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How do we build a fighting labour movement?

Carolyn Egan

May 22, 2013

The working class and the poor are continuing to take a battering from ruling class assaults. Many activists in the unions decry the lack of action by the leadership, some comparing the general strikes that we are seeing in Greece, India and other countries to concession contracts that workers are often being forced to accept in Canada.
While the level of mass struggle is not the same, we cannot allow demoralization to take over. If you look at the broader context in North America, we have seen the Wisconsin fight back which inspired workers everywhere, the Occupy movement, the magnificent Quebec student strike and the victory of the Chicago teachers against a city government which was hell bent on closing schools and punishing the union.
Though in many instances rank-and-file workers lack the confidence and the level of organization to fight back on their own, we have seen examples of workers refusing to accept the attacks and claw backs: the 1,000 Steelworkers recently locked out at US Steel in Nanticoke, Ontario because they refused to accept a concessions deal, and the refuelers at Porter Airlines who are on a long strike over decent wages and health and safety protection are two examples.
We have to understand the situation in which we find ourselves and we have to continue to build the actions where workers are fighting back. We have to develop solidarity amongst workers in different sectors and make sure those who fight know that they are not alone. A win against the assaults can inspire others to take action as well. One never knows in a period like this when a broader fight back can take place.
In Ontario the Conservative Party has made it clear that if it wins the next election it will make a major move against the trade unions. It knows that the organized working class has the power, if it uses it, to thwart its attempts to create a low wage economy and decimate the social safety net. That’s why labour is on its hit list.
The unions are well aware of the Tory’s plans and trade union organizations such as the Toronto and York Region Labour Council have made a priority of organizing against the potential attacks. A meeting of over 700 activists went through the arguments that the Tories are intending to use, assessed the situation in their own workplaces and set out plans to have face to face meetings with every member. Follow-up meetings have taken place and individual unions are taking up the challenge. It’s an uneven process but activists must take advantage of this opening.
Because the unions are fighting for their very survival, many have recognized that they have to take the necessary steps to reconnect with their members. This creates the potential of rebuilding our unions from the bottom up. It creates a situation that allows activists to talk on a day-to-day basis with their fellow workers about what a member-controlled union would look like. This process can give the rank-and-file the confidence to push their unions in the direction that best serves the members.
If we examine how the Chicago teachers union mobilized over a number of years to build itself into a fighting force with the majority of members actively involved and bring the community, parents and students, on side, it was this type of process. Activists prioritized meeting the members one-on-one and setting up structures at every workplace to move the struggle forward.
We have the opportunity to do this in Ontario. Militants have to take advantage of this opening and actively connect with their fellow workers and build rank-and-file networks in their workplaces that will have the confidence to fight back and win.
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Occupy: a brief history of workplace occupations", "Teaching them a lesson: the fight for public education", "Solidarity against austerity: lessons from the front-lines", and "Egypt: class and revolution."

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