Sunday, September 4, 2016

For The People? Early state ownership in Ontario

The "Laurier Boom" spanning the late 1890s to the immediate pre-war years was the onset of onset of municipal ownership of utilities (telephone, water, gas, streetcars, electricity). In this period, Ontario also took enormous first steps towards state ownership of industry, most famously with the 1906 creation of Ontario Hydro, but also with the formation of what we now know as Ontario Northland in 1902.

Both the political left and right often portray state ownership as a form of socialism. What is striking about this early period of municipal and state ownership of utilities and infrastructure is the degree of clarity with which Ontario's political elites rejected the claim that state ownership was socialism.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Democracy vs Confederation: Médéric Lanctôt and Les Rouges

The first Canadian red scare came in the 1860s as part of the project to push through Confederation. The Quebec Tories, led by George-Étienne Cartier and allied to John A. Macdonald's Upper Canadian Tories, were strong political allies with the Catholic Church. They waged a war on Les Rouges, a Montreal-centred political movement which carried on the radical democratic and republican politics of the 1837-38 rebellions and 1848 revolutions.

As Confederation was cobbled together by elites from each province against widespread popular opposition in the Maritimes and Quebec, the Conservative Party of Cartier and Macdonald used parliament, the pulpit, and the papers to defeat this increasingly agitational threat in Quebec. Lies, slander, religion, and organized intimidation were directed against the democratic republican movement based out of Montreal's Institut Canadien.

Red Workers
Les Rouges had been around for a while but the attacks from the right were heating up because some people in the movement were beginning to organize workers and advocate collectivist economic ideas and independence from Britain and its colonies. The movement was beginning to flex its muscles, organizing mass rallies in their thousands at Montreal's Champs de Mars. In March 1867, some 5,000 workers rallied. In June, another rally pushing ten thousand was organized - five years before the equally large rally in Toronto which ushered in the legalization of unions.

Ultimately, the movement was broken in the events surrounding the September 1867 federal election race. Using their newspapers and the pulpit, the Tories and Church published and circulated lies about the corruption of the new movement's leader, Médéric Lanctôt, a popular Montreal city councillor elected against one of Cartier's men, Alexis Dubord. Lanctôt was also challenging George-Étienne Cartier himself for the riding of Montreal East.

Lanctôt was further denounced as a Fenian amidst the overblown Fenian Scare. In the middle of the election campaign, an Anglo Tory judge ruled that Lanctôt's municipal election be annulled because he lacked, as Dubord alleged, the property qualifications to run.

Lanctôt was the son of an exiled rebellion leader, and founder of the thousands-strong Grande Association de protection des ouvriers du Canada (Grand Association of Canadian Workingmen). The organization aimed to improve the lot of workers, to fight for jobs and stop economic migration to the United States for work. Lanctôt and his allies had also established a network of food and consumer cooperatives and credit unions in Montreal as part of their economic vision for national and class independence.

When the election rolled around, Cartier eeked out a 300 vote victory against Lanctôt, winning 54 to 46 percent. Cartier's narrow victory was surrounded by allegations of corruption and vote-rigging, a common practice at the time, but the allegations were never investigated.

Defeat and dispersal
In the wake of the election, Les Rouges was broken as a political force in Montreal. By 1871, the Institut Canadien, ceased operations as a political society, its major publications having been banned by the Catholic Church in 1868 following the electoral defeat.

Anti-Confederation efforts in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were contained, and political organizations dispersed. A number of people in these movements broke with their democratic ideals to join the loosely-federated Liberal Party whose major leader and owner of the highly influential Globe, George Brown, had pushed through an unelected senate in the Confederation conferences as a check on democracy itself.

The federal Liberals began to build an opposition to the Tories by winning over defeated anti-Confederationists and provincial rights advocates in the Maritimes and Quebec, and would eventually form government in 1874 after Macdonald himself was implicated in the Pacific Scandal which exposed the corruption inherent in the project of Confederation. Among these new Liberals was Wilfrid Laurier, who had been vice-president of the Institut Canadien in the mid-1860s and had established a law firm in that period with Lanctôt. Laurier had in fact represented Lanctôt in the court case regarding his 1866 municipal election.

As Laurier established himself as a prominent lawyer in the late 1860s, Lanctôt left Canada for a self-imposed exile in the United States having lost credibility in 1868 by promoting American annexation of Quebec in the form of a free federation independent of British control.He returned to Montreal in 1871 and tried unsuccessfully to relaunch his labour-backed political career. The Institut Canadien was closed and Les Rouges had been fractured and broken as a political force. With little organizational support to draw upon, he was pummelled in the 1871 Quebec election in the Montreal East riding. It is worth noting that he did win support from the illegal and pathbreaking shoemakers union, the Knights of St Crispin, which had been loudly denounced by the Church.

Capital and labour
A year later, Lanctôt published a treatise on capital and labour aimed at a working-class readership, influenced by the "harmony of interests" ideas of Horace Greeley (also promoted in the 1860s by Isaac Buchanan, a Hamilton politician and merchant who launced Canada's first labour newspaper in 1864).

The treatise called upon Canadian workers to join the global movement for the emancipation of the working classes to defeat poverty, and social inequality. While not actually promoting the abolition of the capitalist class, he nevertheless called for laws that forced capitalists to share profits and use labour-saving machinery to enrich all through a just distribution of wealth. Such laws were required because capitalists had no interest but profit and could not be trusted to care for the working-class because the rise of capitalism had already caused great suffering among the mass of workers. Lastly, capital tended towards monopoly through competition, with big capital squeezing out little capital, impoverishing all but the biggest capitalists. Only through a system whereby wealth was shared collectively could this be stopped.

Later in 1872, Lanctôt got his revenge on Cartier. While not running against Cartier, he nevertheless played a role in organizing Cartier's defeat in the 1872 Montreal East race. After that, he moved to Hull where he again advocated for his ideas, gaining some political influence in municipal politics by having been appointed the town's lawyer. But once he re-emerged in Hull and began publishing a new local paper advocating his politics, the same conservative forces crushed him, forcing him out of his new office. Exhausted, defeated and isolated, Lanctôt retired to a farm where he died in July 1877 at age 39.

Recovering our history
While Laurier is now regarded as a great prime minister, and often ranked by historians and journalists as the greatest ever, Lanctôt is largely unknown. What you will come across is a description of a lunatic, a zealot, and a dangerous, selfish demagogue. By discrediting Lanctôt as a bizarre fringe figure and burying his role in the political movements surrounding the construction and consolidation of Confederation, the more important story of how Confederation was a project of class and nation has been buried as well. Along with Lanctôt, the history of the Institut Canadien, of Les Rouges, of Montreal's republican workers' movement, and the bubbling socialistic ideas of democratic workers' control of the economy, have all been forgotten.

Our movements today for economic transformation, for decolonization, for an overthrow of capitalism, for a democratic socialist society, have a longer, richer history that we truly appreciate. We have a complex history that strikes at the core of Confederation itself all the way back to the 1860s - and earlier. Things were never "just like that" back in the day. There was always opposition, always a political project that fought back against class and state power, against Anglophone dominance, and colonialism. But these movements were defeated at the time and their histories were buried. These defeated political projects had an alternative vision of society that was beginning to look towards mass democracy, towards political independence, towards challenging the capitalist system.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Worst Case Ontario? TA unions and tuition fees

The following piece tries to develop two observations in order to point towards a new strategy for fighting tuition fees in Ontario. This strategy is only sketched out and not developed. Hopefully this has some relevance to students in other provinces.
  1. Ontario's TA unions are losing the battle to defend contract language which keeps tuition fees down
  2. At present, Ontario's student movement has neither the organization or strategy to fight tuition fees
York & Carleton: The Two Beachheads
For the first decade of the 2000s, tuition increase protection (TIP) language secured by CUPE 3903 at York and CUPE 4600 at Carleton was rightfully seen by Ontario's Teaching Assistants as something to strive for in the collective bargaining process. In short, TIP language prevents tuition fees from rising for Teaching Assistants (who were mainly graduate students - a minority of the student body). To date, this language has only been won and defended through hard bargaining and strike action.

But in the years following the historic 3903 strike of 2000-1 (which led directly to Carleton administration conceding TIP language for CUPE 4600), TIP language was not won by other TA unions and generalized across the province. Even the end of McGuinty's tuition fee freeze in 2005 failed to generate a renewed fight for TIP language in TA bargaining.

The Carleton setback (or defeat?)
CUPE 4600 info picket, early 2014 (source)
Since the Great Recession, which has seen the Ontario Liberals tighten education spending even more, these two locals have suffered serious setbacks in TIP language. CUPE 4600 lost a strike vote in early 2009 amidst the last CUPE 3903 strike and a bitter two-month Ottawa transit strike. Fear had set in and the membership was on the ropes. TIP language was weakened significantly. Tuition fees are no longer frozen at a fixed index year, but now a rolling index set at each individual grad student's starting year at Carleton. Carleton has since front-loaded fees to this starting year to keep this index year high. This is being grieved, but the CUPE 4600 indexation language has been rendered almost entirely ineffective.

The York fight
CUPE 3903 mass meeting: March 9 2015
As for CUPE 3903, in 2013 the employer/administration decided to reinterpret the TIP language and raise tuition fees on international students by $7000. This is now in arbitration and 3903 TAs remain on strike largely because the membership is seeking a retroactive rollback of these fees and stronger TIP language. This is the case after TAs rejected an offer of freezing fees for the duration of the new contract in the absence of a total rollback and stronger TIP language. Those favouring this compromise (or concession as some called it) argued it would conserve the union's forces for the next round of bargaining. But while TAs rejected this offer, CUPE 3903 contract faculty accepted their offer, and it now remains to be seen whether or not York TAs have the strength to win the retroactive rollback and stronger TIP language. And due to the Ontario Liberal intervention in the 2008-9 CUPE 3903 strike, there is now precedent in the sector for back-to-work legislation. It is not clear to me, at least, how York TAs are going to win this fight when back-to-work legislation ensures York won't bargain fairly in a prolonged strike situation.

Either way, CUPE 3903's TIP language is now in grave danger hinges on the arbitration crap shoot and where this current strike goes.

Beyond York and Carleton? Nothing.
At this point, it is worth reconsidering the entire strategy of TIP language as a means for TAs (mostly grad students) of keeping tuition fees down so wages can climb with costs of living. The fact that such language is so rare among TA unions 15 years since the 2000-1 CUPE 3903 strike should be evidence enough that a new strategy is needed. To my knowledge, the only other local with something like TIP language is CUPE 2626 at the University of Ottawa (corrections and additions are welcome!). But we also need to address the problem of the Ontario student movement, or what is left of it.

The student movement: Organizationally split
The other campus story of this period, is the decline of a wider student movement in Ontario to fight tuition fees. There are many reasons for this. There is no united student organization in Ontario to wage a united campaign. Local student unions, which have resources and staff to organize such campaigns, are divided in their allegiances between the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. OUSA has never tried to use protest to win anything and haven't even been good on the need to freeze or lower tuition fees.

CFS-Ontario: a quick assessment of what matters
November 2009 CFS-Ontario rally at Queen's Park
CFS-Ontario has long relied on a dual strategy of lobbying and annual days of action. But this approach has stopped getting results as the protest track has become routinized, which undercuts lobbying efforts. This is not to say protests and rallies shouldn't be organized, but they don't exert power or pressure beyond persuasion unless connected with walkouts or strikes (like the CFS-coordinated defeat of income contingent loans in 1995).

CFS-Ontario has made commendable efforts at organizing activist assemblies. These have brought together several hundred students from across the province. But being based in Toronto instead of being held locally, those attending were too often student union executives routinely bogged down in administrative work and internal politics and without the time or energy to do on-the-ground organizing. To build a real base of activists, these sorts of assemblies need to be built city by city and focus on "rank-and-file" students and activists, not just student union executives.

What remains outside the provincial organizations?
Local training and organizing work like this is desperately needed at many campuses because local student unions themselves vary wildly in their priorities and politics, often shifting year to year. Affiliations to either CFS or OUSA is often a focus for right-led student unions, and sections of the student left inside and outside student union structures.

Outside of student union politics, there are no multi-campus organizations of individual students focused on fighting tuition fees. Such groups do exist here and there, from time to time, and a lot of creativity and invention is exhibited. But this work is never connected to a multi-campus organization with a long-term strategy.

Rough sketches of a new strategy
A General Assembly strike vote during
the 2012 Quebec student strike
Considering the fragmentation and paralysis of the Ontario student movement and the undermining of the TIP language beachhead, it seems clear that a new strategy is needed: one which can fight tuition fees for all students.

TA unions and student unions should be working together towards the same goals of lower tuition fees. This should be a permanent collaboration and political priority. An example of how this hasn't happened even in the best of circumstances was the 5,000-strong Queen's Park rally against tuition fee increases on November 5, 2008. Over twenty buses brought down at least a thousand undergrads from York, organized by the undergrad York Federation of Students. A day later, five thousand members of CUPE 3903 went on strike. The two moments and movements were totally disconnected, and a lot of potential social power left untapped.

February 27 2015: CUPE 3902 general meeting votes down
contract offer to go on strike
Part of a new strategy would also mean looking at largely untested tactics (in Ontario) like student walkouts (which pave the way for student strikes), and syncing up student actions with TA info pickets and labour actions. Student unions or tuition fee campaign groups could be organizing mass meetings to accept or reject tuition fee increases, and use these meetings to build a feeling of solidarity and collective consciousness while building power for walkouts and strikes.

And as much as TA unions need to organize undergrad support during bargaining and in the chance of a strike, TA unions need to show the same on-the-ground solidarity and commit to organizing efforts around a wider tuition fee battle.

We know from Quebec and around the world that only mass student strikes can win on tuition fees in this day and age. And the industrial relations route in Ontario is not working anymore: it is too sectional (dividing students and workers, dividing grads from undergrads, domestic from international), too fragile (the 4600 and 3903 setbacks) and too marginal (most TA unions don't have this language). It's time for an entirely new approach based on long-term strategy, mass participation, and the dual use of student power and workers' power.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Unions slide from unity to enmity over Tim Hudak"

Here's a huge reason why Ontario labour remains stuck and ineffective as a movement: an evolving 20-year battle at the top of the province's major unions over election strategies because there is no commitment to a political strategy that would involve serious extra-parliamentary or even workplace mobilization.

Whether campaigning openly for the NDP, or openly for Anybody-But-Hudak, or funding issue-based TV ads that lend to strategic voting, Ontario's unions have all allowed their political strategies to be narrowed and whittled down to electoralism.

Only labour's agitation for the minimum wage bucks this trend.

There are of course other issues driving these splits, but it is the political strategy of labour that has to be addressed first and foremost.

Problems of personality and territorialism will always persist but it couldn't hurt to have some new people with new ideas.

Postering etiquette 101

1. Don't poster over events that haven't happened

2. Don't poster over non-event art and political posters/statements

3. Poster over corporate bullshit

4. Keep postering to assert control over public and bogus "private" space

Friday, January 3, 2014

Debate on "Pop-up" Unions

A few articles documenting an important debate on the left over new forms of worker organization in England in the fight against privatization and contracting out at Sussex University. Also, check out Mark Bergfeld's website and writings.

New struggles, new unions? On the Pop-Up Union at Sussex University

Mark Bergfeld
Ceasefire Magazine, April 18 2013

Are "Pop-Up" unions the way forward?
Sandy Nicoll
Socialist Review, June 2013

Start with solidarity
Mark Bergfeld
Socialist Review, July 2013

The Sussex University Pop-Up Union: A Mythbuster
Mark Bergfeld
July 2013

Pop-up unions through history
Brian Parkin
August 2013

"I wouldn't tolerate the neanderthal priorities of the average student council"

If you wanna see me crash and burn in what I'm hoping will be a meaningful discussion, I've sent in the proposal below to a student politics panel at Historical Materialism 2014 in Toronto.

The title is a quote from Doug Ward, the 1966-67 Canadian Union of Students president. It was directed at the student press and student council candidates. He was criticizing campus student councils for debating and passing motions on the "contemporary problems of society" at annual CUS conventions, then returning to their campuses to focus on "yearbooks, dances, model parliaments and the budget of the outing club."

For some background on this matter, check out this statement on defederating from the Canadian Federation of Students, and my response.


“I wouldn’t tolerate the neanderthal priorities of the average student council”:
Revisiting the English Canadian campus radicalism of the late 1960s

Based upon the organizational experiments of the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) executive and independent student radicals between 1965 and 1969, questions arising from the Quebec student strike of 2012 about the present organization of the English Canadian student left and its relations to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) are critically re-examined.

The question of democracy and democratic representation within the CFS is revisited by reviewing the radicalization the Canadian Union of Students national executive after 1965 and, in the absence of direct democracy at the campus level, its inability to generate a sufficiently broad base of support capable of transforming the political priorities and culture of the English Canadian student movement amidst the tumult of the late 1960s.

The various relations and perspectives of the student left towards CFS are explored through the rise of and fall of English Canada’s numerous Students for a Democratic University (SDU) chapters. From their independent origins in 1966 and 1967, to their CUS-sponsored expansion across English Canada in 1968, the SDU experience usefully frames current debates of how the independent student left ought to relate to the CFS.

Drawing upon these two case studies of the CUS executive and SDUs between 1965 and 1969, the current English Canadian student left’s instincts to develop either general assemblies or a new student federation separate from the Canadian Federation of Students, are both flawed and destined for failure at the current conjuncture. A tentative proposal for strategic priorities and organizational principles are proposed for an independent student left organization, including historically-informed parameters for a useful, concrete debate regarding relations with the CFS.