Revolution or War n°25

(September 2023)

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On the Recent Strike of British Columbia Dock Workers

Starting on July 1st of 2023, there was a strike of 7,400 dock workers in the Canadian province of British Columbia that shut down more than 30 ports. The ILWU reported that 99.24% of the members voted in favour of the strike, continuing the recent trend in Canada of unionized workers voting overwhelmingly to strike. Each day, these ports move cargo worth 800 million CAD (600 million USD). While not a small strike in terms of the number of participants, the effect of the strike was out of proportion to the number of strikers because of the strategic nature of the ports.

The ILWU had initially endorsed an agreement imposed by the Federal government after 13 days of the strike. This initial deal was resoundingly rejected by the union membership. At this point in the sequence of events, the vitriol directed at the port workers from the bourgeoisie became shrill and calls to declare the strike illegal and impose back-to-work legislation were being made. There was subsequently a brief renewal of the strike after an approximately two week pause. This brief second period of strike was declared illegal by the Canada Industrial Relation Board (CIRB) on the grounds that the union did not provide 72 hours strike notice. The ILWU then issued a 72-hour strike notice only to rescind it hours later and announce that it had recommended the new deal be voted on by the membership. On July 27-28, ILWU members voted to reject the new deal. The next day, the Labour Minister of Canada reported that he directed the CIRB to impose a new deal or arbitration. In the context of this threat to impose a contract from the Federal Government, a new deal was reached and 75% of the ILWU membership voted to accept it.

Predictably, throughout this whole process there was the usual whining about the effects of the strike on small businesses that depend on the movement of goods through the ports. However, the significance of this strike go well beyond the effect on small businesses. The backdrop to this strike is the ongoing imperialist polarization, which demands that strategic sectors of the economy function normally. Canada’s previous Labour Minister, Seamus O’Regan, emphasized the importance of the ports for the “national interest” and Chrystia Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said that the economic impact of the strike was “intolerable”. What is intolerable for workers is their rising cost of living, including as a consequence of the drive towards generalized imperialist war. Moreover, even if the current pay raises were to match or exceed by a small margin the projected inflation rate, this does not come close to being sufficient as the costs of housing have sky-rocketed over the past twenty years and our purchasing power has steadily been eroded over the same period.

This recent episode also highlights the role played by the union in undermining and rendering impotent what should have been a powerful strike, because of the strategic nature of the ports. The entire state apparatus was arrayed against the workers, from the media to the provincial and federal governments to the unions, which are themselves integral to the capitalist state apparatus. It was the union, after all, which had manoeuvred workers into a position of having to accept a deal or face back-to-work legislation and a legally imposed contract. By keeping the strike isolated to a single sector, even if it is strategically vital, the union succeeded in paralyzing the strike because what can 7,400 workers do faced with the combined force of the state? Only by generalizing the strikes to all sectors on a geographical basis, by picketing in front of nearby workplaces and sending delegations to invite other workplaces to join the strike for common demands, can workers impose a balance of forces that favours them. In such a situation of generalization and mass strike, back-to-work legislation would be a purely formal and impotent gesture.

Stavros, August 6th, 2023