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Leo Gerard: Social Democrat NDP surge defying predictions

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re just days away from the Canadian election. It promises to be a historic breakthrough, that is, New Democratic Party, left-of-center social democratic party led by Jack Layton, may achieve as many as 100 seats in Parliament, making it the official opposition, something that only a few weeks ago would have been completely unimaginable. Now joining us from Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, is Leo Gerrard. He’s the president of the International Steelworkers, which means the US and Canada, but he’s also in his home town of Sudbury. Thanks for joining us, Leo.


JAY: So, Leo, first of all, I’m reading the press and the polling results of the NDP. And for Americans watching this who may not get the significance of all this, not only will this be a breakthrough for the NDP, but it also promises perhaps to split the anti-conservative vote. Led by Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party is–what can we say? It’s sort of not quite neoconservative but very conservative government. So what do you think? The National Post and some of the conservative newspapers are pushing this NDP surge very hard, hoping for a split vote. What are your expectations?

GERARD: Well, look it, let me just stay that I want to come back to what you said about Stephen Harper. I think that Stephen Harper is one of the original teabaggers, as they say in the US. He was one of the founders of the Reform Party. He was part of the right-wing extreme group that came together. And he’s actually been held in check for a number of years by minority governments. And I think stopping Stephen Harper from getting a majority, especially if we had an NDP official opposition, would be a positive move in the right direction. And I think part of what we’re seeing, in fairness, is that Jack Layton is the happy warrior. Jack is out there talking about the things that matter to ordinary Canadians who have been struggling every day to try and make ends meet. We’ve had a health care system that’s been starved by the federal government’s transfer payments while they’ve cut taxes for everything from banks to billionaires. And then on top of that you’ve got a lot of Canadians that are full of angst about corporate takeovers with no net benefit to Canada. And I think that is reverberating. And, Paul, let me just say I also think that Canadians watch American television and they see what extremists have done in America, and by sort of circling the waggons around Jack Layton and the NDP, they’re also telling Canada that we want no part of that right-wing extremist agenda.

JAY: Now, what do you think of the conservative press? The National Post particularly I’ve been watching, and they’ve been really pushing this surge in the NDP. Are you at all concerned that this is actually a kind of they’re hoping and maybe a bit of a plan to try to so split the vote with the Liberals, who are the other, you know, centrist party–at least people would describe them that way. But in terms of stopping Harper, are you concerned that this surge may actually split the vote to the extent that you actually wind up with a Harper majority government?

GERARD: Look it, I don’t think that we’ll get a Harper majority government, ’cause if you look at the polls in different segments across Canada, you look at, for example, in Quebec, the last numbers I saw is that’s where there was a huge surge for the New Democratic Party, in Quebec. There’s not a big surge going on in Alberta, but there’s a big surge going on in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and British Columbia. But I think when you put those together–again, Canadian politics are complicated. We’ve got five parties running, and five parties that could split the vote every which way. The one thing I do know for sure is it’s going to be a historic election for the New Democratic Party. We’re either going to end up within the neighborhood of 50 seats, in that neighborhood, or we’ll end up in a much higher number. And in that case, if we can do that, there won’t be a Harper majority. And I got to tell you, I’d be scared as hell of a Harper majority, ’cause he’d go back to his right-wing extremist roots in a heartbeat.

JAY: Now, let’s talk about one of the issues that you’ve been raising–and you being the steelworkers in the election and before. What’s happening in Hamilton? There’s a big steel mill there called Stelco. So give us a bit of the background of what’s taking place there.

GERARD: Well, I think it’s the kind of backdrop and background that we’ve seen in labor dispute after labor dispute, contract bargain after contract bargain in Canada and in the US. You’ve got employers trying to gut the social benefit parts of the collective agreement. You’ve got employers trying to roll back defined benefits, pension plans to defined contribution plans. What makes things slightly different in Stelco is that US Steel made a promise to the Canadian government, to a Conservative Canadian government, that they saw no reason to change anything, and they committed to not only maintaining employment in Hamilton but to maintaining a net benefit to Canada. We’re now coming into the second labor dispute in two sets of negotiations at Stelco, now US Steel, one up in Lake Eerie Works that went on for over eight months over the same kind of issues, and right after that at Hilton Works, where the company is clearly reneging on its promise.

JAY: So if the NDP does form the opposition, what do you want them–what role should they be playing on Stelco? I mean, Stelco wants to close down in Hamilton. The only solution [crosstalk] seems to be–.

GERARD: I don’t know if they want to close down in Hamilton. I think the first step to do is make US Steel live up to the commitments that were made, force them back to the bargaining table. And then I think we need to look at that issue in particular, but we need to look at the overall Canadian approach to selling off our resources, selling off our industry, de-industrializing Canada, and when we have foreign takeovers, really making sure that if there’s going to be a foreign takeover, it has to be of true net benefit to Canada, not a net benefit to some bankers and some rich people. And I think we’ve got to look at how we can rebuild Canadian industry based on the fact that Canada has one of the best resource structures in the world, whether it’s in mining, whether it’s farming, whether it’s fishery, whether it’s forestry. All of those resources were at one time the heart of the country, and we need to go back and fight for that.

JAY: So [incompr.] sorry. You’ve got a bad cough going there [incompr.]

GERARD: I got a bit of a cold.

JAY: Yeah. So in terms of the NDP, though, like, take for example the strike that took place. The steelworkers had a big strike against Inco, Vale Inco, in Sudbury just a few months ago, and Vale was able to take advantage of the fact that it’s an international operation, that it has nickel production in other parts of the world. And you guys are into a strike that must have lasted close to a year. What do you want the NDP–if they are in opposition and have some real leverage, what do you want them to do in these kinds of situations?

GERARD: Look it, I think the thing is not about any specific individual situation. It’s about setting the economic climate in which collective bargaining takes place. Right now what we have going on in Canada and the United States and Great Britain is an economic model that’s based on rewarding the rich at the expense of all the rest of us. I would like them to review the HST tax. I would like them to look at how do you protect our health care system. Let me tell you this again, Paul, that Canada spends about 10.5 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. America spends 17 percent on health care and still has 50 million plus people that aren’t insured. We can’t Americanize the health care system. We’ve got to go back and fix the Canadian health care system. We’ve got to go back to make sure we’re training enough doctors and we’re investing in the future of the health care system, not starving it. We’ve got to do the same thing with Canada pensions. A Canada pension plan in Canada pays roughly half the benefits that social security pays in the US. We have to modernize that. We have to go back and put the risk on working families. They’re not the ones who should be taking the risk. We should be guaranteeing that if people work a whole lifetime they can retire with dignity, have a decent pension plan, whether it’s from their workplace combined with their Canada pension, and they don’t have to worry about health care. I just had breakfast with my brother, who’s telling me about a woman who went to the hospital, told them that she was having a heart attack, and they let her sit there, and she collapsed in the receiving area. He went to go to the doctor’s after an injury and he had to wait ten hours. That’s not the health care system’s fault. That’s the fault of politicians who have starved the system and aren’t making it work. So I think those are the kinds of things we need to do while we look at making sure that our resources are going to use to build real good jobs in Canada, not exporting them. I can go on and on. We’ve got raw logs from British Columbia. Imagine in British Columbia that we don’t have enough logs for our sawmills, yet if you go down to the harbor in Vancouver or Prince Rupert, you’ll see boatload after boatload after boatload of raw logs being sent to China. When they turn that log into timber, they’ve got the sawdust and the chips for their paper mills. And then we’re told in British Columbia we don’t have enough logs. I mean–.

JAY: And one of the [incompr.] surprised about in the election is how little discussion there is about unemployment. Unemployment in Ontario is something like about 8.1 percent. It’s only 8.8 percent in the United States. It’s not that much more in the US than Ontario. In the Maritimes, unemployment’s about–between 10 and 14 percent. But it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency in Canada as it does in the US. Why is that?

GERARD: I think it’s all in the way it’s being discussed. I think it’s being discussed indirectly by Jack Layton when he talks about fighting for every job, getting people to go back to work. He’s not necessarily referring to the unemployment statistics, but he’s referring to what has to be done to get those statistics down. And, again, one of the slight advantages we have in Canada is we have a national unemployment compensation system, whereas in the US most of it is state by state. And so in some states you get unemployed for a few weeks and you virtually starve to death. So the number creates much more of a noise in the US than Canada. But at the same time, the Canadian numbers aren’t any better. And I think what we need to worry about in the long term in Canada is that Canada is de-industrializing faster than America, faster than Great Britain, yet of those three countries, we’re the country with the best raw resources. We have oil, we have gas, we have coal, we have all kinds of good mines, we have good timber, we have good fishing grounds, we’ve got good water resources, and we’re not using our resources to create an industrial base in this country, and that’s what Jack’s been talking about all over the country. And I think that’s why it resonates.

JAY: Alright. Well, after the election, if in fact this is the kind of breakthrough the polling is suggesting, we’ll wait a little while, and then we’ll come back to you and just see whether the NDP is actually drawing a line in the sand on some of these issues. Thanks for joining us, Leo.

GERARD: Glad to do that. But, Paul, let me tell you this before I say goodbye. I can guarantee you that when the votes are all counted on election night, we’ll have far more New Democratic seats coming out than we did going in, and that’ll be because we’re saying the right things about the right issues.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Leo W. Gerard is a steelworker and president of the United Steelworkers (USW). He was involved in the formation of the Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO, and in February 2003, was appointed to serve on the AFL-CIO's Executive Committee, as well as serving on its Executive Council. He was named Chair of the AFL-CIO's Public Policy Committee in March 2005.