I am sure a lobbying job or a seat on a board of directors would be a piece of cake, eh?! Just check out how other (Conservative) ex-politicians are doing – it’ll give you an idea.
What happens if they manage to get all public and private sector workers reduced to the same basic status as a Wal-Mart ‘associate’: part-time work; no benefits and no pension? (Wal-Mart has encouraged or helped its ‘associates’ apply for food stamps and other forms of government assistance, right?) Perhaps, Canadian workers will get some scraps off the CEOs’ tables once they learn to grovel and beg – or ‘bow and scrape’ as they used to do in feudal Europe!
Well, once all working Canadians are reduced to McJob wages, I hope you’re not a small business, because who is going to be able to afford your goods and services?
Nortel pensioners? Postal workers? RIM employees?
Next post: From ‘Class war to Civil war’: The metaphor…