The Global African – Labor Day and Canada’s Relationship with Africa

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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about Labor Day and the state of the worker today. We’ll also look at Canada’s historical relationship with Africa.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. Stay tuned.

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FLETCHER: Labor Day was created in 1882 by the Central Labor Union and Knights of Labor. It was established to celebrate workers for their major contributions. There is debate on the date for this holiday in the wake of the Haymarket affair in Chicago. This fateful event started when a peaceful protest by workers became violent when police fired into a crowd after a dynamite bomb was launched. It was ultimately decided that instead of commemorating this affair on May 1 like most of the rest of the world, a separate holiday for workers would be established. The holiday was placed on the official calendar in 1887 during President Grover Cleveland’s term.

Today, workers all over the world face many hardships, with growing inequality due to unfair pay, lack of benefits, and poor working conditions. According to the United States Department of Labor, Sub-Saharan African countries have 30 percent of the world’s child laborers, oftentimes laboring under hazardous conditions.

What is the state of the worker 133 years after the creation of Labor Day? That’s what we’re going to be exploring right now.

We’re here with William Lucy, who is the former secretary treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He was also the founding president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which was founded officially in 1973. And he stepped down just a few years ago.

Bill Lucy is an icon in the labor movement. And I know I’m embarrassing him in saying this. He is someone who became very well known in connection with the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated.

So it’s a pleasure to have you here with us.

LUCY: It’s my pleasure to be here, Bill. Thanks so much.

FLETCHER: Pleasure.

Is there a role for a federation? And I’m asking you, not representing–you representing anybody, just you as an individual, is there a role for a labor federation today? And if so, what would you say that it is?

LUCY: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that there is a role. I mean, but we’ve got to see things in a different context. I mean, it’s not just the [riding herd (?)] over a number of affiliates, but it’s the laying out an agenda for workers, period, both domestically and all over the globe.

We can’t survive as a movement if the corporate community has got the power to move productive capacity anywhere they choose. They’ve got the capacity to move capital anyplace they choose and compete with a movement here that has decent wages and decent benefits. I mean, the need for the federation is sort of seen clearly in the need to help build trade union institutions in other places around the world, so that corporations can’t run from one place to the other and make workers sort of compete on the downside.

So the need to help build a global movement is clear, and no single institution can do that. Nor will it happen on its own, the need to set global standards for different industries that don’t have a clear profit motive at the end of a worker’s day, to be able to build solidarity among workers across state lines–and I don’t mean domestic states, but across country lines. And that’s a job for a federation.

Secondarily, the need to have a political agenda that speaks to protecting what labor has gained over time, so it’s just–it’s not eroded by whatever the next flavor of the month is in terms of politics. We had, without any debate, the right to organize and bargain collectively for years. I mean, it was fought for, died over. We had it. So all of a sudden somebody like a Scott Walker can decide that workers will no longer have the right to organize and negotiate on benefits that have been established 50 years.

I mean, there is a role for labor to create the environment where these kinds of debates and discussions can take place. I mean, years ago, ’40s, ’50s, there was not a debate between the major political parties as to whether workers ought to have the right to organize and bargain. I mean, they had the right to be as tough as they wanted to be or could be, but it was not a question of whether workers had the right. And we’re now in an environment where there’s a real debate as to whether or not we should have the right to operate in concert.

FLETCHER: And we’re actually–we’re going to post the document that you and I actually worked on about a worker’s agenda, so the listeners, viewers of this program can actually get an idea of the flavor of what you’re describing.

LUCY: Well, if you look at the democratic movements around the globe, you would not have thought that, let’s say, in South Africa you would have come out of an apartheid legal system and you would not, if it had not been for organized labor, build an independent movement, independent of the political parties, but committed to the improvement in the quality of workers’ lives. That’s just as true here.

FLETCHER: Mhm. No question about it.

One of the threats that we’ve been feeling for a while is a variation on right to work. There’s this particular threat that you know that’s going on in the public sector, where there’s a Supreme Court case that will be coming up this fall. And I think a lot of our viewers may not get what’s really at stake. And it has to do with the issue of what are called fee payers.

LUCY: Right. Right.

FLETCHER: And I just wondered if you could just take a moment to explain to our viewers exactly what’s at stake with this case and why should someone who has chosen in the public sector not to join a union, why should they be paying anything?

LUCY: Well, I have to say, like, the crazies that have sort of taken charge of the debate around this, trade unions in the public sector have the responsibility of representing the interests of workers–negotiations, servicing, etc., etc.–irrespective of whether or not they are a member of that union. If a union chooses not to represent somebody who’s not [incompr.] they can be sued for failure to represent, which is sort of a contradiction.

But this issue of a fee payer, an agency fee payer, is to pay for the benefits that flow to you as a result of the union carrying out its responsibility for everybody who is a member or everybody who’s in the union. And this has been in place for years.

So the right wing sees this as a way of just absolutely taking away the power and influence of unions that work for and speak for an organized group. And this will spill over into the private sector in nothing flat if it happens in the public sector.

The case–I guess there’s a case out of California that involves teachers, I believe. There’s a similar case out of Illinois that involves homecare workers, daycare workers. And the intent is to cripple organized labor or lay the foundation for wiping out organized labor and its representational role.

FLETCHER: You know, earlier you were talking about some of the international issues, and specifically about South Africa. But what it called to mind was that for several years–I don’t remember exactly how many–you were the president of the Public Services International, what’s called a global union federation of public sector unions from all around.

LUCY: Right.

FLETCHER: And one of the things that I encountered in the United States is that many public sector union activists and leaders didn’t get why to be involved in international affairs. And they acted as if it was, I don’t know, not even just a luxury; almost just like a game or something. But you, I remember, Bill–it’s really funny–I remember there was a CBTU convention some years ago you didn’t go to. You were president. And you tape recorded something, because you had to appear at something that the PSI was doing. And you explained that to everybody, and everybody in CBTU got that. But it was obviously important to you, the PSI. Why? Why was it important? And why does that remain important?

LUCY: Well, I think the international role and responsibility of brother and sister unions is so key. Here in the U.S. we measure democracy in one way. In other countries, they measure it in a completely different way. To somebody in Botswana, democracy is running water or sidewalks. And if they’re going to be meaningful citizens, then they have to have a stake in their country, whether it’s Kenya or whether it’s any undeveloped countries. There’s an incredible need to have public services delivered to just deal with quality-of-life questions that people have. And PSI, Public Services International, was a global federation of nations committed to the delivery of public services–health care, transportation, clean water, clean air. And if you want a peaceful world, then people have got to have at least some standards by which they can survive.

FLETCHER: So you would say–this is a final question to you, but following up on that–so what would you say to a worker who says, that’s all well and good, Bill, but why should we spend our hard-earned money here, when we’re getting our rear ends kicked, supporting workers in Botswana or in Bangladesh or Bulgaria?

LUCY: The one thing that is common to both of these situations: that the enemy that fights us here is the enemy who would support the building of institutions there who would compete with us here. The corporate community really searches the world to find the lowest common denominators that would prevent it from just earning more money. They would finance a race to the bottom, where workers compete against workers to find out who can be the poorest. So, as to the worker here, he’s got to understand that his well-being is caught up in this battle to keep everybody relatively poor, to keep the worker in Bangladesh from earning a decent living, and have that worker compete with a textile worker here. So it’s an ongoing educational job that has to be done so that workers understand that globally workers can band together to fight the forces that keep us globally weak and globally poor. And it’s not something that instantly comes to the average worker’s mind, but it’s a responsibility we have to educate around this. I mean, if you talk about global economic institutions, why not global worker institutions, so that at least you’ve got a voice in the arena where we discuss, you know, economic progress or we discuss worker’s rights?

Some years ago, the ILO was structured as a forum for both workers and governments and organizations and corporations to come together and talk about all of these common concerns. But it doesn’t take you long to figure out that the balance of power is not on the side of the workers, but it’s on the side of the governments and the corporations. So we’ve got to find a way to get our folks clear that we have to participate in building global trade union institutions.

FLETCHER: William Lucy, thank you very much. And happy Labor Day.

LUCY: Happy labor day to you, too.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment.

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FLETCHER: When it comes to the question of imperialism in Africa, we oftentimes talk about the role of nations like France, England, Belgium, and the United States. We don’t often hear about the relationship between Canada and the continent. An upcoming book entitled Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation explores this dynamic, examining Canada’s role in the helping of the overthrow of Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah, its extensive mining interests all over the continent, and how it profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the text represents a fascinating glimpse into an often overlooked relationship.

We’re joined for this segment with Yves Engler, who is the author of a new book on Canada and its relationship to Africa. It’s called Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation. Yves Engler is a Montreal-based activist and author, and he’s published eight books, and this is the most recent.

And I want to welcome you to The Global African.

YVES ENGLER: Thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure.

So I was quite fascinated when I received notification from you about this book, because I don’t–I’m someone that’s been very involved in issues in connection with Africa, and Canada is not one of the countries that’s most associated with the continent. So I think it would be useful if you could just help us put this in some sort of context.

ENGLER: Yeah. Well, that would, I think, certainly be the widespread opinion, maybe changing today with regards to the mining industry, where Canadian mining companies dominate across the continent. But certainly most Canadians, and even many Canadians who are fairly informed on Canadian foreign policy, and many Africans, don’t see Canada as a particularly major force on the continent and certainly don’t necessarily consider Canada an imperialist force next to the historic Britain, France, etc., or the U.S. in more recent times.

But the reality is that Canada has been aggressively involved across the continent for over a century, with Canadians involved in the scramble for Africa, conquering different parts, with Canadian missionaries in the late 1800s operating across the continent, in one case providing health services to Cecil Rhodes’s force that conquered Zimbabwe in exchange for land in Harare.

FLETCHER: At a certain point, it sounds like that Canada was operating almost more like–as a proxy for Britain, but now you’re describing something that seems very different, something that’s far more independent and linked in more with something that’s going on with global capitalism.

ENGLER: Yes, I would say that’s correct. I mean, initially there were Canadians, for instance, who were governors of northern Nigeria, of Ghana, of Kenya. They were the governors during the British colonial period, and they were, of course, British governors. These were individuals who were trained at the Royal Military College of Canada. They were trained in this country, in large part to participate. That’s the point of the Royal Military College of Canada, set up in 1870s, was to, in part, develop, train soldiers on behalf of British imperialism. So these individuals were trained in this country, but they engaged under the British flag. And that was the dominant, until–probably really until World War II, where most of Canadian engagement on the continent was through the British. In one instance there was a Canadian who was involved in conquering parts of the Congo on behalf of King Leopold II. So, historically that was the case.

I would say in the past 25 years, two decades, with the neoliberal push, the rise of Canadian mining companies–this is the most obvious example–the rise of Canadian mining companies was absolutely startling. So in 1989 it was something like $250 million in Canadian mining investment across Africa. Today it’s over $30 billion. So we’re talking about 150-, 200-fold increase in the past 20, 25 years. And that’s very much because the IMF, the World Bank, the Canadian International Development Agency, and others prodded African countries to open up their natural resource sector, to reduce royalty rates, to basically allow foreign mining companies to come in, to dominate. And it’s been Canadian mining companies that are the biggest players. Canada’s the biggest mining player globally–and also the case in Central America and in South America. But in Africa there’s no doubt that today Canada is a mining superpower. And so Canadian diplomacy, Canadian aid policy seemed–particularly aggressively under the current Stephen Harper government, has been completely aligned with advancing the interests of Canadian mining companies.

FLETCHER: The extractive industries, the mining issue, I’m just curious. What countries are we talking about where these Canadian corporations are penetrating?

ENGLER: It’s more than 35 African countries. So it’s almost–it’s most of the continent. The big examples are Zambia, Tanzania. And there the examples are–in some instances it’s just horrendous from a human rights perspective.

So in the case of Tanzania, we have Barrick Gold, which is the biggest gold company in the world, based in Toronto. Its operations, its North Mara mine, there have been dozens of people who have been killed by security forces or police that are paid for by the mining company in and around their mine. Most of those people who have been killed were just searching for gold, so it’s–the mine displaced locals that had previously been involved in small-scale gold extraction. And people continue to try to find little bits of the precious metal. And so there’s been tons of repression there. There’s been instances of rape, abuse, and the company’s had to pay some of the victims of that.

And there’s actually an example going back to the mid 1990s where a mine that Barrick Gold took over, which was then run by another company, called Sutton Resources, another Vancouver-based company, there’s accusations that 52 people were buried alive when they filled in the holes that the small-scale miners were previously using as part of a process to entrench Sutton Resources operations there. And this was this–we have all the internal documents on this issue as well. And the Canadian embassy, the Canadian high commissioner in Tanzania, was aggressively pushing the Tanzanian government in favor of displacing tens of thousands of small-scale miners back in the mid 1990s.

So Canadian diplomacy–so the examples of Canadian mining companies, they’re almost always working very closely with either the local ambassador or the high commissioner.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you one final question. In the United States, as you probably know, there’s been periodic debate–it’s reemerging–around the issue of reparations, and in the context of, for African Americans, reparations for slavery, and for Jim Crow segregation particularly. Is there any discussion in Canada about reparations vis-à-vis Canada’s relationship to the continent?

ENGLER: No, there’s definitely no discussion about that. Most Canadians are completely ignorant about Canada’s role. Most Canadians don’t even know that there were Africans enslaved in Canada.

One of the things I suggest in the book is that there should be some minimum, which we’re not going to–probably we should start talking about reparations, but at minimum some recognition of that history. And in some instances we still recognize the slaveowners and we still recognize these officials who made wealth off the slave system. Let’s start by removing monuments to them and start building monuments to reflect the real history.

But the question of reparations is very far from the political agenda today.

FLETCHER: Yves Engler, thank you very, very much for joining us for The Global African.

ENGLER: Thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time.

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