The View from Ontario: How Labor Can Rebuild the Anti-Globalization Movement

[This article appeared in the Viewpoint column]

In March-May Emily LaBarbera-Twarog, David Pratt,Tom Hansen and Jason Wallach, Russ Davis, Paul Bigman, Lynne Dodson, Mary Ann Schroeder, and Lonnie Nelson, and Judy Ancel debated in our pages how the global justice (or “anti-globalization”) movement and the labor movement could work together. In the United States, after the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, relations seemed to sour. In Canada, labor has been more involved. Herman Rosenfeld, a staffer for the Canadian Auto Workers, looks at the situation in Ontario.

The North American anti-globalization movement hit a terrible setback in the wake of the September 11 terrorist bombings. Recent protests have been modest and labor’s presence minimal. Why has labor distanced itself from the movement?

Labor people had always taken issue with the anarchist wing of the anti-globalization movement over “diversity of tactics.” They argued that it allowed demonstrations to be hijacked by those most committed to violent or inappropriate tactics. If the principal goals of the movement are to win over and mobilize large numbers of working people, then the most militant tactics aren’t necessarily those that will have the most profound effects.

September 11 then made many labor leaders more reluctant to get involved in a movement that could tolerate violence. On one level, this sounds like good sense. On the other hand, it is all too easy to write off creative and militant protest, in order to avoid violent or inappropriate acts of a small minority.

Post-September 11, people were also scared away by so-called anti-terrorist laws and the ferocious and unwarranted police repression of protests throughout Canada.

DIFFERENT STYLES

There were always lingering differences between the ways the labor movement and the anti-globalization movement organized. Labor saw consensus decision-making-in which everyone in the room must agree, rather than taking votes-as cumbersome and prone to demagogy, while many in the movement saw labor’s way of doing things as undemocratic and unable to build on the strengths of the movement’s diversity.

In addition, many workers and their unions have always been ambivalent about trade issues. In certain sectors, increasing exports help employment. This has created an ongoing uncertainty about how to talk about breaking down any barriers to trade.

Whatever the reasons, the union establishment, including many progressive leaders, are reluctant to kick-start this now-stalled movement. They aren’t opposed to the development of activism around anti-globalization within their ranks, but they are doing very little to encourage or develop it.

POSITIVE CONTRIBUTIONS

Canadian unions have, of course, made some positive contributions to the anti-globalization movement. The Canadian Auto Workers freed up organizers to build a cross-country mobilization/educational effort around the protests that happened at the Organization of American States meeting in Windsor in 2000 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) Summit in Quebec City in 2001.

These efforts alerted members to the role of institutions such as the World Trade Organization. They showed the links between free trade and threats to job security, social programs, and democratic rights in Canada and in developing countries.

In Quebec City, large contingents from CUPE (public employees), the Steelworkers, and the CAW marched with the local Quebec labor movement and community and anti-globalization activists. Some bitterness was created by the refusal of the official labor contingent to organize a solidarity action in support of the young protestors who were besieging “the wall”-the fence separating demonstrators from the FTAA meeting.

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Yet after the demonstration, people returned to their home communities committed to the anti-globalization struggle.

In many ways, that was the high point of labor’s commitment to this movement. With all of its flaws, it held the promise of an alliance between organized working people and the young and creative protesters.

THEY REMEMBER

Unions and their members continue to bear the brunt of attacks associated with globalization-corporate downsizing, cuts to social programs, deregulation and privatization of hydroelectric power and water, and major changes to government’s role in the economy.

Labor has the potential to give the anti-globalization movement a new thrust forward-and this is no pie-in-the sky fantasy. It was only six years ago that a number of unions-CAW, CUPE, CUPW (postal workers), and others-put together an incredible array of forces to challenge the Conservative Ontario government of Mike Harris, during the Ontario Days of Action.

Worker activists convinced thousands of their co-workers to pull off a series of one-day general strikes, city by city. This potential continues to live in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of activists who organized these political strikes. They could become the engine of a reinvigorated anti-globalization movement.

Some union activists have begun to develop projects that have links to the organizations that make up the anti-globalization forces. Efforts in this direction are small and unevenly spread out across unions, but they often have support within union staff and elected leadership. In just about all of them, activists have concentrated on talking to co-workers about their ideas. They include:

• Organizations like the “Teamsters and Turtles” alliance, which brings together activists from labor, environmental groups, and social justice movements.

• A Trade Unionists Against the War Network that published a widely distributed pamphlet answering members’ questions and concerns about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and the Canadian support for it.

• Flying squads, where rank and file workers support other workers in struggle and protect immigrants and the homeless.

• In Woodstock and Windsor, workers from different unions have developed progressive/labor community newspapers and coalitions around a number issues, but especially fighting globalization.

• A new generation of anti-capitalist groups inside the labor movement is organizing educationals and strategic discussions about how to build the anti-globalization movement inside labor institutions and how to talk to co-workers about the issue.

Hopefully these efforts of progressives and labor activists will inspire union leaders to use their resources to educate and mobilize their members and organize a new chapter in the life of the anti-globalization movement.