Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Several thousand people attending the international solidarity rally in support of striking Steelworkers Local 6500 workers in Sudbury last Sunday were treated to an interesting speech by international union president Leo Gerard. As the following article from Northern Life says Gerard asserted that the union intended to press for anti-scab legislation in Ontario with direct action such as shutting down Highway 401 if necessary.
Now this may be just tough talk, and one shouldn't hold one's breath while waiting for the union bureaucracy to initiate such a thing. Still, Molly thinks it is a very worthwhile thing to consider. Such an action would be far more worthy of the term "direct action" than what often passes for such amongst a certain part of the anarchist "scene" in North America. For one thing it would be done by mainly the people immediately concerned themselves (no doubt with some support). For another it would have a clear and achievable goal, something that mini-riots of a couple of hundred people who want to prove that they are "against capitalism" do not. These two facts would mean that such an action would have a local base of community support to whom the goals would be clear, whether such supporters agreed with everything the protesters did or not. This would certainly be far different from the travelling rent-a-riot where it seems they glory in offending those (the great, great vast majority) that they look down on. It is also far less likely to be violent because people involved in such a blockade would have goals rather than something to prove. Food for thought. Food for thought. It's unlikely to happen just as it is unlikely that the government of Ontario will bend and actually pass anti-scab legislation. Still...the very fact that the idea has been breached is a great thing in the context of present Canadian politics.
Here's the story from Northern Life.
'Shut down' province to force anti-scab legislation: Gerard

Leo Gerard was one of an estimated 5,000 people who came out to support striking members of Steelworkers Local 6500 during the union's Bridging the Gap rally. Photo by Bill Bradley.

Mar 23, 2010
By: Heidi Ulrichsen - Sudbury Northern Life Staff
UPDATED — March 23, 9:02 a.m.
When Vale Inco attempts to bring “scabs” into Sudbury, the United Steelworkers union will push to have anti-scab legislation passed in the province, even if it means closing down Highway 401, the Steelworkers international president told those attending a rally at the Sudbury Arena March 22.

Leo Gerard was one of several thousand people who came out to support striking members of Steelworkers Local 6500 during the union's Bridging the Gap rally. They marched from the union's Brady Street hall to the Sudbury Arena, yelling raucous union chants.

The rally, which was attended by union leaders from across the country and around the world, was originally supposed to take place on the Paris Street bridge, but the venue was changed last week because of safety concerns over the location.

Gerard said the provincial NDP, with the help of the union, would bring in anti-scab legislation “even if we have to shut this whole goddamn province down.”

Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath said anti-scab legislation need to be brought in by the province, and also said the province should be “doing something to get binding arbitration” so the Steelworkers can get back to work.

The union leader also took issue with a letter posted by Vale Inco president and CEO Tito Martins on one of the company's websites last week.

In the letter, Martins said the Steelworkers leadership has relied on “misinformation, racism,intolerance and xenophobia...to further its position in a country like Canada that prides itself as a model of multiculturalism.”
Standing with union leaders from around the world behind him, Gerard said he “resents from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head” being called racist.
“These are my sisters and brothers,” he said, referring to the union leaders behind him. “We have a global union. We don't resent our brothers and sisters. We resent the management causing this fight unnecessarily.”

Martins said in his letter that it's ironic that the Steelworkers have taken this position, given that it's an American union. Gerard said he is not foreign to Sudbury, as he grew up here, and was a member of Local 6500.
Gerard also addressed another statement in Martins' letter, which said “it appears name calling comes easier than negotiating.”

“Tito, come to Sudbury tomorrow, we're ready to negotiate. Come to Sudbury tomorrow, or shut your goddamn mouth,” he said.

Federal NDP leader Jack Layton was also among those who attended the rally.

He said multinational corporations around the world are watching the strike in Sudbury to see if Vale Inco can “beat the workers.”

“Well, I said it last September (at a previous rally in Sudbury), and I'll say it again. You picked the wrong union, and you picked the wrong town.”
For the full story, read the Thursday edition of Northern Life.


Nicolas said...

I think this is as far from the classical meaning of direct action [wich btw arose in a labor context] then the current activist understanding. There's nothing direct about blocking an highway to get legislators to pass a law. Direct action, in this context, would mean an effective picket to prevent scabs from interring on the ground of the mine.

Now, while no union activists over here would want a return to the previous set-up, you must be aware that an anti-scab law such as exist in Quebec is no substitute for labor power on the shop floor. We might have such a legislation in Quebec but the rest of the labor code make strike action powerless and conflicts unwinable without breaking the law one way or another. Strike in the Quebec labor code are merely symbolic action. There are a myriad of way to get around the antiscab law but there is a jurisprudence (dont know the word in english) that mean to soon into a conflict bosses get injonction limiting the number of folks on pickets [usually 3 to 5] to make them essentialy informative and inneffective. Pickets are seen legaly as a matter of freedom of expression and not a mean to enforce a work stopage. Furthermore, sympaty strike and secondary targeting are illegal. So you would not see something like what happen in Ontario a couple of years ago when the autoindustry shut down because CAW members refused to unload train because other CAW members on the train where on strike and they wanted to honor the picket. This was essential in putting pressure on the train company but it would be illegal in Quebec [althoug it would probably be legal for a worker to refuse to cross an actual picket, esp,. if there is language about it in his contract)

mollymew said...

You're two steps ahead of me Nicolas. Yes, I'll agree with you that the idea of the highway blockade is NOT direct action in the strict sense because:
1)It is merely a more militant method of "petitioning" ie it depends upon "asking" in however impolite a way to pass some legislation.
2)It is not a DIRECT way of actually changing a situation. The effective picket that you suggest would indeed fall under the definition of "direct action".

I think I let my rhetoric run away with me, particularily as I got sidetracked into bitching about the rent-a-riot and the implied meaning that "direct action" has taken on amongst the fashion anarchists. So yes, you are correct. I'm hardly the first, and I won't be the last, anarchist who has used the phrase in a slipshod fashion. I am also aware of the limitations of ant-scab legislation, and I'm attentive to all the criticisms you mentioned.

Still...the old say of "a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step" holds true. Not only are such anti-scab bills far from being "heaven on Earth" for labour, but you will also note my scepticism about whether the steelworkers' leadership would actually carry out such a threat. What I DO think is significant is that the threat was actually voiced. I find this an encouraging sign.

The problem with direct action is not just that it actually quite rare. No amount of militant posturing makes an project into such a thing. In actual fact I cannot think of ANY direct action undertaken by anarchists in North America in decades (in the sense of having a clear goal, actually doing something that accomplishes that goal and not merely expressing some sort of "outrage" and what was not simply a "protest" by whatever means) that was NOT !!!! only non-violent but also quite "non-militant".

For instance, one subject that anarchists love to carp endlessly on about is "media bias". No amount of attacks on the "corporate media", whether verbal or physical count as "direct action", but the setting up of Infoshops or news services DO COUNT AS SUCH. They are actually doing something, no matter how small about the situation and neither "petitioning" nor simply carping.

It passed through my mind to do a little 'Molly's Anarchism' on "direct action" following this post, but things caught up with me, and it never happened. I hope to do it sometime in the future, in a lot more detail than this reply can do.

But, in the interest of brevity, you are right about my careless use of the phrase. Still, I would say that such a "threatened action" (which is unlikely) is "closer" to direct action because it actually has a goal, a method that could conceivably lead to that goal and would be undertaken by people directly affected by the situation. Yes, it's still political but it's miles closer than travelling across a continent to take part in a mindless mini-riot whose only clear goal is to show how pissed off and militant the participants are.

Another problem with "direct action" is that it is not only quite rare but is actually not always either the best tactic to use nor even possible for that matter. I think that all we anarchists are quite often guilty of using the term as a rhetorical cure-all.

But hopefully more on all this some other time. Til then...