The Free Trade Election—No Choice for Workers!

The professional sellout artists who run the Canadian union movement, and their parliamentary representatives in the NDP, claim that the whole future of the working class depends on stopping Brian Mulroney’s "free trade" deal. A lot of ordinary working people have been fooled into believing this. But the truth is that the free trade debate is a wrangle within the capitalist class in which workers have no vested interest.

Whether "free trade" or Canadian protectionism triumphs, the capitalists will attempt to ensure that the workers pay the price of intensified international competition. If Mulroney’s deal falls through, and the Canadian capitalists end up "independent" of all the major international trading blocs, the first thing they will do is try to further slash labor costs (i.e., working-class standards of living) on the grounds that they are locked into a small domestic market. Alternatively, if free trade goes through, it becomes an excuse to cut living standards and social services in order to stay competitive with the U.S.

In either case the capitalists are going to want concessions on wages and working conditions while further reducing government services and social benefits. Whether or not they get away with it will depend on the response of the unions. The limited gains won in the past—like unemployment insurance, old age pensions and medicare—were won by hard class struggle. And it is class struggle—not a renegotiation of capitalist tariffs—which will determine what happens to working-class living standards in the future.

Mulroney’s "free trade" package is not a return to laissez-faire capitalism—impossible in a world divided by rival imperialist powers—but rather an attempt to consolidate a North American customs union to wage a trade war on Europe and Japan. It is supported by the majority of Canadian capitalists because they want guaranteed access to the U.S. market and fear the growing protectionist sentiment in the American congress. But while Bay Street, the banks and most of the corporate elite support Mulroney’s deal, some of the smaller capitalists, like Frank Stronach of Magna International, who need preferential access to the Canadian market, oppose it. Some elements of the ruling class consider it shortsighted to tie their fortunes too closely to an American empire in decline. Still others agree that a North American customs union is necessary, but think that Mulroney could have negotiated a better deal.

While big business generally favors the deal, the trade-union bureaucrats (and the NDP) want to protect the "independence" of Canadian capitalists, hoping to export unemployment and wage-cuts to the U.S., Korea, Japan, etc. The willingness of Shirley Carr and Ed Broadbent to "defend" Canadian workers by allying with Ontario’s Liberal premier and vicious pirates like Stronach is the flip side of their abject passivity in the face of plant closings, union-busting and scab-herding. The cowardly and corrupt labor skates cannot defend the real interests of Canadian workers because of their loyalty to their own rulers. But Canadian bosses are the main enemy of Canadian workers, and a strategy of alliance with any sector of them can only lead to defeat. International labor solidarity—not protectionism and nationalism—is the way forward for the labor movement of every country, including this one.

Why Not to Vote NDP This Election

The only differences between John Turner’s Liberals and the Conservatives are details of timing and packaging. Both parties represent Bay Street and the wealthy elite which controls the economy. The NDP is different. While also committed to preserving this system of exploitation and oppression, it is organically connected to the trade-union movement. Thus it is possible, at times, for the NDP to reflect in a deformed fashion the independence of the workers from the parties of big business. But in this election, instead of campaigning as any kind of class alternative, the NDP is running as a would-be junior partner in a coalition government with a capitalist party. This is reason enough to withhold any support from the NDP.

Moreover, Broadbent has done his best to match the nationalist rhetoric of Turner while demonstrating his loyalty to Canadian imperialism by dumping the NDP’s paper anti-NATO position and reaffirming the social democrats’ commitment to strengthening the armed forces. Those who set out to defend the economic interests of Canada’s capitalist parasites must inevitably end up supporting their military defense as well.

The NDP’s nationalist framework also involves "protecting" Canadian workers through support to racist immigration laws. When 155 Tamil refugees were picked up off the east coast in August 1986, the NDP echoed the chauvinist chorus with a proposal to crack down on those who help "illegal" immigrants set foot in Canada.

The NDP is running an ultra-nationalist protectionist campaign, and openly proclaiming its willingness to sit on the front bench of a coalition government with either capitalist party. A vote for the NDP is therefore a vote for nationalism and class-collaboration—it is a vote against independent working-class action. No vote to the NDP in 1988!

Fake-Leftists Climb Aboard Nationalist Bandwagon

The tide of national chauvinism generated by the free trade issue has infected many of the supposedly revolutionary organizations to the left of the NDP. Probably the most grotesque example is the Communist Party, which has lately taken to attacking Ed Broadbent for damaging anti-Mulroney "unity" with his tepid criticisms of Turner!

Socialist Challenge (SC), an ultra-opportunist group willing to capitulate to just about anything, is shamelessly calling "For an NDP Government." A headline in the September issue of its paper proclaims, "For Socialism and Feminism—For a New Democrat Government." Despite a disclaimer in the fine print that their call for an NDP government "in no way signifies confidence" in that party, their propaganda has a different thrust:

"We’re looking for an alternative committed to workers’ rights, women’s rights, international solidarity and national self-determination, and liberation of oppressed minorities....A New Democrat government, based in the English-Canadian working class and with popular support across the country and in Quebec, could satisfy these aspirations…."

According to SC, under the NDP, "Canada’s foreign policy should be transformed from the war-mongering militarists of NATO to an anti-war stance based on nuclear disarmament...and solidarity with oppressed peoples world-wide." SC, which falsely claims to be Trotskyist, conveniently "forgets" the fact that the Canadian state is an imperialist state which exists for the sole purpose of protecting the oppressors and exploiters. A social-democratic parliamentary majority will not change this one bit. As revolutionaries we recognize the historical necessity to smash the imperialist state—we leave it to SC to pray for its miraculous transformation into an agency of social liberation.

On free trade SC declares, "For a New Democrat Government—Against the Mulroney-Reagan Trade Agreement!" Taking its cue from the labor bureaucrats, SC complains that this agreement "will throw workers into unemployment" while "dragging down everyone’s standard of living." Naturally these self-described "activists organizing against the Mulroney-Reagan trade agreement" offer no substantial criticisms of the protectionist program of this movement in which they are so quick to enlist.

Socialist Worker (SW), newspaper of the anti-Soviet International Socialists (IS) has reflected the gravitational pull of the free-trade movement. When the trade talks began, IS argued that free trade was a diversion and that: "Socialists take no side in the free trade debate. The real fight is against capitalism, not for one country’s capitalism against another’s" (SW, September 1986). But as the campaign gained momentum among the liberal/reformist left, the IS position began to shift. The front page article of the December 1987 issue of Socialist Worker declared that:

"The so-called ‘free trade’ initiative is just a code-word for an assault on wages, social security and the welfare state. It is necessary to build and support any and all campaigns designed to defend Canadian workers in this assault."

The inconsistencies of the IS position reflect a tension between its fundamental opportunism and its pretensions to represent a class alternative to the overt nationalism of the labor bureaucrats. An article in the July issue of Socialist Worker advances both positions simultaneously—arguing that the two sides offer workers "no choices at all" but concluding that when anti-free trade "meetings and demos do take place, socialists should participate...." But why participate in a demonstration when you supposedly don’t support the issue it is called around? Obviously because it’s popular.

Like Socialist Challenge, the IS is calling for a vote to the NDP, arguing that although the NDP is pro-capitalist, "We must vote with our class, and against the parties of big business and capitalism." This declaration of perpetual loyalty to the social-democrats has nothing to do with the Leninist tactic of critical support. For revolutionaries, the whole point of critically supporting NDP candidates is to destroy illusions in the reformist traitors. To be worthy of any kind of electoral support the reformists must at least represent the political independence of the working class on an organizational level. A vote for the NDP when it is vying with the bourgeois parties to see who can be most jingoistic, while simultaneously offering to climb into bed with either of them at the first opportunity, is a vote against class independence and a vote for political capitulation to the capitalists.

Revolutionists are ready to unite with anyone in the workers movement—including the NDP and the CLC brass—to fight the continuing capitalist attacks on working people. But we refuse to tell the workers that they must choose between two equally anti-working class options (Canadian protectionism or North American protectionism). Instead, we say to prepare for some hard class struggle ahead—whether or not the deal goes through.

The only choice for class-conscious workers is to join the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party to lead the fight for workers power and the expropriation of the capitalist parasites. This requires a political fight in the unions to oust the current pro-capitalist leadership, and replace them with a leadership which bases itself on an internationalist program of struggle for a socialist society in which human need—not capitalist profit—determines social priorities.

November 1988

Posted: 12 December 2004