Canada: ‘Freedom Convoy’ – a warning to the labour movement

The so-called Freedom Convoy has dominated headlines for the past few weeks and has been blockading the downtown core around Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a week. While the numbers in the blockade have thinned, there are no signs that they intend to leave anytime soon and many have vowed to stay until their demands for the rescinding of all pandemic health measures are met.

Residents and workers of Ottawa’s downtown core are becoming increasingly frustrated with the blockade. Workplaces, malls, vaccine clinics, schools and entire blocks of the city have been shut down. The downtown core is completely blocked and people are unable to get to work or school.

In addition to Nazi and Confederate flags and the presence of far-right groups, there are increasing reports in the news of thuggish behaviour, with convoy participants harassing and intimidating health-care workers and passersby wearing masks. There have been reported assaults, rocks have been thrown at paramedics, and convoy participants assaulted a homeless man and harrassed workers into giving them meals at a downtown mission. Many residents and workers in the area feel unsafe.

Blockade numbers are expected to swell this weekend in Ottawa, and convoys have now been planned in other cities, including Toronto and Quebec City. A counterprotest by workers in Ottawa is being planned, but the leadership of some of the unions and the local NDP MPP are doing their best to cancel it.

After seeing the events in Ottawa, health-care workers in Toronto are rightly concerned. The area around the provincial parliament is home to a number of hospitals. Hospital workers could find it difficult getting to work and patients will have difficulty accessing medical facilities if the convoy manages to blockade the area.

Hospitals in Toronto have already announced that some appointments will be moved online and an urgent care clinic has been closed for the weekend. Numerous hospitals also advised workers to wear plainclothes and street attire on the way to work so as not to be identified as health-care workers in the hope of avoiding the intimidation and harassment seen in Ottawa.

A counterprotest to the convoy has been planned by health-care providers and workers in Toronto. They have called for support to ensure workers can get to work and patients can access medical facilities without harassment. Demonstrating a fighting spirit, they are refusing to sneak into work and to allow access to healthcare to be compromised.

What is significant about the counterprotest is that it is being organized by these healthcare providers and workers independently of any healthcare associations or unions. The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) has condemned any protest activity that “prevents nurses and health-care professionals from doing their jobs” but doesn’t appear to be mobilizing a response to the convoy.

These Toronto health-care workers are instinctively opposed to the “Freedom Convoy” and are taking the right approach. But more must be done. The labour movement must begin mobilizing against the mishandling of the pandemic and the anti-vax agenda of the far right. But this has been the problem throughout the entire pandemic. The labour movement has been silent, accepted the handling of the pandemic by the government in the interests of the capitalists, and has been absent from the struggle for a working class approach to the pandemic.

In the “Freedom Convoy”, we are now seeing the consequences of this inaction by the labour movement. With no leadership from the left and the unions, in the absence of militant, organized class struggle, some of the growing class anger in society at government mishandling of the pandemic is being channeled towards the right and the “learn to live with the virus” agenda of the bosses.

Polarization and pandemic fatigue

The corporate media cheered on the “Freedom Convoy” as a grassroots protest of “working class” truckers against the federal vaccine mandate. The convoy has ultimately been exposed as a well-organized and well-funded vehicle for the far right and the reactionary anti-vax movement.

The organizers initially claimed that some 50,000 trucks and hundreds of thousands of people were on their way to Ottawa in the convoy. There was talk by some on the far right of the convoy being Canada’s version of Trump’s Jan. 6 “insurrection”.

Parliament Hill Protest Image Chris Kato Wikimedia CommonsThese events cannot be dismissed as the actions of the anti-vax fringe. While not as large as advertised, the size of the convoy and the blockade are not insignificant / Image: Chris Kato, Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the actual size of the convoy was much smaller. The exact number of trucks involved in the convoy and blockade is not known, but it is estimated around 1,000 to 2,000 rigs and personal vehicles were involved, with around 8,000 to 10,000 people present at the blockades in Ottawa this past weekend.

These events cannot simply be dismissed as the actions of the anti-vax fringe. While not as large as advertised, the size of the convoy and the blockade are not insignificant. It is no small feat to organize thousands of people to drive across the country to blockade Parliament.

Beyond the convoy itself, hundreds of supporters greeted the convoys at numerous cities and towns along the routes as they made their way to Ottawa. In total, several thousand people at the very least came out to support the convoys. Various convoy Facebook groups have had hundreds of thousands of members. One current group has more than 635,000 members. Not all of these people who support the convoy are fascists and anti-vaxxers. Many are workers who are anxious about the pandemic, inflation, and job losses. They are seeking a way out of the situation and at the moment the convoy appears to be an anti-establishment option.

This popular support for the “Freedom Convoy” is undeniable. A recent and ongoing Innovative Research poll shows that 31 per cent support the trucker protest with 46 per cent opposed. Another poll by Abacus Data shows that 32 per cent feel they have a lot in common with how the protesters in Ottawa see things with 68 per cent saying they have very little in common. This is not an insignificant level of support for the convoy.

The global crisis of capitalism has opened a period of unprecedented social instability and sharp political polarization and confusion. There is a growing mood of distrust in the establishment and frustration at the status quo. Many people are looking for an outlet and anti-establishment alternatives. These processes have been accentuated by the global pandemic.

The working class has plenty of reasons to be angry at the handling of the pandemic. The response of governments to COVID-19 has been inconsistent and contradictory. The reason for this inconsistent approach is that governments have prioritized the interests of the ruling class and the profits of the big corporations over the health of workers.

Under the pressure of the working class the federal and provincial governments adopted a policy of lockdowns at the start of the pandemic. These lockdowns generally did not target the main sources of infection at big factories and warehouses, certain essential services and schools because governments were attempting to protect the profits of the ruling class.

Despite the best efforts of the government with massive bailouts, cheap loans and wage subsidies for corporations, the lockdowns inevitably had a major effect on the economy. As the first waves ebbed the ruling class came out decidedly against further lockdowns. They simply hurt profits too much.

Widespread vaccination was supposed to solve the problem of lockdowns. Everything was going according to plan this fall and it seemed like we might be on the verge of returning to “normal”. Then the Omicron wave hit and ruined all the plans of the capitalists. Vaccination would not be sufficient, hospitals were being overrun again, and there was pressure from the working class for the return of various pandemic-related health measures.

The corporate media, ever in the service of the interests of the ruling class, played its role and began a propaganda campaign to convince the working class “to learn to live with the virus.” Article after article in the media pointed out the inconsistencies and problems of the lockdowns but never explained the real reasons why. The aspects of these articles that were true lined up with what people could see with their own eyes. Essential services remained open, many workers still had to go to work, and children were still going to school. So what good were the pandemic health measures really? Why should people put their lives on hold if the health measures don’t appear to stop the spread of the virus?

With the absence of any lead from the labour movement to defend the interests of the working class and the constant stream of propaganda in the media, a growing number of workers have been convinced to accept the agenda of the ruling class and have agreed to learn to live with the virus.

Perfect storm

The mishandling of the pandemic, and above all the absence of a left-wing response, created a perfect storm for the merging of anti-vax sentiments, the far right, and the owners of transport companies and truckers angry at the federal vaccine mandate.

This perfect storm also explains why so many people support the convoy. The establishment political parties are responsible for the mishandling of the pandemic and are despised. People are angry and looking for an outlet and a way out of the situation. With no leadership from the left and the unions, certain layers are being channeled towards the anti-establishment right. This is because there is no other alternative available. There is no mass anti-establishment left. The specific features are different, but the “Freedom Convoy” and the growth of the PPC are a reflection of the same process that led to the rise of Trump in the United States.

Freedom Convoy protest Image mosbo6 Wikimedia CommonsThe mishandling of the pandemic, and above all the absence of a left-wing response, created a perfect storm for the merging of anti-vax sentiments, the far right, and the owners of transport companies and truckers angry at the federal vaccine mandate / Image: mosbo6, Wikimedia Commons

Trucking is a dangerous job with long hours and low pay. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on supply chains and rising inflation is making it more difficult for truckers to make ends meet. But nobody is talking about the real issues for workers in the trucking industry. The federal vaccine mandate was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a certain layer of truckers already sympathetic to anti-vax views. Now the owners of the trucking industry dominate and have captured this mood of anger, as some truckers have come to believe that what is good for the boss is good for them. This is why the convoy is really a vehicle to defend the interests of the owners of trucking companies.

The vast majority of truckers in Canada are fully vaccinated. The federal mandate will not pose a problem for them. The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates, however, that the mandate will affect some 12,000 to 16,000 truckers, about 10 to 15 per cent of all commercial drivers who cross the Canada-US border. The leaders of the convoy are using the convoy for their own cynical purposes. They blame the mandate for the shortage of drivers, supply chain issues and inflation. In reality, it is well known that understaffing has been a major problem in the trucking industry for a long time, largely due to low pay and poor working conditions in the industry.

In the case of working class truckers on the convoy, the vacuum on the left has meant that the initiative passed to the owners of the trucking industry allied with the anti-vaxxers and the far right. The alliance of the trucking companies owners and the far right anti-vax movement leading the convoy has managed to convince a layer of truckers that the biggest problem they face is the federal vaccine mandate for cross-border travel, rather than the issues of safety, wages and working conditions. As one truck driver recently said about the convoy, “It is very, very alarming, I must say, when you have the eyes and ears of everybody, not only in Canada, but around the world, looking at what’s happening in Ottawa [and] we are not talking about the real issues.”

A fighting program for truckers

Truckers have legitimate reasons to be angry. The economies of Canada and the United States are heavily dependent on trucking for transporting goods. It is estimated that upwards of 90 per cent of all consumer products and foodstuffs in North America travel by truck to their final destination.

As “free trade” expanded across the continent in the 1980s, the capitalists needed low freight rates for their profits. This led to the deregulation of the trucking industry, which began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The trucking unions were broken and retreated all along the line. This allowed the bosses to attack working conditions and wages to keep transport and freight rates low. Independent contracting was introduced on a wide scale, allowing the capitalists to pass on the costs of freight transport onto the truckers themselves, all the while lowering wages and rates and refusing to pay any benefits.

The result of this was that trucking went from being a good, unionized job in the postwar period to the low-paid, dangerous job it is today. Money magazine reported that “In 1980, the average trucker in America was making an annual salary, adjusted for inflation, equal to more than $110,000 today. Twenty-five years later, truckers make on average about $40,000 a year, working harder, longer hours, and with less job security.” The situation is similar in Canada. According to a report by Service Canada in 2013, the national average income for workers in the transport industry was $38,111.

Long working hours and safety are major issues for truckers:

“Although there are legal limits on hours of work, many truck drivers are pressured by their supervisor — over long-distance phone connection — to ignore these limits and keep driving longer.

“In the past, drivers had some autonomy. They were paid by the mile, not on the time of an entire trip. They could split their 12-hour operating days into four-hour work and four-hour rest periods. They could even stop to ‘sit out’ congested rush hour traffic when their speed was hampered.

“Now they have to keep driving perilously without adequate rest. Their subsequent fatigue is unquestionably a factor in many of the crashes that occur, especially when combined with insufficient training.

“One of the obvious signs of this reduction in drivers’ rest periods has been the closure of hundreds of highway truck stops that used to cater to tired drivers, and the elimination of all the parking spaces they used to provide. A driver now has trouble finding anywhere to park, even in an emergency.”

Canadian truck drivers do not have a proper union to defend their interests. The various trucking associations combine carriers with owner-operators and transport companies. This leaves the drivers at the mercy of the bosses.

The interests of the corporate owners of trucking companies are directly opposed to those of the working class truckers in the convoy. The real enemy of working class truck drivers is the owners of the trucking companies who have imposed low wages and poor working conditions.

The way to fight the right-wing leadership of the convoy is political. The “Freedom Convoy” could be split on class lines by a bold program of demands for higher wages, benefits and safer working conditions for truckers. The labour movement could mobilize to fight for a proper union for employed truckers and owner-operators. Working class truckers could be won over to support such a program that defends their class interests and addresses the actual issues they face. This would expose and weaken the right-wing leadership of the convoy.

Mobilize to fight the pandemic

The labour movement must oppose the calls of the “Freedom Convoy” to end all pandemic-related health measures. The immediate ending of lockdowns, occupancy restrictions, testing and isolation requirements, mask and vaccine mandates, etc., would be very dangerous at the present time. The Omicron wave appears to have reached a plateau, but it is not over. Infection, hospitalization and death rates remain high.

capitalism has failed Image FightbackYou cannot fight the anti-establishment right with establishment liberalism and meek reformism. We need a mass anti-establishment movement from the left / Image: Fightback

Government responses to the pandemic have been designed to protect the profits of the capitalists. The working class cannot entrust the handling of the pandemic to capitalist governments. The labour movement must fight for workers’ control of workplace safety so that the workers themselves can decide which workplaces are safe and which pandemic-related health measures are necessary.

The corporate media has shamelessly downplayed the deaths during the Omicron wave. Daily death tolls in Ontario in January 2022 were some of the highest at any point in the pandemic. More than 1,100 people died due to COVID-19 in January 2022, making it one of the deadliest months of the entire pandemic. Removing all pandemic-related health measures immediately would mean another wave and more deaths. The working class will suffer the most as they have throughout the pandemic.

We are not in favor of endless, inconsistent lockdowns, but we also cannot simply will the pandemic away. As we wrote in a previous article:

“Throughout these two horrific years, the logic of profit has stood in the way of any measures that might have stopped the virus or even limited the deaths. Governments have taken all sorts of measures to appear to be doing something about the pandemic, as long as it didn’t cost too much and didn’t interfere too much with the ability of capitalists to make money.

“The CAQ government in Quebec has championed these kinds of seemingly drastic measures without any demonstrated effectiveness, such as curfews and taxes on non-vaccinated people. This has only served to erode public patience, reduce support for public health measures and fuel the anti-mask and anti-vaccination movement. Many people wonder why they should put their social and recreational lives on hold for several months if it does not prevent the virus from spreading.

“This skepticism about public health measures, in turn, puts the government in a better position to make people accept ‘living with the virus.’ Government covidiots and anti-vaccine covidiots are two sides of the same coin and feed off each other.

“We cannot let the ruling class push the ‘learn to live with COVID’ pill down our throats. The solutions to the pandemic have long been known. There is plenty of wealth in our society to invest massively in health care, personal protective equipment for everyone, distribution of vaccines to the entire world population, etc.”

The labour movement needs to take up the fight to create the conditions where workplaces and schools can be opened safely and remain so. We need a fighting program and militant action for expanded testing and hospital services, increased funding for the health-care system, the sufficient provision of PPE for all workers, the hiring of more nurses and doctors, the hiring of more teachers, the reduction of class sizes, proper ventilation at school and workplaces, etc.

The anti-establishment right wing is bold and unapologetic. This is one of the reasons it has been able to gain support amongst a certain layer of society justifiably tired of the pandemic and increasingly angry at the establishment.

The leaders of the labour movement on the other hand have refused to fight on multiple occasions during the pandemic. Mass protests and strikes could have been organized on multiple occasions for hazard pay, paid sick days and safer working conditions.

In April last year there was an explosion of anger and calls for mass work refusals to win paid sick leave. The labour movement could have captured this mood and organized a fighting movement to win adequate pay for workers off sick due to COVID. The union leaders and the NDP refused to organize the struggle and meekly accepted Premier Doug Ford’s inadequate three days of paid leave.

In early January teachers in Chicago took job action and refused in-person work over the question of safe working conditions during the pandemic. They won this struggle because the union organized a struggle to win. Compare this to the teachers in Toronto, where a similar situation was developing at the same time, but where the unions refused to organize the struggle and teachers were forced back to work with their safety concerns not addressed.

The “Freedom Convoy” has organized thousands of people in a brash struggle to end all pandemic-related health measures. The movement of the working class to fight the pandemic could easily dwarf this movement if the labour movement took a similarly bold approach. Imagine how many workers could be mobilized to fight against profiteering and the mishandling of the pandemic. Imagine how many workers could be organized to fight for hazard pay, safer working conditions and increased funding for hospitals and schools.

The “Freedom Convoy” is a warning to the labour movement. There is immense anger building in the working class. Workers are increasingly seeking an outlet for this anger, but the leadership of the labour movement has not only refused to take a lead, but in fact have tried their best to put a lid on mobilizing around this militant mood. As a result some of this anger is channeled to the right and the anti-vaxxers.

You cannot fight the anti-establishment right with establishment liberalism and meek reformism. We need a mass anti-establishment movement from the left. We need a movement pointing the finger at the real culprit: the billionaires, their system and the politicians who defend it. We need a movement that is not afraid to take bold measures to fight against the pandemic and the rotten capitalist system—not with nicely worded petitions or resolutions in the parliament but with mass mobilizations on streets, at our workplaces and schools. We need to fight to win!

Originally published on 5 February at marxist.ca |