Changes in the Canadian Employment Insurance (EI) system that were announced last spring by the Harper government are a full front attack on the entire working class. Their main objectives are to exert downward pressure on workers’ wages and weaken our capacity to fight and resist the capitalists and their system.
The Government plans to change the definition of “suitable employment” according to the EI system. While being required to make an active job search, a claimant could always refuse a job that was underpaid and not similar to the previous one he/she had.
From now on, the unemployed will be divided into new categories. “Frequent claimants,” those who have asked three times for employment insurance over the past five years and have received at least 60 weeks of benefits, will be obliged, after six weeks of unemployment, to take a job in any sector at 70% of their previous salary.
Of course, much has been said about how these new regulations will affect workers in regions where little is available outside of seasonal work in forestry, fishing or tourism. But hundreds of thousands of other workers will fall into the “frequent claimant” category: those who work for temporary agencies, school bus drivers, lecturers in colleges and universities, construction workers, etc.
Even those the government will classify as “good unemployed” (the “long-tenured workers” rarely go on EI) will be forced to accept a job at 80% to 90% of their usual salary, otherwise they’ll lose their right to benefits.
By definition, the unemployment insurance system is at the heart of the relationship between capital and labor. The level of protection afforded by it has a direct impact on the balance of power —whether individual or collective— we have in front of the capitalists. We are all more vulnerable to the bosses’ demands since the big reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which have resulted in less than half of the workers who lose their jobs being eligible for protection. When we are desperate to meet basic needs, it is difficult to organize and fight for fair wages.
With this new reform, the Harper government wants to further weaken our capacity to resist and to put us in a more precarious situation so that capitalists could make bigger profits from our work. The big business organizations that speak for the capitalists have understood that well, as we can see with the various statements supporting the reforms issued by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business or the Québec Council of Employers.
Since the new measures were announced, half a dozen demonstrations were held in various cities in New Brunswick, involving up to 600 people. These demos were organized by a committee spontaneously set up by female workers from the fishing industry.
In Québec, the “Mouvement Autonome et Solidaire des Sans-Emploi,” which brings together some 15 groups of unemployed workers, launched a campaign against what they call “the devastation of unemployment insurance.” Information meetings are held in a dozen cities and a demonstration will be held on Saturday, October 27th in Thetford Mines. Efforts are being made to reach trade unions and mass organizations in Ontario to expand the movement.
There is a real potential for a great struggle to develop on this front. The movement against Harper’s reform can certainly take some inspiration from the student movement that shook the Québec bourgeoisie in recent months. We must organize the October 27 day of action in as many parts of the country as possible and prepare for further actions. In Québec, workers must avoid the trap that the Parti Québécois wants us to fall in, as they propose to abandon the Maritime Provinces workers to their fate and try to “mobilize” instead for an illusory repatriation of employment insurance.
The Harper government wants the changes to come into force next January. A strong and united movement could attack the government and the bourgeoisie with direct actions. The entire working class should prepare for a long, bold and determined fight for the months to come.
Down with Harper’s EI reform! Yes to working class unity! Let’s fight against the austerity measures of the bourgeoisie!
[Photo caption: A demonstration from unemployed workers in Madrid.]