Monday, May 30, 2011

5 reasons to support postal workers

     The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has filed notice to strike at 11:59 June 2, to defend public postal service and stop massive concessions that scapegoat workers for the economic crisis. Postal workers have stood up for many social justice issues, and their strike could trigger broader opposition to Harper's austerity agenda. They have voted almost 95 percent for a strike mandate, and here are 5 reasons why solidarity needs to receive an equally strong mandate.

     In it's drive to make work more "modern" and "efficient" (ie profitable), Canada Post Corporation is imposing working conditions that threaten the health and safety of its workers. According to Bob Tyre, president of the Winnipeg local of CUPW,
"You’re walking with different shapes and sizes balanced in your arm, with another in your hand. It obscures your feet. You can’t see where you’re walking, and you’re up and down stairs all day. You have to hold your arm rigid and balance the load while you’re walking. It’s caused a lot of slip and fall injuries, a lot of shoulder, arm, and neck pain."
Now Canada Post is trying to roll back the compensation for this dangerous work. According to CUPW president Denis Lemelin
“The Corporation wants to pay new employees 30 per cent less. It wants to reduce their benefits, weaken their job security and provide an inferior pension. It also wants to attack retiree benefits and sick leave, and turn back the clock on many other contract provisions.” 
An injury to one is an injury to all, so we need to support the postal workers' defense of healthy work conditions and decent pay.

     The mainstream media are trying to pit postal workers against those who depend on postal service. But it's Canada Post Corporation that has been cutting services, closing offices, and trying to privatize postal services; former CEO Moya Greene left Canada Post to continue pushing privatization on Royal Mail in Britain.
     Meanwhile, CUPW has a history of linking good jobs with good services, organizing against rural post office closures alongside unionization for rural and suburban mail carriers. During this round of negotiations CUPW wants to regularize temporary employees and increase the number of full-time workers, while increasing door-to-door delivery and increase staffing at postal outlets. If we want a strong public postal service, we need to support those who provide it and those who are taking a stand to defend it.

     Despite making profits for the past 16 years--including $281 million in 2009, and having the highest paid public service bureaucrat--Canada Post Corporation is blaming workers. This is part of a broader austerity agenda to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis they did not create. As Lynn Bue, CUPW’s 2nd national vice-president stated, "This is a fight against an ideology from the government, from banks, that big businesses should make more, and people should live on poverty wages.”
     Prime Minister Harper used the G20 meeting last year to push an austerity agenda, and this week is visiting Greece to support austerity there--which includes privatization, massive cuts to social services, layoffs and attacks on pensions. That's what Harper wants to bring to Canada and the CUPW strike is his first obstacle. A defeat for CUPW will be a victory for Harper and his corporate backers across the country. A victory for CUPW will build unity and confidence for others to resist the austerity agenda. This is a fight for all of us.

     Postal workers have a long history of standing up for women’s rights, civil liberties, peace and justice. This year is the 30th anniversary of CUPW’s strike for paid maternity leave. Following the lead of the Common Front of public sector workers in Quebec, postal workers struck for 42 days in 1981 and became the first federal union to win paid maternity leave--encouraging others to demand this basic right.
     CUPW was the first Canadian union to boycott South African Apartheid, and the first to join the BDS campaign against Israeli Apartheid, in addition to organizing mail for the Canada/Quebec Boat to Gaza. CUPW has also been part of the campaign to oppose secret trials in Canada, and oppose the war in Afghanistan.
     More broadly, the labour movement has been central to Medicare and abortion rights, opposing the Iraq War, and standing up against austerity--from the G20 protest last year to last month’s protest against Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Now’s the time for all of us to reciprocate this solidarity.

     There is tremendous ideological resistance to the Harper agenda--from majority support for Medicare, abortion rights, and war resisters, to majority opposition to the war on Afghanistan, fighter jets and corporate tax cuts. May 2 saw this translate into political resistance as people across Canada and Quebec gave a historic mandate to the NDP opposition, marking a surge for the left from coast to coast. But with a Harper majority, the Official Opposition can’t win on its own in Parliament, it needs opposition in the streets and workplaces. The postal strike offers the chance to connect the "orange wave" of political resistance to economic resistance against the Harper agenda. This can lay the foundation for future struggles, as developments in Egypt show.
     In 2006--after years of opposition to occupations of Palestine and Iraq, and the beginnings of opposition to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak--women textile workers in Mahalla went on strike, triggering a wave of economic resistance that amplified political and ideological resistance. This strike wave planted the seeds for the Egyptian revolution that blossomed this year, further strikes by workers in Mahalla and elsewhere finally drove Mubarak from power, and Egyptian workers are continuing the revolution by organizing independent trade unions and continuing to strike for better conditions.
     People across Canada and Quebec have been inspired by resistance from Egypt to Wisconsin, and hope for similar resistance here. We've seen the beginnings of political resistance against austerity: ten thousand mobilized in Hamilton on January 26, 75,000 in Montreal on March 20, ten thousand more in Toronto on April 9 and then 2 million more from coast to coast voted for the NDP on May 2. Now we have the chance to have our own Mahalla, a strike that can build from previous struggles, deepen solidarity and strength across Canada and Quebec, and take opposition to Harper to a whole new level.

* To send a letter to Canada Post Corporation and find out how else you can help visit CUPW's site.
* Put support posters in your window or on street posts--copy the image at the top of this articleor download others at the solidarity site Support Postal Workers
* Write a letter-to-the-editor of your local paper, or call your local radio station, to explain why you support postal workers
* Visit your local picket line to show solidarity
* Send solidarity messages or strike support funds to CUPW from your labour/student union, community organization or faith group

Monday, May 9, 2011

Canada's real electoral map: a surge for the left

It's just a week after the Canada's federal election and the battle of interpretation is still raging. Some see a right-wing blue surge, others a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada, while the polls indicate a contradictory phenomenon. But looking at the shift between the NDP and the combined Tory/Liberal vote, both longterm and between the last two elections, a different picture emerges--of an eroding but concentrated corporate vote, and a surging NDP vote. This points to a left-wing shift in people's consciousness that creates possibilities for change, if we can combine opposition inside Parliament with movements outside.

     One way of interpreting the recent elections results is to only see a Harper majority, as if Canada were bathed in Conservative blue. Harper claims that Canadians voted for a "strong, stable, national Conservative government", and many agree. After all, the Conservatives did increase their seats from 143 to 167. People are anxious about what Harper could do with his majority--impose austerity, continue war and the tar sands, attack abortion rights and social services. But assuming that Harper's majority signifies a right-wing surge in people's consciousness--as those on the right hope or those on the left despair (like this graphic)--ignores the contradictions in the election and the possibilities for change. It's also true that a majority of people voted against Harper, and the Conservatives only increased their vote by 2%, so the picture must be more complex.

     The most obvious challenge to Harper's claim is the historic surge of the NDP in Quebec, which halved the Tory and Liberal seats and decimated the Bloc Quebecois. In the mainstream press this been interpreted as an isolated phenomenon connected to the rejection by people in Quebec of the quest for sovereignty. This is wrong on both counts.
     Firstly, the vote for the NDP in Quebec was not a vote against sovereignty but it's shift to a party of the left. For 20 years the Bloc Quebecois have claimed the mantle of sovereignty but have neither delivered on this nor on important social reforms. Quebec has had the largest social movements--from anti-war protests to student strikes and labour mobilizations--and out of these has emerged a provincial left alternative Quebec solidaire, which links sovereignty to social justice issues. Years of anger against the Tories and the Liberals, the failure of the Bloc to deliver an alternative, the positive example of left sovereignty linked to mass movements,  and an NDP campaign that included self-determination and opposition to the war in Afghanistan led people in Quebec to vote en mass for the NDP. 
     Secondly, while the NDP's biggest gains were in Quebec they also picked up seats across the country--from BC, to Ontario, to New Brunswick. It's important for progressives in Quebec to know they have allies across Canada, and important for people in English Canada to recognize the left-wing surge was not isolated to Quebec. Of 103 seats for the NDP, 58 come from Quebec and 45 from Canada. The electoral map is neither a sea of Tory blue, nor a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada. Instead the official NDP opposition in Parliament comes from across the country.

     But the electoral map under-represents the left-wing shift in people's consciousness. Firstly, it disconnects parties from their economic base, presenting them as abstract entities. As I've written elsewhere--in prose and verse--the Liberals and the Tories are the twin parties of corporate Canada, who have both launched wars, undermined the environment, attacked civil liberties and social services, and imposed austerity. On the other hand, the NDP is the only party officially affiliated with labour and unofficially with the social movements. Over the past ten years the combined corporate vote has steadily declined and the NDP vote increased--not because of what happened inside Parliament but what happened outside.
     The two biggest gains for the NDP in the past ten years happened in 2004 (after the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of 2001-2003, when the NDP gained 1 million votes and increased their popular vote by 4%) and in this past election (after the economic crisis, mass protests in Wisconsin and ongoing revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, when the NDP gained 2 million votes and increased their popular vote by 12%). Over the past decade, these movements outside Parliament have depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78% to 58%, a significant drop of 20%.

      The second way in which the electoral map under-represents shifting consciousness is that the first-past-the-post system shows who comes out on top, but misses the dynamic of change underneath. The electoral map represents Parliamentary elections, but the main source of change happens between elections, driven by what happens outside Parliament. So to truly understand what has happened to people's consciousness between the past two elections we need to look at the shift in vote. From 2008-2011 the NDP gained votes in 293 of 308 ridings, had the same vote in 10 ridings, and only lost votes in 5 ridings (1 in Newfoudland&Labrador, 3 in Nova Scotia and 1 in Ontario). This is better than any other party, and shows that the "orange wave" was truly pan-Canadian. Not only did the NDP win 103 seats, but they came in second in more than 110 other ridings. This includes the ridings for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, where the NDP gained about 2500 votes in each, jumping from 4th place to 2nd place (though still far away from winning).
     Moreover, if we compare the votes for the NDP with the combined corporate vote, there was a net shift to the NDP in 216 ridings, or 70%. Even in the Tory stronghold of Alberta there was a net shift towards the NDP in a quarter of the ridings (and an increase in vote in all but one riding). The resulting map is majority orange, not blue.
     This surge to the left is missed if we only  look at who won. In Quebec, Tory Maxime Bernier and Liberal Justin Trudeau held onto their seats, but the NDP tripled its vote in both ridings to surge into second place. In Ontario, Tory cabinet ministers Bev Oda and John Baird held onto their seats but the NDP doubled its vote.
     Looking at the shift in vote around Greater Toronto shows how Harper picked up so many seats to achieve his majority. In Etobicoke Centre and Ignatieff's riding of Etobicoke Lakeshare the Liberals lost 3-4000 votes to the Tories but the NDP almost doubled its vote; in Scarborough Centre and Don Valley East the Liberals lost 5000 votes, the Tories picked up 2000 to win, but the NDP picked up more than 5000 votes, doubling its share; in Bramalea-Gore-Malton the Liberals lost a third of their votes, the Tories gained 1000 votes, but the NDP picked up 14,000 votes, tripling their share.
     In other words, the Harper majority is not based on a surge to the right, but a Liberal collapse. The corporate vote became concentrated in the Tories (who were endorsed by nearly every mainstream newspaper), while the real surge across the country was towards the NDP. This is an important step forward in quality as well as quantity. The aspirations of Quebec previously rooted in the corporate Bloc Quebecois, the "strategic voting" for the corporate Liberals to stop the corporate Tories, and the isolated "neither left nor right" politics of the Green Party have shifted to a pan-Canadian labour party with links to the antiwar and other social movements.

     But there is obvious asymmetry to this configuration. Harper has a majority in Parliament, but minority support outside Parliament. While it's to his advantage to reduce politics to what happens inside Parliament, his weakness can be exposed if the Official Opposition builds links to mass movements outside Parliament, especially the labour movement. In 2003 the Liberal majority wanted to join the war on Iraq and had the support of the opposition Tories. But the anti-war movement won the NDP to a principled anti-war position regardless of UN backing, and Jack Layton and the NDP helped build anti-war protests across the country--culminating in a trade union-led march of a quarter of a million in Montreal--which split the ruling Liberals and stopped them from joining war. This led to a surge in NDP support, but since then it stagnated as the NDP leadership downplayed some of its most important policies--from ending the war in Afghanistan and stopping corporate tax cuts--while it contemplated a coalition with the Liberals. But with a shift in left-wing consciousness from global resistance to the economic crisis--resulting in Liberal collapse and NDP surge--now's the time to put Harper on the defensive by raising all the demands of the movements: end the war, reverse the tax cuts, stop the tar sands, increase EI, fund Medicare... 
     A decade of mobilizations have eroded the corporate vote, and inspiration from Cairo to Wisconsin have shifted people's consciousness to a left alternative--catapulting the NDP into Official Opposition. If we can continue building pan-Canadian mass movements and respect Quebec's right to self-determination, and if the NDP can unite with and help build these movements, we can expose how weak and unstable Harper's majority is, and bring the change we all want.