Longshoremen’s strike at the Port of Montreal : workers once again crushed by special laws
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 18; Winter 2021-2022)
After only a few days of strike action in late April, longshoremen at the Port of Montreal were forced to return to work because of a special law that forced the workers to return to work or face fines of up to $100,000 per day of “violation. In addition, under this despicable “Act to provide for the resumption and continuation of operations at the Port of Montreal”, a mediator-arbitrator will decide on the content of the next collective agreement. We can now say it: Canadian democracy no longer recognizes the right of workers to strike to defend their working conditions, which have been under constant attack for over 40 years.
Exasperation and fighting spirit
The Port of Montreal’s 1,150 longshoremen have been without a contract since December 2018 and have never been able to reach an agreement with the management. The union’s demands were mainly opposed to changes in the allocation of shifts that the bosses wanted to impose on its employees, who already have to deal with unstable schedules, which makes it very difficult to balance work and family. Already in August, the inflexibility of the bosses had pushed the workers to strike (for a period of 10 days), which was then postponed after an agreement in principle was reached. But with management unwilling to back down, CUPE Local 375 members voted on April 26 in favour of an indefinite general strike with a majority of over 99%. However, all this fighting spirit did not weigh very heavily in the face of the repressive measures taken by the Canadian government, which did not hesitate for a second to pass a special law with the aim of breaking the striker ; it was adopted by the House of Commons on Wednesday night, April 29.
The norm, not the exception
It is clear that « special laws » are now commonplace in Canada. A similar law had crushed postal workers in 2018. In 2017, it was government lawyers who were victims of a law passed by the provincial government. In 2015, it was Canadian Pacific employees who were broken by the federal government. So, the state that has itself framed the workers’ right to strike as a democratic right now has no qualms about taking it away from the most combative elements of the proletariat when they decide to fight to defend their working conditions. Many people are offended by these laws, which they consider undemocratic. The fact that these laws have been invalidated in the past by the courts as unconstitutional reinforces their position. But this is not the case. Court invalidations may indeed prevent certain union sections or individuals affected by the laws from paying the hefty fines imposed on them, but they do not prevent these laws from fulfilling their real function of breaking the movement, which they do every time. Workers should be under no illusion that although the courts work hard to give the impression of impartiality and equality of all before the law, they are bourgeois institutions that serve primarily to consolidate the power of the ruling class. The workers cannot count on them to defend themselves.
In reality, bourgeois democracy is simply following its normal evolution in this rotting capitalism. In every country of advanced capitalism, the bourgeois state is indeed tending to centralize and to impose tighter and tighter control over workers’ organizations. Today (and for some time now), the state has no qualms about abusing its legislative power to crush organizations that do not prove as submissive as it would like. It will not hesitate to throw its leaders in jail if necessary. In the years to come, we will see this process become even more violent ; we cannot hope for a return to the “real democracy” that some liberals dream of when they call on strikers to defy special laws and go under the protection of the courts. In such a situation, workers should not hide from the reality that the contradictions between capital and labor will only become more severe and that the struggle will have to intensify to lead to the final confrontation.
Lack of combativeness of the unions’ leadership
In the case of the longshoremen, it is clear that they were not prepared to defend themselves against these vicious attacks by the state. The fact that the labor organizations representing the workers are bowing to special laws is a powerful brake on workers’ struggles. In future struggles, workers may have to prepare to ignore state threats and strike illegally. For this to happen, struggles must expand to hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. It is therefore more necessary than ever to get out of union corporatism and to unite struggles. But it is unlikely that the union bosses will show such audacity. Rank-and-file workers will have to struggle to either force their leadership to act or to build parallel organizations that can perform this function. In the context of the longshoremen, we saw very well how their isolation allowed the bourgeois state to crush the movement like a sand castle.
In Canada as elsewhere, proletarians will have to break with union collaborationism and fight and organize on a class basis!
April, 25th 2021
International Communist Party