Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Red Star Collective

Reply to the Evaluation of the Alcan Strike in Kitimat B.C.

First Published: In Struggle No. 75, November 24, 1976 and No. 76, December 9, 1976
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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In Struggle introduction to Part 1: Last September, IN STRUGGLE! published an article from two Vancouver groups, the October Study Group and the May First Collective, about the Alcan strike in Kitimat, British Columbia. This contribution, from two groups we recognize as Marxist-Leninist, seemed important to us for, IN STRUGGLE! has no organisational basis in British Columbia. It was even more important as it concerned an impressive struggle in which concrete acts of solidarity between workers of both nations took place.

Today we publish the first part of an answer to this article, produced by another Vancouver Marxist-Leninist group, the Red Star Collective, issued from the group previously called the Vancouver Study Group. The comrades in this group, by opening the debate on the concrete analysis of the trade union movement and in particular the Council of Canadian Unions (CCU), raise very important tactical questions for our movement i.e. the link between immediate economic struggles and the struggle for the party. In particular they raise the question of the Canadianization of unions as a necessary condition for the victory of the proletarian line within the Canadian trade union movement. They criticize the May First Collective and the October Study Group saying that their ultra-leftist positions are indeed rightist positions similar to those the Western Voice used to put forward.

As we stated at the Conference on the unity of Marxist-Leninists (cf IN STRUGGLE! no 73), we intend to open the pages of our newspaper and our theoretical Journal PROLETARIAN UNITY to all those individuals or groups who want to actively participate in the polemics within the Marxist-Leninist movement. Our position on the question of the link between the immediate struggles and our long term tasks can be found in the last issue (no 74). We also have the clear intention of returning to all the specific points raised by our Vancouver comrades and examining them, and we invite all those who might want to contribute to the debate to do so.

In Struggle introduction to Part 2: Today we publish the second and last part of an article recently sent to us by a Vancouver Marxist-Leninist group, the Red Star Collective. This article criticizes the evaluation of the strike of Alcan workers in Kitimat, British Columbia, evaluation made by two other Vancouver groups the October Study Group and the May First Collective. As we stated In a preceding issue, we published this evaluation because the strike of Alcan workers in Kitimat as well as the one in Arvida, Quebec, were of great importance for the Canadian proletariat.

In other respects, the fact that the publication of this evaluation has given rise to a polemic with a third Vancouver group is positive and should contribute to develop the ideological struggle on very important tactical questions throughout Canada. As for us, we will intervene in this polemic more directly In the next issue of our paper.

* * *

In the article on the Kitimat strike in IN STRUGGLE!, issues 69 and 70 by the October Study Group (OSG) and the May 1st Collective (MFC), the authors fail to show any grasp of the link between the primitive embryonic level of class struggle and the developed political level of struggle, class against class. They devote almost the entire article to presenting a trade union analysis, dressing it up here and there with inferences that the struggle had revolutionary content. Then when we arrive at the end of the article we are told that workers’ militancy is not enough. In form reminiscent of the Western Voice [1], the real solution is presented: you guessed it, SOCIALISM. Of course this is put more clearly than the Western Voice ever did – defeat of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, proletarian party, etc., etc. The words are bolder but the failure to do any real analysis remains. While we can agree with their conclusion, we have to say that they have separated the immediate struggles from the struggle for socialism, shown no understanding of the nature of trade unions and thrown virtually the entire working class into the enemy camp. This “left” posturing, which has the effect of isolating Marxism-Leninism from the masses and their struggles, is in essence rightism.

In concentrating on the economic struggle, the authors talk as if the Kitimat strike were a challenge to the rule of the bourgeoisie. They talk about the bourgeoisie being “(thrown) into a panic” as if they did not have the apparatus to deal with such manifestations by the workers. The implication of the continual reference to the efforts of “the labor bosses who wish to contain and isolate the struggles of the workers” is that it is through the expansion of struggles such as the one in Kitimat that the bourgeoisie will be defeated. The missing ingredient in these good doctors’ prescription is the question of raising the political consciousness of the workers. Nowhere is this even mentioned. The point is that it is through the day-to-day struggle and the efforts by conscious elements (communists) to draw the lessons of this struggle that political consciousness is developed. Economic struggle is not revolutionary struggle. Neither is political consciousness developed separate from the real struggles of the working class.

The authors point to the militancy of Kent Rowley and some of the local leadership of CASAW. They then state that this is insufficient and assert that these people (and other CCU leaders) are “opportunists within the working class movement”. They go so far as to use the words “class traitors”. What makes them this? It is their failure to call for a proletarian party to lead the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Has this become the criterion for who is and who is not a traitor within the working class? If so, then at least 99.9% of the working class are traitors.

It is possible and necessary to distinguish between real bourgeois agents on the one hand and the non-communist working class on the other. The top leadership of the CLC and others such as Ed Lawson have shown themselves to be at least agents of the bourgeoisie if not a section of it. ’Social corporatism’, constant opposition to militance, defense of bourgeois legality – the list is long and well-known. Is it accurate to throw every non-communist into their camp?

Let’s start with Kent Rowley. He is not a communist. He does not claim to be. In fact he insists he is not. His membership in the Communist Party of Canada (CP), which he left many years ago, says nothing of what he should know about Marxism-Leninism. The CP’s idea of a good cadre was a good, trade union leader. There was virtually no training in revolutionary theory in the CP. Rowley’s politics are basically unchanged now from what they were when he was a party member. But, he is honest, he is militant, he has fought long and hard and has led great battles in the economic sphere against the bourgeoisie. He has not acted to blunt the struggles of the working class. Incidently, as Secretary-Treasurer of the CCU he earns about $6.00 per hour. He is responsible to the National Executive Board of the CCU, a body made up in majority of rank and file workers. To claim that he is another Joe Morris is ridiculous.

What of the leadership of CASAW? They are not communists. They are plant workers, militants, many with social democratic illusions. They made many mistakes in the strike. They did not have a clear cut strategy. They were naive. In the final analysis they were forced to back down in front of the onslaught of the state. Does this make them betrayers, traitors? We think not. Were the members of CASAW who voted to return to work, or for that matter, the members who voted to stay out but failed to call for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist party traitors? We think not.

Minimizing the nature of the collaboration of the likes of Joe Morris, Grace Hartman, Dennis McDermott et all by lumping them in with the entire non-communist working class has the effect of reducing the vigilance of the workers against these traitors.

What of the rest of the CCU leadership? In the overwhelming majority they are in-plant workers. The few full-timers make a worker’s wage. They are, for the most part, not communists. Some, in spite of the efforts of some members, of the Marxist-Leninist movement to push them into the camp of the bourgeoisie, are actually being won to sympathy with communist ideas. In their zeal to demarcate the authors turn friends into enemies.

What of the question of the principles on which the CCU is founded? What of the militance and democracy that the OSG and the MFC are quick to deride? The CCU is a tactic. It is looked upon as such by its leadership. Its aim is not organizational hegemony – to replace the CLC with itself. Its purpose is to further the goal of building a united, national trade union movement based on the principles of rank and file control, militance and democracy. The existence of such a movement will have revolutionary significance whether or not its leaders are communists or the organizations of the workers cannot remain neutral in the revolutionary struggle? They will side either with the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. The party will wage an ideological struggle in the class to win it to the revolutionary cause. Victory in this struggle should be reflected in the mass organizations of the class. But, so long as the union movement is controlled outside the country this will not happen. The Canadian party will not have the means to win the unions as organizations to the side of the proletariat so long as 90% of their membership and their whole control apparatus is in a foreign country. A national union movement will provide a battlefield on which it will be possible for the proletarian line to win out organizationally as well as ideologically. This does not mean that we are saying that the entire union movement must be Canadian before any part of it can be won to the proletarian cause, only that we cannot be entirely successful in the latter unless we take up the former as well.

There are also secondary factors to note about the CCU which differentiates it from the CLC. There are no anti-communist clauses. There is no affiliation to the NDP. While many of the leaders and members have social democratic illusions, the NDP is attacked for its anti-labour actions as much as the other bourgeois parties. Here in BC, the CCU did not conveniently forget the NDP’s back-to-work legislation as did the BC Fed when election time rolled around. The line that the CCU has taken on the wage controls differs entirely from that of the CLC. They took a clear position the week the controls were declared. The CCU National Executive called for a conference of all union centrals in Canada to plan united action, including a general strike, to defeat the controls. No bull about ’social corporatism”. No ’day of protest’. The CCU recognized that it was in no position to call a general strike on its own. Shall a central with a scattered national membership of less than 30,000 shut down the country? Now that the CLC is finally taking some action, the CCU is giving it full support, while not implicating itself in the CLC’s ’social corporatism’.

Let us return to the Kitimat strike itself. In 1921 the Comintern pointed out that, “our agitational activity should not lay itself bare to the accusation of stirring up and inciting the workers to nonsensical strikes and other inconsiderate actions” (Principles of Party Organization, Pg 18)[2] We agree. It is the worst sort of tailism. a return to the politics of the Western Voice, to glorify every strike by the workers. This is precisely what the authors spend almost the entire article doing. When workers decide to take strike action, and the Kitimat strike is certainly no exception, all trade unionists should do everything in their power to help the strike succeed. Communists should do not only this, but should also, where they have the capacity, give leadership in the strike, provide analysis of the specific and general situations, sum up the experience and link the struggle to the struggle for socialism. This does not mean that you necessarily agree that the strike should have been called, with the purpose of the strike or with the way it is being conducted.

The leaders and members of CASAW were naive to say the least. The strike began spontaneously and then developed into a fight to reopen the contract. This, it became clear, was an unwinnable demand. Massive support from the trade union movement was expected to tip the scale in favour of the union. Thus requests for support were directed at all the unions in BC. There was no specific request to the CCU for the establishment of a support committee or any joint action. Kitimat would be the spark that would result in massive walkouts across the province, maybe even the country. People were having visions of a national general strike. Dreams! Last year the IWA leadership sabotaged the strike by the PPWC and the CPU[3]. Just weeks before the Alcan strike the Steelworkers had cudgelled their members into crossing CAI-MAW (Canadian Association of Industrial Mechanical and Allied Workers Editor’s note)picket lines. The response of the BC Fed affiliates was entirely predictable – virtually nothing.

What should the CCU have done that it did not to in the Alcan situation? Should it have called a general strike for BC? Knowing that the BC Fed would never have supported it, such an action would neither have defeated the wage controls nor persuaded Alcan management to give in to the strikers’ demands. Should it have set up a support committee? CCU affiliates are almost constantly involved in strikes – both legal and illegal. At the time of the Alcan strike CAIMAW had been fighting two major battles against Noranda owned mines for months. Should a support committee have been set up for the CAIMAW strike? PPWC locals have taken on the forest companies in many hard and principled struggles over the years. Should a support committee be set up each time? The fact is that the CCU has an enviable record of assisting the strikes of affiliates and non-affiliates alike. No support committee is required to mobilize this support – it is given as a matter of course. If there had been any possibility CLC unions in support then a committee would have been appropriate – but there was not. The CCU did what it could. Kent Rowley and others went to Kitimat to assist and advise the strikers. The strike was widely publicised among CCU affiliates. Money was sent...

Given the strong position taken by the CCU against the wage controls and the strategy that the CCU had defined for fighting them, that is mobilization of as large a section as possible of the working class in a united struggle against the controls, the CCU looked upon action by workers that challenged the controls as positive. Had there been any potential for the Kitimat strike to be the catalyst that would stir the CLC into mobilizing a general strike, the CCU would have done everything it could to promote this.

What of the practice of the OSG and the MFC in the Kitimat strike? It is amazing that in a rather lengthy article no space is found to present any self-criticism. The Comintern document referred to earlier also includes the caution that, “it is easy, but not fruitful, to keep on preaching the general principles of Communism and then fall into the negative attitude of commonplace syndicalism when faced with concrete questions”. (Ibid, Pg 18) In the case of the OSG they find themselves able to continue preaching while their actual practice was strictly trade unionist – tailism plain and simple.

At the informal request of friends in the Kitimat area some members of the OSG and others gathered together a motley crew including social democrats, revisionists. Trotskyists and neo-revisionists [4]. The OSG members withdrew from the support committee after its first meeting. Unfortunately, the committee they helped create continued and was able to use the importance of the strike and the prestige of its leader to give itself some measure of influence and respectability. The OSG never has offered, to our knowledge, any self-criticism of their role in the committee or the nature and effect of their withdrawal. Neither have they offered any criticism of the work of the committee.

The support committee began its work within days of the beginning of the strike. There had been no request from the union for such an effort. There are two kinds of legitimate support for a strike. Trade unionists come to the support of the strikers to do whatever they can to help win the strike. Marxist-Leninists intervene to draw the lessons of the strike while also doing what they can to aid the struggle. The fact that some of the members of this support group happened to be union members and that there were a few Marxist-Leninists interspersed among the opportunists did not give it any legitimacy in terms of either trade union or Marxist-Leninist aims.

What was the purpose of the Support Group?: To tail behind the strike. To raise strike support money for a strike that was then only a couple of days old and for a union that had lots of money in the bank. At the time of the Alcan strike the Upholsterers union had been on strike at Skyway Luggage for months to improve a contract that was barely over the minimum wage. The strikers were receiving no strike pay from their union and very little support of any kind. It didn’t occur to the do-gooders of the Support Group that the Skyway Luggage strikers really needed financial help while the Alcan striker did not until Peter Burton, one of the strike leaders, pointed this out at the support meeting.

To publicize the strike and hold support meetings. The aforementioned support meeting was chaired by Jim McFarland. ex-President of the BC Teachers Federation and well-known neo-revisionist. The motions put forward at the meeting by the committee tailed behind the CLC. It took an amendment from the. floor to make it clear that the meeting was not endorsing the CLC’s concept of ’social corporatism’.

All this is ignored in the article. In fact, by implication. CAIMAW (Canadian Association of Industrial Mechanical and Allied Workers, Editor’s note) is criticised for not undertaking to do graph one [MIA note: as in original] on page 7 of IN STRUGGLE! no 70 is a reference to an official representative of the CCU. who is also a member of our collective, who went to the initial support group meeting and said that the Kitimat strikers were not in need of the type of ’support’ being offered. She pointed out that it is the internal factors that are key to the resolution of any contradiction, that it would be the strength of the CASAW (Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers Editor’s note) workers themselves that would determine whether they would win the strike. Not that outside support is of no use, but that something such as the Alcan Support Group could not be considered as vital to winning or as something that should have priority on people’s time.Putting the strike into perspective, she suggested that if they were determined to do strike support work they should turn their attention to the Skyway Luggage strike. As has been mentioned these strikes were in extremely bad financial straits. They were having difficulty in even maintaining tiieir picket line.

As for the MFC, our understanding is that they took no part in any activity related to the Alcan strike. In other words, they make all kinds of demands on the trade union leaders to carry out communist agitation and propaganda while not doing so themselves. We are not saying that they could have. Vancouver Marxist-Leninists, including ourselves, were in no position to intervene in a communist way in the strike. One of the purposes of the present struggle within the Marxist-Leninist movement is to raise our ideological, political and organizational level to where we could be able to make such interventions. What we are critising is the MFC’s expectations of what the trade union movement is supposed to do.

The authors give abstract support to the necessity of a party. This is simply stated as if it were self-evident. No attempt is made to show that the party is the organized conscious vanguard of the class; that the struggle to create a genuine, communist party is linked intrinsically to the class struggle in all its manifestation give to communists the job of becoming the officers of trade unions. They state, “as long as the trade union centres are headed by class traitors who peddle their bourgeois ideas of collaboration and capitulation, workers’ struggles will be undermined”. It has already been seen that, for the authors, anyone who is not a communist is a class traitor. By posing communist organizational leadership as sufficient, they liquidate the real ideological struggle against the bourgeois line in the trade union movement.

Two final points. On top of their deep analysis of the trade unions, the authors offer us some political economy as well. We are offered a description of Alcan as a “ferocious Canadian monopoly”. Is it not known that Alcan was set up by the Mellon family to avoid anti-trust action against their other giant aluminum company, Alcoa and that this American family still retains its control?

The authors should be expected to take full responsibility for their article.

However, there can be only two alternatives as to why IN STRUGGLE! chose to print their effort. Either they agree with it, in which case their understanding of the trade union question suffers from the same “leftism” as that of OSG and MFC or, alternatively, they did no investigation of the actual situation, in which case they would be advised not to accept such offerings on faith in the future.

Red Star Collective
(formerly the Vancouver Study Group) September/76


[1] The Western Voice was an economist newspaper that defined itself as having ’anti-imperialist, class struggle’ politics. In article after article, factual reports were given about various struggles by workers and other ’progressive’ sections of the populace. Articles often included a final section that stated that the real solution is, of course, socialism.

[2] Principles of Party Organization, Thesis on the Organization and Structure of the Communist Parties, adopted at the third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, Mass Publications Calcutta edition.

[3] When the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada (PPWC) which is affiliated to the CCU and the Canadian Paperworkers Union (CPU) which is an affiliate of the CLC went ont on strike against the forest companies in BC last fall the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) another CLC affiliate did everything it could to undermine the strike. After dropping ont of the joint negotiations and after refusing to join the strike, the IWA leadership called on their members to cross the pulp unions’ picket lines. IWA newspapers were full of statements saying the strike was “stupid”, was bound to lose, and that the companies couldn’t possibly meet their demands. One IWA leader has admitted that they had prior knowledge that wage controls would be initiated. The IWA signed an agreement at the eleventh hour but withheld their knowledge even from the CPU.

[4] The Socialist Organizing Committee (SOC) and its front group Workers Against Wage Controls became the leading force in the Alcan Support Committee. The SOC is a neo-revisionist group based largely among BC teachers and led by Jim McFarlane. The activities of the Alcan Support Committee merged with that of SOC, particularly through the support meeting that was organized.