Time for Canada’s Labour Movement to Think and Act Globally

By Gerard Di Trolio

South Korea has seen the the largest crackdown on labour and civil rights since the end of the military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Protests led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) against reforms that would weaken labour protections were repressed by police. The KCTU leader Hang Sang-gyun has been charged with organizing illegal rallies and sedition.

KCTU members protesting the U.S.-Korea FTA in November 2011
KCTU members protesting the U.S.-Korea FTA in November 2011

But South Korea’s democratic system and civil liberties were touted as a reason why Canada should sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with them. The Canada-Korea FTA entered into force at the beginning of last year. That FTA was opposed by unions in Canada like Unifor, who fear it will decimate Canada’s auto industry.

In Korea, the deal, like the US-Korea FTA was opposed by the KCTU along with farmers who were concerned about their livelihoods.

The labour movement can’t rely on politicians to look out for their interests.

In Canada, the NDP welcomed the FTA with Korea. The NDP’s new position on FTAs is that it would support such deals with countries that had human rights, labour, and environmental standards. Although Canada’s social democratic party opposed a FTA with Honduras for these reasons, it nevertheless supported a FTA with Jordan, a country that is a constitutional monarchy in name only.

This is also the reason that the NDP is not totally against the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union. The NDP voiced concerns about the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, but so has the conservative German government.

But upon closer scrutiny of liberal democracies like South Korea and Western Europe, the NDP’s argument for supporting FTAs doesn’t hold up.

There is of course the current repression in South Korea. There’s also the issue of the European Union (EU). The NDP argues that Canada should sign an FTA with the EU based on the social model it used presented to the rest of the world – a strong welfare state. However, the EU has now demonstrated that it has a significant democratic deficit. It is imposing austerity on a number of countries resulting in declining living standards and emigration. The social democratic “European model” is crashing and burning.

Though NDP’s belated turn towards criticizing the corporate friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership out of electoral calculations is to be welcomed, that does not mean the rest of the Canadian labour movement can be complacent. 2016 should be a year that sees the Canadian labour movement renew its commitment to internationalism and better engage with and support other labour struggles going on around the world.

Things are kicking off around the world. Mexican and American labour and community groups are bringing an unprecedented challenge to an employer under NAFTA, large swaths of the South African labour movement are organizing in a more radical direction, and China has seen a large increase in strikes over the past few years.

Japanese anti-TPP protest. Via Flush the TPP
Japanese anti-TPP protest. Via Flush the TPP

There has been a revival of labour action from below around the world. For labour in Canada to stand up to many of its most pressing challenges, especially in the realm of international trade, it must build solidarity with these movements. Little is to be gained by framing each issue as one that only affects Canadian workers.

This was always the problem with some public responses to the abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Framing the TFWP as something that was stealing jobs from Canadian workers ultimately undermines other efforts to help those who have come to Canada under the program looking to aid their families. The issue should not be framed as “jobs for Canadians” but “citizenship now.” Nationalist solutions won’t work in the age of international deals like the TPP.

It’s time to realize that globalization is here to stay. A more interconnected world is ultimately a good thing. That does not mean that the labour movement needs to accept FTAs or legislation that increases the number of migrant workers with few rights. What it does mean is that struggles across the world need to find common causes and that migrant workers must have equal rights in any jurisdiction they find themselves in.

As neoliberal globalization looks to be deepened in Canada with rumours of a FTA with China in the media, internationalist appeals for solidarity are now more important than ever. After all, no FTA has ever been successfully stopped through nationalist arguments. It’s time for a new, more inclusive approach to fighting trade deals that only protect corporations and capital.

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