Labour and Sovereignty: Speech at the Parkland Conference November 15, 2003.
Date: Monday, December 01 2003
The following speech was presented by Richard Harding as part of the Labour: International Solidarity or Popular Sovereignty panel, Saturday, Nov. 15 at the Parkland Institute conference "Challenging Empire."
Harold Innis stated that “with imperfect competition between concepts the University is essentially an ivory tower in which courage can be mustered to attack any concept which threatens to become a monopoly.” The theme of this year’s Parkland conference “Resisting Empire” is a glaring example of such courage at work. The monopolistic concept is that of the U.S. Empire the purpose of which, in the words of Andrew Bacevich in his work “American Empire”, “is to preserve and where both feasible and conducive to U.S. interests, to expand an American Imperium. Central to this strategy is a commitment to global openness-removing barriers that inhibit the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people. Its ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.” In the face of this, the Ivory tower of the Canadian university will need ramparts manned by working people, imbued with a sense of popular sovereignty and international solidarity, if we hope, as a collective, to turn back the tide of an Empire which threatens to engulf us all in its madness.
I come from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. A place I prefer to call “the front line”. From my door step, every day on my way to my employment at Ford Motor Company, I can see the three towers of the GM building across the Detroit River which marks the border between Canada and the U.S. My city, I am told, lives and breaths by the auto-industry, which locally employs approximately 15,000 CAW members, and provides work, directly or indirectly, for thousands of unorganized and organized non- CAW workers. As a working Canadian, I understand that to be dependent on American capital (or any private capital for that matter) and markets for our livelihood is to be severely restricted in a struggle for popular sovereignty in Canada.
However, a deeper analysis, and a break with the defeatism of the “sovereignty must be sacrificed to economic imperatives” argument, is in order. This message is often promoted and reinforced by the agents of empire such as:
-big business media, e.g. Southam
-“Canadian” capitalists, in the Council of Chief Executives,
- continentalist think tanks, like the Fraser and CD Howe institutes with their “Border Papers”.
-“Deep-integration” advocates in Canadian universities, for example the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies
- and what Jim Laxer refers to as “a fifth column” occupying the official opposition seats in Ottawa (and quite a few government benches).
To try to define popular sovereignty is to engage in such an analysis. Some attempts to define this concept have been made; from “involvement of all people in the affairs of their nation” to the Canadian Dimension Editorial Collective’s suggestion to “confront” the Canadian state and demand “new institutions for popular democratic control of the economy, resource development and social expenditures.” This, in my view is an appropriate starting point for working Canadians in general, and the Canadian labour movement in particular.
Confronting the Canadian state on issues of national sovereignty is nothing new to the labour movement. The fight against the original free trade agreement in the late 1980s and the NAFTA in the early 1990s saw labour pit itself against the continentalist agenda. In that tradition, in recent times the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Council of Canadians have combined forces to attack the constitutionality of the NAFTA in Canadian courts. This October saw a conference in Toronto organized by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and York University which brought academics together to discuss challenging “deep integration” with the U.S. I am proud to say that my union, the CAW, was one of the sponsors of this event, and I was happy to see that economist Jim Stanford was there to contribute.
However, Canadian courts and the meeting rooms of York University are far from the factory floor, the construction site, the local union hall, and all of the places of employment and congregation of Canadian workers. While the efforts initiated by our national labour leaders are laudable, they simply are not resonating strongly (at least on my stretch of the front line) with the broader working class. A new strategy is needed to confront the Canadian state, and room must be created within the house of labour for this work to begin.
With this in mind, in Windsor a group of workers, including myself, have been engaged in a campaign of popular education. The Scoop newspaper, founded in 2001, is a monthly publication which stresses Canadian working class sovereignty over North American integration as a principle theme. It has found a large following among workers inside and outside the auto plants, and one of its founders has won a spot on city council in the recent municipal elections. The local university radio station has also been enlisted on a weekly basis to produce programming from the same perspective.
So far these initiatives have received warm welcome by the leadership of labour in the community. The real test will be in the coming year when an attempt is made to generate discourse on socialism and Canada’s sovereignty within the political education committees which have been traditionally the stomping ground of the New Democratic Party. Past experiences of Canadian socialists pushing sovereignty within the NDP and the labour movement are not encouraging. An example was the Waffle movement for an independent socialist Canada of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, an exercise in popular sovereignty at the University of Windsor in the form of a meeting between the young thinkers of the Waffle and sympathetic auto workers, to discuss the now defunct auto-pact and the option of a nationalised Canadian auto industry contributed to the decision by nervous labour leaders and the party establishment to kick the Waffle out of the NDP. At that time the CAW, described by Waffle co-founder Mel Watkins, as “a strongly nationalist union” in a speech at the University three decades later, did not exist. Today, this union, an expression of the self determination of Canada’s working class, will be pivotal in the struggle against the Empire.
The broader Canadian labour movement is also essential to any project for popular sovereignty in Canada. Every one of its union halls must become a centre for resistance to the Empire and the colonial Canadian state. The vigour displayed at the bargaining table will be of little effect in fighting off the concessions demanded by the Empire’s continentalist and global capitalists if Canadian workers are not mobilized with a sense of, and confidence in, their crucial role in protecting and enhancing Canada’s ability to set its own standards. A coordinated effort aimed at popular education forums including film screenings on world events, and presentations by members of the academic community including graduate and undergraduate students should become standard occurances in union halls. Canadian workers have little direction to information from a left perspective; their voting habits and political attitudes, in many cases, reflect this situation. In short, our Canadian labour movement must develop a new culture of popular education and democracy (not to mention resistance) which will, in the words of Antonio Gramsci on the Popular University in Italy in 1916, “show concretely that it is possible to do better and gather a public round a cultural heat source….”
Sam Gindin, CAW former advisor to Bob White and Buzz Hargrove, and a member of the Socialist Project, has argued that:
"the issue therefore, doesn’t lie so much in pointing out that something is wrong, but in developing a confidence to do something about it, developing an understanding of what that entails, and developing the organizational commitment to go ahead and do it."
This suggestion, in my view, points to creating new institutions as a pillar in a popular sovereignty project and creates space to inject the crucial element of internationalism; thus I would like to draw your attention to an example in the Bolivarian Republic in Venezuela.
While living in poverty despite the vast natural wealth of their country (mainly in the form of oil), a majority of Venezuelans elected a left-nationalist government in 1998. Since this time a new constitution has been written and given popular assent by a referendum in 1999. This constitution declares that “sovereignty resides untransferable in the people…” and “the organs of the State emanate from and are subject to the sovereignty of the people.” The Bolivarian constitution goes on to declare that “every person has the right to adequate, safe and comfortable, hygienic housing, with appropriate essential basic services…” a promise the Bolivarian state is working hard to make good on by providing funds and land grants to those who live in slums. Health is declared a “fundamental social right and the responsibility of the state…” and Cuban doctors have been brought into the country to ensure that this right is upheld, even if upper class physicians refuse to provide care for the poor. Hours of work are “not to exceed eight hours per day or 44 hours per week.” Night work “shall not exceed seven hours per day or 35 hours per week.” A commitment to the further reduction of work hours is also included “to make better use of free time for the benefit of the physical, spiritual and cultural development of workers.” Workers are also guaranteed the right to “without authorization in advance…freely establish… union organizations as they may deem appropriate….” The rights of women and aboriginal peoples are set out in no uncertain terms. No foreign troops are allowed bases on Venezuelan soil, and the vast oil wealth of the country is now devoted to supporting social programs instead of lining the pockets of the elite. In April 2002, this elite, backed by their U.S. allies, attempted to oust the Chavez government. In a further display of popular sovereignty, the vast majority of Venezuelans took to the streets to demand its return. In less than four days, with the help of loyal soldiers, Chavez was back.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the modern day Family Compact which inhabits all levels of Canadian government, not to mention the will of the American government. Canadians have seen their country’s resources sold without conscience to maintain an imperial war machine deployed around the globe able to project massive force at a moment’s notice (while social programs suffer). Canadian workers have experienced attacks on labour rights, such as the introduction of a sixty hour work week in Ontario, and legislation making it difficult to organize trade unions in their workplaces. Popular sovereignty in Canada can become a reality if Canadian workers are prepared to do as the Venezuelan majority has done: gain control of our country, its natural resource and human potential regardless of the wishes of the local elite and the U.S. Empire. In this spirit Canadian labour can lead by openly recognizing movements such as that in Venezuela, building concrete links with them,exchanging strategies, and challenging the Canadian state when it stands by and does nothing, or assists the attackers.
I am under no illusions about the Labour Movement or the Canadian Left in general. To quote Jim Laxer again “the political Right is streets ahead of the left in calculating that the great issue of our time is Canadian Sovereignty”; many on the left, inside and outside of labour, still prefer to banter about “nationalism versus internationalism”. Recently, socialist scholar Leo Panitch was grilled by a group of Marxists in Canada over his statement that he is “a left-nationalist, and an international socialist.” He may have made this statement in jest, however, I identify with it; to quote Albert Camus, “This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. And I believe she is decidedly worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love.” Why shouldn’t strong feelings for our home and its well being translate into solidarity with others fighting to defend theirs? As for “Canadian Imperialism”, I leave that to the think tanks, corporations, and the rest of the fifth column mentioned above.
I close with a warning to the Canadian labour movement and the broader left in the words of a Peloponnesian ambassador trying to convince others of the threat of Athenian imperialists in 432 B.C.
"Think of this too: while you are hanging back, they never hesitate; while you stay at home, they are always abroad; for they think that the farther they go the more they will get, while you think any movement may endanger what you have already. If they win a victory they follow it up at once, and if they suffer a defeat, they scarcely fall back at all…In a word, they are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so. That is the character of the city you face."
With this in mind, the establishment of a transformed Canadian state (as mentioned by others in the Canadian Left), rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty, and supportive of that principle abroad, must be the main political pre-occupation of the Labour Movement in Canada and the broader Canadian Left if we are to be effective in world-wide struggle against the Empire.
Richard Harding works as a Construction/Maintenance Electrician at the Ford Motor Company in the Windsor Casting Plant. He is an active member of his union, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 200 and sits on the Political Education and Human Rights Committees.