Revolution or War n°24

(May 2023)

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Workers Strikes during The “Good War” of WWII in Canada (Klasbatalo-ICT)

We reproduce below an article of the comrades of the ICT in Canada, the Klasbatalo group, which illustrates the maintenance of the class struggle and the capacity of the proletariat to fight for the defense of its living conditions even during the worst periods of counter-revolution and generalized imperialist war, in this case the Second World War. The fact that these strikes and struggles took place in Canada expresses the international and internationalist nature of the proletariat. At a time when the war continues to ravage Ukraine and all proletariats, especially those living in the so-called “democratic” capitalist and imperialist powers, are called upon to tighten their belts for the defense of Ukraine and the present and future war effort – the same is true on the other side, on the side of Russian imperialism and its supporters – the reminder of these unknown episodes of our class struggle must inspire the present proletarian generations.

Capitalist society is marked by the fundamental antagonism between two classes: the working class and capitalist class. Often, however, especially in times of crisis, the capitalists’ politicians and pundits make appeals to “social peace” to dupe the workers into falling behind the “national” effort.

Over the past few years, many attempts at this have been made: during the pandemic, it was “we support the essential workers whose wages we shall not raise,” while in France and England this year it is “take a pay cut and a higher retirement age to stick it to Putin”. Almost universally, an attack on the working class and its living conditions is couched as a sacrifice common to all. “Social peace” is identified by the left and right with the “good cause” of the nation: no better example of such a cause was the imperialist Second World War, wherein, as the story goes, all classes of the Allied powers set aside their immediate interests to defend “democracy” (whether that of the West or that of the USSR) and fight Hitler.

However, the “social peace” of WWII is simply a myth. Despite all propaganda, workers across Canada throughout the entire duration of the war engaged in numerous defensive struggles for better working conditions and against wartime restrictions on wages, the ability to strike, and collective bargaining.

At the onset of the war in 1939, the Canadian state established a series of wage and price controls. Ostensibly set up to prevent wartime inflation, in reality they posed a direct attack on the working class in preventing wage raises as unemployment decreased due to war mobilization. Across Canada, regional labour boards as well as the National War Labour Board (NWLB) were established to “mediate” labour disputes, but in every case their main function was to stifle class struggle and enforce the bosses’ demands. Throughout this “conciliation” process, strikes were made illegal.

Thousands of women marching against the working conditions of the mines in Kirkland Lake (1941).

Despite the strict repression strikes during the war, the working class in Canada by no means sat on its hands for the war effort; instead, a strike wave menaced Canadian capital from 1941 to 1943. In this period, 425,000 workers participated in 1,106 strikes. In 1943, one third of unionized workers were on the picket lines. This was a direct response to wage controls and deteriorating working conditions as the state mobilized the economy for imperialist war.

Pitched battles in the class war were fought across the country; shipyard workers in Quebec and the Maritimes, workers at the transit system, steel mills, and an aircraft plant in Montreal, steelworkers in Sault-Sainte-Marie, ON, Trenton, ON, and Sydney, Nova Scotia, miners in Kirkland Lake, ON, and Ford auto workers in Windsor all took to illegal strikes in defence of their living conditions.

Ultimately, many of the strikes were defeated by repression of the labour boards, the intervention of the federal government, use of police and scabs, and sabotage by the unions. When the Sault-Sainte-Marie steelworkers rejected a scant offer by the NWLB, the CIO union “leaders” forced them to stand down anyways and give up hope of resuming the strike.

The Canadian state had no questions as to whether the war effort was predicated on capital’s victory against the workers. In 1943, during the steel strikes in Sault Ste. Marie, Trenton, and Sydney, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King met with the striking workers to convince them against pushing for a 55-cent minimum wage and wrote in his diary:

“I have told [the steelworkers] that they must realize that at the bottom of this whole war is the question of social security [read: social peace]. That all parts are whole in upholding that objective and that the place we will have to begin is at our own backyard at Sault Ste. Marie and Sydney.”

Our class’s fight during WWII lends us a direct lesson for today: reject “social peace,” for the uninterrupted class struggle! The class struggle will never cease simply because the capitalists want it to; we must fight to extend it on all levels and have it take a direct, political character. As imperialist tensions only escalate, and as Canada and every other capitalist state gears up for conflict, we now more than ever must fight for an independent, working class perspective to guide our class towards its ultimate revolutionary victory over the capitalist system.