Gerechtigkeit oder Barbarei.
Interkontinentales Forum vom 5. bis 6. Oktober 2000by David Bleakney
These are exiting and dangerous times for humanity. Capitalism and the mantra of the free market have taken on religious proportions. Like the church of old Rome, dissent is not acceptable. Elections, particularly in North America, have become little more than theatre. Meaningful participation in society does not exist for most. The new religion operates like a sporting event with a few winners and lots of losers. As we sit around the watering hole and watch it dry up, we (or those of us around the hole) look to each other as being the source of the problem. Convenient excuses are provided to blame immigrants, the Serbians, the Iraqis, Arab terrorists, etc. Such is the modern world, a complex web of blame, paranoia, fear, apathy and greed.
The new colonialism has evolved on the ashes of the old. Where guns are not needed Disney and CNN will suffice. Desperate economies, beholden to their northern masters, are played off against one another like a game of high stakes poker, where whole cultures and civilizations are used as collateral. I will not address the specifics about the millions who live in poverty, unemployment and gender slavery. The facts are there for anyone to see. I will not repeat numbers and statistics here.
What I can offer is a democratic trade union perspective and the experience of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in this collective, yet diversified, global struggle for equality and dignity. In diversity there is strength. We are but one tiny player that has been inspired by thousands of years of human struggle in many forms and many places.
CUPW was created by a wildcat strike. Workers defied the government to form a national union. As a result, today, the whole of the public sector in Canada is organized into Unions. Our history has been one of worker democracy (we have 62 elected officials representing our national Union across the country). This does not include several hundred local officers across Canada and Quebec. Our Union has approximately 50,000 members in postal and postal related services. Why do a mention this? Because the level of democracy in CUPW has insured that one can have meaningful participation in their Union and influence its course.
As a result the CUPW constitution is class based and, somewhat of an anomaly in Canada, CUPW is not affiliated with the social democrats. It rejects tripartism or any suggestion that the interests of the bosses and a capitalist government are the same as those of the workers. As a result of it’s defiance of government edict CUPW has long been persecuted in Canada. Our leaders have been thrown in jail. Thousands of members have been fired through the years and we remain under investigation, surveillance and harassment of the secret police. CUPW participates openly in legal trade union and political activity. We have nothing to hide. Yet, for decades we have been targets of the state.
We led the fight for free and equal recognition of the Cuban Workers movement when our Labour Congress seemed to be on autopilot while following the dictates of the AFL-CIO and U.S. foreign policy. As a result, we became the first ICFTU affiliated federation to have full bilateral relations with the Cuban workers movement. We have gained more from that relationship than we have given.
During the struggle against apartheid (and while western Unions were still notoriously silent) we provided offices and resources for SACTU, the South African Confederation of Trade Unions. Today I will not talk so much about our past and our various and ongoing struggles for gender equality (for example all trade Union education functions must have gender parity under our constitution) – our work against homophobia and the need to build an inclusive and representative union collective.
The cold war era provided the western Unions with some benefits. It would be untrue to say there was an absence of struggle but there is little question that the threat of socialist revolution terrified the North Americans into developing a working relationship with the trade unions. If the alternative was revolution governments and capitalist enterprises were very adept at tolerating and mitigating workers struggle. The wildcat strikes, civil disobedience and plant occupations of the thirties and forties were replaced with collective bargaining and government legislation. For decades living standards grew, Medicare and unemployment insurance were attained, and most working families experienced a better life than their parents did in the post war period. As usual there was still little to celebrate amongst the indigenous communities, immigrants and the army of unemployed workers. After all, the great red “threat” had to be stopped it was said.. Consumerism and access to meaningless trinkets complemented this program. Worse, it helped foster a culture where union officials are positioned to spend more time communicating with bosses rather than their membership. Through consultation, grievance arbitration and correspondence employers and the unions are in almost constant contact. North American unions have become service organizations rather than radical instruments of social power.
It has to be stated that many North American workers cringe in absolute fear of the Soviet model, some because of cold war propaganda and others because of the desire to have meaningful participation in a society. A stagnant and disempowering structure will rot from within. It is a strange irony that some unions are equally out of touch with their constituency. I recall a story told to me from a participant at the World Youth festival held in Cuba many years ago. The head of the Bulgarian Youth delegation was in his late fifties. I hope that when I am in my fifties people will consider me youthful too but not in the same way. It is a stretch to be credible with rank and file workers under such situations. I think there are many such examples and I’m convinced that the Cuban Revolution survives because they dance in that one. I say this as a friend reflecting on past mistakes of the socialist movement. Our new society must be built on values, not dogma.
Consumer society left an individually driven structure where instant gratification became the norm. The notions of community and collective values are subversive and can not be tolerated in the drive to capitalist domination. No attempt has been spared to create a society of self-obsessed citizens disconnected from their common interests. “Take whatever you can get” has become a mantra for a generation. Sadly, these values are now promoted world-wide by the victors. A little Disneyland can go a long way in obscuring reality and providing an escape. When one lacks class analysis it is easier to find escape rather than answers.
The cold war ended. Predictably the open attack against workers in North America was launched with greater fervour. Some union leaders and union members blame Mexicans and other peoples as a direct threat. In otherwards, it is not General Electric, Sony or Westinghouse that are responsible. It is poor peasants taking North American jobs that are somehow to blame. In our Union education program we conduct an exercise where we analyze each situation and ask who benefits, who loses, why and what can be done about it. Ninety-nine percent of the time rank and file members themselves will identify that the bosses benefit and the workers lose. After all, one can hardly call working for slave wages in a southern sweatshop a victory for southern workers. It is a matter of survival and finding any meaningful work that exists. This reflects the watering hole model. It is shrinking so therefore it must be the fault of “foreign” workers. By when the question is posed correctly, members themselves reveal that all workers lose and the bosses benefit. It would be helpful if the economic nationalists asked this same questions we ask of our members, because again, in the absence of class-consciousness, scapegoats are easy to find when the watering hole shrinks.
Class-consciousness is where it starts. As a union we attempt to link this analysis with every aspect of our working lives. If the boss is cutting corners on health and safety we cannot just deal with it a s legislative issue but a class one. The boss benefits from our injuries. Why? For profit. Members are not fools. Working for a rotten employer is a much quicker study than viewing the situation from an ivory tower removed from shop floor reality. Members hold the key. Workers are key. We cannot stop the maddening wheel of capital without them. So how do we win the hearts and minds of workers? By letting them know they are not alone.
I want to give you some examples that I have experienced in my union. When you ask an industrial worker if they like their boss most will say no. After all, continuous productive improvement places many pressures on the workers. They are key to the bosses success. Many times I heard workers say that the problem is not apathy, it is fear. Fear of isolation. Who will be the first worker to stand up in the workplace? It often becomes a question of “I would fight but not alone”. The individualist detached society has deep, deep roots. As a postal worker on the night shift I heard this over and over for ten years. No one will stick their neck out alone. If you have family needs, housing payments and require food to put on the table a steady paycheque is necessary. Risking your job means risking your status in life and ability to provide. It is not an option. If a throng of workers, know other workers will strike the boss these inhibitions fade to the background. In unity there is strength. It is much easier to take on Goliath when there are many David’s and Rebecca’s standing beside you. No one wants to be thrown to the lions. We saw this in a series of rotating city-wide general strikes in Ontario (14 in all). In the beginning a common theme among workers was “no one will do it” or “everyone is too afraid”. When the collective was there and thousand of people were in the streets workers quickly lost their inhibitions and walked out culminating in the largest mass protest in Canadian history. They were political strikes that violated the law. Their limitation was partly that the members were moving beyond the trade Union leadership, which really had no plan other than to elect the social democrats that had been thoroughly trounced in the previous election after ripping up collective agreements in midstream. In reality though, the movement failed because it was a defensive one. It lacked vision. What is the point if you don’t know what you are fighting for? It did prove that in a so-called complacent trade union movement, “apathetic” and “uninformed” workers were prepared to take on the boss.
Workers spend 12-13 years in a public education system designed to create conformity and a classless worldview. People win or lose solely on their own individual and personal ambition. We are educated solely as fodder for a system that uses us but does not respect us. While women have more opportunities today than twenty years ago they do so by having more work to do. Not only are they now expected to earn their way in the workforce (within certain defined limitations) but still raise the kids, cook the food and clean the house. Undoing that damage is a huge and vital task.
CUPW has negotiated a fund that represents three cents per hour for each hour worked. The employer pays the fund but the union has full control over it’s use. We have several million dollars a year to fund class rooted Union education projects. Rank and file membership are booked off their workplace for four weeks where they tackle issues around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, media literacy, trade, slavery, capitalism, feudalism, refugees, immigrants and history. Through popular education and collective work the participants develop a grasp of their history and collectively discover the missing pieces in our social evolution. This has made a clear and deep impact on the union and consciousness of our membership. We cannot recommend enough that other unions explore this model. It will change your union and your workplace if you are ready for it. Some fear such empowerment. An enlightened membership is a restless one. Time will tell whether the northern industrial unions have the context for revolutionary leadership. Currently they do not at present. My assertion is that by developing a program of class based education for everyday workers we are promoting the democratization of the trade unions and our society within the context of class struggle. The results in our Union have been astounding.
Across the country our activists play key roles in local coalitions and provincial federations of labour. We are not constructed around the “cult of personality” but rather have an abundance of articulate and informed activists that represent the union at the local and provincial level. For example, CUPW sponsored a cross-Canada Caravan that rolled into towns and cities to highlight the dangers inherent in the World Trade Organization. There were support actions in fourteen Canadian cities and towns on November 30. CUPW was present at most, if not all of them.
But where is all this leading? A truly effective global movement requires vision and solidarity. It does not need nationalism and paternalism.
As we see the rise of co-ordinated mass actions against capital itself we are left with the question, where are workers? It is true that you will find working people in the midst of any struggle in the streets but where is the meaningful collective power to stop the wheel of the boss? History shows us that we don’t achieve things by begging or asking. We achieve them when we demand them from a position of collective power.
So what is it about the trade unions? There are two fundamental streams. The first is that the system is just fine and capitalism represents the inherent aspirations of individuals. It equals freedom. It remains an opportunistic and comfortable place to be. The second is that capitalism is barbaric but there is a lack of vision present to build a meaningful resistance and transform society. But with the latter, life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. “we can’t do anything because our members don’t want to but we have no idea how to motivate and inform our members to resist.” It is really an unspoken admission of paralysis. . In a male dominated world no one wants to accept inadequacy. But it is not inadequate to seek collective answers and to put real issues on the table. An admission of our weakness would begin the process of rebuilding in a meaningful way.
In my experience neither of the two streams are articulated openly. Males are good at holding things in that might reveal our weaknesses and maintaining structures that prevent self expression of women, minorities, deaf people, etc. Recognition of that in a meaningful and non-rhetorical way is a necessary step to the democratization of struggle.
It is for many reasons that postal workers join in collective and diverse struggles. We participate in many forums including the Peoples Global Action Network. Our solidarity begins at home but communication amongst allies in different spheres is vital. There are many tactical questions that arise. The instant gratification society affects our struggle. People seek a particular brand of struggle as if it were a consumer product. Everything else is discounted. For instance, many have condemned the radical actions in Seattle, Windsor, Washington, etc. Yet, the workers movement was built on radical defiance and civil disobedience. Does the current acceleration of capital accumulation not deserve such a response? Yet, action without vision is a dangerous mix for sustainable transformation.
Our action must be both within the system and outside of it. Within it, is crucial to understand the system, collect information from it but never succumb to it’s numbing affects. This is a big challenge for those working “within” the system and the electoral process in general. A series of examples lay behind us where elections didn’t change much. Capital is mitigated, to an extent, but ultimately rules the day. A deeper personal and institutional transformation is necessary if we hope to achieve real change. The greatest action one can take is to reflect and re-assess the curse of gender, race and class imbalance on a daily basis. Saying all the right things in a forum is easy. It is “politically correct”. Blatant sexists do not rock the boat in a union setting. It is not a normal mode of behaviour. But it is a long way from rhetoric to action. Action requires a constant checking against the ingrained values of a sexist society in daily life. For activists it means little things like not interrupting and giving space. A revolution doesn’t really happen until men do the dishes. It is the hardest part of transformation.
When we hear about democracy let us ask how many women were involved in the process of that decision. Even in Parliaments with several female representatives they nearly always in the minority. Can we talk about democratic participation without enshrining the right to equal representation? People who consider themselves “regular citizens” or what activists might call the apathetic and what the religious right calls “the silent majority” are crucial in any transformation. But dogma is not something that goes down well in the instant gratification society. Real change requires meaningful and tangible messages. This is where the right, with their brand logos and endless polling massage their audience with incessant messages of hope and change. In the province of Ontario, Canada, a very mean government achieved power. Their campaign slogan was “Common Sense Revolution”. The left never has dared use such a term. Messaging is key.
There was a time when abortion and a woman’s right to manage her body were illegal in Canada. Today, women’s work in the home must be recognised as meaningful work. It is not a chore to sustain humanity. It is not an after thought. It is work. It is probably about the most meaningful work one can do. Child rearing seems much more an important component to our general well being and long term sustenance of a community than the number of points the stock market has risen. We must say this and promote it. It may seem uncomfortable in the beginning for some (so was the abortion struggle) but it will never bear fruit unless it becomes part of the debate both inside and outside society.
Deeper change requires gender consciousness and the unpacking of centuries of repression. It requires an understanding of the present structures of colonialism. Workers from the south and north are connected in a way we never were before. Unions have a choice between seeking nationalist protectionism or fermenting real global solidarity. The northern societies have behaved much like powerful loan sharks that break the legs of those that don’t pay up on time (with lots of interest). The same policies that have devastated southern economies are now at play in the north. The pyramid scheme is falling apart so the total marketing of everything (including public services) is required.
The script is the same. A crisis occurs in public infrastructure because of cuts in social transfers. The private sector moves in to scoop things up in a bargain. This is what is referred to as “development”. Our struggles are common and the earth is crying. Never have our destinies been so close. We can choose to circle our wagons or embrace our allies. In the long run, there is really only one choice, by any stretch of the imagination.
Any change will need us re-invest our souls in finding collective visions. One that results not only in an economic revolution but a qualitative one where the number of widgets produced is not the only guiding force. This revolution would involve participation, joy and laughter and the smile on a child’s face as things with value. It would promote a transformation of relationships and communication and ecology. Between us we can reconstruct this village to make sense again. We can get rid of head tables and make circles.
Our struggle is not for ourselves. It is in honour for those that struggled before us and for those that haven’t been born yet. Let them say we did well and never let them down for the sake of expediency. We have come too far to do otherwise. Let us move beyond the chains of the present.