NBFL Solidarity Awards - James Brittain (2006)

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The Value of Unions to Workers and to Society:
An Example of Working Class Struggle in Saint John, N.B.

By James Brittain
University of New Brunswick

The New Brunswick Federation of Labour - Logo The province of New Brunswick has seen righteous times in the struggle of the working class and devastating attacks against the organized unity of workers. The famous Saint John Street Railway Strike in July 1914 presented the tenacity and power of workers to mobilize peoples in objective position against the exploitive economic interests of a select few. The great struggle of the Local No. 663 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees depicts this classic struggle.

In the summer of 1914, streetcar workers belonging to the newly formed Local 663 were fearful of their union becoming defunct by capitalist and state pressures. In response to this threat, the streetcar workers went on strike on July 22nd. Immediately, the striking streetcar workers not only demonstrated the ability of the working class to coordinate proletarians in solidarity but they also united numerous members of civil society in opposition to dominant class interests. Within twenty-four hours, several thousand Saint Johners - unionists, workers, locally supported citizens, mothers and children, and so on - lined the streets of the port city, in a statement of solidarity with the workers. The streetcar strikers demonstrated incredible fortitude and objective purpose by standing up to the economic exploitation of the St. John Railway Company owners, coupled by the coercive arm of the state trying to debilitate the workers and townspeople's unity.

On July 23rd 1914, thousands of striking railway workers and members of civil society flooded the downtown of Saint John to cease the trolleys from maintaining their routes (through the operation of scabs) to continue surplus profits for the owners. Nevertheless, the state, in support of the capitalist class, had the Royal Canadian Dragoons (armed cavalry) attack all the persons (including children) lined in and alongside the streets with flat-edged swords. Following the coercive aggression, the workers did not disband in chaos or fear but responded in organized resolution so as to not give in to state/capitalist threats and violence. The response was of unified class-based conflict, which resulted in one of the most important acts of working class camaraderie ever recognized in the history of the eastern coastline. As a result of the workers' cohesive mobilization, the cavalry (and the militia called in on July 24th) could not withstand the railway strikers' power. On July 25th the strike was over, in favour of the workers!

After citing this important win in the history of working class struggle within New Brunswick, we have, as of late, seen a shift in state and capitalist aggression toward unions and workers. Recently, dominant class aggression has been carried out not through violence but economic resolutions, resolutions that nevertheless favour owners as opposed to the workers and the society in which they live. It is during these periods in time that one must understand the value of unions to the workers and society.

It is important to note that no one region or province is relieved of capitalism's expansionist structural need for increased profits at the expense of society, the working class, and the environment but if there was ever a province that expresses the growing social, political, and economic polarization of the working class, to that of the wealthy and political elite, it is here in New Brunswick.

One of New Brunswick's cornerstone cities is Saint John, an excellent and disturbing example of this class polarization. Recently, the port city was cited as being one of the most impoverished cities in the country. Today, Saint John has a poverty rate that sees one in four people living in scarcity and 60 percent of all single parent families striving to scrape by. Nevertheless, in the midst of these disturbing realities the Common Council of the oldest incorporated city in Canada recently allowed one of the wealthiest families (and economic empires) in the country to obtain a tax agreement - arranged behind closed doors - that has and will continue to reduce localized tax revenue for the next quarter-century, while dramatically increasing the company's surplus income through non-unionized labour.

In the spring, the Common Council of Saint John agreed to a locked 25 year property tax-cap of $500,000 per annum instead of the anticipated $5 million a year that would have been received through property tax collection. The state-induced tax relief for Irving Oil is in part due to the anticipated construction of a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in the area (construction that will, in addition to environmental devastation, greatly hamper regional lobster grounds for local fishers). If one does the math, and includes an estimated rate of inflation between 2 percent and 3 percent, the total loss of taxable revenue - to be replaced by the average worker in society- is over $121,500,000 by 2030.

Disturbingly, such facts are concluded while the same city Council has recently raised energy rates for the working class and has openly stated that it is unable to fiscally cover millions of dollars in pension funds for already retired city employees. Presently, the city faces a multimillion dollar shortfall in pension returns for its retired workers, with a future deficit that could be as high as $88 million. In reply to this deficit, the Common Council of Saint John has ironically stated that it may once again have to raise taxes for the working class if provincial aid does not save the day. Such a statement begs the question, where is the provincial government, which supported the LNG tax-break, supposed to acquire the income? The answer, on the backs of the provincial working peoples and civil society!

This past November [2005], the Council added further heaps of salt to the wound of the working class and agreed to support Irving Oil's plan to build a (second) road to the new LNG terminal site. The city has arranged to put up roughly $2 million dollars toward the road's construction, while the private company is going to cover the remaining portion of the estimated $10 million dollar bill. However, this is not the most upsetting aspect of this additional agreement. Under the plan, the Common Council proposed expropriation as a means of procuring the lands, needed for the road, from those who hold title to property in the area. It is disturbing that the state is proposing to expropriate land from working class and working poor New Brunswickers only to give it to the wealthiest, most powerful, and largest landowning family in the region. Is this what state expropriation law was meant for, to expropriate what little property people in society have, only to appease capitalist interests in their pursuit of expanding privately held profits?

It is based on the above accounts that not only must working peoples of New Brunswick band together in opposition to this and other undue stresses placed upon the plight of workers and their environment. Nevertheless, all members of New Brunswick's society must recognize the importance of organized labour and its ability to bring together peoples for a common goal and purpose of just laws and righteous practices that benefit the majority of persons in society and not a select few. It is in times, such as these, that society must recognize the historic importance that unions have brought to not only the workers within their organized bodies, but to the general population. It is times, like these, that the people of New Brunswick must look back at the struggles, such as the Streetcar Strike of 1914, and recognize that the value of unions to workers and society is essential so that the collective many have a sound and unified voice.

Long live the struggle of the working class!

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