The “Left” Bamboozled Again!

CPS Election Analysis 2008 - Week 3
William O’Casey – Alberta Energy Sector Worker, September 14, 2008

It is with dismay that I find myself penning this commentary.  Along with hundreds of thousands of other Alberta workers my family’s livelihood is completely dependent on the energy sector and in particular the tar sands.  Like thousands of other Alberta energy sector workers I have worked my whole life in the construction, maintenance and technology and engineering of industrial projects in Alberta.  It is how we make our living. 

Alberta energy sector and construction workers are no different than auto workers, manufacturing  sector workers, forestry workers, east and west coast fishers, health care workers, teachers and service industry workers, confronting a capitalist system in crisis. We are not dispensable.  We need our jobs and we will fight for our jobs!  

In spite of working in a so-called expansion industry, like most Canadian workers, Alberta workers live in fear of being unemployed.  Don’t believe the clap trap in the capitalist press that we are insulated from imminent economic disaster.  We have been through several boom and bust cycles and another one can happen at any time.  With the announcement of Shell PLC halting the Sarnia expansion and moving it to the US into lower labour cost jurisdictions and then announcing the halt to phase III, IV and V of the Scotford expansion in Ft. Saskatchewan, it looks like another “slow down” is creeping up on us.

Like our sisters and brothers on the east coast who are compelled to leave families and travel to Alberta to find work because their livelihoods have been destroyed by the “labour mobility” policies of finance capital we find solace in our labour.  We find strength in our power to create and contribute to one another.  We stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of the bosses’ demands for “more hours”.  Our cause is our class.  We are workers - no different, no better, and no worse than any other worker, confronting the same class issues that all workers face.

Like auto workers, forestry workers, fishers, manufacturing workers we have accomplishments, we have communities, we have a life and it is not for sale.  Moreover we produce a product the whole country needs to develop and survive – energy. Try getting along without it.

Alberta workers have engineered, constructed, maintained and managed some of the most challenging, technical and risky industrial projects on the planet; from Syncrude, Suncor, Dow, Husky to CNRL, Opti-Nexen and Conoco-Philips.   Alberta workers labour for the multi-national oil companies holding our noses as we get up at 4:30am and march out the door for another 10 or 12 hour shift.  Like all workers we understand that we are the indispensible human factor, the  fundamental material basis of all value produced even though we may not be able to articulate it in fancy language and big words of the “educated” classes. We know we are being exploited and ripped off and we do what we can to fight back for the sake of our families and our communities.  We are not indifferent about what happens to the energy we produce and we want it to be used in the best interests of all Canadians.

That is why it is deeply resented by energy workers when the left articulates lofty plans for saving the planet at our expense.  It is political suicide for them to do so and forces us into hard political decisions. 

Sadly there isn’t a single party on the left that has laid out an environmental plan in consultation with us.  We are talked at, talked about, flown over, rolled over, lumped in with the bosses as “rich Albertans” and then asked to vote for programs that call for shutting down the industry.

Alberta workers have been given a stark federal election choice and a vision of the country - the Harper neo-con Big Oil intensified labour agenda of 60 to 90 hour work weeks, Peter McKay’s body-bag US-NATO militarism and Jim Flaherty’s finance capital “labour mobility” CCCE two step, or the Layton-May green team promising to shut down the tar sands and save ducks!  What it boils down to; is for the sake of the “environment” we are being asked to choose between neo-con wages or green unemployment. 

Jack Layton laid another stark choice on us, either we agree to curtail expansion or share responsibility with Harper and Stelmach for the deplorable health conditions in first nation and aboriginal communities. 

Layton said on his “fly-over” of the sands on September 8 that the NDP will halt any new approvals for the tar sands until there is a plan in place that addresses the heath concerns and heath consequences of the people of the north:

“Despite warnings from his own government’s agencies, Harper fast tracked Imperial Oil’s Kearl tar sands development, north of Fort McMurray, without any conditions to mitigate the significant impacts on the environment and on the health of affected communities like Fort Smith.”

Why didn’t Layton attack and condemn the neglect of the Harper-Stelmach governments of the entire health system in Alberta that is rent with privatization and in decline, and ask workers what we think should be done about it?  We have something to tell him about the health, welfare and safety of energy sector workers including our aboriginal brothers and sisters who work in the industry – 154 Alberta workers died on the job in 2007.

The aboriginal people of Alberta are the victims of racist neglect and oppression by big investors and so are we and the labour movement condemns this outrage.  Shutting down energy development will make matters worse not better.  What our brothers and sisters in northern communities want is what all workers want, work and wages, health and pension benefits, decent homes and schools and that can only come in an expanding economy. 

These choices are placed in front of Alberta workers by the very same hyper-left opportunism infecting and confusing organized labour from coast to coast.  It is a choice that I personally never thought I would have to make.  It is a choice between neo-con intensified work where we will make wages and maybe able to provide for the long term welfare of our families or the left’s political patronizing sentiments of the environmental green “save the ducks” crowd.

Well, I for one am here to tell you that workers in this industry are no different from workers elsewhere in the country, we are not volunteering for unemployment.  Auto workers produce polluting cars and they are fighting for their jobs.  Forestry workers are forced to clear cut beetle infested wood and lumber workers process it into construction grade lumber.  They are fighting for their jobs too.  The steel industry consumes vast amounts of energy produced by our industry and the workers there are defending their jobs.  The transportation industry is a huge consumer of energy and rail and airline workers are fighting like hell for their employment. Fishers on both coasts are confronted with declining fish stocks.  They are fighting to hold onto what is left of their industry.  The manufacturing sector consumes vast amounts of energy and manufacturing sector workers are fighting back to keep their industries alive and their jobs intact.  Don’t expect it to be any different in the energy sector.

It is unacceptable for left parties to adopt slogans and emotional appeals by over stimulated university think tanks and serve that up to us as supportable “labour electoral policy.”

Here’s a thought.  Any discussions and decisions by the left about Canadian energy policy that have a hope in hell of winning votes and being successful will be made in consultation with Alberta workers first.  Is that reasonable?  We think it is but that is not what is being done – on the contrary we are the last to be asked.

This failure to consult workers is having bizarre anti-labour consequences and is best illustrated by what the Harper website said about Layton’s statements quoted above.  Harper gloated; “As NDP leader Jack Layton calls for a moratorium on further expansion of Alberta’s oil sands, Canadians are asking, Why isn’t Jack Layton consulting with any of the unions before jeopardizing thousands of good union jobs across Canada?” Why indeed?  

It is the same McCain-Palin tactic of pretending to defend the interests of the working class by citing Palin’s husband as a proud steelworker.  USW President Leo Gerard noted that, “while her husband is one of 850,000 dues-paying members of the steelworkers union, it does nothing to absolve Sen. McCain of his long history of anti-union sentiment and anti-worker actions.” 

Similarly the Alberta Federation of Labour must respond to the Harper distortion of pretending to defend the interest of Alberta union members.  Nothing Harper, Flaherty, Stelmach, Wall, Dion or Campbell or the whole lot of them say, absolves them from their responsibility for “their long anti-union” stance because they have a “green plan”.  At the same time it might be a good idea to advise Layton and other friends of labour to check first with the AFL before they make more statements that affect the jobs of workers in the tar sands.

Similarly the Communist Party entered the election campaign on Sept 11 with an election program entitled a "People's Energy Plan for Canada", based on public ownership of the oil and gas industry as the material basis for a radical shift in economic and environmental priorities for the country.”  The announcement said that, “The cornerstone of such a policy must be the public ownership of energy, from its primary production/extraction and refinement through to its distribution and sale.  Any meaningful transformation of the energy `system' is impossible without wresting control from the private energy monopolies..."  Good!  The Communist Party is late on the scene with an energy program and it is encouraging to read that they have placed the energy issue at the centre of their campaign and is calling for nationalization and public ownership of the resource.

Where the program goes off the rails is not to make clear, at the outset, that the Communists are putting forward their program primarily in the interests of all working people of Canada.  It fails to clearly spell out that it is a program for workers.  That it is a program for workers to assert control and sovereignty over energy resources first and foremost to assure the long term energy needs of the whole country.  By asserting control it forms the basis for the development of the whole economy and to provide jobs for workers, east and west, north and south.  The Communists will abandon its long history of fighting for energy as the basis for an expanding economy at their peril.

The program has not made that abundantly clear. The Communist “People’s Energy Plan” states that the central feature and fundamental principle of the plan:

“is its firm commitment to fundamentally transform the system of energy production and use, (my emphasis) through dramatic overall reductions in greenhouse gas emission, air pollution, and radioactive waste.  Such a transformation must include significant public investment in research (my emphasis) and expansion of solar energy, wind power and other renewable forms of energy.” 

Let me see if I understand this; we need significant public investment for research into energy production and use so that we can find ways to produce alternatives to fossil fuel?  Isn’t that what the environmentalists have already achieved?  We don’t need to be told that pollution is bad; we breathe it every day on the job – ever smell bitumen in the morning?  That is not what workers need to hear.  What workers need to hear is that they will not be made the victims of the solution.

This poses a fundamental question not answered clearly by the Communists.  Workers require Communists to have a partisan unassailable class analysis that informs us to the events, developments and direction our country and the world is moving.

The plan states as its principle starting point that:

“Our world - and our country - are entering a period of grave dangers, an era of potentially devastating climate changes, widespread hunger and chaos, all linked to the unchecked growth of fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and wars to control oil reserves.”

Is the fundamental premise of the plan that the overarching issue facing the working class and all of humankind global warming or is the overarching issue confronting the working class and all of humankind the system of imperialism in the 21st century, its aggressiveness and worldwide assault on peace and the international working class? There is a dividing line between the analysis of well meaning environmentalists and the world view of the working class and that line can never be blurred. 

The mortal danger facing the working class and all working people is the threat of nuclear war. It is the ultimate environmental disaster and it is a growing danger. It is the issue the Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Pembina Institute and even the Council of Canadians and the Parkland Institute never talk about. It is the issue that the Communists must talk about and within which they then frame their energy plan.

One can hear the howls of protest; “You can’t pose one against the other, they are equally threatening, if we don’t drop everything and unite to save the planet there will be no world left to save”, and other such frightening scenarios.

The growth of the productive forces, an objective process, has brought the development of economic system of capitalism to the point where it is unsustainable and has ceased to be a progressive system.  Imperialism is moribund and predatory.   Imperialism is the overarching danger to the planet – not global warming.

The Communists have a job to do.  Never abandon the fundamental starting point or you will wander away from your class base and get lost with well meaning intellectuals in an endless effort to make the capitalists see the errors of their ways.

As a worker I stand firm with my sisters and brothers who labour in the sands and the patch.  I will never accept any “plans” that call for our jobs.   Our solace is our labour, our strength is our unity, and our cause is our class.