Just as I arrived with my signs, a car drove up. The driver rolled down his window and asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I was protesting the $25 billion warship contract. He shook his head angrily, swore and drove off. Then more cars drove by giving me the finger. For the first time, a driver in a military uniform gave me the finger too. My weekly protest was not off to a good start.
Then, an hour later, just as I was about to pack up my signs and leave, a tall guy came and introduced himself to me.
“Hi, I’m Karl. I’m president of the union. They have been talking about you in there and I wanted to meet you and find out what you are doing,” he said smiling.
Karl Risser is the President of CAW/Marine Workers Federation Local 1.
I was so surprised and pleased to meet him. “Thanks for coming. I’ve wanted to meet you. I’ve been protesting the warship contract here every Wednesday for the last couple of months. I have a web site and a blog,” I replied. I told him that I have been opposed to the new warships since the federal government announced the Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008 and the plans to spend $490 billion on the military over the next 20 years.
Risser asked me why I was opposed to the warships. I told him that the country doesn’t need them – we are not going to be engaging in any naval combat and that our greatest security challenges are climate change and poverty. I was shocked that he readily agreed with me! He asked me what I think they should be building. I said all those construction workers and electricians in there could be building affordable housing, weatherizing homes and buildings, installing renewable energy technologies, expanding mass transit, and fixing municipal infrastructure. He agreed as well and then asked me, “What about ferries?” Yes, I said ferries! I hadn’t thought of that before. Risser said that the workers had been talking about building ferries and light rail for years but those plans got shelved once the federal government announced the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy in 2010 (which comes out of the Canada First Defence Strategy).
Risser then told me some other interesting and important things:
- There is a report that was done a while ago about the Irving Shipyard building ferries for the Atlantic Provinces and a high speed ferry in the Halifax Harbour.
- He said that some of the provinces are leasing ferries from Germany instead of having them built in Canada.
- When Prime Minister Harper came to Halifax to make an announcement about the shipbuilding program in January 2012, his staff asked that the union flags and banners be removed. Risser insisted that the guys keep their flags and banners visible during the press conference.
- He believes that Prime Minister Harper does not really care about the shipyard workers and the union – the contract is really not about improving their employment situation.
- He said the situation for workers at the shipyard isn’t that good but that Irving is doing alright.
- He believes that the highest number of workers that will be needed will be 2500 workers by 2020, which is much lower than the federal and provincial governments predict.
- He expects that Foreign Temporary Workers will be needed, will come from poor countries, and will be paid low, non-union wages.
- He expects that the bulk of the jobs and money will go to Lockheed Martin (which is the biggest weapons manufacturer in the world!) in the US for the technical systems for the warships.
- He said that Lockheed Martin is at the shipyard all the time. In partnership with Lockheed Martin, the shipyard is currently working on retrofits for seven warships to help them last another 20 years. So, he doesn’t really think new warships are needed.
- He expects that Ontario and Quebec will provide some of the steel, but that the major technical systems will be imported from the US by likely Lockheed Martin.
- CAW supports green jobs and he agrees with me that a National Green Job Strategy would be good.
- He knows about Germany’s national retrofit program and renewable energy progress. See the Green Economy Coalition web site.
- He talked about the possibility of a merger between his union the CAW and another big national union that could lead to national general strikes someday and give labour more power.
- His union – the CAW – is supporting the IDLE NO MORE movement and attended the solidarity march across the bridge two weeks ago.
- He believes the warships are part of Harper’s militaristic agenda.
- The only way Harper will change course is if Canadians push the government to change.
- Risser said more people need to tell the Harper government that they don’t want warships for the federal government to stop the National Shipbuilding plan.
- He asked me how we can wake up Canadians about Harper’s agenda.
I assured Risser that I’m not against the union and the workers. I want workers to have meaningful, good paying jobs and I want our province to be prosperous but that neither will happen with the warship contract. I said to him that I think the labour unions should have stood up to Harper and said tax dollars should not be wasted on warships because they aren’t a priority. We should be taking action on climate change and poverty not preparing for war. I told him about Van Jones’ Green for All program in the U.S. that puts people to work in the green economy and that there is great potential for this in Canada. More jobs could be created in a green economy than a war economy. I let him know that I have worked closely with union allies in the past on peace issues, such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers on events and actions for Palestine. He replied at the end that he agreed with most of what I said.
Risser is a very friendly and down-to-earth person. I learned a lot and enjoyed speaking with him very much. We shook hands three times during our conversation.
Finally, my protest today was dedicated to Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person and helped launch the Alabama city bus strike in 1955. She was born on February 4, 1913. Parks said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
Watch this hour-long February 2013 radio documentary about her Rosa Park’s incredible rebellious life on Democracy Now!
Note: I have a special Valentine’s action for this week’s “Wednesday against Warships” protest that will take place from 12:00-1:00 p.m. on February 13 outside the shipyard. I will also be joining One Billion Rising, which is the Global Day of Action to Stop Violence against Women, on Valentine’s Day (V-Day) February 14 and will be protesting the warships from 4:00-5:00 p.m. I encourage you to join me on both days! See my web site for details: www.demilitarize.ca
I got 8 honks of support, 3 waves of support, 4 fingers, 3 thumbs down.