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(en) NEFAC* - NEA #8 - Old Port, New Struggle Looking back on Anarchist Solidarity for Locked-Out Workers by Nicholas Robertson

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 7 Oct 2004 07:50:51 +0200 (CEST)


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It was a memorable summer in Montreal's Old Port - a federally
run tourist site along the St. Lawrence River that connects to the
equally touristy Old Montreal. From our perspective, however, it
wasn't memorable for the usual reasons that range from the
exploits of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, the most recent screening at
Imax1, or a Canada Day rock concert. Indeed, in terms of a class
struggle perspective, the most memorable event this summer at
the Old Port was the labor dispute between Old Port of Montreal
Corporation and it's 360 employees. Last May 24-25th, during a
48-hour strike called by the employees looking to put pressure on
the negotiations of the recent collective agreement, the bosses
decided to turn things around and lockout all of the unionized staff
indefinetly.

The conflict in the Old Port thus erupted at a moment when
tourist season starts in Quebec's metropolis, proving that the
administrators of the federal crown corporation were ready to lose
revenue on the short-term to be enriched on the long-term, and
this off the backs of poorly paid workers.

The lock-out ended up being long and hard, lasting until the
begining of July. The Old Port bosses used scab labor, the courts
produced injunctions against the union, the Fédération des
Travailleurs-euses du Québec (FTQ)2 made use of their
'goons' when it thought it was losing ground in the struggle,
anarchists did solidarity actions, and an important radical minority
coming from the rank and file of the union self-organized and
used direct action type tactics to reach it's goals. In this article, we
will try to look back and analyze how these events unfolded.

Lockouts: As Easy As 1-2-3 With Scabs, Courts and Injunctions

It might come as a surprise that bosses would answer a 48-hour
strike with a lockout. Would it have not been easier to simply
absorb the 48-hour strike and return to non-conflictual
negotiations later? The answer, for the bosses of the Old Port of
Montreal Corporation, was no; having judged that it was
necessary for their interests to hold a position of strength
throughout the negotiations. The administrators made it clear to
the employees that they indeed wanted to negotiate with them,
however they also made it clear that they would continue to
operate the tourist site with scab labor. Consequently, in proving
that they weren't necessary to the functioning of the site they were
able to dramatically lower the value of the unionized workers'
labor.

It is obvious to state that the lockout was helped greatly by the
presence of BEST private security team3, who had the double task
of assuring visitors normal access to the site as well as watching
over the actions of the locked-out workers. BEST Security are
nothing less than scabs, meriting being called 'Worst' by whoever
seeks to see working conditions improve and ultimately, wage
slavery abolished.

Legally, the hiring of BEST personnel was supported by the
absence of anti-scab law at the federal level in Canada. The Old
Port of Montreal Corporation is a crown corporation, and thus
falls under this juristiction. One of the demands of the locked-out
workers was the establishement of a federal anti-scab law. We
doubt however the exact purpose of this demand considering that
problems with scabs happen in all workplace struggles regardless
of legislation. It would be more usefull to publically denounce
FTQ locals who scabbed other unions in the past (Vidéotron
dispute, etc.) and to question their place in the labor movement.
Also, we think the necessary strength to stop scabbing will come
directly from the point of conflict, as well as in the building of the
movement's generalized power against the boss class, and not
from legislation that is beyond the control of workers.

In addition to the presence of scabs, there was also a series of
court injunctions that reduced the efficency of picketing, the most
important ones being the limit to six picketers per entry and the
impossiblity for locked-out workers to enter any part of the Old
Port site. When the dispute started, picket lines had 40-50 people
holding them. With the injunctions, picketers were demobilized.
For a few days, the injunctions were challenged by the locked-out
employees but they suffered the consequences of their stance and
ended up facing police interventions and heavy fines.

In these conditions, we can judge that the Old Port of Montreal
Corporation was able to lockout it's employees without losing
large sums of revenue. Obviously, attendance on the site was
down during the first few days of the dispute. This quickly
changed and it was back to normal, with thousands of visitors
gathering in the Old Port everyday, often without even knowing
there was a labor dispute going on.

A Small Twist: Enter The Anarchists

Actually, the anarchists involved in supporting the locked-out
workers were us: Groupe Anarchiste Bête Noire, the local
NEFAC member group in Montreal, plus a few anti-authoriarian
supporters from other political groups in Montreal. For a few
months we had taken up the habit of doing solidarity work during
strikes. Our 'actions' can be as ordinary as chatting with striking
workers on the picket line. In the case of the Old Port struggle
however, a tactical path became evident very fast, which consisted
in defying the court injunctions. As the injunctions didn't apply to
us, because none of us were members of the union, making life
difficult for the scabs and breaking the touristy atmosphere of the
Old Port was made easy. All of our objectives could be met with
one action. It was to cross the security line and distribute union
pamphlets on site.

Before doing this, we spoke about our plan to union workers who
were the most involved on the picket line and had our call to
action approved by the union local's president. For many weeks,
we did public mobilizations for 'Solidarity Pickets.’ Every
Sunday, a group of about fifteen of us would leaflet the site to
make the lockout known to visitors. Many of the people we spoke
to were sympathetic to the workers and sometimes decided to not
spend their money in the business's that were operating during
the lockout.

BEST Security was less greeting. Many times, we were physically
intimadated, filmed, pushed-around, kicked-out... but it must be
noted that we also filmed them, pushed them around, etc. War is
war! Especially when it's on the terrain of class. The number of
security agents increased on Sunday from week to week, as a
preventive measure against us. We can affirm that our actions had
an economic impact on the conflict, as they forced la Société
du Vieux-Port to spend important sums of money that weren't
budgeted or planned.

All of this created something of a relationsionship between us and
the Old Port unionists. They expected to see us every Sunday, and
for many it was a first contact with anarchists in action. Initiatives
like those of our group, in terms of labor solidarity, are not new.
There was however an absence in this type of action for roughly
twenty years in the province of Quebec. Looking back to the past,
it was mostly Marxist-Leninist groups in the 1970's and '80's who
were the last so-called revolutionaries to be involved in workplace
struggles. We think that our approach is different and better than
what there was. While these old Marxist-Leninists didn't see the
potential of autonomous and self-managed working class
movements and, for them, it was best to subordinate the
movements into the advancement of the party; contrary to this, we
anarchists think that the strength of our class resides in it's
capacity to lead it's own fights, within it's own mass organizations
(unions, community groups, etc.), without a vanguard party being
imposed on them. Simply put, the Marxist-Leninists were
involved in struggles to help their parties grow, we are in struggles
to help the struggles grow!

In that sense, one of the secondary goals of our involvement in the
Old Port dispute was to popularize the idea of inter-union
solidarity and solidarity between non-unionized and unionized
workers. We think that it would be beneficial to have a network of
fighting workers that could avoid the obstacles set up by union
bureaucracy. That way, workers could get involved in common
struggles, despite different union affilitations. This does not
contradict activity and organizing within the existing unions.
Rather, the idea is to strengthen the rank-and-file and to make
counter-act the buearucracy of of the labor federations. A few
locked-out workers from the Old Port gave their names to be on a
'Solidarity Picket' list and eventually become part of this network.

A Radical Minority Forms During the Struggle

As a matter of fact, in terms of rank-and-file activity and
organization, members of the local AFPC3 Old Port union
provided good examples of it during the dispute. When it had
become clear that symbolic picketing of the Old Port wasn't
sufficient to make the administration step back it efforts, a radical
minority within the union self-organized on it's own terms to plan
direct actions against the interests of the Old Port bosses. Loud
visits were made to administrators homes and 'night jobs' seeking
to affect the infrastructure of the site were regularly undertaken, to
the point that the administration accepted a return to the
negotiations table so these actions would stop.

The activities of the radical minority encountered a good
ammount of popularity with the general union membership. For
example, when calls were made to visit the administrators homes
- calls that announced clearly the type of action and the inherent
risk of arrest - there were still at least 50-60 unionists who
answered positively. It has to be mentioned that these initiatives
came at an opportune moment of the struggle, when the bosses
were refusing to negotiate and that picketing of the site was
becoming more and more inefficient. If these conditions favored
strong participation by the rank-and-file, they also had an
inlfuence on the union leadership (all the way up to the high levels
of the FTQ) who, seeing it's role at the negotiations table
dissapearing, was now ready to permit it's members to "do
everything it takes" to force the Old Port bosses to return to
normal communications.

We can clearly note with this example that in times of crisis
during a struggle involving a 'mainstream' union, there is space
and possibilities for an organized force from the rank-and-file to
take a certain control over the direction of the struggle - and this
despite the official union structures that tend more often to
smother rank-and-file initiatives to the benefit of a more
hierarchal approach. What's worrysome however is the
recuperation that union leadership could make of the rank-and-file
initiatives. They may want to sometimes present a facade of
'radicalism', but they certainly won't look for radical solutions to
win a dispute.

The FTQ Get's Involved: Return to Negotiations

The first of July, Canada Day, at a moment when direct actions
against the Old Port administration were carrried out almost
everyday, a large solidarity demonstration was held with the intent
of mobilizing other unions who are members of the FTQ (to
which the AFPC in Quebec is a member). We can say, maybe
because of the chosen day of the mobilization, that it was a failure.
The only members of the FTQ present, besides the Old Port
workers, were a dozen 'goons' from the construction union and
handfull of high-ranking bureaucrats such as Henri Massé. The
demonstration, numbering about 400 people, was rather
composed of a strong Old Port local union presence and of
supporters, such as us from NEFAC.

It was a quite a vibrant demonstration, with hundreds of 'Lockout'
stickers put up on site. At the end, Henri Massé, president of
the FTQ, made a speech summing up the intentions of the FTQ
leadership. Talking about the Old Port administration, he said
"They can refuse us good working conditions and lock us out, but
they can't refuse us at the negotiations table.” These were the
intentions of the FTQ: return to the negotiation table and end the
dispute regardless of what would be offered to Old Port
employees. As a matter of fact, this is part of the FTQ's general
strategy, as a trade union federation that seeks to be
non-confrontational with employers. As proof, they recently
issued a press release praising the fact that only a small proportion
of their members were presently invloved in a workplace dispute.
One would swear it's a boss's association press release when
reading the content!4

An Unsatisfactory Contract And A Dismal Future

It is thus not a coincidence that a few days after July 1st,
negotiations started again between the administration and the Old
Port union. After these meetings, the executive of the union local
presented an agreement with the administration to be ratified by
the members. The agreement was, with only a few changes,
essentially the same as the one offered before the 48-hour strike.
The basic components were 3% pay raises and not much chance
at getting job protection, sprinkled with smaller clauses not
affecting all workers. The contract was accepted with a majority of
only 62%, leaving the 38% against it greatly dissatisfied.

Truly, weeks of struggle didn't make the administration budge
and the status quo was cowardly accepted by the union leadership
and a majority of the membership. Many full-time employees of
the Old Port, after having struggled collectively to better their
working and living conditions, will now have to fall back on
individual solutions such as looking for a better job elsewhere.
Many students, who work at the Old Port only part-time, were
happy to go back to work despite the small gains, thinking it was
best to not lose their 'summer of work'. Maybe they will realize
that at the end of their studies it's the same job market that awaits
them, one that's clearly favorable to the bosses.

It's sad to come to the conclusion that many students didn't unite
enough with their full-time co-workers for whom the dispute put
into play their general living standards (wages, job security, time
off, etc.). We have to admit that the capitalist ideology of success
has a particularly strong effect on students, amongst whom the
hope of bettering themselves socially and economically, and even
joining the upper classes (for those who aren't already there!),
stays present throughout their time in school. In these conditions,
it's harder for them to unite with a poor Jane or Joe, who will
most likely live an entire life as a 'prole'. To be fair, this wasn't the
attitude of all the students involved in the struggle and some were
even quite active from start to finish.

If the future is dismal for the precarious workers of the Old Port
and elsewhere, the permanent solutions remain collective and in
struggles. Let us hope that next time the struggle will not be to
return to the same point of exploitation, but rather to defeat and
ultimately eliminate the bosses.

===============

Notes:

1 Imax and Le Cirque du Soleil are two coporations with
operations based in the Old Port.
2 The FTQ is Quebec's largest labor federation with over 500 000
members and is affiliated to the AFL-CIO.
3 AFPC: Alliance de la Fonction Publique Canadienne, or in
English, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the Old
Port locals are 10333 and 1-A-333.
4 There were, in August 2003, only 348 members of the FTQ in 7
different locations involved in a labor dispute announces the
general secretary of the federation, René Roy. For him, it's an
occasion to celebrate "This number is one of the lowest ever
recorded at the FTQ in the last few years and we can congratulate
ourselves. This indicates that in the current economic context,
our unions manage to negotiate good work contracts without
having to go on strike or being locked-out.” (Quote taken from
an August 8th 2003 FTQ press release)

===============

Nicolas Robertson works as the external coordinator for the
People's Potato at Concordia University, and is a member of
NEFAC-Montreal
====================================
* NEFAC = North East Federation of Anarchist Communists


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