Monday, April 28, 2008

TTC Workers and the Right to Strike

The way the mainstream media has told the story, all is well in Toronto in the aftermath of the passage of legislation in the Ontario Legislature ordering the employees of the Toronto Transit Commission back to work. The subways, buses and streetcars are running and that's all that matters.

Something is very wrong with this picture. Fundamental issues are at stake here and they cut right to the heart of our democracy.

The right of workers to withdraw their labour in pursuit of improved pay, better working conditions and job security is not some frill that can be dispensed with for the sake of momentary convenience. It is a human right no less important than the right to vote to choose members of parliaments and legislatures.

The media coverage of the transit strike in Toronto, including that of the CBC, has been shockingly one-sided. News stories have focused on the rapid response of the politicians to get the TTC back in service for Monday morning's job commute, as well as on the anger of people on the street at the workers for going on strike.

You had to search long and hard to find out why a substantial majority of TTC workers turned down the contract they had been offered. On CBC Newsworld's newscast at 8.00 a.m.,there was no coverage of the issues in the strike, and no one representing the union was interviewed. (Later in the morning a union rep was interviewed, but not on the main newscast.) On the newscast, we learned that the issues will now go to arbitration but we were not told why the workers felt compelled to turn down the contract. The tone was one of relief that the strike was over. We were left with the impression that the very idea of a strike was simply unthinkable. And then we got the words of Mayor David Miller saying he was sure that Torontonians would treat the TTC drivers with respect.

What a kindly society we are. Workers should not be the objects of public rage, but as for their right to strike that can be airily dispensed with.

We live in a time when the right of investors to do what they like has become holy writ. Speculators are driving up the price of food, which may well lead to the starvation and deaths of a not inconsiderable number of people in the poorest countries. For this, they get some mild tsk tsking, but nothing like the rage that is meted out to workers who are trying to keep their heads above water with rising fuel and food prices driving up their cost of living.

Too many wage and salary earners have fallen prey to the divide and conquer strategy of the fat cats and their media outlets. That's why we hear so much from working people about how they pay the salaries of TTC drivers out of their taxes.

Those of us who are wage and salary earners need to re-learn the solidarity that has been assiduously programmed out of us in a society where the public narrative is all about individuals making it on their own. The extent to which we are suckers to buy this line can be seen from the ever wider gap in income and wealth between the rich and the rest of us.

The problem in our society is not bus and subway drivers who are trying to make a decent living, doing a job that is wracked with increasing stress. TTC employees don't turn down a contract to inconvenience the rest of us. They only opt for a strike if their backs are pushed to the wall. Instead of blaming the workers for the inconvenience of a strike, we should aim our displeasure at the chair of the TTC, City Hall and Queen's Park. It's the decision makers there who create the conditions that make strikes necessary. Tell them you're pissed off, not the man or woman driving the bus.

As for legislating away the right of TTC workers to strike in future on the grounds that they provide an essential service, that is a crock. Public transit is vital and a lot more public capital needs to be invested in it at a time of when the days of auto use in big cities are numbered. Among other things that capital needs to ensure decent pay and working conditions for transit workers, who should not have to live with the threat that their jobs are going to be contracted out to the private sector as a way for the politicians to reduce bills by breaking unions and lowering pay.

The most dire threat to our democracy arises from the widening gap between a newly enriched class of owners and managers, and the rest of us. It's time for us to put the whole subject of economic democracy back on the agenda. It's been missing from the public dialogue for far too long.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

McCain, Clinton and Obama: Debating the Future of the American Empire

Without acknowledging it, the three remaining major party candidates for the presidency are debating that oldest of imperial questions----how to keep the American Empire within manageable limits.

The empire is severely overstretched, as a consequence of the massive incompetence of the Bush administration. Militarily, the empire is embroiled in two wars with no end in sight, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Young men from poor families, the life blood of the U.S. Army, are enlisting in reduced numbers, and that poses serious problems for the future. Interconnected with the military crisis is its even larger economic companion. Unwilling to choose between guns and butter, the administration refused to raise taxes to pay for the war.

The administration also took no steps to regulate financial markets to head off the bursting of the property bubble, a threat foreseen for years by economic analysts. It also did nothing to halt the hemorrhaging of American manufacturing that is the consequence of Chinese exports and Wal-Mart. The U.S. current account deficit has soared; foreign central banks, including those of China and Japan hold trillions of dollars worth of U.S. treasury bills and other securities; and the American net indebtedness to the rest of the world is now greater than two trillion dollars. Even as George W. Bush prepares to spend all his time at the ranch, the American Empire is being forced to pare back its military and economic roles in the world. That's what the current global crisis is really all about.

In the U.S., it is unthinkable for a mainstream politician to acknowledge the existence of an American Empire----this was the land that fought a revolution against the British Empire---so politicians vying for the White House cannot directly debate the downsizing of their Empire.

Instead, they posture.

John McCain is the Little Caesar who would stay in Iraq for a hundred years to win the war---he even said ten thousand years in a fit of pique---on the grounds that America must never look weak in front of potential foes, even if its original reasons for going to war were dumb. The other day he pointed out that a representative of Hamas in the United States had said positive things about Barack Obama----this is his idea of not going negative, you're allowed to smear your opponent for who choose to like him. (On this basis, I'm thinking of declaring my support for McCain to allow his opponents to charge him with being endorsed by a Canadian leftist who wants Canada to cut back its exports of dirty and polluting oil sands crude to the United States.)

Hillary Clinton, who voted for the resolution that allowed Bush to invade Iraq, has never repudiated that vote, and is vague about how she would extract the United States from the Iraqi quagmire. She has taken to playing the tough commander-in-chief in her fight against Barack Obama. Not only has she encountered faith and the blessings of guns, she threatened last week that if the Iranians attacked Israel while she was in the White House, the U.S. could obliterate them. In addition to this thoughtful contribution to the debate, there was her television ad in Pennsylvania----”If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”----showing footage of everything from the 1929 stock market crash to Osama bin Laden to make the point that Obama is a weakling.

Even Barack Obama, who has said that he would have U.S. troops out of Iraq within sixteen months of becoming president, can be goaded into playing the schoolyard tough guy, on occasion. Last summer, he said that if he knew where the top leadership of Al Qaeda was hiding out in Pakistan, he would launch a military strike there, even if the government of Pakistan said no to that. When you're running for emperor, it doesn't do to show too much respect for the sovereign rights of other countries.

Given the level of the debate, Americans could be forgiven if they weren't clear about what the stakes are in this election campaign.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sarkozy Rides to the Rescue in Afghanistan

Menton, France: As a consequence of the Canadian media coverage and the fulsome claims of Stephen Harper, Canadians could be forgiven for thinking that Canada got its way at the recent NATO summit in Rumania. It is understandable that many now are convinced that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to send an extra battalion of troops to Afghanistan was in response to Canada’s insistence that European NATO countries must help Canada deal with the war against the insurgents.

The version of events which Canadians now perceive as the “truth” is the kind of truth you get when you stand in front of one of those funny mirrors at the Canadian National Exhibition that make you look as if you’re three times as tall as you actually are.

Here is what actually happened.

Following the disastrous showing of Sarkozy’s party in the recent municipal elections across France, the regime was preoccupied with how to raise the standing in public opinion polls of the president from the dismal lows to which it had fallen.

Just ahead in Sarko’s intinerary was a state visit to Britain, a chance to be photographed beside his new wife, Carla Bruni, with the Queen and Prince Philip. As well this was an opportunity for the president to cozy up to the Anglo Americans whose social model he admires and with whom he hopes to establish a closer alliance, in part to offset the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t stand him.

The French media built up the visit of France’s first couple to London and speculated at length about whether Carla Bruni Sarkozy would curtsey to the Queen---she did, and with considerable grace, as was later reported. This helped counter the sensation caused by the publication in the tabloid papers of a years-old nude photo of Carla Bruni.

In all this, the French and British media managed to refrain from paying any attention to Stephen Harper’s warning to NATO that more troops must be sent to Kandahar or else.

Then Sarko delivered an impassioned address to a rare joint session of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In it, he fulsomely praised the British for providing a socio-economic model for France to emulate and he thanked the British for their role in liberating France in two world wars.

In his plea for a new politics---Sarkozy sees himself as the agent of a mission civilatrice---he mentioned Afghanistan and said the NATO mission there must not be allowed to fail.

Back in France, where Carla got most of the coverage, the speculation was that France would likely send a battalion of soldiers---between a few hundred and a thousand, it was said. Again the French media managed to ignore the Harper ultimatum. Throughout the whole drama, Carla’s curtsey received a hundred times as much coverage as Canada’s showdown with NATO (probably more).

When the French government announced that it would send troops to eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan---the exact number still is not known---the thinking was that the French would help out the Americans in the region. To date the French troops in Afghanistan have been stationed in and around Kabul and its airport. (Canada’s casualties in Afghanistan so far, on a per capita basis, are about fourteen times as high of those of France.)

The reaction in France to Sarko’s extra battalion was disdainful. How many troops would actually be sent, it was asked? This was a president with a new idea every couple of days, and most of them ended up being discarded. What would this deployment do to France’s burgeoning government deficit?

The French are even more negative about the war in Afghanistan than Canadians are, with over sixty per cent of them, according to polls, opposed to the war, with only fifteen per cent of them supporting it.

In the end it was the Bush administration that bailed out Harper at the NATO summit by promising to shift some of its troops to Kandahar.

Canada’s global reputation has not grown more lustrous as a result of its military mission in Afghanistan. When you get more than a hundred meters from NATO Headquarters in Brussels or from the White House, nobody’s heard a thing about our mission. The talking heads on Canadian television who are claiming otherwise are looking in the crazy mirror at the CNE.

That’s not to say that Canada is not widely admired around the world. It is admired---as a country that is fair and just and that welcomes immigrants. And a very large number of people do know about our role (now sadly diminished) in peacekeeping. Canada is well-liked for all the things the Harper government hates about us.

I was in San Francisco the week Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime minister. I met a woman from France at a cafĂ© in Union Square who had heard about our change of government. “How could Canadians have done such a thing?” she asked.