Saturday, September 29, 2012

Culture of Concessions Has Gutted Organized Labour

By Sam Gindin
September 27, 2012

At the end of the 1970s, just before the era of concessions began, the U.S. section of the United Auto Workers included some 700,000 members at the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler). In each subsequent round of bargaining, the union accepted concessions in exchange for the promise of ‘job security.’ Today, after three decades of this charade – sold by the union as well as the companies – there are 110,000 UAW members left at these companies, a stunning loss of almost 85 per cent of the jobs.

The Canadian section of the union resisted this direction for a time. In fact, it was tensions over the response to concessionary demands that led in 1985 to the Canadians breaking away from their parent and establishing the Canadian Auto Workers. As it turned out, the new union did somewhat better in terms of jobs for a significant period, but today their numbers too are dramatically down: from some 70,000 at the end of the 1970s to under 21,000 today, a fall of some two-thirds.

Since the early 1980s, real productivity in the Canada-U.S. auto industry (i.e. after discounting for inflation) has more than doubled. Real wages, on the other hand, have actually fallen in the U.S. and only increased moderately in Canada.

Dependence on China's Growth Not Path to Sustainability

By Jim Harding
No Nukes
September 26, 2012
Media coverage of Premier Wall’s recent trip to China was “dumbed-down”.  It takes courage to criticize an economy that is “doing well” in conventional terms. Conventional terms are exclusively about economic growth; not health, or justice, not human rights or the environment.
Once the global market becomes the political “be-all and end-all”, market-dependent politicians are inclined to simply follow the money, without a balanced consideration of outcomes, domestically or abroad. Surely governance and its reporting should involve more than cheerleading the hitching of our economic wagon to China’s totalitarian economic growth.

Monday, September 24, 2012

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Unions in a Democratic Society

A Response to the Consultation Paper on the Renewal of Labour Legislation in Saskatchewan

By Christopher Schenk

Labour law changes the Saskatchewan government is considering would result in lower wages, less workplace democracy and greater inequality, says a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).  The research was commissioned by the National Union of Public and General Employees.Regina —The Saskatchewan government’s contemplated changes to labour legislation as outlined in the Consultation Paper on the Renewal of Labour Legislation in Saskatchewan will have the perverse effect of lowering wages, undermining workplace democracy and contributing to worsening inequality in Saskatchewan, says a report released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

With Conservative parties in several provinces favouring similar legislation, Saskatchewan has become the frontline in the battle to maintain historic labour rights. Unions in a Democratic Society: A Response to the Consultation Paper on the Renewal of Labour Legislation in Saskatchewan by Christopher Schenk, provides a critical review of the Consultation Paper’s orientation, namely its lack of recognition of the role of labour rights in advancing democracy, equality and economic justice. It also explores how the Consultation Paper fails to understand the historical context and principles behind several key features of the Canadian industrial relations system.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Story of the Statue of Liberty

By Phil Shannon 
Green Left Weekly
Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Statue Of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story
By Edward Berenson
Yale University Press, 2012

“We are the keepers of the flame of liberty,” said then-US president Ronald Reagan, opening the centennial celebration in 1986 of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. Reagan claimed the statue as an American beacon of freedom to the world.

As Edward Berenson shows, however, the statue’s political virtue had been compromised long before Reagan’s neo-conservative hypocrisy.

The French creators who gifted the statue to America in 1886 — Edouard Laboulaye (legal scholar), Frederic Bartholdi (architect) and Gustave Eiffel (engineer) — were “centrist liberals”. Although civil libertarians and anti-slavery abolitionists, they opposed the progressive republicans, democrats and socialists to their left.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Regina Community Clinic: 50th Anniversary Gala

Video: 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela


In their second film regarding political and social change in Venezuela, after “Venezuela from Below”, Azzellini and Ressler focus on the industrial sector in “5 Factories–Worker Control in Venezuela“. The changes in Venezuela's productive sphere are demonstrated with five large companies in various regions: a textile company, aluminum works, a tomato factory, a cocoa factory and a paper factory. The workers are struggling for different forms of co- or self-management supported by credits from the government. “The assembly is basically governing the company”, says Rigoberto López from the textile factory “Textileros del Táchira” in front of steaming tubs. And machine operator Carmen Ortiz summarizes the experience as follows: “Working collectively is much better than working for someone else–working for someone else is like being a slave to someone”.

The protagonists portrayed at the five production locations present insights into ways of alternative organizing and models of workers' control. Mechanisms and difficulties of self-organization are explained as well as the production processes. The portrayal of machine processes could be seen as a metaphor for the dream machine “Bolivarian process” and the hopes and desires it inspires among the workers.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Peter G. Makaroff — a Doukhobor for all times

The Spirit Wrestlers
September 24, 2007

Peter Makaroff
At the beginning of the 1900s, the Society of Friends (Quakers) made regular visits to the new Doukhobor colony of Petrofka* [sic: Petrovka, map] on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River not far from the present town of Blaine Lake, They spotted a bright boy and helped Peter to get a high school education, first at Philadelphia and later at the Rosthern Academy, fifty miles north of Saskatoon. He was able to get a teaching certificate from a short session at Normal School, and then with the money saved from the meager salary of a schoolteacher, he was able to put himself through the University of Saskatchewan and emerge with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1918. He was the first student of non-Anglo-Saxon parents to graduate from the University — which means that he was the first Doukhobor to go to college and become a professional man.

Within a year of completing his practice, he was pleading cases before the Supreme Court of Canada Later, in 1932, Dr J.T.M. Anderson, then Conservative premier of Saskatchewan, appointed Peter Makaroff as King's Counsel in recognition of the important part he played in helping to quell some of the rambunctious antic of the zealots. He acted as counsel to Peter P. Verigin in British Columbia, in the legal battle in which Verigin was saved from last-minute illegal deportation to his native Russia. Because of the high drama of this incident, I attracted much interest in the international press (McConnell, 1992: 95). Peter Makaroff continued to defend Peter V. Verigin throughout the years. He remained as legal council for the leader when the United State Commission Agents (in 1937) brought a $1,000,000 suit against the Community Doukhobors.

At this point, the noted celebrated judge Emmett M. Hall was asked to come down from Saskatoon to help a noted radical lawyer' Peter G. Makaroff with the defense, and he accepted gladly. 'It was obvious,' he said 'that this was a police riot. Until the police charge there wasn't the slightest evidence of wrongdoing or intended wrongdoing on the part of the strikers. Instead of doing anything about the unemployed, the government slapped them into camps, and when they boiled over a confrontation was provoked.'(2) The trials lasted well into 1936. Five accused were acquitted, 12 cases were dropped for lack of evidence and nine men were convicted and received sentences of up to 18 months, many of whom welcomed the prospect of regular meals and accommodation which they could not receive outside because of non-existent jobs. The Hall-Makaroff team helped the 'small guys' get a fair shake in our courts. They were made the victims of conditions that existed in Canada through no fault of their own.

Read more HERE.

Journalist bashes 'corporatism' during lecture at U of R

SEPTEMBER 21, 2012

Award-winning journalist Chris Hedges thinks corporate influence is increasing in Canada.

The American-born journalist, who was once ordered to be assassinated by Saddam Hussein, was in Regina on Thursday to give a lecture at the University of Regina.

The outspoken author of 12 books didn't mince words when talking about corporate influence in North American politics.

"You have corporate overloads - and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a product of corporatism - creating neo-feudalism where your poor and working class are shunned aside and your middle class is decimated," said Hedges.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Trade Unions and Canadian Democracy promotion video

NYC Books

Click HERE to purchase.

Today in Labor History: "The Jungle" published


Upton Sinclair, a poor young socialist determined to do his part to make a better world, wrote his incredible book titled "The Jungle" in the tarpaper shack in Princeton that was his home. Page after page in the book is filled with the nauseating details of how the meatpacking industry was preparing America's food.

When the book came out Sept. 20, 1906 it became an instant best seller.

The nation was shocked as it learned about the conditions in the Chicago stockyards.

Sinclair told how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors on the payroll of the companies looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as potted ham.

Within months a gagging, but aroused population demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who became physically ill after reading an advance copy, demanded that Congress establish the Food and Drug Administration and , for the first time, set up federal inspection standards for meat.

At the age of 28 Sinclair was viewed as the man who took on a mighty industry and won.

Sinclair spent months in the Chicago stockyars, mingling with the immigrant workers he described as "wage slaves."

Over their kitchen tables in their tenement apartments he heard them tell about the backbreaking, mind-numbing work they did for totally inadequate wages. He said he worked on The Jungle for three months, "pouring into the pages all the pain" he had experienced.

Since the book's publication federal regulation of the food industry has been considered part and parcel of the things that are good about America. Not until the tea bagger Republicans of today came on the scene has that ever been challenged.

Walmart in China

Anita Chan
Walmart in China
Ithaca Cornell University Press

Reviewed by Bridget Kenny
University of the Witwatersrand
Global Labor Forum
September 12, 2012

Walmart in China is an important book. As debate rages around Walmart’s operations beyond the United States, this book provides our first concentrated review of conditions at both ends of the supply chain in China, and it gives us an analysis of the effect of unions in Wal-Mart stores, important in the long-documented context of Walmart’s anti-union stance.

As Anita Chan asks in her introduction, ‘[w]hat happens when the world’s largest corporation encounters the world’s biggest country?’ (p. 1).

The lasting impression given by this collection is of how the global weight of Walmart holds forth: codes of conduct mean very little; tiered subcontracting of suppliers degrade working conditions further; regularized (and illegal) underpayment of wages of retail employees are borne by workers with little choice; the tantalizing status of working for a global powerhouse propels the consent of others; and, the ambiguous role of unions – at once opening a potential collective space to workers and yet in practice kowtowing to management’s power and broader politics – seems more like another layer of control.

Read more HERE.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

R&F Radio on Brad Wall's Labour Law Review

Rank and File Radio
July 25, 2012 episode

Following our weekly labour news update, we discuss the labour reforms being brought forward in Saskatchewan by Premier Brad Wall’s government that has been in power since 2007. We also examine the legal challenges confronting the government’s reforms as well as its similarities and differences with the recent Ontario PC white paper “Paths to Prosperity“, and the draconian repeal of labour rights in Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker.

Click HERE to download this episode.

About Rank and File Radio

Rank and File Radio is a weekly Canadian labour news program broadcasting from Kingston, Ontario, Canada on CFRC 101.9FM. In the near future, RFR will be podcast at seeks to:
  • provide listeners with factual and informative labour news
  • help build solidarity for workers in struggle
  • develop a coherent analysis of the labour movement
More HERE.

Marta Harnecker: activist, writer, teacher

Her views on the Latin American Left today  

By Eleonora de Lucena
September 2012

[Translation of an interview from Folha de São Paulo for August 28. See original here.]

She defines herself as a Marxist-Leninist “popular educator.” A Chilean, she was a student of philosopher Louis Althusser, a Catholic student leader and a member of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. She married one of the commanders of the Cuban revolution, Manuel Piñeiro or “Barba Roja,” and in the 2000s she became an adviser to Hugo Chávez.

Marta Harnecker says she has written more than 80 books. The best known, Conceptos Elementales del Materialismo Histórico (The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism), from the 1960s, has sold more than a million copies and is in its 67th edition. At 75, she travels throughout Latin America and says she is optimistic; the United States no longer does what it wants in the region and the concept of sovereignty has spread.

Living now in Vancouver, Canada, she considers Chávez “an essential revolutionary leader” but a “contradictory person.” “He is a soldier who believes in popular participation. The important thing is to see the fruits of this thing.” Venezuela is the least unequal country on the continent.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Canadian Political Left Disappearing: NDP Slides to the Right

By Yves Engler
September 18th, 2012

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar was rebuffed by party leader Tom Mulcair after he meekly criticized the Conservatives’ recent move to cut off diplomatic relations with Iran
Last Tuesday the Appeal of Conscience Foundation announced that Stephen Harper would receive its world statesman of the year award. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger will present the prize at the end of the month.

That another pro-Israel US group has chosen to honour Harper for being “a champion of democracy, freedom and human rights” should come as little surprise. But the lack of critical Canadian response is much more disturbing.

Despite a laundry list of international misdeeds, the limited critical commentary on Harper’s award has focused on his domestic failings. A United Food and Commercial Workers press release criticizing the award focused on the government’s expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. While this exploitative program deprives many of their rights and drives down wages and working conditions it is only tangentially connected to international affairs. Similarly, Bob Hepburn in the Toronto Star lambasted the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for ignoring Harper’s destructive domestic policies. “The foundation should have known that anointing Harper, who has displayed such a casual disrespect for democracy at home, as its World Statesman of the Year would be seen as a sad joke on all Canadians struggling to protect their democracy.”

Acclaimed journalist Chris Hedges to give lecture in Regina

University of Regina
September 18, 2012
Also read Why I am a socialist

Chris Hedges' latest book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012) and the title of Thursday’s lecture chronicles the impoverished lives of people and their communities "offered up in the name of profit" and forms of resistance.
Chris Hedges' latest book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012) and the title of Thursday’s lecture chronicles the impoverished lives of people and their communities "offered up in the name of profit" and forms of resistance. 
Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

At the New York Times, Hedges was part of the team of reporters awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. He left the Times after being issued a formal reprimand for denouncing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2002. The Los Angeles Press Club honored Hedges’ columns in Truthdig by naming him the Online Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011.

He has written twelve books, including Death of the Liberal Class (2010), Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008) and the best-selling American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2008). His book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.  His latest, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), authored with Joe Sacco,  chronicles the impoverished lives of people and their communities "offered up in the name of profit" and forms of resistance

Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City and has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University.  He is a regular contributor to Truthdig and OpEdNews.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt lecture
Speaker: Chris Hedges
Education Auditorium, Education Building, Main Campus
Thursday, September 20, 2012
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Free admission (donations gratefully accepted)
Free parking in lots 13 M and 14 M


Social Policy Research Unit, Faculty of Social Work

The event is hosted by the Social Policy Research Unit of the Faculty of Social Work and co-sponsored by: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Saskatchewan branch), the University of Regina’s Faculty of Arts, Department of Anthropology, Department of Religious Studies, Department of International Studies, and School of Journalism.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sask. must do more to lessen coal dependence

SEPTEMBER 14, 2012

When Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent came to Saskatchewan this month to announce Canada's new greenhouse gas emission regulations for coal fired power plants, the results were disappointing for anyone concerned about the well-being of our environment.

The new regulations are a significant weakening of what was originally presented to the public in draft form 13 months ago. Over the next 18 years, they will result in greenhouse gas pollution at Canada's coal fired generating stations being cut by less than half the amount originally proposed by Ottawa.

That announcement may have been satisfactory for SaskPower and the operators of Alberta's coal fired power plants, but it is not in the larger public interest. Greenhouse gas pollutants from these plants are the single most important reason why climate change on our planet is accelerating.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

New Book: Trade Unions and Canadian Democracy

Next Year Country Books is pleased to announce our first publication.


As Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party is posed to launch yet another attack on Saskatchewan workers and their unions through their "Labour Law Review",  Lorne Brown's Trade Unions and Canadian Democracy provides a timely historical perspective on the role labour has played in the fight for democratic rights.

Submitted by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour to the Court of Queen's Bench when challenging Bills 5 and 6, Brown reviewed the role of labour in promoting and defending worker's rights and democracy in Saskatchewan and Canada.

This short book is essential reading for labour and civil rights activists.

Click HERE to purchase the book.

Preface to Trade Unions and Canadian Democracy

This overview of the relationship of organized labour to the political economy results from a case heard before Mr. Justice Dennis Ball of the Court of Queen’s Bench in 2011. The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) and intervener unions challenged the constitutionality of the Public Service Essential Services Act (PSESA) known as Bill 5 and an Act to Amend the Trade Union Act (Bill 6) passed by the Wall government in 2008. It was argued that both Acts violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by interfering with the right to strike.

I was retained by the SFL as an “expert witness” because of my experience as a labour historian. This essay constitutes my submission to the Court. The submission was unchallenged by lawyers for the Wall Government and the employers who defended the legislation.

On February 6, 2012 Justice Ball ruled that the Public Service Essential Services Act (Bill 5) was unconstitutional in that it “infringes upon the freedom of association of employees protected by s. 2 (d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms”. He found amendments to the Trade Union Act (Bill 6) to be constitutional. While Justice Ball found the PSESA to be unconstitutional he suspended his ruling for twelve months with direction to the provincial government to make amendments to the legislation.

The overview provided in this submission tends to be somewhat limited in scope because of the exigencies of what was required for the case before the Court. However, I think the essay provides a useful introduction to the important role trade unions have played in defending the interests of not only their own members but of all working people and Canada in general. Indeed trade unions have played a major role in building and defending both political democracy and social and economic security. Medicare, Public education, universal suffrage, public pensions, statutory and annual paid holidays, hours of work, health and safety regulations, minimum wages, employment insurance, pay equity legislation are a short list of the many benefits Canadians enjoy thanks to more than a century of trade union struggle.

Trade unions, the welfare state and indeed democracy itself are now under constant attack. We must be ever mindful that an attack on trade unions is an attack on democracy.

Lorne A. Brown
Regina, Saskatchewan
August 2012

Lorne Brown is Professor Emeritus at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. His research specialties include labour history and civil liberties.

Out of province investors may be eyeing our pastures

Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes
September 12, 2012

Ten or twenty years after these signs disappear who will own the pastures?  
The Saskatchewan government says it wants to sell the federal pastures (until recently known as the PFRA or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association pastures) to local farmers. Ag minister Lyle Stewart says that they intend to sell the pastures one by one to the “patrons groups” made up of the cattle producers who have been grazing them.

That sounds so reasonable and nice, tugs at those strings we all keep in our stubblejumper hearts. What could be better than local Saskatchewan people banding together to gain control over the land that they need to raise their livestock? It’s almost like those first agricultural co-operatives we remember fondly from before the days of Viterra and NAFTA.

But hold on here. The price of land in this province is leaping well beyond the reach of the small to medium sized family farms that the Sask Party claims to embrace in its messaging. And the prices are expected to go higher. It’s tempting to blame the galloping land prices on the current government but unfortunately the Sask Party doesn’t have a corner on messing up the conditions small farmers depend on to make a living.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The “New” Saskatchewan: Oklahoma North?

By Simon Enoch
CCPA, Saskatchewan Office
September 14th, 2012

Of the litany of proposed changes contained in the Saskatchewan government’s Consultation Paper on the Renewal of Labour Legislation inSaskatchewan, the most pernicious is the suggestion that employees be allowed to opt out of paying union dues, yet still recieve the full benefits of union membership. This idea is dangerously reminiscent of U.S. right-to-work (RTW) laws that already pervade the American south and have recently been propsed in northern states like Wisconsin and Indiana.

If this is the direction the current government wants to move, then it is incumbent that the people of Saskatchewan recognize what the adoption of RTW laws entail, because it will not only effect union members, it will effect all workers in our province, unionized or not.

Despite the name, “right-to-work” laws are no guarantee of a job, if anything they are a guarantee of smaller paycheques for workers, more punitive management styles, unsafe work environments and lower standards-of-living.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why Lake Winnipeg's Degradation is a Prairie-Wide Environmental Calamity

By Jim Harding 
No Nukes
September 11, 2012

Industrial-agricultural contaminants and Regina’s poorly treated sewage are degrading the Qu’Appelle Valley lake chain. This is a microcosm of a much larger and more devastating trend on the prairies. Waterways in southern Saskatchewan are part of the huge Lake Winnipeg drainage basin which covers one million square miles stretching across the three Prairie Provinces, part of Ontario and four US states. What’s happening downstream from Regina’s sewage, in the Qu’Appelle lakes, is happening on a more massive scale further downstream, as more pollutants from the vast Great Plains Basin go into Lake Winnipeg.


Lake Winnipeg is the 10th largest freshwater lake on earth; it’s now better known as the most chlorophyll-polluted lake on the planet. Massive algae blooms, covering up to 15,000 square km, now “strangle” Lake Winnipeg. These have increased by up to 500% since 1900. The eutrophication degrades aquatic biodiversity and creates deadly blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) which has increased a thousand-fold just since the 1990s. Canada is not just getting a bad environmental reputation for the tarsands; Lake Winnipeg is among the most ecologically-compromised of the world’s great freshwater lakes.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Captain Naphi and the great white mole

Miéville returns to the YA field with an homage to Moby Dick

SEPT. 1, 2012

By China Miéville
Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 2012

China Miéville’s first novel for young adults, Un Lun Dun, was a playful and pun-filled deconstruction of classic fantasy tropes. With Railsea, Mieville returns to the YA field, this time playing it fairly straight.

The book pays homage to the classic seafaring adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick. But in place of roiling water and wooden ships, Miéville drops the reader into a post-apocalyptic world of dirt and steel. There are two layers to the sky and four to the world. The upsky is a toxic place filled with huge, dangerous air beasts. The downsky is the breathable air, stretching from the base of the highlands – which hold their own terrors – to the habitable lands of the continents. Below lies the flatearth, on which sit the twisting tracks and ties of the railsea, which rests above the caverns and beast trails of the subterrestrial.

The origin of the railsea is unknown. Some say the gods put down the train tracks or that they extruded from the ground like exposed fossils. Others say that the rails were written “in heavenly script, that people unknowingly recited as they travelled.”

Why the community pastures must not be sold

Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes
September 6, 2012

Mule deer on native grassland, by Hamilton Greenwood

There are many disturbing elements to the Saskatchewan Government’s plan to sell the more than 700,000 hectares of grassland habitat and grazing lands (see recent posts here), but the one that I think is most shocking of all is that Canadians no longer seem to even notice when the Government of the day sells off a massive piece of the Commons to private interests.

We sleepwalk while our elected leaders, following their blind faith in the private sector and the marketplace, sell the farm to avoid costs and bring revenue into a treasury that perhaps is not collecting as much potash revenue as they had projected.

If we do not speak out against this kind of action, the Brad Wall government is justified in believing its own ill-founded assumptions: i.e. environmental protection and policy is a hindrance to economic growth, and the economy comes first and if that means other things have to suffer, well that’s just the way it is. (Read Paul Hanley's excellent piece in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix this week for some thoughts on how the pastures might end up in the hands of out-of-province capital.)

The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'


Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
EnlargeCourtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol
Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
text size A A A
September 5, 2012
One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.
The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.
Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921; he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.
In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."
Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.
When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock andMarcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.
Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.
"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."
New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.
Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."
Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.
And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.
"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are taken to prison after being found guilty of nuclear espionage. They were subsequently executed.
EnlargeKeystone/Getty Images
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are taken to prison after being found guilty of nuclear espionage. They were subsequently executed.
The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."
At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.
"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.
Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.
Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.
"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."
There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.
Anne Meeropol plays a song on guitar for her sons, Robert and Michael.
EnlargeCourtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol
Anne Meeropol plays a song on guitar for her sons, Robert and Michael.
For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.
"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'
"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."
Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.

Labour Day celebrated across the province

CUPE Saskatchewan
September 3, 2012

REGINA – Over 2, 000 people attended the Labour Day event held by the Legislative Building today in Regina enjoying the warm weather, free barbeque, entertainment and many booths offering prizes, treats and family friendly activities. Similar events were held across the province honouring the union movement’s dedication to improving working conditions and creating a better standard of living for everyone.

In Canada, Labour Day was first celebrated in 1872 when a strike by the Toronto Printers’ Union inspired a parade in support of their cause that grew to 10,000 people - one tenth of the city’s population. The printers were seeking a shorter work week at a time when working 12 hour or more every day of the week was common. Workers also faced harsh working conditions with very low pay and no legal protections or rights. When Labour Day was declared an official holiday in 1894, it was only the second holiday observed in a year.

Many of the benefits first won by unions are enjoyed by all workers today, including maternity leave, vacation pay and occupational health and safety laws. When unions stand up for fairness, they raise the bar for everyone

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Radical left set for huge gains in Dutch election

By Steve McGiffen
September 5, 2012

The Socialist Party of the Netherlands is not a social democratic or labour party, but the biggest radical left parliamentary party in Europe, with the exception of the Cypriot AKEL and, since the recent election, Greece’s Syriza.

Unlike either of those otherwise worthy formations, however, the Dutch SP has a very clear critique of the European Union.

It has opposed each and every EU Treaty, as well as the euro, and successfully campaigned for a “no’ vote in the referendum on the European Constitution.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Beatles as Marxist Minstrels


By Amber Frost
Dangerous Minds
September 3, 20122012

If you’re like me, you can’t resist a good piece of moral panic red-baiting propaganda, especially when it’s directed at a social phenomenon that seems so chaste by today’s standards. As luck might have it, I recently came across the 1974 opus, The Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on Communist Subversion of Music, by the good Reverend David A. Noebel.

Evangelical tracts denouncing rock ‘n’ roll, especially as related to either homosexuality or “race mixing,” aren’t hard to find if you scour antique shops in middle America, but as something of a connoisseur of the genre, I have yet to find a piece of literature that so succinctly combines the collective fears of old, white, crazy, Christian dudes. David Noebel, ordained in 1961, started his illustrious career with the above pamphlet, Communism, Hypnotism, and The Beatles. He saw the rise of Beatlemania as the result of Communist indoctrination via hypnosis (yup, just like the title), a thesis he developed more thoroughly in his 1964 book, Rhythm, Riots, and Revolution: An Analysis of the Communist Use of Music, the Communist Master Music Plan. The book transitioned from The Beatles to folk artists, focusing on Bob Dylan, his colleagues, and their earlier influences. This is at least slightly more understandable, when one considers the political leanings of the folk movement, frequently with explicit anti-racist, pro-labor lyrics.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Political Uses of Public Space: A Podcast of Craig Heron’s Talk on Labour Day Parades

NOVEMBER 28, 2011

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

Over the past few weeks, cities across Canada have evicted Occupy protesters from camping overnight in public parks. Opinion remains divided over the tactics of the amorphous movement. One lawyer recently defended the group by arguing in court that the occupation of Toronto’s St. James Park was a “physical manifestation of the exercise of … conscience.” In other words, the medium is the message. But some residents living in the area expressed that they felt threatened, and local businesses complained about a loss in revenue. A Toronto judge ruled that the reasonable limits clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms overrides the protesters’ particular means of freedom of expression. Last Wednesday, police evicted the final protesters from the park.

The use of public space for political protest has a long and contested history in Canada. Historian Craig Heron recently presented a timely talk entitled “Labour on the March: 150 Years of Labour Parades in Toronto.” He began his presentation by pointing out the Occupy movement’s uses of the street. For example, protesters in Toronto had used their bodies to form a “99” (as in “99 percent”) at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets while media helicopters hovered above. People move through streets to communicate a message, Heron argued. Historically, parades have been an “extremely important form of mass communication,” and it was one way in which labour demanded respect within wider Canadian society during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Heron’s talk comes from research for his 2005 book The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, which he co-wrote with Steve Penfold. The talk is available here for audio download.

The presentation was part of the 2011 History Matters lecture series, which gave the public an opportunity to connect with working historians and discover some of the many and surprising ways in which the past shapes the present. This year’s talks focused on two themes: labour and environmental history. Some of these presentations are now available in our podcast section. Stay tuned for recordings of subsequent talks from the series.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Clint Eastwood was right. Hollywood can be quietly, yet profoundly, conservative

By Tim Stanley 
September 1, 2012

Dirty Harry captured the conservative mood of the early 1970s

Clint Eastwood got one thing right during his senior moment at the Republican convention: Hollywood isn’t all liberal. The first time Clint gained serious press attention in national politics was 1972, when he was invited by President Richard Nixon to attend his nominating convention in Miami. Nixon was a movie buff who understood the power of Hollywood. In 72, he wanted to use specific celebrity endorsements to shape the way that the public understood him. He wanted Democrats like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr to show that he was a centrist and he wanted Old Hollywood to evoke nostalgia for a happier, more traditional age. When Nixon held a meet-and-greet for actors at his West coast mansion, one guest called it “a cocktail party at the Hollywood wax museum.”

Commentators at the time were sniffy about Nixon’s Hollywood strategy precisely because its choice of symbols seemed so passé. The 1970s are remembered for experimental liberal film making – Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, All The President’s Men etc. The hot talent of the time was Left-leaning, even hippie – Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Warren Beatty. But Nixon understood that movie politics is just as diverse as its many genres. Individual movies can be interpreted in multiple ways. The Godfather was meant as an attack on hyper-masculinity and even a parody of Nixon, but it became part of a revival of white ethnic nostalgia. It could be argued that the Corleone family’s patriarchy offers a seductive alternative to bureaucratic welfarism.

Labour Day reminds us that union membership benefits Saskatchewan

CUPE Saskatchewan

Labour Day was Canada’s second official holiday when it was declared 118 years ago and, at the time, Canadian workers had unimaginably long work weeks and none of the benefits and improvements to the conditions of work we have achieved when celebrating Labour Day on September 3, 2012. In the lead up to Labour Day, CUPE is highlighting the work of unions.

“Unions pioneered through action, advocacy, and protest many of the improvements to workplace rights workers rely on today for protection and fairness,” says Tom Graham, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Saskatchewan. “Overtime pay, maternity leave, minimum wage, health benefits, access to decent pensions and health and safety laws are largely the result of unions. Saskatchewan people can count on unions and our members to continue our work advocating for a better standard of living for everyone.”

Graham points to a recent report released by the Canadian Labour Congress which concludes Saskatchewan’s union members contributed over $26.1 million each and every week to the provincial economy supporting local businesses and community services last year. In Regina, the contribution of union members in 2011 was an extra $7.3 million each week to the local economy. In Saskatoon, union members contributed an extra $8.5 million each week in 2011.

“Union membership is proven to benefit the economy of Saskatchewan by raising the purchasing power of the middle class translating into well over a billion dollars last year in support for local businesses, community services and bolstering the tax base for our province’s municipalities,” says Graham. “This Labour Day, let’s recognize the work of unions and their members in our economy and the proud history of unions in leading the way for better work and working conditions.”

Find a labour day event near you.

Labour Day 2012: Get ready to rumble

AUGUST 31, 2012

Regina Labour Day parade, 1913

The Labour Day picnics and parades might be the calm before the storm for the labour movement this fall. On top of terrible job losses in manufacturing and resource industries, governments in Canada are sharpening their swords, preparing to do battle with the country's trade unions.

It's not just unions that should be worried. The lagging economy is failing all Canadians, whether in unions or not. Historically, the trade union movement has played a pivotal role in turning things around and raising living standards for everyone. But the political and bargaining strengths of unions are at one of the lowest points in decades, and opponents are preparing to take advantage of this weakened state.

In Ottawa, the Harper Conservatives have been drawing up war plans. When Parliament returns in a few weeks, a committee will be considering a Conservative private member's bill that would force unions to reveal unprecedented financial information, handing employers intelligence that could be used against their employees' unions.

Electoral Platform of Québec solidaire

Thanks to Socialist Project.

In the spirit of a resolution adopted by the 5th Congress of Quebec Solidaire, the positions in the platform are arranged thematically, following the alphabetical order of the French original, which does not denote a priority or order of importance.

Download pdf  HERE.