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Trudeau’s Embrace by Unifor Leaders: a Step Backwards for Canadian Labour

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received four standing ovations during his short address to the Unifor Convention in Ottawa August 24. Why would Canada’s largest private-sector union give such a warm reception to the leader of the corporate-owned Liberal Party of Canada? Unifor was created 3 years ago through the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers (CEP), although the CAW was the dominant partner.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President, began his introduction of Trudeau with a denunciation of the previous Stephen Harper government “that I honestly believe did not like Canadians”. Dias said he was “enthused” to welcome Trudeau because when he met with him, Trudeau “talked about the importance of the labour movement … if we wanted a strong economy”. Dias asked the delegates “The first week after being sworn in – did he go meet with the business community? Did he go meet with the chambers of commerce, the banks, the oil companies? No no – he came right to the CLC headquarters right here in Ottawa and met with Hassan, myself and the other labour leaders.” Hassan Yussuff is the head of the Canadian Labour Congress, and was on the Unifor staff for many years. Yussuff spoke later in the Convention and heaped more praise on Trudeau: “Everything that the new government has done since they’ve been elected is to undo the ten years of damage that that bastard [Harper] did to this country… It is nice to have a government in this Ottawa that they’re not attacking workers anymore”. It is odd that Canada’s business leaders have not noticed that the Prime Minister is favouring labour over them.

Unifor is practicing “lesser evil’ politics to an extreme that is unusual for the Canadian labour movement. In fact, the Canadian Labour Congress was a founding partner in the creation of the New Democratic Party in 1961. The Canadian labour movement has historically championed the NDP as a party of labour, an alternative to the pro-capitalist Liberal and Conservative parties. The founding leader of the NDP, Tommy Douglas, is well known for his dramatization of the story of Mouseland, whose moral is that the mice must see through the charade of choosing between black cats and white cats to be their rulers. “Presently there came along one little mouse who had an idea… He said to the other mice. ‘Look fellows why do we keep electing a government made up of cats, why don’t we elect a government made up of mice?’ Oh, they said, he’s a Bolshevik. So they put him in jail.” Well Tommy, these Unifor/CLC ‘mice’ have decided they are better off being ruled by the white cats after all. And so we were treated to the unsettling sight of Jerry Dias staring deeply into the eyes of Justin Trudeau.

What are the implications of the Jerry/Justin bromance for Unifor, for the Canadian Labour movement and for the prospects of progressive political change in Canada? Here are six ways that turning the Unifor Convention into a Justin Trudeau photo op has been a step backwards:

1) Canadian Union of Postal Workers

The Unifor Convention was an opportunity to put the struggle of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers front and centre. But that might have been embarrassing to Trudeau who has been in power almost a year and has done nothing to curb the rabid-dog management at Canada Post.

The CUPW waged a courageous battle against Canada Post and this week achieved a remarkable victory – forcing Canada Post to maintain defined-benefit pensions for the next generation of workers. The issue was still in doubt during the Unifor Convention, and is critically important to many Unifor members who are under pressure from employers to eliminate defined-benefit pensions, or who have already been forced to do so for newer workers. Defined-benefit pensions have been cut in half for new hires at Ford and Chrysler for the last four years, and have been eliminated at CAMI Automotive (which is owned by GM) and replaced with riskier defined contribution pensions. Some 500 workers at GM Oshawa hired over the last ten years are classified as temporary (Supplementary Workforce Employees, or SWEs) and get no pensions at all.

The Convention could have had a feature speaker from the CUPW to highlight their struggle, and build solidarity for a labour movement battle for decent pensions for all workers. Instead, the heroic battle by postal workers barely got a mention.

2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership and CETA (European Trade Pact)

The TPP is a “trade” agreement designed to benefit corporate interests, weaken the ability of governments to put limits on corporate domination, and to support and expand the US sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the fact that Unifor has been waging a public campaign against ratification of the TPP, the Unifor leaders couldn’t bring themselves to directly challenge Trudeau on the issue during his visit.

In fact, the Trudeau government’s position on international trade deals is basically identical to that of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper – support whatever the US asks it to do. In 2013, when Harper announced a trade and investment pact with the European Union (CETA), Trudeau congratulated him and promised that his Liberals would support the deal in principle. According to Linda McQuaig, “CETA will undermine Canadian democracy, handing foreign corporations a powerful lever for pressuring our governments to, for instance, abandon environmental, health or financial regulations, while leaving Canadian taxpayers potentially on the hook to pay billions of dollars in compensation to some of the wealthiest interests on earth.” Trudeau is scheduled to sign CETA in October in Brussels. Yet instead of focusing attacks on the Trudeau government for continuing to promote these deals, Unifor leaders were praising him for being different from Harper.

3) Syria

Advocating that workers should support Trudeau and his government, makes it impossible to promote an independent working-class view of world affairs. At the Unifor Convention delegates showed strong support for Syrian refugees, including families that are being supported by Unifor. But nobody at the Convention pointed out that the Canadian government has helped to create those very refugees by providing military and financial support to the US so-called “Global Coalition”. True solidarity with the victims of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the millions of refugees from the fighting would mean opposing Canadian government support for the US illegal efforts at regime change.

4) Saudi Monarchs and Israel

Treating Trudeau like a celebrity also makes it virtually impossible to critically examine other areas where his government has followed in the footsteps of Stephen Harper in supporting right-wing, undemocratic governments that are creating instability and war. Trudeau has continued to support the regime in Saudi Arabia and provide them with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry which is being used to kill civilians in Yemen. And of course, Trudeau continues to be a staunch defender of Israel, with his party voting en masse for a Conservative motion to “condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”. BDS is an attempt to use peaceful tactics to pressure Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and accord equal rights to Palestinians in Israel.

5) Labour Party or ‘Strategic Voting’?

The most serious problem with supporting the Liberal Party is that it undermines independent labour politics. Labour leaders concluded more than a century ago that capitalist parties would never act on behalf of workers. The working class needs its own party. As long as the labour movement was aligned with the NDP this idea was alive, whatever the shortcomings of the NDP. But when labour leaders argue that it doesn’t matter who gets in as long as the biggest evil is defeated, we stop building a party that will really represent workers.

The CAW began promoting “strategic voting” in Canada some 20 years ago, and this has been toxic to labour politics. Now Trudeau can be invited to be the star guest of the Unifor Convention, and there is no discussion of the class interests that the Bay Street Liberals represent.

6) Lack of Democracy in the Union

In order to have a successful showcase for the Liberal Prime Minister, the Convention was stage-managed to limit dissenting voices. The Convention was turned into a spectator event. The time filled with videos and guest speakers, and the delegates became an audience.

As a result many resolutions were pushed to the end, and many of them were not discussed at all because time ran out. That means the remaining resolutions were referred to the National Executive Board, which suits those leaders who don’t want the delegates to make the decisions.

Another indication of the sham democracy of the Unifor Convention was the selection of the top officers. Every position was acclaimed. There were no opposition candidates or opposition program. Despite talk of diversity, the top two positions in the union, National President and National Secretary Treasurer, were occupied again by two older white males.

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James Napier is a veteran Unifor autoworker.

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