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Unions March Against the FTAA

by Chris Kaihatsu Sunday, Apr. 22, 2001 at 6:05 PM
ckaihatsu@yahoo.com

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Thousands of people mill around the environs of the Human Resources Development Building of Canada. A large, Victorian building is offset by a modern steel-and-glass building with space in front carved out between the St. Charles River on one side and the highway on the other side.

An employee of the University of Quebec at Montreal, Jean-Pierre, shares a few words about his own presence at this march.

"I am here for obvious reasons. The FTAA does not consult enough with unions." He points out the president of SEUQAM (Union of Employees of the University of Quebec at Montreal), Rolland Cote, as a more suitable spokesperson.

As he does a little boy in a blue long-sleeved shirt and yellow sweatpants scampers toward the street. His father scampers after him and quickly catches up and grabs him as the boy smiles uncontrollably.

Jean-Pierre winds his way through groups of people and finds Rolland and his partner, Jeanette Lamarche, also a union member. She suggests that she translate his French.

"We cannot be for the project," says Rolland. "There is nothing to protect human and social rights."

Asked if his union has participated in many events in the past, he says no. "This is the first time. Many unions from Quebec are here, like the Federated Workers of Quebec (FTQ) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)."

He continues, "Ultimately, all the unions throughout the Americas need to be together to talk about problems that they are facing in common. We are out here at this march to be realistic. Not doing anything at this point would be an unrealistic act. The biggest challenge in creating one big union is discussion. But before we have discussions among unions we must have discussions within our individual unions to determine how to go about it. We must maintain a respect for unions' differing procedures. We must respect cultural diversity."

Jeanette added, "We are happy to be here. The government's actions have forced our solidarity. It has brought together young and old, women and men, popular groups and unions. This is a historical moment."

Toward the back of the assembled marchers a permanent tent serves as a backdrop to a growing density of thousands of marchers. Dance music pumps out of speakers atop a rental truck with a woman's voice singing, "Let's get loud." Ten large, orange balloons hang in the air behind the government building.

Nearby a handful of youth in street garb carry two signs and a number of small pennants. They read "Trabajos Con Justicia (Jobs With Justice)," "The World Is Not For Sale," and "Canadian Labor Congress."

A large contingent of shiny, deep-blue flags are printed with CAW (Canadian Auto Workers), Canada." Randy Dodman, a unionist beyond his present ten years with the CAW, notes that he is here for his kids' future. Many people in Canada have been losing their jobs, including his father, due to free trade policies. One woman with him adds that the same thing is happening in Chicago, where she's from.

"Unions have to be loud. It's all about the power of the people. Things have to get worse before they get better," says Randy. "I was reading a web site that posted the names of union officials making over 0,000 a year. They make that after eight years in those positions. Most union workers must work a lifetime to reach ,000 a year. [The union officials] are trying to bring the unions down. Safety and wages have declined. We pay taxes, but the corporations are on a greed drive. CEOs regularly make or million."

When asked about the obstacles that need to be overcome Randy responded, "Educating the membership is key. As more people realize what's happening, they'll be saying to themselves, 'Next time I'll be [at the march]. I won't be at home.'"

Near one union gathering is a wide, slick banner, about 15-by-5 feet. In capital letters it reads "NO! TO U.S. MILITARY INTERVENTION IN COLOMBIA." The 'O' is actually a red circle with a slash through it. Behind the slash is a drawing of the back of a man, criss-crossed with lash wounds. His hands are cuffed behind him, and his head slumps forward.

Cec Makowski, the Vice President of the Ontario Region of the Communication Energy Paper Workers (CEP) launches into an analysis of the free trade situation.

"We want to send a message to the people inside the fence. This [FTAA Summit] impacts the entire hemisphere. They should listen to their constituencies, including church groups and community groups. If you're negotiating free trade you need to consider the people. You need to consider social standards, the environment, and workers' rights. There should never be these closed-door negotiations. They need to be ratified by the constitutencies."

Cec pointed out that Western Hemisphere unions should take a lesson from the approach of European unions. Those unions attempt to raise people up by raising standards.

"In North America we seem to look for the lowest common denominator. This does not help the developing countries, either. Essentially, that's the message we're sending. It's encouraging to see this turnout. Social groups and community groups are coming together. There is a groundswell. First it was Canada, then the U.S., then Mexico. People see the impact. We need more transparency. There is also more networking now. There is a sense of coalition building. This [FTAA Summit] will not be the last of these meetings. We will keep seeing trade meetings in the future."

Bringing up his history as an issue-oriented person, Cec related that there was a groundswell of social opposition in the 1960s and '70s. People had been demanding equity over the race issue, and an end to the Vietnam War.

"Even British Commonwealth countries were involved in the carnage. The war was of no benefit to the people."

A question was posed to him: Compared to the '60s era, is it more challenging to build consciousness today, given the complexity of the issues involved?

"Sure there's complexity in these issues. Some say no free trade, and would prefer to be insular instead. I say yes to free trade, but with our conditions."

The gathering's milling around now gives way to assemblies of various union groups in the driveways. Toward the center a tall puppet, held aloft by three people, winds its way through the crowd, accompanied by a person on a megaphone.

"I am Oliver the Butcher. I ... have ... the ... whole ... world ... in ... my ... hands."

The puppet is a large-cheeked ghoulish face of an old man with tufts of cotton for hair. It's wearing a puffy pinstripe suit. In one hand is a little baby, with a thick red rope for an umbilical cord. Its mouth gapes open from below, showing three yellow teeth.

"Ohhhhh, I LOVE American music," drips the voice with sarcasm. The dance music continues to play in the background.

As the puppet passes Robert Bouvier, President of the Canadian Teamsters Local 106, he talks about his take on the free trade issues of the day.

"It's simple -- we are demonstrating on free trade to make sure that [government officials] don't level us from the bottom. We lose jobs, which lowers demands. NAFTA didn't cause us to gain jobs or lose jobs. It's not what they told us it would be, but we didn't lose jobs. NAFTA is really more about North-South trade, not East-West. Developing countries have no social benefits, so that creates downward pressure. The Canadian Labor Council has 2.5 million members in this province, and the FLQ has half a million members. Quebec has historically been heavily unionized, with 39.5%. The rest of Canada is 32 or 33% unionized. This is not to throw rocks, but we have grown in the last two years."

Robert continues, "It's about public awareness. Bush should never have crossed the border. Everything now is coming from the corporations. Quality of life is not for sale. We also need to stop deforestation. If the corporations do not buy Canadian lumber, they'll go somewhere else, maybe Nicaraguan lumber. And look at the energy crisis in California. Bush said no to the Kyoto Accords. They'll do anything for a buck, but there needs to be a limit somewhere."

Suddenly dropping his tone, Robert confides, "You know, it's heading toward revolution. It's the middle class that makes revolutions. The poor don't because they've always been poor, so they don't know. The middle class is losing out. A guy driving a rig used to make ,000 a year, but not any more. Now he can't send his kid to college.

A glance around now shows the entire area filled with people. Not everyone is strictly labor. Signs from groups like the International Action Center and the Alliance Sociale Continentale are visible. Various political placards are mixed into the ocean of slogans. All are related to the overall FTAA policy of gutting anything remotely human under the FTAA. "Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Say No to the FTAA," reads one.

A sentimental, quasi-stirring tune floats over the air, with the refrain of "Quebec, Quebec." A conversation with one man proves valuable as he provides a level of analysis to everything that's going on.

Mariel Dionne, a syndicalist, shares some thoughts: "This gathering is like a protest reunion," he says. "The FTAA is outrageous because it affects all workers. It levels [workers' standards of living] from the bottom-up, so eventually corporations would control the whole world. This has enormous implications for children. If we don't wake up now it will be too late. It all depends on the reaction to the FTAA. We need to hit harder. After all, we elect them [government officials], and they're not listening to anyone. It takes a lot of nerve to say that it's a democracy. What a democracy!"

Mariel has "always" been with one union or another. He has been with his current union for six years, but previously was with a hospital union. He feels optimistic about the current level of fightback, because people "won't just sit down. I'm confident."

Three women with him express disappointment with the FTAA decision. [FTAA delegates] must make good decisions," one says. "It is reality that causes all of us to be here. We do not agree with the ZLEA [FTAA]."

Serge Charbommeau with the Alliance Sociale Continentale says, "There is nothing for the people. There is money for people who have money. There is no talk of sharing profits. The only way we have is to walk with others."

He points to the role of the press which he claims as having more exposure to power than to regular people. As a result, he says, they end up manipulating public opinion.

"It's difficult to discover what's true," he complains. "People don't want the ZLEA, but the press doesn't explain the ideas of that side. For instance, they talk about cutting poverty, but the fact remains that poverty grows, and profits grow. The media needs to do a better job of coverage. They should understand the people. The people see more poverty around them, but they don't know why. The media should clarify this issue. We want more sharing for the future. People don't have power, they're just walking. I don't know, I don't know."

Toward the front of the march, where the contingents are heading toward the underpass of the highway, a number of placards greet the eye. "Water Is Not A Tradable Commodity," reads one. A banner reads "Parti Communistique du Quebec," while another one simply has an icon of Che Guevara with "FARC-EP" on it. Tall, bright orange banners have an enormous "%" symbol on them, with "attac" underneath. Nearby 2 teens play frisbee in a smaller, mostly unoccupied lot. The lawns are now left with college students who are laid back and lounging on the grass.

As the march picks up on Rue St. Paul, a contingent of Haitians is gathered by three coach buses and two black passenger vans. Oversized color posters bear the image of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with "Bienvenue" above. All seem to be holding up paper signs of the Haitian flag, one with additional type that says, "Pays De Reves." Some have signs that say "Aristide = Democracy," "Democracatie = Choix de la Majorite," "Proud to Be Haitian," and "Respect the Haitian People's Vote." One large poster, laminated, has a graphic of hands shaking with the type "Avec La Presidente Il Y A D'Le Espour." Altogether the Haitians number at least 100.

As the march flows beneath the underpass, the various groups of marchers send up different chants, creating a noise made up of voices, whistles, and the unmistakeable "So-so-so / So-li-dar-i-te!" A group of Canadian Auto Workers in their 20s chant, "Hey, hey, ho, ho / Free trade has got to go." One long, thin banner stretched by the route displays black type on a white background reading "Engagement de L'Etat." On the other side a typical Jobs With Justice placard featuring four different ethnic workers has been modified from the norm. The workers now all have black scarves across their faces, a la the Zapatistas.

The air is charged with the steady beats of drums interlocking their rhythms. One drummer uses a pair of upside-down pots fused together to bang out one beat. Another has two toasters strapped together, and a third hits an inverted white bucket for the equivalent of a bass drum.

Away from the underpass a number of signs are visible on the sidelines. "Fuck Your Summit, I'd Rather Rub It!" "Hey, Bush, I'm a Better Shot Than Oswald," reads another. The one with most impact, though, is of a small brown child with a blank or sad face, accompanied by the caption of "Ya Basta (Enough Is Enough)."

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