The Internationalist  
May 2011  
For International Labor Action
to Defeat Hamilton Steel Lockout!

USW Local 1005 demonstrates in Hamilton, Ontario on January 29. (Photo: United Steelworkers Local 1005)

For Hard Class Struggle, Not Appeals to the Canadian Bourgeois State!

Some 900 steel workers, members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1005 have been locked out of US Steel’s Hamilton Mill in Canada since last November 7 [2010]. The union refused to sign a contract which would impoverish 9,000 current retirees (many of them widows) by cutting indexing of their benefits (a cost-of-living adjustment to make up for inflation) and excluding new hires from the existing pension program. Instead, newly hired workers are to pay into a “defined contribution” scheme in which, unlike the present “defined benefit” pensions, what workers finally receive depends on gambling on the stock market. Since the bosses say these two concessions are non-negotiable, there is really nothing to talk about. As Local 1005 put it, a “line in the sand” has been drawn. After the year-long Inco strike of 2009-2010 (see accompanying article), the outcome of this vital battle will affect the entire Canadian working class. And as was the case at Inco, the workers’ struggle is being sabotaged by the labour bureaucracy with its combination of narrow trade-union economism and Canadian nationalism.

On January 29, over 10,000 trade unionists and their allies travelled to Hamilton for a “Day of Action” organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) in solidarity with the locked-out steel workers against “US-Steal.” The turnout included steel workers and retirees from Canada and the U.S. (with a contingent of Métallos from Quebec), as well as auto workers, public employees and youth. It was the largest labour mobilization in the region since the “Days of Action” 15 years ago, when a series of one-day strikes shut down one Ontario city after another. Some 120,000 marched in Hamilton on 24 February 1996. Yet the bureaucrats used those strikes merely to blow off steam rather than mount a genuine class-struggle counteroffensive against cuts by the then Tory (Conservative) provincial government. This year’s rally at Hamilton, billed as “The People vs. U.S. Steel,” was similarly designed to channel the outrage into begging from the capitalist  state. OFL president Sid Ryan told CTV at the rally, “We're saying to the Canadian government, force this company to live up to the commitment they made to Canadians.”

Since no one believed that Stephen Harper and his Conservative cabinet were going to lift a finger to defend steel workers, Ryan had a back-up message: make the pensions an issue in future elections. Canadian Labour Congress head Ken Georgetti went further and explicitly called on the demonstrators to back the social democrats of the New Democratic Party (NDP), while the USW Local 1005 organizers of the rally even left the door open to including the Liberals in the “anybody but Harper” camp. There is little distinguishing either opposition party from the Tories’ capitalist austerity agenda – the Liberals pushed through their own cutbacks nationally in the early 1990s (as did the NDP at the Ontario provincial level). Current Liberal provincial premier Dalton McGuinty literally snuck out a back door to avoid protesting steel workers last November. Now that, following the May 2 election, Harper has a majority in parliament, business is pushing him to go after public sector pensions. Instead of waiting for the blow, Ontario trade unions should go all out now to defeat that attack on Hamilton steel workers.

In fact, U.S. Steel has simply ignored the promises it made when it bought the plant from Stelco in 2007, laying off more than 2,200 employees at the Hilton Works in Hamilton even though it had agreed to maintain employment levels for three years. Now it’s going after the retirement plan even though it had formally assured workers it would “significantly improve the security of the Stelco pension plans.” Although hard-hit by the devastation of the North American steel industry, the USW remains one of the larger private sector unions, claiming 180,000 members in Canada (including in the forestry and mining sectors). Yet after more than six months of the Hamilton lockout, after the enthusiastic turnout on January 29, what has the USW done? Rather than organize concrete solidarity action in the United States, it protested outside the office of the Conservative chair of the federal parliament committee on industry. Meanwhile, the company is removing thousands of tons of metallurgical coke stockpiled at Hilton Works, likely sending it to U.S. Steel plants in the U.S.

Even as steel production was ended and the blast furnaces shut down, the USW let salaried employees continue coke production, “out of concern for the ovens”! Of course, union pickets could have shut that down, or called for seamen to “hot-cargo” (refuse to handle) the coke, but that would have been (horrors!) “illegal.” Such class struggle methods are what the USW tops like International president Leo Gerard, formerly head of the Canadian division, fear above all. Despite the rhetoric on January 29, they already caved in after an eight-month lockout at U.S. Steel’s Lake Erie plant in Nanticoke and accepted the two-tier pension there, as well as in the settlement of the year-long strike at Vale-Inco in Sudbury. A class-struggle leadership would occupy the Hamilton Works, calling on unions and supporters from around the province to ring the plant with mass pickets. It would appeal to Canadian auto workers to refuse to handle products from other U.S. Steel plants, and would call for USW members at the company’s U.S. plants to refuse to ship steel to Canada that would make up for the lost production in Hamilton.

Impossible? Not at all. Belgian oil refinery workers blocked exports to France during the French refinery strike last November. But that would mean going up against the capitalist state.

Instead of working-class internationalism, the trade-union bureaucracy appeals to Canadian capitalists and their government to support the workers. The nationalist appeal was unmistakable on January 29. The lead banner proclaimed “Canadians Stand As One!” Another called for “Manufacturing, Yes! Nation-Wrecking, No!” Behind the fiery denunciations of foreign bosses is the poisonous notion that Canadian workers have more in common with their “own” bosses. Significantly, this diversion from class struggle comes not from “mainstream” business unionists but from leftists, notably the president of USW Local 1005, Rolf Gerstenberger, who is also vice president of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist). The CPC-ML Stalinists are dyed-in-the-wool Maple Leaf nationalists, who at a May Day demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa denounced “foreign corporations” and pleaded for a “government that defends Canadian workers and pensioners.” The CPC-ML has previously made clear that even a cabinet of the bourgeois Liberal Party could fill the bill.

Local 1005 vice president Gary Howe quoted Gerstenberg as saying “U.S. Steel’s takeover of Stelco was analogous to U.S. Steel being bought by a foreign country such as China or Russia”! This crap echoes the protectionist China-bashing that is USW chief Gerard’s stock-in-trade, appealig to the national chauvinism of the imperialist superpower against China, which despite huge capitalist inroads remains a workers state, albeit deeply bureaucratically deformed from the outset. Although Canada is a junior partner to the United States, it too is an imperialist power that oppresses semi-colonial nations, from ousting an elected government and occupying Haiti in the Caribbean to torturing prisoners in Afghanistan and coordinating the current bombardment of Libya in the Mediterranean. Canadian bosses don’t “stand as one” with Canadian workers, they are our class enemies. Rather than looking to the Canadian government for salvation, Hamilton steel workers must join with workers internationally to defeat the capitalist attack with sharp class struggle.

Nationalizations and Nationalism

The USW Local 1005 leaders are by no means the only ones pushing Anglo-Canadian nationalism. The same soup is ladled out by the OFL, which declared on a poster and brochure that “Foreign-owned companies, like U.S. Steel, are attempting to steal our futures by attacking our pensions….” For its part, the ex-Stalinist Communist Party of Canada (CPC) calls to “Nationalize US Steel Operations in Hamilton” in the name of “Canadian industry” and “Canadian sovereignty” (People’s Voice, 1 February). What the OFL/USW misleaders and Maple Leaf leftists are not telling their members and supporters is that Canadian-owned Stelco (which U.S. Steel took over) was already pushing for harsher concessions; that the Canadian bosses had already reduced the workforce at the Hamilton plant from 20,000 in 1980 to 3,000 workers, creating a crisis for the company pension plan; and it would have made no difference for the workers if the dollars – whether it was the Canadian loonie or the US greenback – flowed into Stelco bosses’ pockets in Hamilton rather than those of the U.S. Steel chiefs in Pittsburgh.

At least the CPC call for nationalization of U.S. Steel operations in Hamilton has the virtue of explicitly appealing to the interests of the Canadian bourgeoisie. This reformist call stands in stark contrast to Marxists’ revolutionary program to expropriate capitalist enterprises under a workers state. Even where we call for expropriation of an especially notorious exploiter, we insist that it be under workers control, as part of a struggle for socialist revolution. Under capitalism, even state-owned industries are subordinate to the market and serve the interests of the ruling class. As Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring (1880):

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”

Left-led Hamilton USW Local 1005 appeals to Canadian nationalism. (Photo: USW Local 1005)

In an imperialist country, nationalization by the bourgeois state often amounts to bailing out owners of money-losing companies – a subsidy to a sector of the capitalists – or to strengthen military power. (In a semi-colonial country, nationalization of foreign companies can be a democratic measure of defence against imperialism, but Canada is no semi-colony.) The only way the working class can take control is through a revolution that smashes the capitalist state.

Back in the 1930s when they were organized as a faction in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (predecessor of the NDP), the Canadian Trotskyists forthrightly called for “Workers’ expropriation not capitalist ‘nationalization’” in their journal Socialist Action (October 1938), opposing indemnification and coupling this with calls for workers management or workers control.

We Need a Revolutionary Workers Party

The chauvinist/nationalist appeal by the labour bureaucracy, Stalinists and ex-Stalinists is so blatant that even some reformist groups have felt compelled to distance themselves from it. The International Socialists’ Socialist Worker (Feburary 2011) opined, “Arguments that portray the source of the problem as foreign ownership set up the idea that Canadian corporations are kinder and gentler. This doesn’t hold up to any serious scrutiny.” Fightback (11 February) wrote, in an article about the January 29 rally, that “Unfortunately, many of the labour leaders at the rally continued to appeal to nationalism in their speeches, including Gerstenberger, OFL President Sid Ryan, and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath.” Fightback (the Canadian affiliate of the International Marxist Tendency of Alan Woods) noted that “by playing the nationalist card, the labour leaders are putting up a greater barrier in getting Canadian and US workers from coming together in struggle.” True, yet despite the understated criticisms, both of these outfits continue to snuggle up to the trade-union bureaucracy, at most seeking to pressure it slightly to the left.

Moreover, the I.S. is hardly opposed to appeals to Maple Leaf nationalism in general. Its founders came out of the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada (the “Waffle” group), while leading I.S.ers have been members of the chauvinist (and quite bourgeois) Council of Canadians, which speaks “with pride” of Canadian military participation in U.N.-mandated actions (like the Korean War and occupation of Haiti!), and only wants Canada to “say ‘no’” to Yank-led interventions. The I.S. is comfortably allied with the Council in the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War. As for Fightback, while wagging its finger at OFL chief Ryan over his remarks on U.S. Steel, it simultaneously reports “anecdotal evidence” that he is “being radicalized by the events in Wisconsin” (Fightback, 31 March). And despite saying that the present situation “erodes the material basis for reformism…as nothing can be gained on the basis of the capitalist system,” rather than taking aim at the pro-capitalist labour tops it seeks a “conversation with the masses” to help “the consciousness of the movement to catch up with the objective crisis at hand.”

Both of these outfits are part of a reformist milieu of self-styled socialists (actually social democrats) who essentially act as a pressure group on the NDP and trade-union leadership. A special supplement of Socialist Worker (29 January), titled “From Hamilton to Cairo: Build the Resistance!” states the I.S.’s approach fairly clearly: speaking of “frustration with union leaders,” it poses two alternatives, “denounce them from the sidelines” or “ignore them,” and calls instead to “combine pressure on the leadership with independent rank and file action”: “Official and unofficial action can feed off each other and create a dynamic that pushes the leadership forward, while creating an opportunity for ordinary people to gain strength and confidence.” So by offering their services to build “rank-and-file” support networks while voicing a few timid criticisms, they act as auxiliaries to the pro-capitalist bureaucracy.

In another article (“Escalate the Fight Against U.S. Steel,” Socialist Worker, February 2011), the I.S. lists ways in which the bosses’ hand has been strengthened in recent years:

“Employers can shift production from one region to another, and one country to another. Having already massively downsized the workforce in industries like mining and steel, they don’t feel the pinch in the same way today as they did 30 years ago, when Inco had 18,000 miners out in Sudbury. They are able to weather a long lockout or strike in one area because they have vast and diverse operations. In such conditions, the key question is how we can develop the strategies and tools to fight back in a changed environment.”

So what are those strategies and tools? Does the I.S. call for occupying the plant, for U.S. workers in the U.S. Steel empire to undertake solidarity action, for Canadian workers to refuse to handle U.S. Steel products? No, after explaining how the bosses are better able to withstand long strikes, the article ends up calling for Local 1005 to “hold out as long as it takes to stare down the bullies of US Steel” … and urges readers to call “Human Resources” at U.S. Steel – a pathetic, empty gesture. Rather than this policy of pressurizing and capitulating to the bureaucracy, what’s needed is a call for militant labour action and a fight to oust these “labour lieutenants of capital” (as the American Socialist Daniel De Leon so aptly described them) and to build a leadership capable of waging hard class struggle through to victory.

Striking steel workers during 1946 Stelco strike.
(Photo: National Picture Collection)

There is a lot of talk about reviving the spirit of ’46, when Hamilton workers waged an 85-day strike which unionized the Steel Company of Canada’s Hilton Works and established the United Steel Workers as a major force in Canada. Together with the victorious 99-day strike by the United Auto Workers at Ford Windsor, these two key battles were victorious in gaining the right to unionize and collective bargaining. They were won with bold class-struggle action. At Stelco, when the company tried to bring in 1,000 scabs, feeding and housing them in the plant, the strikers cut off the supplies. At Ford, more than 2,000 vehicles blockaded the plant so the RCMP didn’t even try to storm it. This post-World War II upsurge drew upon the tactics from the 1930s, such as the “sit-down” strikes (plant occupations) in auto and the use of “hot cargoing” by the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters, who did not flinch at defying the bourgeois state rather than forlornly attempting to pressure it. Today’s labour “leftists,” whose idea of “struggle” is to lobby the Tory cabinet in Ottawa, are a different kettle of fish.

Ever since 1946, the Hamilton Stelco plant has been a bastion of Canadian trade unionism. While trying to tame labour with such class-collaborationist arrangements as the Rand formula[1], the Canadian ruling class (which is indeed just as ruthless as its U.S. counterparts) has also periodically forced workers into lengthy, debilitating and sometimes losing strikes. In recent years, they have been on a lockout offensive, both as a hardball bargaining tactic (at the port and Shell oil refinery in Montréal) and in bitter-end fights like at the Journal de Montréal (locked out for two years) and at U.S. Steel Hamilton Works. Moreover, the attack on steel workers’ pensions is part of a global offensive of capital against labour, from Greece and France in 2010 to the battle in Wisconsin this year. And the unions’ response to the U.S. Steel lockout can set the stage for victory or defeat in looming battles at Canada Post and Toronto city workers (where a two-tier pension scheme was already imposed in 2009).

Hamilton steel workers face a powerful enemy in the giant “multinational” United States Steel Corporation. At the same time, they are part of a powerful international union, the United Steelworkers, representing hundreds of thousands of workers, including tens of thousands of U.S. Steel employees, on both sides of the border, and with a Canadian president to boot. As the company shifts production from Canadian to U.S. plants, what’s urgently called for is international workers action. Instead, the USW bureaucracy is derailing the struggle with a combination of “Canadians Stand As One” chauvinism north of the border and “Buy American” protectionism south of the border – which, taken together, is nothing but an excuse to do nothing, and let the Hamilton workers go down to defeat. The response must be a fight to build a class-struggle opposition inside the unions fighting to shut down the Hamilton Works tight as a steel drum and stop all production and shipments replacing Hamilton output. And that can only be part of a broader political fight to forge a revolutionary workers party.

As the brutal repression at the G20 summit in Toronto warned us[2], the Canadian ruling class is gearing up its state to smash the mass protests it expects. A serious struggle in Hamilton will have to organize workers defence against the combined forces of repression. It also will require an programmatic struggle for proletarian internationalism vs. bourgeois nationalism. There is no middle way between relying on the bourgeois state and seeking to bring it down through hard class struggle. In calling for victory to the Hamilton steel workers, we in the League for the Fourth International underline that such a victory can only be the result of a class struggle extending far beyond the Lake Ontario port city to unite North American workers (Canadian, U.S. and Québécois) in a common fight for international socialist revolution. An injury to one is an injury to all – the Hamilton steel workers’ fight must be our fight.

[1] The Rand formula, established following the Ford Windsor and Hamilton Stelco strikes, instituted what in U.S. terms would be an “agency shop,” in which all workers pay union dues (through an automatic check-off or deduction from paychecks by the bosses) since they receive the benefits of collective bargaining, whether or not they are members of the union.

[2] See “Police State in Toronto,” The Internationalist No. 32, January-February 2011.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com