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Vol. 81/No. 42      November 13, 2017

(front page, As I See It column)

Workers: Look to your class, not to your country!

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Contentious North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations between Ottawa and Washington, as well as Mexico City; trade disputes over softwood lumber exports and tariffs; Canadian dairy quotas challenged by Washington; and a threatened 300 percent U.S. government import levy on Canada’s Bombardier C-Series planes are all reflections of the bosses’ heightened competition in the midst of the ongoing worldwide crisis of capitalist production and trade.

And the bosses in both Washington and Ottawa are relying on job losses and national propaganda to draw workers in behind their competing campaigns to protect “our economy.”

“We are fighting very hard at the NAFTA negotiating table for the interests of all Canadian workers and for Canadian jobs,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told Parliament Oct. 2.

On both sides of the border union officials echo this, urging members to rely on their governments to “save our jobs” at the expense of workers elsewhere.

The United Steelworkers organizes some 40,000 forestry industry workers in Canada. When the U.S. government announced hefty tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imports — used in home construction — USW North America President Leo Gerard said this is “a direct attack on our Canadian industry.”

In the U.S., the same union’s website criticizes NAFTA, saying, “It is about the outsourcing of good paying American jobs that these agreements facilitate.”

And union officials in both the U.S. and Canada take aim at Mexican workers. Speaking during the recent autoworkers strike against GM Cami in Ontario, Jerry Dias, Unifor union president, decried “Mexico and $3-an-hour jobs.” He told the Globe and Mail, “We really have to isolate Mexico from future investment.”

But there is no such “we” — there are two contending classes, the workers and the bosses, with diametrically opposed interests. The union officials’ strategy is a deadly trap.

There is no such thing as a “Canadian job” or an “American job.” Under capitalism, the bosses establish protectionist barriers against their competitors abroad or allow trade to flow freely across borders to protect markets and profits. For the same reason, they lay us off, drive down wages and seek to bust our unions.

Proponents and foes of the trade pact on both sides of the border seek to pit workers at home against workers abroad, who are out to “steal our jobs.” The bosses seek to break down human solidarity, to make it easier to assault all workers living standards and democratic rights.

NAFTA is a protectionist North American trade bloc against competing imperialist powers like those in the European Union and Japan. It also regulates trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, with the northern powers profiting from the exploitation of Mexico’s workers. Workers in Canada and the U.S. should stand with Mexican workers against imperial pillage.

Softwood lumber tariff battles

Sixty-nine percent of all forestry and wood products in Canada are exported to the U.S. So when the U.S. housing market crashed in 2007, it dealt a blow to lumber bosses’ profits on both sides of the border. U.S. housing starts continue their historic decline today.

More than one-third of all jobs in the forestry industry in Canada have disappeared, with over 100,000 workers thrown out of work. U.S. workers face similar devastation. Since 2005, almost 20 percent of all U.S. sawmills have closed, and over 300,000 workers have lost their jobs.

Under these pressures, Ottawa and Washington have squared off in repeated disputes and negotiations over softwood exports. Aiming to protect their shrinking profits, U.S. lumber bosses convinced Washington to impose tariffs of up to 31 percent on Canadian softwood lumber imports last spring.

Western Forest Products said these tariffs played a role in its decision to close down the Port Alberni mill on Vancouver Island in July.

The tariffs meant lumber prices rose, and U.S. construction bosses who were forced to pay more for building materials screamed bloody murder. At the end of August, most of the tariffs were lifted temporarily as negotiations between Ottawa and Washington continue.

To shore up their falling profits, bosses have also turned to speedup, with deadly consequences for workers. British Columbia’s forestry industry remains one of the most dangerous places to work. In 2012, two sawdust mill explosions killed four workers and critically injured many more.

Testifying at the inquest on one of the explosions, Claude Briere, a machinist and millwright at the mill, told Tyee magazine that “conditions ‘totally changed’ after shifts were extended to 10 hours from eight hours in an effort to boost production.”

Way forward for working people

I and other Communist League members and supporters have visited sawmill workers at their doorsteps or at mill gates here in the last couple months, discussing the crisis and introducing them to the League, the Militant and books by revolutionary working-class leaders.

Randy Baust stopped to talk with me as he came off shift in the Interfor sawmill in Maple Ridge on the Lower Mainland Oct. 18. A sawmill worker since 1976, he is USW local secretary. Baust said that six mills in the immediate region had closed.

To fight the devastation, I said, we have to start with seeing that our allies are not the Canadian bosses, but the workers in the U.S. who are on the receiving end of the same treatment we are, sometimes from the selfsame bosses.

Look at the rulers’ cynical reaction to hurricane devastation in Texas and Florida. Scotiabank economist Brett House told the media that the storms are “an incentive” for a softwood deal! This, while working people all over the Caribbean, Florida, Texas and California are in dire need of building materials.

Our unions in both the U.S. and Canada should demand that Washington and Ottawa give no-strings-attached aid to those in the Caribbean battered by the storms. And the unions should demand both governments fund emergency efforts to put us to work to fill the construction needs of all those devastated in North America. That would point the way to building a fighting union movement in the interests of workers across all borders.

Our answer to Mexican workers’ $3-an-hour wages must be to extend the hand of solidarity in a common fight to raise their pay, not unite with our bosses in a futile attempt to deny them jobs. Any other strategy, and we lose our soul.

Michel Prairie in Montreal contributed to this article.  
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