United States

Canada: Strikes and Sit-Down Strikes

By Julian Benson and Alex Grant

A recent report, compiled by the UK Office For National Statistics, compares the strike rates of EU and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] countries. Surprisingly, traditional hotbeds of labor militancy such as France and Italy did not top the list. The major industrialized country with the highest proportion of working days not worked due to strikes or lockouts was Canada, the only OECD country with a higher rate was crisis-ridden Iceland. The high strike rate in Canada is now leading to further radicalization as workers in the manufacturing sector begin factory occupations against plant closures.

Over the last decade an average of 208 working days a year were spent on a picket line for every 1000 workers in Canada. In the recent period, we have seen a mass general strike movement in British Columbia, a similar movement in Québec, the largest strike in Newfoundland’s history, the CBC and Telus lockouts, the Toronto TTC wildcat and a cross-Canada strike of the Federal public service. This month there have been strikes of Greyhound busworkers in the West, construction workers in Ontario, Montreal transit workers and Teamsters on CP Rail. These statistics show that in the last 10 years a significant portion of the Canadian working class has become personally acquainted with the class struggle. And yet, despite booming corporate profits, wages have remained stagnant or have fallen over the same period.

Karl Marx explained that social conditions determine social consciousness and the above contradiction inevitably leads workers to political conclusions.

Canada: High strike rate now leading to factory occupations

There are some who write off the working class and say that the reduction in the number of industrial workers means that Marxism is no longer valid. It is true that there are now fewer industrial workers in the advanced capitalist countries. But to say that this reduction makes socialism impossible is to ignore the fact that in 1871 the Paris Commune succeeded in overthrowing the capitalist state before industrial labor had been developed.

In fact, when the first major industrial plants were built they were seen as anti-union bastions, with armed guards on the doors and impossible to organize. The Paris communards were largely workers from small craft enterprises of 5 or 10 workers who were prepared, in the words of Marx, to “storm heaven!” Let us not forget that in Russia in 1917 less than 10 percent of the population was working class and yet it was this class that was able to draw the peasantry behind it to lead the revolution.

A reduction in the number of industrial workers in no way reduces the importance of these workers for the smooth running of capitalism. Marxists do not base themselves on the working class because of sentimental reasons. Petit-bourgeois anarchists and intellectuals criticize Marxists for orientating towards “privileged” workers, while the homeless or the peasantry are far more oppressed. They miss the point; the task is not to rank each individual in a huge line going from highest to lowest privilege. The task is to mobilize the exploited and oppressed to overthrow the capitalist system that creates exploitation and oppression—and in this fight it is the working class, especially the industrial workers, who have the most power. Just-in-time production means that a relatively small number of workers can block the supply chain of a huge industrial enterprise. The one-day wildcat of the Toronto TTC transit workers cost the bosses $40 million. The strike of a few thousand CN Rail workers, that blocked the port of Vancouver, led to millions in lost profit each day. The oppressed and the youth are frequently the first to move in opposition to capitalism, but it is when these sectors provoke the wider working class to struggle that the rule of capital is truly endangered.

Ontario factory occupations

Up until recently the Ontario working class has been relatively passive compared to the rest of Canada. A decade ago, the Ontario labor movement was on the move against the attacks of the Progressive-Conservative government of Mike Harris. The movement culminated in the Metro Days of Action, a series of demonstrations that looked set to result in a province-wide general strike. But it was not to be. The movement was sold out by its leaders, the union bosses agreed to concessions and the workers felt defeated and demoralized.

Despite the recent shift of Canada’s economic growth to the West, Ontario is still the heart of the nation’s economy. While Ontario has over a third of the population of the entire country, it also accounts for 60 percent of GDP. Ontario’s many manufacturing centers, such as Windsor, Oshawa, Hamilton and Kitchener, have made the province Canada’s industrial cornerstone for nearly half a century. However, as competition heats up between North America and their newly arrived Chinese and Indian counterparts, Canadian workers have been forced to bear the burden of the bosses’ desire for profit.

Over the last four years, almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ontario, with more layoffs coming every day. The federal and provincial governments, under the control of the Conservative and Liberal parties, have responded only by giving more tax cuts to the rich and removing what little social support remains for everybody else. In the face of theses attacks, after keeping its head down for nearly 10 years, the Ontario labor movement is now showing the first signs of a renewed struggle.

The Ontario business community was stopped in its tracks in late March when workers at Collins & Aikman auto parts plant in Scarborough, Ontario occupied their workplace. C&A had recently announced that it was shutting down production at the plant and laying off its workforce. In addition, management told the workers that they would be withholding severance packages and not honoring previous contracts. The movement was instantaneous to take over the plant. In less than 48 hours of occupation, solidarity strikes had occurred at two other parts plants across the province and postal workers were refusing to walk their routes. The company caved in very quickly to the workers’ demands for their severance packages and this event gave a much-needed jolt to Canadian labor.

In the weeks following, a steel smelter in Hamilton, that had announced that it would be closing its doors and not honoring its severance agreements, met with a similar occupation. Within 24 hours the company backed down. Even more recently the Masonite Manufacturing plant in Mississauga, Ontario was occupied by its workers to protest its announced closing. During this occupation workers from factories as far away as Kitchener, upon hearing of the action, put down their tools and flooded to the occupation site. The resulting impromptu rally showed a great deal of both militancy and frustration amongst rank-and-file workers. Said Edwin Godinez, a worker at the nearby CFM Majestic barbeque plant, which has also announced it will be closing, “I had plans for my family and children but what can I do now?”

Unlike the previous occupations that were demanding the fulfilment of severance, the Masonite occupation, which nearly turned into a city-wide work stoppage, was directly aimed at protesting the loss of jobs in the first place.

Union bureaucracy under pressure

The spontaneous actions of the workers are starting to build up pressure on the leadership of the industrial unions. The Scarborough C&A workers were represented by the Canadian Auto Workers and upon hearing of the occupation the union officials scrambled to the plant to do anything to restore normalcy. But the later occupations have been in plants organized by the Steelworkers International union and have received the support of the union leadership. In the recent past the CAW was seen to be on the left of the labor movement and split away from the UAW international union to supposedly protect Canadian militancy from American bureaucrats.

The Steelworkers, which has retained its links with US workers, was seen as being on the right of the movement. At the time the Marxists advised against splitting workers as this just weakens the movement. There is nothing to say that a formerly “left” union cannot degenerate, or that the mass of workers in a bureaucratized union cannot transform their organization. What is necessary is to retain the historic links of workers’ solidarity while fighting to transform the union from within. Now the Steelworkers, while far from perfect, are far more militant than the CAW on the issue of factory occupations.

In response to the pressure from below, the CAW leadership was forced to put itself at the head of the movement. The CAW, with support from the Ontario Federation of Labor, organized a rally on May 27th in the industrial city of Windsor. This rally attracted a huge turnout of nearly 40,000 workers calling for action to stop the job losses. This turnout was higher than that of the Windsor city-wide strike during the Metro Days of Action a decade previous. A similar rally was held in the city of Oshawa, once known as the center of auto manufacturing in Ontario, now decimated by layoffs, that attracted another 2,000 workers. Eight other cities saw smaller rallies the same day. These movements just go to show the seething discontent present amongst the working class that is just looking for an outlet.

Three days later, a rally of several thousand was held outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. The workers constructed a mock graveyard on the lawn of the parliament, each headstone representing a plant closure and the number of jobs lost.

The most telling event during this rally was the reception that Liberal leader Stephane Dion received when he attempted to address the crowd. Barely a sentence into his speech he was drown out by jeers and boos from the crowd. Chants of “Anti-scab! Anti-scab!” pummelled Dion, a reference to the anti-scab bill that the Liberal Party helped the government vote down during this session of parliament. This just over a year after CAW leader Buzz Hargrove ceremonially gave then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin his very own union jacket and endorsed his party during the 2006 federal election.

As the class-consciousness of the workers advances with the mass movement, they are stripping away the illusion that the Liberals are anything but a bosses’ party. It is symbolic that an embarrassed Hargrove was standing next to Dion, while the predominant banner in the front row of the chanters was that of the Steelworkers.

All this points to the reactivation of the labor movement in Canada’s industrial heartland. But following on from the experiences of the defeated Metro Days of Action and the strikes in the rest of Canada, the movement is at a much higher level. It is no longer a fight for pay and conditions, but a fight for the existence of good quality union jobs that the Canadian workers won in the post-war period. There is not much use striking when the plant is going to be closed anyway, and that is why plant occupations are starting to be seen. Trotsky, in the Transitional Program explained that:

“Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of “normal” capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?”

Any movement such as this amongst Canada’s industrial workers is anathema to union leaders who have lost any perspective of the fight for socialism. In response, all Hargrove and co. can do is try to cozy up to the Federal and Provincial Liberals. However, the workers know full well who their enemies are and there is less and less support for class collaboration.

The vital question is one of leadership. Ontario workers remember only too well the sellouts of the Bob Rea NDP government and the Metro Days of Action. Bureaucracy and conciliation amongst the leaders of the movement have time and again cost working people. But the criticality of the current struggle, the fight to maintain industry, the heart of the economy, and the growing breadth of the movement is both bringing experienced labor activists back from demoralization and radicalizing a whole layer of younger workers whose futures depend on the manufacturing sector.

It is not surprising that this new wave of class struggle has been characterized by factory occupations. There is little doubt that this method of struggle, not seen in Ontario for nearly half a century, is influenced by Canadian workers learning from the experience of the Venezuelan Revolution. The experience of the Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories (FRETECO) in Venezuela, for instance, shows the viability of workers’ control as a solution to the unviability of capitalism.

The leaders of the labor movement, in the NDP and the Unions, should likewise be learning this same lesson and raising the demand for the nationalization of all occupied factories under workers’ control, combined with an active drive to take over shutdown and threatened factories. Currently, the platform of the labor leadership is a confused mix of protectionism, economic nationalism and corporate welfare. None of the “solutions” proposed goes beyond the bounds of capitalist property. All these solution are utopian when the cause is the fundamental dynamics of the international capitalist economy.

Working people are quickly relearning the lesson, as many generations of workers have before them, that capitalism means constantly economic instability and strife for the working class. The only way to guarantee a stable, sustainable and high quality life for workers and for future generations is the socialist economy. It is only when the organizations of the working class adopt a socialist perspective that workers’ jobs and conditions will be protected.

We end by again quoting the apt words of the Transitional Program:

“Property owners and their lawyers will prove the “unrealizability” of these demands. Smaller, especially ruined capitalists, in addition will refer to their account ledgers. The workers categorically denounce such conclusions and references. The question is not one of a “normal” collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. “Realizability” or “unrealizability” is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”


In Defense of Marxism, June 21, 2007