Originally written for Midnight Sun.
Working-class people face intensified attack on a range of fronts. The inflationary upsurge that has produced a major global cost of living crisis is considerably more stubborn than was initially expected. If “supply shocks” underlie this economic instability, we must suppose that there are a great many more of them to come.
Intensifying global rivalry will undermine the flow of trade to an ever greater extent. Moreover, the efforts of the United States to defend its hegemonic position dramatically increase the risks of major armed conflicts. The rivalry that marks this period is already producing results that are profoundly economically disruptive. It is likely that much worse lies ahead.
The pandemic has had dramatic impacts on the world’s economy, and it is clear that the factors that created this global health emergency are entirely unresolved. The scientific mainstream has now fully accepted that we live in what can be referred to as the pandemic era.
Over and above all of this, we face the sharpest of all expressions of capitalism’s inability to develop a sustainable relationship with the natural world: the accelerating climate crisis. Its effects are already being seen in a variety of ways, including the proliferation of extreme weather episodes. This element of the present multi-layered crisis brings with it the most destructive impacts and the most economically disruptive results of all.
Such conditions of crisis in society starkly pose the question of who will shoulder the burden. The driving up of interest rates by central banks internationally makes clear that the hawkish advocates of class war and “creative destruction” are dominating policy directions, and that they see wage cuts and reduced living standards, even at the risk of a major global slump, as the route to stability for their system.
At the same time, hopes for a turn away from the agenda of austerity have been cruelly dashed. A recent study by a group of NGOs looked at 267 International Monetary Fund (IMF) country reports that map out plans for a major international austerity assault. Unquestionably, this attack is playing out here in Ontario, as the Ford Tories take the knife to public services.
Those who would characterize this period as one marked by working-class passivity are quite wrong. The last few years have seen a rising working-class anger struggling to find effective expression. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked an upsurge of historic proportions on US streets, one that reverberated internationally. A rebellion in the workplace is brewing: here in Ontario, there has been a dramatic increase in strike activity. The recent struggle taken up by education workers in this province, its massive contradictions notwithstanding, is further evidence that working-class people are looking for the means to fight back.
Yet these inspiring indications shouldn’t be a source of unrealistic optimism. There is a huge reservoir of anger and an appetite for effective resistance, but it is not yet taking the form of durable movements and winning struggles. This problem must be overcome, if the leap in thought and action that this period demands is to be achieved. People learn relatively little by getting kicked and a great deal more from fighting back. Such positive lessons are urgently needed.
For masses of people to take the path of social mobilization, they must be convinced it can prevent cuts in real wages and the gutting of vital public services. This means moving beyond the rituals of token protest and embracing forms of resistance that are defiant and hugely disruptive.
Mechanisms of compromise
Though vital struggles take place at the community level, the greatest power of working-class people lies in our ability to shut down the production and flow of goods and services by employing the strike weapon. For this reason, trade unions remain decisive.
After World War Two, employers and the state fought hard to prevent an organizing breakthrough by workers in North America, but it could no longer be held back. In this situation, a strategy of containment rather than direct confrontation was adopted. The state-brokered mechanisms of compromise between capital and labour that developed in this period constituted a tactical retreat. Unions were recognized and granted significant rights that, in the economic boom years following the war, ensured gains in wages and working conditions. However, the system of legally enshrined “labour relations” that was put in place set limits that had been unknown in the more rough-and-tumble class struggle conditions that had previously existed.
Now, in return for their new rights, unions negotiated with employers in a regulated process that limited and compartmentalized workers’ struggles. Strikes during the life of collective agreements were banned, and the bulk of disputes were now settled by way of a legalistic process of grievance and arbitration. Solidarity strikes to support other groups of workers and united struggles around broader political demands were also prohibited by law.
It is hardly surprising that such a regulated and tightly supervised form of class conflict had a major effect on the unions themselves. Though strike battles were still fought, a great deal of the representative role that unions played was now in the hands of experts and specialists. Bureaucratized forms of struggle engendered bureaucratized unions and significantly demobilized their rank and file.
These mechanisms of compromise were developed in a period of relative economic buoyancy, when employers and governments were making concessions to working-class people. Economic downturn and falling rates of profit in the 1970s, however, led to a changed strategy that would become known as neoliberalism. This included an assault on unions to drive down wages and the gutting of the social infrastructure.
In this situation, the class compromise arrangements of the post-war years became an impediment. Workers were still adhering to agreements that limited their ability to struggle, but the other side was no longer ready to give anything back in return. The ruling-class attack, while severe, was nonetheless incremental enough for the “deal” to hold while union membership and working-class living standards declined.
The present crisis-ridden period is accelerating the pace of the attack to such a degree that the consequences of limiting working-class resistance have become dramatically worse. To confine the strike weapon to individual contract disputes is a recipe for disaster that renders effective working-class struggle impossible. Breaking out of these limitations becomes a life-and-death question.
The need for defiance
During the neoliberal decades, working-class defiance has sometimes emerged when governments have seriously accelerated the ruling-class attack. The Ontario Days of Action against the provincial Tory regime in the 1990s were a case in point. Faced with an unprecedented assault on workers and communities, there was a limited effort to break out of the constraints of regulated class compromise.
While the campaign involved city-wide strikes that broke the rules and provided an inspiring indication of working-class power, the union leadership of the time engaged in these tactics with considerable reluctance. No plan to escalate the struggle to winning levels was ever advanced, and after the momentum of the actions had been lost, the whole effort was abandoned.
Very similar factors played out in Ontario education workers’ recent struggle. The Ford government’s Bill 28 created a situation where CUPE and its Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) could avoid the humiliation of an imposed concessionary contract only by responding defiantly.
With this blunder, Ford brought on an “illegal” strike by education workers and the threat of a wave of sympathy actions by other unions. That such a fightback could be made ready is no small matter, but the rapidity with which CUPE accepted Ford’s offer to repeal the legislation, in return for the suspension of strike action, was enormously telling.
Once the union leaders had something on the table that could justify a return to the mechanisms of compromise they had been schooled in, they were ready to grab it. This retreat led to a deal that failed to address the cost of living crisis, and that ended the generalized movement of working-class resistance that was emerging in that moment.
Certainly, the top leadership of CUPE carries the major responsibility for that concession, while the OSBCU leaders were obviously more reluctant to concede. However, no force within the union was able to resist the pressure to draw back. The tragic curtailment of this struggle poses huge questions about the kind of movement we need at this time.
It is of decisive importance that the strike weapon be freed from its present constraints. It must become a form of generalized working-class struggle that advances broad political demands. As Rosa Luxemburg stressed in her study of the mass strike, such a course is capable of inspiring and mobilizing a huge portion of the population.
As Luxemburg put it, “Every real, great class struggle must rest upon the support and cooperation of the widest masses, and a strategy of class struggle which does not reckon with this cooperation, which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat, is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Clearly, such a course of action would have to be taken up over the indignant objections of the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Though strikes are of central importance, it is also true that very powerful forms of community-based action are entirely possible. In Canada, the lessons to be drawn from Indigenous-led resistance are particularly vital in this regard. The country-wide wave of solidarity action with Wet’suwet’en land defenders in 2020 unleashed major economic disruption and created a deep political crisis for those in power. Linked to massive strikes and advancing fighting demands, such forms of resistance could be incredibly powerful.
Obviously, the mass action that the present situation demands will require organizational forms that make it possible. Trade unions have a vital role to play, but for this to happen, a rank-and-file movement is indispensable. The shop stewards committees that were formed in Britain during and after World War One are instructive as models of this form of organizing. They were able to challenge collaborationist union leaders, initiate independent action when necessary, and forge links with community-based forms of working-class struggle.
While such major rank-and-file initiatives are not in place today, we are seeing initiatives that are building power at the base within unions. Teachers in the US have provided particularly compelling examples, raising the level of militancy among their fellow workers through their organizing. Biden’s recent attack on rail workers was rendered possible because of the collaborationist leadership within the rail unions. However, Railroad Workers United (RWU), rooted in the rank and file, has emerged as a force challenging that leadership.
There is a great need to take such forms of organizing within the unions much further, but also to look for broader organizational forms that could unite workplace struggles with community-based resistance. The stubborn struggle that has been waged in Sudan against that country’s military regime and its harsh social spending cutbacks has been advanced considerably by the resistance committees that have emerged. The development of such dynamic, participatory forms of local organization can contribute enormously to a sustained and effective capacity to fight back in the present period.
During the 1930s in Canada, the interventions of the Communist Party played an enormous role in taking forward the militant struggles of the unemployed. Though much was wrong with the way those interventions were carried out, the existence of a significant left party at that time supported powerful working-class action during the Great Depression.
Today, there is no single socialist organization that could match the influence of the CP in the ’30s. An effort to organize at the base and create conditions for winning forms of struggle would likely require a working alliance of leftists and rank-and-file militants. While it is much easier to propose such an undertaking than to set it in motion or sustain it, the need for such forward movement is clear and obvious.
It would be preposterous to try to provide any organizational blueprints or detailed plans of action for such rank-and-file initiatives, but it would be worth considering the role they could have played in two of the situations I have described.
During the Ontario Days of Action, there was a strong sense among leftists and militants that the momentum of the campaign was being held back. As those who lived through the period will doubtless recall, “City by city is way too slow. Let’s shut down Ontario,” was a chant commonly heard at rallies. There was, however, no means of making this vision a reality.
Such was the top-down form of the movement’s organizing that a relative handful of union leaders were able to haggle and improvise as they saw fit. When another city was eventually chosen as the next site of struggle, a local committee of unions and community organizations was nominally given the power to direct the events of the day. However, they could really only follow a tight script addressed to their own community and had no say over the provincial initiative as a whole.
Had those communities and the rank and file of the unions been organized and properly orientated, the local committees could have developed a capacity to act beyond their one-day mandate, ensuring actions would be taken on a wider front than the city-by-city approach permitted. A campaign that escalated to the level of a province-wide strike was possible, but the union leaders clearly wished to prevent it.
In the case of the recent education workers’ strike, things are even more clear-cut. A major united working-class struggle was emerging, and it was called off once the union leaders decided that it was possible to do so. A rank-and-file movement with a solid influence among those workers would have made an edict to demobilize impossible. The membership’s strong reluctance to accept a substandard deal could have been transformed into a determined effort to defeat it.
It is important to understand how deeply entrenched in the union structures are the failed rituals of compromise, and how committed to them are the bulk of the leadership. An effective rank-and-file movement will certainly have to be very much more than a means of applying some pressure on those at the top. It will have to make demands and, where necessary, act independently and defiantly to ensure that the necessary methods of resistance are taken up.
We are now in a situation where, to contain the present inflationary surge, a systematic global effort is underway to reduce the bargaining power of workers and drive down real wages. This attack may very well generate conditions of global slump. We are dealing with a class-war offensive by employers and governments, and yet the rules of engagement that we are expected to observe don’t allow us to fight fire with fire. If we are to avoid crushing defeats, breaking free of outmoded rituals of class compromise is an absolute necessity. Finding the means to do this is the most pressing political task we face in these extraordinary times.