Archive | June, 2013

Avoiding the shaft: no concessions for young workers

5 Jun

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 5.47.29 PMA couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine; a department chair at a program at Ryerson.

I was telling him that my partner started teaching at Ryerson, in another faculty, and was being paid about $5000 for the course. This was to cover four months of weekly three hour classes, six hours of prep time per class, office hours, a month of exam re-scheduling (and re-re-scheduling), assignment marking and invigilation. The class wasn’t too big, just 30 students, but we had calculated that he was getting ripped off. Ryerson, of course, was getting a deal.

He was a unionized member of CUPE 3904. His work undercut the necessity of hiring new professors. If a full semester of classes (5) cost Ryerson $25,000 to offer, and an awful job market was forcing PhDs to take these exploitative positions, Ryerson had no reason to actually hire a professor who would cost a great deal more to the university at at least $75,000.

Years and years of this kind of logic and these trade-offs, aided by the government’s preference to fund scandals over higher education, has created this large underclass of workers at Ontario’s colleges and universities. The Toronto Star reported that it was partly the fault of this sector that half of GTA workers are in precarious work in a study undertaken earlier this year.

My friend told me that this reality was, in part, the fault of the professors themselves. Rather than going on strike to reject these concessions, albeit in a different union and bargaining unit, professors would take what they could, bargain their own contracts and maybe offer support where they could. And really, can you blame them? They’re under extreme, albeit different stress too. “Unless we shut down this place, they’ll keep relying on sessionals” he told me. “And you know how likely it is that we’ll shut this place down.”

I thought about this story when I saw that the Toronto Star union had negotiated a way to keep the radio room, the place where many young journalists get their start, by agreeing to a 32 per cent pay cut. The radio room is where journalists listen to the police scanner and follow the cops to then report the news. Lots of stories about crime and other Toronto-based news originate from here.

I took to Twitter to express how I didn’t think this was at all a victory. I was quickly scorned by someone who saw this as good enough: the radio room has been saved, young people will have jobs and really, what other choice could there have been?

Sure, I don’t know what the negotiations were like. I do know that the radio room costs $250,000 to operate, according to the J-Source article linked above, and that if all that money goes to salaries (which is unlikely, as there must be some equipment and other costs rolled into this amount), the new contract will save TorStar Corporation $80,000. To put this into perspective, here’s how the Corporation did during the first quarter of 2013:

“Total Segmented Revenue was $332.4 million in the first quarter of 2013, down $18.4 million from $350.8 million in the first quarter of 2012.”
This amount would also, roughly, be recovered by the sale of four, 4-page insert ads, distributed on four Saturdays over the course of a year, according to the Toronto Star’s rate card.

The Star, while still making a profit, made less of a profit in the first quarter of 2013. But is this smaller profit enough to justify outsourcing the radio room? No. Just like how $80,000 isn’t going to boost the shares back up the few cents that they fell during that quarter.

Of course, it’s not just the Toronto Star or the higher education sector where this is happening. CAW’s 2012 agreement with the “big three” automakers for example also deepened wage segmentation between new and old workers.

The trend to level concessions on the backs of younger workers deeply troubles me. I’m currently writing a book that makes the argument that this tactic used by corporations, and unfortunately agreed to by many unions, is going to be what eventually destroys (or addressing it head on to save) the labour movement.

Younger workers have never had it so hard in post-war Canada. With record-high unemployment levels, record-high student debt, the outrageous proliferation of unpaid internships and the reliance on temporary foreign workers as a way to boost corporations’ bottom lines, young workers are in a rough spot. What’s worse, their interests are often posited against the interest of older workers in negotiations and the young ones often lose.

Older workers don’t have it that easy these days either but they’ll still, at least, be able to retire at 65. Who knows how long into the winters of our lives we’ll be forced to work?

The effects that such cuts have on young people are obvious. What should concern older union activists, though, is the effect it will have on the labour movement in general.

If your first interaction with your union sees your wages slashed, benefits cut and your job made precarious to be able to preserve the wages and benefits of an older worker, no commitment to solidarity, in principle, is enough to convince the masses that this is a structure that works.

Older union activists need to be worried about the message that these concessions send to young people: while it’s true that many young people are happy enough just to have a paying job, this sentiment is not enough to extend support to the role that unions play more generally. If the labour movement is going to survive, it needs to build its support broadly.

This is why unions must use the collective force of their workers to refuse concession contracts for young or new workers. Just like workers at CUPW, who refused to accept concession contracts for new workers and who were eventually locked out by the corporation, all unions should be prepared for the messy and difficult battles of saving all good jobs.

Corporations know that this divide-and-conquer tactic works and they’ll use it every single time that they can. If the only way to resist it is to refuse to be divided, the path toward our collective victories should be pretty obvious.

Building broad support for the labour movement won’t be possible if our backs are the sites on which negotiations are played.

Is your union going above and beyond to protect the rights of young or new workers? Share the story with me, I’d love to hear it!

Photo taken from libcom.org

From Orange Wave to Third Way: Speech delivered at Marxism 2013 in Toronto

3 Jun

As a populist party that has seemingly abandoned its base in the drive for Liberal and even Conservative supporters, it’s hard to imagine the NDP fulfilling the roles that most activists or progressives believe it should fulfill.

I was never an activist for the NDP but I learned a lot working from the outside of the party through the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, where we hoped our policies would be adopted to become policies of the provincial party. Because, as the left-wing party that is meant to amplify the demands of social movements, we believed that that was the role that they held: in addition to their own policy-making structures, the NDP should be taking its lead from the activists on the ground and in those social movements. These groups have the research. We had the expertise.

But, of course, this rarely happens. Instead, social movements, including the labour movement, have to operate more like lobby organizations, even if the majority of the leadership from these movements are members of the party. It is in these interactions that it’s clear that the NDP has broken the drug dealers’ cardinal rule: it has gotten high on its own supply.

Yes, the NDP, both federally and provincially, has forgotten that it is not actually the Liberal or the Conservative parties and must fight its brand of politics out on a different terrain. This omission will prove to be the party’s most critical error. Like a game of chess played against a master, where you move every one of your pieces to mirror your opponent, you’ll do well enough until you eventually lose.

When I moved to Québec City, possibly the only city in Canada where I had zero political contacts, we literally stumbled across the office for QS at the start of the Québec election. The language barrier had made me more shy than I had been my entire life. Luckily, I was half drunk and I walked into that office (my partner walking into a window) and became involved immediately.

QS is new. As I wasn’t around for the glory days of the CCF, it’s hard to compare the two parties as they’re at different stages of their existences. But my involvement in QS has made a few things extremely obvious. First, that for a party to be able to call itself progressive and not get laughed at, it needs to be rooted in social movements. This remains a struggle for QS and much of our political organizing starts with the question of who are the groups leading the charge and how can we help them? Second, keeping any party firmly on the left takes a core group of people who will unwaveringly challenge the party and its members to reject electoralism, even when a motion comes forward with the laudable goal of increasing our number of seats to 5. Third, and on the left this is sometimes ignored or not held up as being important, the leadership of QS, that is the spokespeople, are charismatic, intelligent and popular. Both the former leaders and now the new one have histories in community organizing that helped to produce impressive faces for our party: so impressive that one of our spokespeople was voted the most popular politician in 2011 and the other was voted most popular in 2012.

I could talk more about QS. I could also go on with identifying all the problems that I can see with the NDP and its provincial wings. But I only have 15 minutes and I think what’s important here is to have a discussion on what’s possible, what’s desirable and what is to be done with the NDP?

To start, socialists need to ask ourselves is the NDP even capable of shifting far enough to the left to be able to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage (not even stop) the ravaging effects of capitalism?

If the answer to this question is yes, then activists must look toward working through the party apparatus to try and force change from the inside. I have no doubt that the current strategic decisions, the drift to the right and the abandonment of the party’s core issues to offer Geico-stolen promises off car insurance are the result of the collective organizing capacity of folks in the party. Change the people, it’s undoubtedly possible to change some of the policies.

And, if we agree that the current democratic model is itself the problem, then we might be satisfied with making such minor changes, while we push for more radical changes outside of the party. Indeed, I have many, many friends who have chosen this route.

However, I cannot ignore the conservatizing influence that this has on activists. While what I have just stated is true, that moderate change is likely possible with a regime change of the players, it is also more true that in the relationship between who changes, the party will undoubtedly change less than the person being involved. To pretend this isn’t the case is total naïveté. While I know that some people are comfortable with this trade off, it’s important to be honest that it is a trade off and, in my opinion, just isn’t worth the time and effort that has to be put in.

This leaves us with the only other answer to my question: no, it’s not possible for the NDP to shift enough to the left to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage the ravaging effects of capitalism.

Unfortunately, in a government role, the NDP has proven that this answer is most likely to be the correct one.  The NDP has never delivered what it claims to be able to deliver. Instead, NDP governments have broadly inflicted neo liberal policies while offering some modest social reforms, in some cases.

This reality means that the option that will likely have the greatest impact for socialists is to abandon the NDP all together and coordinate a process of broad and fundamental regroupment. If we believe that socialists should be fighting it out in mainstream electoral politics, then regroupment is our only hope. Whether this takes the form of a new political party or just a provincial or federal network that’s main job is to force change on the NDP from the outside is determined by several realities that we must face.

First, regroupment cannot be reorganization. It must include groups who have not normally worked together, organize on new terms and around the core of what the NDP should be fighting for.

Regroupment also has to include labour. Despite the problems that exist within the Labour movement, unions are still comprised of people and offer Canadians the best vehicle to organize broadly. Labour activists must make links with social movement activists and find ways to advance their politics within their communities and externally. This means that labour bureaucracy, the ones who have decided that the NDP should be elected at all costs, has to be challenged. It is not good enough to simply want to keep Hudak out or to kick out Wall: people need to be organized around issues, not simple against people.

Finally, and obviously, regroupment needs to be focused on a core set of demands that will once again inspire people to be involved in politics.  Maybe this should start with demanding a corruption inquiry at the federal level, radical but entirely possible education and health reforms at the provincial levels and transportation and energy alternatives. If we cannot expect the NDP to lead on these issues, activists themselves must build networks centred on these values to the force the party into action.

Or, if action isn’t possible, to lay the groundwork to start a new political party.

QS is remarkable for many reasons, but it’s most important for activists outside of Québec because it shows what’s possible. With just two deputies, QS has been able to respond, almost daily, to the debates that are happening at the Ass Nat. And, not just respond but offer criticism and alternatives. They drew on the strength of the student movement and ensured that the discussion about free education wasn’t relegated to just student demands, but in fact, the desires of progressive Québecers who were both inspired and who stood in solidarity with the student strikers.

The only way to test the NDP is to provide strong, parallel movements than can challenge the austerity policies of the federal and provincial governments. If our movements are strong enough, broad-based and not limited to regions, we can actually put the NDP to a test: either the party will join our movements, take its lead from our demands and advance our demands, or they’ll pull a Party Québecois: get elected on a left-of-centre platform, made possible by the activist work undertaken in Québec, and then betray Québecers by backing down on nearly every promise.

It will be at that moment that the next steps become clear: either they’re with social movements or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, the organzing that had been done up until that point will form the perfect basis for a new party.