Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Support The Strikes To Defend Pensions

Usually even the mention of Margaret Wente's name can ruin my day but her article in today's Globe & Mail is actually not too bad in terms of laying out the terms of the strike and lock-out at Canada Post and Air Canada respectively. Of course, in the interests of "balance" she reaches the basic conclusion that while pensions were great while they lasted, they're unsustainable. My guess is that she won't be giving up her pension in order to save the Globe & Mail's bottom line but that's another story.

What is most important here is that corporate Canada and the government are opening up a new austerity front that is about reducing our living standards - both in the present and in the future - as a means to restore the economy to profitability. In the public sector the Tories intend to slash spending and reduce payrolls both through layoffs and attrition over the coming months, beginning with the soon-to-be-released budget. In the private sector, pensions are the big target.

Make no doubt about it, pensions are a component of wages, just like healthcare benefits. When Canada Post and Air Canada attack the pension plans of their employees, they are demanding wage reductions. But workers have the right to ask a number of questions when they're told to take the knife. The most obvious one that is printed in big letters on the picket signs of Air Canada employees is why should only CEOs get pensions and not workers? This must seem doubly infuriating to Air Canada employees who took it on the chin a few years back to "save Air Canada", agreeing concessions in a big way. Now, Air Canada is profitable again - and is coming back for more.

But there is a deeper question that has to do with the whole way the economy runs. Workers didn't cause the economic crisis of 2008 - the Great Recession. That was sparked by greedy and corrupt banks with their exotic and incomprehensible debt packaging schemes that came unraveled - and in the US housing market shows no signs of stopping the decline. Nor are workers responsible for the long term decline in western economies that have come more and more to rely upon "financialization" - that is, to have greater weight placed upon the casino of speculative investment - while China has become the world's manufacturer. These imbalances and contradictions are directly the result of the policies of neo-liberal government - from the Harper Tories to the Chretien Liberals and, beyond our borders, to every party across the spectrum from Labour to Republican and Democrat. They are also the result of decisions in innumerable boardrooms where investors, bankers and manufacturers have shifted resources and capital around the world in order to maximize profits.

The result of all this jerry-rigged global profit-taking has been that workers didn't benefit particularly during the boom times - with debt levels rising even in the peak periods of growth in the past three decades - while the global economy has become more dangerously unbalanced. Now, with it likely that the imbalance will lead to years of stagnation, workers are again expected to pay, this time with their future as well as their present wages.

And it's not just in Canada that this battle is taking place. Attacks on pensions are a central feature of the struggles and strike waves in Greece. There is also a massive public sector strike set to take place in the UK on June 30 that will involve teachers, civil servants, and more. This struggle is about whether we will continue to live in a world where the rich get richer in good times and bad and the working class gets driven ever downward towards immiseration.

That's also why what is needed is a united fight, not just piecemeal isolated actions. The Tories will legislate the Air Canada workers back to work by early next week - effectively eliminating the right to strike for a small group of non-essential workers (they're customer service agents and call centre staff, for God's sake!). This will be followed by similar legislation against postal workers in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. There are two other unions at Air Canada, as well as the Pilots Association. They all oppose Air Canada's pension plans. They should all be out together - if the customer service agents are defeated, they almost certainly will have lost as well. In fact, union leaderships must see the writing on the wall as far as pensions go. The entire working class will either be picked off one by one, sector by sector, or they will come together in a joint campaign, which will probably need to include industrial action, to win. It's all of our future's that's at stake.

The unions at Canada Post and Air Canada are fighting a rearguard action - The Globe and Mail
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