By Chris Webb
The first major agenda item from the last labour council meeting (Tuesday, July 6) was a general discussion on the G20 protests, particularly Saturday’s People First march that drew thousands of union members. Labour Council’s executive board had also produced a statement condemning the police actions and those of the so-called “vandals.” I’m unaware of the process of putting forward a statement like this at council, but apparently there can be no changes made to the document once it is being discussed and voted on at council. It can be spoken to and voted on but not changed, which seems wholly undemocratic and unnecessarily bureaucratic.
The labour council statement follows on the rotten coattails of two previous statements on the protests (one by the CLC and another by the same Labour Council) condemning the actions of a handful of protestors who engaged in some property damage. The new statement says “During the weekend, Labour Council issued a media release that condemned the senseless acts of vandalism… However, the extreme response of police in clearing streets late Saturday and throughout Sunday was clearly an over-reaction and a violation of civil rights.” On it goes calling for an independent investigation; an investigation into police tactics and infiltration; and urging affiliates to attend the civil liberties demonstrations. However, the statement again “condemn[s] the senseless acts of vandalism that occurred.” This statement, once again, alleges that some minor property damage “drowned out the voices of thousands.” The entire statement is framed in a discourse of civil liberties and charter rights — important rights, no doubt, but not sufficient in condemning the Orwellian measures the state and police went to in wholly silencing dissent. The statement, like other proclamations made by labour groups and left-wing celebrities, differentiates between “good” and “bad” protestors. The “good” being those who marched from A to B on a planned police route and the “bad” includes those who smashed windows and apparently those who allowed this to happen — see the community organizers of the Toronto Community Mobilization Network. It has already been established that an official, independent investigation is unlikely given the overwhelmingly pro-police position taken by the Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments. The TCMN’s People’s Investigation is a welcome response to the popular demand for a state sanctioned and directed investigation.
While the labour leadership’s position has been established, it is clear that many union members oppose this consensus and are actively debating it in their communities. Numerous council delegates spoke to this G20 statement — apparently more than any labour council statement in the last decade. A delegate from CUPW and two others from CUPE had an issue with the condemnation of “Black Bloc” tactics. They spoke about the march as a resounding success and the need for unity and debate before further division and petty squabbles. The general argument amongst speakers was of a need to focus on the ongoing issues of public sector cuts and other austerity measures with further statements, plans for action, and organizing. Other CEP delegates spoke eloquently of the need to not play into police and mainstream media rhetoric, but instead to turn our attention to the impact of the G20 on working people and how we will fight this. A CLC rep, USW delegate and some CAW delegates spoke in favour of the motion and the denunciation of the “vandals.” A delegate from the OSSTF and myself argued that the statement needs to call for the immediate release of all G20 political prisoners and condemn their arrest and imprisonment. This was well received by the council, but we were unable to make any additions to the statement due to council regulations. However, numerous labour activists who signed the, now infamous, open letter to CLC President Ken Georgetti are meeting to plan fundraisers and solidarity actions for those still detained.
Two things strike me about this debate. The first is that there was a great level of nuanced analysis of the protests and labour’s response to them by the delegates. This is clearly something that has been thought about and debated extensively within unions. The second is that a number of delegates placed the blame for the violence squarely on the police — with some differentiating violence from property damage — and pointed out that the blame for the distortion of the protest’s message lies with the mainstream media’s coverage of the protests not with window smashers. There seemed to be a lot of concern and recognition that labour’s quick condemnation of the “violent vandals” was the wrong response, but it would soon be the wrong response again as the motion was voted on.
Unlike the police, labour shouldn’t be in the business of playing a public relations game. We’re facing some of the toughest austerity cuts in decades, and instead of having honest political discussions about how to fight them we’re trying to keep our image squeaky clean. Why? As one speaker pointed out, this is precisely what Harper and McGuinty want us to do. We’re wasting time pointing fingers at masks instead of organizing right now against the swiftly gathering storm.
Labour’s position on the protests has been abysmal, but it has also caused concern and consternation amongst the rank and file activists who were on the streets witnessing the mass arrests and beatings. Their response has come too late for those still imprisoned, and it is too late for those who have been organizing in communities against the G20 for the past year. Unfortunately, the politics of the civil liberties demonstrations are now a washed out liberal demand for “inquiries” and “accountability.” As Naomi Klein, rather stupidly, shouted at a line of cops in front of Police HQ in Toronto: “Do your damn jobs!” They did and we will likely see them inflicting the same violence and harassment on communities as a tide of austerity measures surges over us. The time may soon come when labour groups will have to ask themselves how far they are willing to go to protect their members and the gains they have won over the past century. I believe that labour’s late response to police violence is an unfortunate indicator of their future response (or lack thereof) to mobilization and actions targeting the G20’s austerity agenda.
Chris Webb is an activist and journalist. He works for SEIU-Local 1 and Canadian Dimension magazine