Labour Looks Forward From Quebec City
As we look forward to planning future political actions in opposition to free trade and globalization, unions in English Canada can learn much from the People's Summit and the anti-FTAA protests held in Quebec City in April.
It is noteworthy that such a massive anti free trade demonstration would take place in Quebec, where none of the major political parties opposes free trade. No small part of the success of the April 21 protest was due to the efforts of the Quebec unions, whose members participated in the tens of thousands. The fact that such a broad spectrum of members participated in this protest should encourage the rest of the labour movement to consider the organization of similar mass rallies in the future.
A key element to the success of the demonstration, and to the Labour forum held as part of the People's Summit, was the cooperation of all of the major union centrals. The perennial rocky relations between the FTQ, CSN, and CSD did not stop them from jointly planning and participating in these activities. This should act as an inspiration to everyone in English Canada, within the CLC, and within the CAW, AUPE, and other suspended or unaffiliated unions, to recognize that the need to unite and jointly cooperate in the struggle against corporate globalization must supercede our other political differences and institutional rivalries.
The Labour movement must also learn from the acts of courage and solidarity that were displayed by the thousands of non violent protesters that maintained a continuous presence at "the wall" which enclosed the official summit.
There has been much discussion about the route of the "peaceful march" which led protesters to a park several kilometers from the wall. Labour, and the other groups which organized the massive march, had been clear to the participants that the route would be organized to ensure the safety of all. As such, this protest was open to all, including families with young children and persons who were not able or willing to risk violence or tear gas and rubber bullets. Once organized on this basis it was impossible to change the route in any way that may have betrayed this commitment of personal security.
The leadership of the Quebec labour movement and the other groups that organized the march recognized the need for this type of "peaceful," inclusive protest activity, which can appeal to all union members and the population at large. Demonstrations are not an end in themselves, but rather a means, or a reason to engage the membership in political discussion. In the weeks preceding the demonstration many of the Quebec unions did a spectacular job of engaging members in political discussion and education around free trade. Asking members to participate in activities which may be hazardous to their health inevitably results in the political discussion being eclipsed by a debate on tactics. This mass demonstration was organized so that all of the members were comfortable bringing their families and friends. As a result over 60,000 workers and citizens marched together in the largest show of opposition to free trade ever held in Canada.
Combative situations such as Quebec City, which involve a large, intimidating police presence, also require us to consider adding other forms of protest activities to that of the mass march. We need to find the means of openly acting in solidarity with the students and youth who participate in non violent protest actions. When state leaders gather to enshrine corporate rights within international agreements it is inevitable there will be a show of state repression which generates a vigourous protest. The labour movement must be clear which side it is on.
That doesn't mean sending unprepared union members up to police lines to be incapacitated by gas and pepper spray. In Quebec City it was very clear that many of the youthful demonstrators at the wall were better trained and equipped than the union activists that briefly appeared to show solidarity before most were driven away by gas. It will mean that labour must put greater emphasis on non violent civil disobedience training. It means that union leaders should openly and repeatedly condemn all forms of state violence. It requires that union resources are directed to provide medical and legal support for those that are injured and arrested. It also means that there must be an open discussion of the relationship between the labour movement and other non labour groups who practice more combative forms of non violent protest.
Faced with scabs, court injunctions against picketing, and plant closures, many Canadian unions have frequently found it necessary to engage in all sorts of different types of non violent acts of civil disobedience including plant occupations and blocking roads and bridges. Our movement wasn't built only on picket lines, it was built on the streets. Labour should not feel uncomfortable when others use similar protest tactics to support our mutual goals.
Despite some differences over tactics and strategy the events in Quebec City should serve to promote greater cooperation between labour and other parts of the movement against globalization. The cooperation within labour, and between labour and the other organizations in organizing the People's Summit, bodes well for the future. Hundreds of labour delegates to the People's Summit conducted a march to the wall on Friday as a sign of solidarity with the students and youth The fact that leaders of the CLC registered as an affinity group and participated at a Spokes council during the Quebec protest indicated a willingness to establish a dialogue with other parts of the greater movement.
The is a need for a thorough discussion of the future forms of protest and relations between the organizations and constituencies that make up the anti-globalization movement. Labour should be part of these discussions and should participate in a spirit of comradeship and solidarity. Quebec City demonstrated once again that we have much to contribute, and much to learn.