First Published: In Struggle! No. 282, March 9, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Have you ever talked with a trade unionist from IN STRUGGLE! about his or her political work? If you have, he or she probably began the conversation by saying that there was never much time to think about, read or even discuss the work of communists in the labour movement. Not much time and not many opportunities. But he or she will then go on to talk about this work for hours and hours, with many details and often very subtle analyses. It is very interesting and you learn a lot.
Imagine what it could be like’ if activists from all over Canada got together for a day to discuss their work as communists in the Canada labour movement. Imagine what might be said and discussed if you brought together in the same room the men and women who for years have been working week in, week out to defend positions like the need for a general strike against wage controls or unity with independent unions; who spoke out for spoiling your ballot in the referendum, in the face of a strong movement for a critical YES position; who defended women’s rights despite chauvinistic jokes and heckling; or who braved the ire of the entire trade-union establishment in fighting for trade union democracy. It would probably be an interesting and enriching experience.
It would he useful, first of all, for the activists who would at last have an opportunity to discuss their work, to speak out about things they’ve been thinking over for a long time and to explain to others what they have learned through their practice about communist work in unions.
It would also be useful for the Organization IN STRUGGLE!, which is critically reviewing and challenging its Programme as part of the preparation for its 4th Congress. If we are to be at all materialist in our preparation, we have to systematically draw the lessons from our work. What simpler and more interesting way of doing this than consulting those who have confronted the Programme with the reality of class struggle in Canada?
There are three main reasons why we – the national journalist covering the labour movement and the person in charge of union work on the Agitation Commission – decided to organize a semi-public conference to sum up IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement.
– We are convinced that the people who intervened in the past or are intervening now in the labour movement are the ones best able to put our tactic of penetration “on trial”. There is a lot to be said and the work of summing up our experience has barely begun. We may as well start off on the right foot!
– We are convinced that we have to break with the present situation in which each individual tends to try to sum up IN STRUGGLE!’s work on his or her own, to the best of their ability and within the limits of what they as an individual know. This work has to be done in an organized way so that we can deal correctly with the political questions raised by the defence of the Programme for the proletarian revolution in Canada within the labour movement.
– We are convinced that we have to establish the conditions that will allow the men and women who have built IN STRUGGLE! to be fully involved in the debates now going on in preparation for the 4th Congress. We must enable them to draw on their political experience to put our Programme on trial.
It may look like a lot to do, it is, but it is vital that this work be done. We do not, however, want to try and sum up IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement once and for all in one day of discussion. Our goals are more modest. What we want to do is begin this summation, together with those who were most active in this work. At the end of the day, we will decide how the work of summing up this experience should be pursued. Throughout the day, we will try to maintain a very simple and flexible approach.
The day will begin with some personal testimonies from members active in their unions. What we want is to hear from the men and women who have been or are still associated with IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement. In this way we can begin the debate on the basis of the lessons we draw from our political work. We will undoubtedly have lots to go on in taking up the political questions in the workshops.
The topics we propose for the workshops are:
The goal here is to clear up some of the ambiguity that persists in how we understand the working class movement’s capacity to fight back against the crisis measures. Some people are convinced that the current economic crisis leads to increased combativity on the part of workers. For proof, they point to the 100,000 people who demonstrated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on November 21.
Others argue that the working-class movement is at present largely in retreat, despite certain events or moments of mass mobilization. They insist that we cannot simply equate economic crisis and working class mobilization.
The question we are asking, in other words, is this: is the working-class movement on the rise or on the ebb today? As the economic crisis worsens, is the Canadian proletariat on the offensive or the defensive? Is the bourgeoisie taking back the gains we made, one after the other, without our being able to stop it?
This questions cannot be dealt with without raising another thorny problem: the role of social democracy in the working-class movement. Is it because labour leaders impose the path of compromise instead of revolution on workers? Is it because workers are still convinced that making concessions to the bourgeoisie in time of crisis is better than losing everything? There is surely a lot to discuss here, at a time when the bourgeoisie is talking practically non-stop about cutbacks and wage freezes.
In summing up our work in the labour movement, we cannot avoid the question of the struggle against women’s oppression. After all, women constitute a majority of members in a number of sectors and federations.
Some will say that we don’t have much to say, for we contented ourselves with recognizing and defending women’s economic demands, without really fighting against their oppression. Others will say that we did the best we could, given the situation. All the more reason to discuss the question. We can try to understand this screw-up, that failure to act or this success and then modify the way we work in future accordingly.
To help the debate along, we could examine the work done in the various women’s action committees. We can question what we wanted and what we did, ourselves, to help defeat chauvinism and enable women to play an active role in the labour movement and struggles.
Did we abandon the struggle against women’s oppression in favour of the more important struggle for the rights of the working class as a whole, such as COLA clauses, the right to strike, the right to organize, etc.? If the answer is yes, was this a correct choice? Did it really take account correctly of what the crisis obliged the labour movement to do?
Two comments on this topic: first, we have no intention of replacing or competing with the evaluation being done by the women of our intervention in the labour movement on the women’s question. On the contrary, we think the two discussions will complete and complement each other. Our discussion can be a starting point.
Second: we do not think men and women from the public or semi-public sectors are the only ones with something to say on this subject. We think workers in the private sector have a lot to say too. What about the women’s struggle at CN? the strike at Kenworth to defend the equal pay demands of seven women? the three women fired at Pratt and Whitney? the industrial women workers, at Fleck, for instance? We have to reflect on the attitude communists should take at a time when the bourgeoisie is trying to shift much of the burden of the crisis onto women, and a time when chauvinism is alive and very well indeed.
We have been faced with this question ever since the beginning of IN STRUGGLE!, and it will undoubtedly remain a major concern for revolutionaries for a long time.
For IN STRUGGLE! and its members, this involved the fight against economism, followed by the fight against wage controls in its different shapes and forms. Then there was participation in many important struggles – side by side with various political campaigns waged within the labour movement, climaxed by the “Dump McDermott” campaign.
This problem was crystallized in our work in the various bodies of the labour movement. Does communist work consist in taking up workers’ demands and ensuring that they are shared by the movement as a whole and that the right methods are used to win them? Or should we invest our energies in educating workers about the issues at stake in the struggles they wage and the importance of waging the battle in a political perspective?
This is how we always saw the problem. It was a question of whether we intervened in the labour movement to build the party or to defend workers’ immediate interests. Its perhaps a loaded question, but it is a central one in the search for a socialist alternative.
To deal with this topic correctly, we have to dissect our tactics for penetrating and intervening in the labour movement. Political issues were central in those tactics. As members active in the labour movement, we have to ask ourselves how we defended this tactic and especially how we experienced this work. Think, for example, of our tactic of offering the newspaper incessantly at factory doors, to be met with refusals and sarcasm – and in the case of women distributors, sexist and chauvinist remarks. Or think, for example. of our stubborn insistence on taking up the big political questions with a view to demarcating from social democrats, revisionists and everyone who didn’t agree with our point of view.
We can also ask ourselves whether the Programme was in fact “as it should be, a guide for the immediate and long term action of the working class.” as the presentation says. Or has the reality of the class struggle and our own collective experience gradually and subtly led us to shelve our statements of principle?
These are the main topics we suggest. As well, it will be quite in order throughout to make reference to the issue of control by workers over their own political or mass organization. Other possible topics of debate include questions related to work with progressive forces, the democratization and Canadianization of unions and even the role played by the unions within the working-class movement (of coops, community groups. immigrant rights associations, etc.) as a whole. We will decide at the beginning of each workshop the questions we want to take up, and in what order.
We will report back to you on the debate, which we hope will be lively and interesting. We want those who have been the main artisans of IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement to play an integral part in preparations for the 4th Congress.
See you soon,
Person in charge of work in unions,