Texas Longhorns with newborn calf in Bluebonnets

Texas Longhorns with newborn calf in Bluebonnets

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Alan Maki

Alan Maki
Doing research at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas

It's time to claim our Peace Dividend

It's time to claim our Peace Dividend

We need to beat swords into plowshares.

We need to beat swords into plowshares.

A program for real change...


What we need is a "21st Century Full Employment Act for Peace and Prosperity" which would make it a mandatory requirement that the president and Congress attain and maintain full employment.

"Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens"

- Ben Franklin

Let's talk...

Let's talk...

Monday, December 31, 2012

Conventions of labour; Movement or paralysis?


Conventions of labour

Movement or paralysis?

The status quo is not working for working people. Unions need to seriously overhaul the way they operate if they are to remain relevant. One key example that reveals the directionlessness and impotence of contemporary unions is the perennial convention charade where the organized labour movement convenes with the professed aims of advancing the interests of workers and improving society as a whole. If only this were the case.

With few exceptions, a recurring drama plays out at conventions on the backs of working people, “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing” (to quote Macbeth.) Here are some of those recurring acts that paralyze a movement.

Every convention begins with some kind of rhetoric about “democracy” and the importance of the labour movement coming together to debate and participate with a view to social progress. Seriously, who are we kidding with this pretend democracy? Labour conventions are typically contrived. Everyone knows the fix is in – but no one wants to say it out loud. In some cases the problem goes as far as paid staffers attempting to influence the proceedings in the backrooms or even acting as delegates, when for all intents and purposes they are actually representing their employers, the top elected officers.

Limited debate

During these precarious times, one would think this coming together every three years would lead to deep and fiery discussions on where our labour movement is headed and what it will take to develop an effective resistance. Just the opposite is true. For example, during the 2011 Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention, debate was limited to approximately nine hours for an entire week. This script ensures that workers, representing their unions as delegates, will have precious little time to debate the issues. Further, the show is always conducted by those orchestrating the front stage at the expense of the delegates who become mere spectators of the labour scene.
Speaking out in the context of a union convention feels much like speaking out of turn in church. You know how far you can go and where to stop. Some topics, like any critical reflection on the relationship to the New Democratic Party (NDP), capitalism, class, strategy, and especially direct action, are mostly off limits and treated as unmentionable.

Time is typically stuffed with uninspiring speakers – very few could be described as especially challenging or insightful. Given that some unions hold seminars for the purpose of educating members, this is highly disappointing. Another problem is that some speakers from the floor have more rights than others, which is reflected in the amount of time allocated to delegates to speak.
The CLC achieved a new low at the last convention when space was taken up by CBC personalities Ian Hanomansing and Wendy Mesley. Hanomansing, serving as a moderator, voiced his disapproval with the claim that a corporate bias exists in mainstream reporting. The problem, according to Hanomansing, is that the left fails at both making their stories sexy enough and packaging their message as well as the right, thus confirming that journalism in today’s mainstream media is more of a public relations exercise than about finding and reporting the news. I guess Hanomansing means that journalists shouldn’t be doing the work of putting stories together and that in essence everyone is on the same playing field with equal resources to have our stories told. Migrant farm workers, for example, then must be assumed to be in the same position to tell their story as Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. To further demonstrate the disingenuous nature of union convention debates, questions for panellists had to be submitted in writing, thus ensuring no challenging or embarrassing moments for invited guests. A debate that is scripted is in fact not a debate at all.

Rhetoric no substitute for action

Labour conventions are long on rhetoric but short on substance. The process is predictable and repetitious. Speaking to the converted, the right is assailed and the NDP lionized. Meanwhile, labour leaders – except during the occasional election – prop each other up, slap one another on the back and avoid discussing the systemic problems plaguing workers or naming the elephants in the room all the while preferring instead to heap on personal accolades. Personality politics, not discussions of political systems, fill the space and agendas. So-and-so is a “great guy,” a fighter for their members, a hero in the fight against Prime Minister Harper, or whichever non-NDP leader is in office. Delegates cheer. Little happens. But in those moments, under the lights in the house of labour, we sure do feel good about ourselves. There is a fetish about leadership and playing follow-the-leader, but nothing comparably passionate about the significance of struggle and the necessity of resistance. It’s easier for the union aristocracy that way. No one need feel uncomfortable.

I wonder if anyone was listening when the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) convention guest speaker, Canadian Union of Postal Workers President Denis Lemelin, broke the mould somewhat by calling on labour to develop our own “social project”? Lemelin explains that sectoral divisions and defensiveness can be replaced by a basis of unity with a clear long-term strategic plan to gain public support and fight for all of society.

Silencing dissidents

It is noteworthy to see who gets in and who doesn’t at labour conventions. At the Montreal 2005 CLC Convention anti-poverty activists from the Belleville Tenant Action Group, fundraising in the main lobby of the convention center, were threatened with expulsion until delegates passing by came to their defence using a little direct action of their own.

While labour conventions are a place to pick up information, finding a table of radical or challenging literature may be difficult. There is limited space, and the organizers have final say over who is invited and who isn’t. A number of spaces were taken up by insurance companies at the recent MFL convention held in June 2012. Regrettably, challenging or critical materials were in much shorter supply.

Backroom mechanisms, never out in the open, are used to keep resolutions that may not be palatable to the leaders from ever making it to the floor. It matters not where the resolution came from (a local union, workers from the shop floor). If it seems “controversial” or doesn’t fit the pre-structured schemes of leadership it may magically disappear in spite of “process.” A case in point is the recent MFL resolution on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) directed at Israeli Apartheid. While the resolutions committee recommended concurrence unanimously, behind the scenes the MFL executive asked the committee to reconsider its decision. Concurrence was pulled under the guise that the resolution did not reflect CLC policy. This raises the question of who gets to decide policy for organized workers in Manitoba. It does not appear to be a bottom-up process, but instead, a top-down corporate model. After some wrangling, face-saving, and negotiation, the resolution received again the desired concurrence only to have the motion tabled on the floor after a number of delegates spoke in its favour. To add further insult, activists were prevented from distributing information on BDS and the situation of Palestinians to delegates, even though that literature was produced in a unionized print shop.

Manitoba requires 65 per cent sign-up to certify a union. Two bold activists held a silent protest during Premier Greg Selinger’s speech to convention delegates by holding up signs pointing out that a government majority can be achieved with much less than 50 per cent of the votes but for workers in Manitoba, the bar is set at 65 per cent, the highest in the country. They were told to sit down. Silence and politeness remain the order of the day, thus making any criticism of the NDP off limits. The Manitoba NDP have been in power for 13 years and did not deliver on anti-scab legislation (now called “replacement workers” by organized labour, an example of neoliberal Newspeak that incorporates the language of the right). While perhaps an NDP government is not quite as hostile as a Tory one, can a “lesser of the evils” really be considered enough of a victory? Neither the NDP nor organized labour challenge the neoliberal capitalist system; in fact, neither can even bring themselves to utter the words to address its very existence.

Toothless resolutions

Resolutions have become a kind of shopping list without any pith or substance. Mostly toothless, they allow us to feel good about ourselves, as if we crossed another one off the list of things that need doing without the slightest mention of how we are going to do them. At the MFL convention 172 non-administrative resolutions were submitted. Of these the resolved action called on lobbying the provincial government 110 times. Sometimes the resolution stated the MFL will “continue to lobby” on an issue indicating that this is not the first time the issue was raised. The word “urge” is used 12 times, “encourage” five times, and “call on” three times. Stronger words like “demand” and “insist” were used four and two times respectively. This begs the question, what do we mean by lobby, urge, and encourage exactly? Does it mean beg, plead, take a minister to dinner, or mobilize a movement that can ensure the stated goals are met? Why do union conventions spend so much time, effort, and expense to make empty pleas and to obediently prop up governments and their agendas that clearly work against workers’ interests?

When potentially popular and effective resolutions appear, they are frequently watered down inside policy papers to give the appearance of democratic process while keeping the lid on things.

Waste of scarce resources

Conventions are financially costly. For a CLC convention, delegates fly in from across the country and typically book one delegate per costly hotel room and receive generous per diems for meals. Imagine what kind of organizing and support for real struggle and change there could be were we a little more frugal, creative, and long-sighted. Meanwhile, labour organizers in the Global South often seem to be able to consistently do more with less, while producing far more effective results.
According to David Camfield, associate professor in labour studies at the University of Manitoba and author of Canadian Labour in Crisis, “it’s worth noting that in many cases the people who attend as delegates aren’t the best activists, the ones who are troublemakers on the job, supporters of community struggles, and critics of complacency in the unions. Such activists often aren’t delegates, either because they don’t get elected or – in unions where delegates are selected, not elected – because officials deny them delegate credentials. Some people on the left think conventions are the most important moments in the life of a union. I disagree, for two reasons. First, conventions often don’t have that much impact on what happens in the union. For example, if a resolution gets passed that the top brass don’t like, they can often find a way to ensure it never gets acted on. Second, unions matter most when ‘union’ means workers taking action together in the workplace or on the streets.”

What now?

What is the purpose of a labour convention? I would argue that it is to challenge the growing capitalist disaster with a strong and vibrant force of organized workers, both unionized and non-unionized, including the unemployed and underemployed.

Labour centrals and organizations need to stop spending significant amounts of members’ dues money to stage events that maintain the status quo and privilege a few at the expense of the many. The International Trade Union Confederation, CLC and provincial federations of labour have proven themselves to be lacking vision, which robs workers while reproducing a labour aristocracy void of ideas for these times. It is time for critical questions and tough self-reflection.
What is unclear is how trade unions intend to challenge the austerity agenda. Merely coping, hanging on, and focusing a great deal of energy on electoral politics at the expense of other forms of struggle will not be enough to overcome the challenges that lay before us. Given the state of the current economic arrangements, it’s probably safe to say that it won’t serve future generations well either.

What is to be learned from our history? Labour movements and the victories gained from them were not built by “urging” and “lobbying.” They were created by the collective dignity and expression of human beings who took risks and action against capital. What can be learned and applied from autonomous, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, migrant, Indigenous, student, and social movements that might shift this theatre of empty rhetoric and surrender to create a coordinated body of workers prepared to take the offensive, not just in the present, but for future generations?
The questions to be asked are not about Harper and the corporations. The questions to be asked are of us.

Dave Bleakney is a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the national union representative for education (Anglophone). On matters of anti-capitalism, the dude abides.

Hope springs eternal: A New Year's worker's message

Hope springs eternal: A New Year's worker's message

| December 31, 2012

Photo: Rob Chandanais/Flickr
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The question now is where to go from here. All workers and most people are now expendable waste in the global corporate market. We feel demoralized and defensive and are picked off one by one. We face "austerity" as the banks earn record profits. We compete to death while trillions are shored up in offshore bank accounts. Some of that loot was robbed from us after the 2008 failure of the banking system for which our children and their children and likely their children will be paying for their lifetimes as the planet screams for relief. Is it fair that someone that hasn't been born yet should be paying banks money after they have already robbed and pillaged billions in profit? Apparently, yes. There does not appear to be much understanding of system failure by most workers and their leaders.

We keep puttering on, looking for someone to blame, a name we can hang our hat on while systems of destruction rise around us. We use the bosses' courts in vain attempts to settle scores with an occasional victory. We keep running on someone else's treadmill while they control the wheel. This system cares not about our bodies, our histories, our cultures or our dignity. At one time, it was Indigenous peoples in this position. Now it is all of us, everything, every country, every town, every workplace, every street, and every body. The Indigenous territories continue to be colonized. And we of the settler class have self-colonized ourselves along the way and behave by cue in this absurd trap. Even with resistance rising all around us, we go shopping and hope for the best, like compliant little victims programmed by the system as Rome burns, or more aptly, as the Earth screams.

Unions are woefully self-immobilized; seemingly unable or unwilling to explore the processes to shift the terrain or acknowledge that one might exist. That is left to the youth, the defenders of the land, the frontline and marginalized peoples who are the most penalized fallout of capitalism and a colonial mess that remains unresolved. We play by the rules; the same rules made to penalize resistance and silence opposition to corporatism (some would say it has the hallmarks of soft fascism). We play the game on their field in an unsustainable order based on greed and destruction and then predictably complain about it.

Are you as tired of being a victim as I am? We blame corporations for what they were designed to do, blaming politicians for what they can't, or won't, do, and living in the shadows of denial or fear or both. We tolerate a system controlled by others that is based on an alleged "lesser of evils," where no matter who is elected they will be hamstrung by a global corporate initiative of investors and bankers that can bring a country to its knees.  It is the system which promotes a corrupt nature of relations that robs workers, punishes the poor and destroys the land. It is a place of record profits and jobless recoveries. The "economy" as they call it, is spoken of with reverence and scared fervour as if we exist and are designed only for it.

But like Patti Smith sang, "people have the power," more power than they know, "the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools." We have the strength in numbers that can occupy and blockade and the power to withdraw our labour and bring the production of goods and services to a halt. We have the power to write the script any time of our choosing. How many of us are afraid of that power in the hour it is needed most? Many working-class people participate in this surrender whether they know it or not. They would rather talk about Christmas turkey or the latest abuse by their bosses rather than joining or creating spaces of resistance while staid, ineffective institutions rule us. A lack of creative power, and spaces to find it, is a course designed by the enemy that we travel day after day. It continues to rob us, with our compliance, silence and ineffectiveness.

If you think there is something more, something greater and something better, then we need to find a way out. This system is broken. Let's get over it and plan for real. What is the old adage: don't get mad, get even. Better yet, make our opponents irrelevant; perhaps not an easy task, but certainly a noble and desired one. Never has this been so vital to so many people. We face more than getting even: it is the survival of our species and all living things with a little human dignity in the here and now.
So what to do? I certainly can't claim to have the answer, and I would be suspicious of anyone who claims they have them all. We are made of many answers, many voices and all we lack is the space to find and articulate them in a world that has been designed for us; a kind of corporate matrix that leaves us feeling powerless, helpless or just plain angry with nowhere to go.

If you step outside for a moment, leave the box, as Idle No More has done, and just for an instant consider all things possible and that maybe our biggest enemy has not been those that rob us and fill their pockets, but rather ourselves. It is our compliance, our blind faith, our system of acceptance, as if chained to an illusion that we can really change things with a ballot while the strings are pulled inevitably by invisible puppeteers. This farce which is now global no longer has meaning or vision. We are atomized, broken up into disconnected parts, right down to the neighbourhood and even family level. We have been taught suspicion and that we live in "democracies" and have special "Canadian values" in a land based on theft of Indigenous territories and a culture of war. We see invisible enemies everywhere. Up is down and down is up. So we look for refuge in a pile of distractions and circuses. Time is almost up. And so we avoid. We are the sheep, making it possible for the ruse to continue.

So what processes will we unleash? Will we remain a bunch of hopeless victims satisfied with an absence of ideas about resistance? Will our spaces be denied by well-meaning "leaders" hamstrung by processes from another era that don't work? Or shall we mould ourselves into something else, something fit for the times, something that leaves a legacy to be enjoyed by those who follow us to build on; organized collectives of workers that seize opportunity and turn disadvantage into advantage to join with defenders of these lands and waters around us? Will we become a movement defined by us and not our opponents? Will we become real allies and join the resistance rising up all around us? Will we nurture a wiry resistance that is always moving, strategizing and inviting processes that are participatory and feed on the collective power we carry together?

Our governments (and unions) are "pretend" or "part-time" democracies. The backrooms, the hidden and the unseen, fear, and a lack of ideas dot the terrain. Thus defeatism and social management of struggle have become our practice, part of our nature. We have a poor understanding of participatory democracy because we have not been given a chance, nor do we claim it.  It is too easy to blame "mis-leaders" or general incompetence on others. That is unfair, though in some cases quite true. We have allowed ourselves to be locked into processes with little wiggle room. That means changing the terrain, and creating new rules. We have the right to dream and create. Let us never forget that. That project deepens now which leaves us with choices.

I don't need to list all the things that strangle our hope. We live them everyday. And making more lists of our misery and what the corporatocracy is doing to us is no longer on. Righteous victims don't change anything. But new structures and spaces of possibility can lend themselves to something vital. This is not a game. We can no longer tippy-toe with a paralyzing fear that creates no victories and waits for others to find them for us and merely complain and blame when they don't.

Workers, and the increased destruction of rights, are not inevitable. It is only inevitable if we allow ourselves to be "managed" under rules and practices designed to rob and destroy us that we reproduce. So instead of playing on their field, chasing paper thrown at us by employers, filing grievances that go nowhere, and tying up unions in bureaucratic processes, why not unleash another kind of unionism. One grounded in the power of our work and dignity and in harmony with the thousands of years of Indigenous wisdom placed on these lands that was never extinguished, even in the darkest of times.

We don't lack resistance; we lack places to nurture it. Active unionism would require that every worker contribute time and effort to developing spaces and processes for resistance and acknowledge these destructive systems of control rather than "manage" what we all agree is a woeful decline in union power. A real struggle involves the personal, the emotional, the direct contact, not hollow proclamations posted on bulletin boards in the hopeless drudgery of workplaces. What we lack are the assemblies and places to tap into our unity and power.
As the resistance rises around us, let us not be cautious and afraid anymore. The politics of blame are over. None of us are alone. People do have the power; they just struggle to realize it. Consider it an invitation.

Dave Bleakney is the national union representative for education for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and has written and published in numerous publications on resistance, neoliberal globalization and adult education pedagogy.