By Scott Price
A major crisis is facing the labour movement and the left in Manitoba. Within the first six months of the Progressive Conservative provincial government’s four year mandate labour laws have been rolled back, cuts to civil service are being made and crucial jobs in Manitoba’s north could disappear. A consultant firm (KPMGLLP) know for advice in privatization of service is being brought in. Yet outside of some small groups like Solidarity Winnipeg and a demonstration by Unifor members at the Manitoba legislature, an organized response to the PC government has been noticeably absent.
The last 17 years the labour movement and much of the left’s political strategy has been to support the NDP. Political action was reserved mainly for election time door knocking and volunteering. This has its merits but does not build organizing capacity nor the confidence and skills to launch campaigns needed to challenge a PC government with a strong mandate (the PCs have 40 of 57 seats). Moreover with a divided NDP caucus and weak leadership the NDP’s prospects of regaining power in 2020 are slim.
Both the left and the labour movement are starting from a position of profound weakness. Without actions and campaigns, no matter how small, there is no hope of turning this around. What is needed is to see these issues as openings and opportunities to create the capacity and confidence that is needed.
In July, Denver based company Omintrax announced they would stop operating the Port of Churchill this season due to lack of grain shipments. This is a direct result of the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board, which supplied 90 percent of shipments through the port. The PC’s have maintained they would not bail out the company nor subsidize the railway leading to the port. This would put in danger roughly 10 percent of jobs in Churchill, a town of just over 800 people.
There have been some rallies organized by PSAC to save the Port of Churchill. Tom Lindsey, the NDP MLA in the Flin Flon riding, has been outspoken about the issues currently facing Northern Manitoba. However, more is needed, this is a key issue for the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) to organize around not only to save jobs in the province but also to argue for the advantage of public ownership. A campaign built around supporting public ownership would not only link various parts of the labour movement and working class from across the province, but also let people gain valuable experience and confidence in organizing.
Within the last year there have been several unions in Manitoba that have organized picket lines and rallies. UFCW local 832 members who make Crown Royal whiskey in Gimli walked the picket line for over a month to improve working conditions and wages. Various CUPE locals across the province have held rallies for better working conditions and to make the case for good public services. MGEU members at Macdonald Youth Services walked the picket line this past summer for better wages. This demonstrates workers have the resolve and determination to take on strikes and picket lines to gain important improvements in their workplaces.
Certainly no one can say there is no fight in the Manitoba labour movement, but these have been isolated fights. What is needed is to link these struggles together under the themes of the importance of good paying jobs, public services and collective power. Moreover the PC’s Bill 7 ended automatic union certification if 65 percent of workers sign a union card and requires a secret ballot vote. This is a direct attack on how unions organize and operate in the province, thus making it a common cause for all union members, whether public or private sector.
17 years of relative inactivity has created a labour movement more concerned with meetings at the legislature and the minutiae of “inside” politics not mobilizing or educating their base and training activists. Another four or eight years of a similar path will do much of the PC’s work for them.