Feb 19, 2022

Convoys, Rallies, and a Three-Way Fight Approach within a Union Context

Freedom Convoy advertisement.
Graphic and photo by unknown. Used here for educational purposes.

The author, DZ, has opted to use his initials because he is discussing active union business at his local. 

(This article details actions and analysis in Vancouver. Meanwhile, as we go to publish, the police in Ottawa have stepped up the banning of the Convoy from areas around Parliament and the city. Attempts to stop the Convoy protests by police have now seen the police using chemical sprays and flash grenades with a growing number of the Convoy supporters being arrested - 3WF)

The ongoing trucker convoy, which has occupied parts of downtown Ottawa and other neighborhoods for several weeks, has been met with a widespread sense of demoralization among the left (an equivocal term that I will disambiguate below). Participants in the convoy present themselves in opposition to vaccine mandates, but we must note that these actions are the latest iteration of a strategically and tactically fluid covid-denialist movement, which has manifest over the last two years as anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination, anti-mandate, and anti-mask. It is a movement which has also, from its very beginnings, drawn membership and support from far-right movements.

I. The Convoys

In what I follows, I will look at three smaller events that took place in Vancouver, British Columbia. The first two events I will examine are convoys. They were organized by a group called Action4Canada. On February 5th, a convoy billed as the “Langley Freedom Convoy” was disrupted by counter-protestors and cyclists, who blocked the convoy at several different intersections. The counter-protest was one of several actions organized to meet the smaller, mostly mobile trucker convoys in various cities across Canada. The express intent of the counter-protestors was to block intersections in order to reroute the convoy away from the hospitals in the Vancouver core. (Some intersections might also have been chosen to subsequently reroute the convoy away from the Downtown Eastside). Perhaps the most effective chokepoint occurred when cyclists blocked the convoy as it headed westbound on Terminal Avenue. As a local journalist pointed out, there's a two-kilometer stretch of Terminal where drivers can’t exit down side streets, and at the end of that stretch they were blocked and deadlocked. The convoy had to reverse out with assistance of police. Some of the convoy made it downtown, and I have seen social media posts showing that they were blocked or rerouted (with different degrees of success) at no fewer than four different intersections.

Cyclists disrupt Convoy in Vancuver. Photo by unknown.
Used here for educational purposes.

Interestingly, the destination for the “3rd Lower Mainland Freedom Convoy” on February 12th was the 176 St. border crossing in Surrey, BC, far from the Vancouver city core. The change in destination may be an attempt to avoid the disruptions of counter-protests. The fact that these groups target border crossings and challenge the RCMP—at this particular event several vehicles successfully broke through police barricades—shows that while police sympathies for the covid-denialist movement are frequently documented in, for example, Ottawa, these convoys are willing to engage in system-oppositional actions.

Perhaps the safest observation—one made by many—about these events is that there is a stark contrast between the police response to convoy actions and those of leftist or Indigenous movements, which are typically suppressed long before they would reach a similar critical mass. On that note, the counter-protest action on February 5th might have been the strongest leftist action in the Vancouver region since the Wet'suwet'en solidarity blockades two years ago—though it did not match the scope or intensity of those actions.

A binary opposition drawn between convoys and counter-protestors does not capture all the elements of the present conjuncture. A three-way fight analysis situates both the convoys and the counter-protestors in relation to the state as well. A few tentative observations follow.

1. The convoys fit the pattern of when far-right movements turn to system-oppositional tactics. In the fifth thesis of his “Seven Theses on the Three-Way Fight,” D.Z. Shaw proposes that “far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot.” This is not the venue to examine the intricate entanglement of white supremacy and liberalism within the North American settler-colonial project. Throughout this history, as evidenced in W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the wages of whiteness, Indigenous dispossession and the political suppression of former slaves enabled the formation and growth of a white worker elite and petty bourgeoisie, who embraced and propelled this colonial project because it advanced their interests.

As Angela Mitropolous argues, the “political-economic boundary between the demos (the ostensibly proper subject of political representation and lawmaking) and the practices of managing (properly) productive populations” plays a crucial role in capitalist extraction and accumulation even under neoliberal policy (Mitropolous, Pandemonium, Pluto Press, 13). In my view, public health orders appear contradictory unless we view them as tending toward what the ruling classes perceive to be the minimum necessary intervention to preserve or shore up hegemony during crisis. As Mitropolous observes, these interventions seek to preserve the viability of the demos; “however, the viability of locked-down households was physically contingent upon and linked by the unpaid and low-paid work in which women, migrants, and Black and Brown people predominate” (Mitropolous, 11). Yet these interventions must also manage these productive populations to preserve the viability of the demos—hence the public health measures that covid-denialist movements perceive as attacking their interests are in place to manage the populations that ensure the viability of the demos to which many in these movements belong. When far-right groups perceive these efforts to balance hegemony during crisis as undermining their place in socio-economic hierarchies and curtailing their entitlements relative to those hierarchies, they reorganize along system-oppositional lines. Hence the close proximities of the various waves of COVID-19 and of system-oppositional covid-denialist movements.

2. Far-right movements are relatively autonomous. The three-way fight approach dispenses with the conventional wisdom on the radical left that fascist movements are the working-class lackeys of the most reactionary sections of capitalism. The conventional position has struggled to explain the potential mass appeal of fascism. By contrast, the three-way fight position (at least as I defend it) contends that far-right movements are relatively autonomous, potentially mass movements that seek to re-entrench the social inequalities and hierarchies already present in society. In my view this also means that the mass character of fascism cannot be explained as a form of ignorance or false consciousness, shaped by legitimate but misdirected grievances. Instead, the far-right seeks to defend the inequalities that serve their interests.

3. Counter-protests are divided between progressive, politically mainstream participants and smaller radical/revolutionary groups. The strengths and weaknesses of counter-protest actions against the convoys can be traced back to the composition of the counter-protests themselves. On the one hand, the counter-protests are made up of mainstream, progressive participants who have called on the Canadian state and its repressive state apparatus ‘to do its job.’ On the other hand, there are radical or revolutionary participants advancing direct action as community self-defense, and who would view this specific work as aligned with antifascist organizing over the last six or seven years. These coalitions won’t likely last longer than the immediate threat of convoy activity. Therefore, political education around these struggles must demonstrate the ideological sympathies between police and the far-right when progressives call for more police powers, it must emphasize the relative autonomy of far-right movements when progressives cast them as appendages of right-wing political parties, and it must highlight how far-right movements are endogenous to Canadian settler-colonial hegemony when progressives portray them as puppets of so-called foreign influence. The convoys, like other far-right movements, may be enabled or strengthened by money or infrastructure provided their political allies, but they will not disappear if those supports dissipate.

II. A Union Response to the Rally for Informed Consent

It didn’t take long before progressive media jumped into the fray with a defense of building a left populism that draws on whatever grievances the convoys might have. Emma Jackson’s essay for The Breach touches on almost all the expected cliched themes: whereas the left, which engages in perennially cliquish behavior, has been in disarray, these right-wing movements tap into real, but misdirected, anger felt by the supposed common man. This type of analysis, generally speaking, goes awry for many reasons. First, it refuses to analyze class categories seriously—very commonly mistaking a white worker-elite or petty bourgeoisie for the supposed “working class”—and it never specifically analyzes how race and gender factor into the formation of these movements and their demands. Second, it almost never recognizes, despite the mountains of revolutionary literature from the last five decades, that right-wing and far-right movements are able to mobilize with this kind of strength because neoliberal policy, mainstream liberal politics, and the far-right all converge around and prop up settler-state hegemony. Jackson argues that we ought to ‘understand the right’s grievances’ when this has always been a regular and self-defeating feature of the compromises and half measures made in the name of reformism or earlier attempts at left populism, compromises and initiatives which end up propagating the conditions that make far-right movements possible. And, finally, this type of analysis does not disambiguate “the left;” instead this term conflates everything from autonomous anti-capitalist movements, to labor organizing, to institutional capture of various anti-oppression initiatives via reformism, as if they evince a common political horizon.

The remainder of this essay will focus an approach that attempts to bring the perspective of the three-way fight to union organizing and practice. I acknowledge that the three-way fight originates in street-level antifascist organizing and that translating it into union practice meets several obvious limits, especially given that I’m discussing the terrain of a worker-elite or petty bourgeois faculty association. I hope that this analysis, however, offers an example of how a three-way fight perspective can work within labor organizing.

Our union’s practical strength was tested by an Action4Canada event with a much smaller scope than a convoy. On Thursday, February 3rd, 2022 the group held a “Rally for Informed Consent” in support of a student arrested for not wearing a mask while at Douglas College. A faculty member was present to observe the rally, and they counted 16 attendees directly in front of the Anvil Centre in New Westminster, BC (one campus of the college). There were additional protestors around the corner on Columbia Street. A photograph taken around 12:30pm shows around 20 people on Columbia, though not all demonstrators might be in the photograph and it is unclear if all people in the photo are participants. The presence of demonstrators on Columbia Street, separate from those in front of the doors to the Douglas College campus in the Anvil Centre, raises the suspicion—expressed by an anonymous op-ed published by the New Westminster Record—“that this protest chose their position intentionally in order to harass the vaccine clinic” housed in the Anvil Centre as well.

Though the conditions differ from a typical three-way fight struggle, there is a similar arrangement of contending organizations: the college administration (management), the union, and a covid-denialist group (which was, within its own messaging, was circulating far-right rhetoric and ideas). The motivation behind the union response that I advocated was one which differentiated itself from management’s liberal position and the far-right group. Administration refused to notify any union members other than those who were working within the building, maintaining that broader notification would cause undue alarm—but they also wanted to dampen the possibility of counter-protests staged by members or other parts of the community.

What I proposed was a multipronged approach which put the onus on union leadership to organize a political response to the anti-mask rally. Such an approach, I would contend, is a more productive use of union capacity than the “left populist” approach which asserts, often in vague terms, that we must organize or appeal to the other side. A strategic response to far-right movements can also serve advance internal organizational goals. Unions are obligated to rectify their historical role in implementing formal or informal practices—sometimes colluding with management—that have produced and reproduced racist and sexist work environments. Political education is a necessary, but not in itself sufficient, component to challenging practices that reproduce or are at least permissive of workplace inequalities and inequities. Many unions in the post-secondary education sector in British Columbia are seeking to align the traditional union mandate with anti-oppression objectives, so this is an ongoing issue at many locals. Though right-wing critics portray post-secondary education as a bastion of radicalism, the political attitudes at our local seem to hew fairly close to the populace at large. We’ve struggled at different points to pass anti-racist initiatives or solidarity statements.

Thus I prepared the union response to the anti-mask rally to navigate Charybdis and Scylla of pro-management members and covid-denialism within membership itself. There are three prongs to the approach, each demanding a stronger political commitment from members: (1) an action plan should further rallies take place; (2) a public statement; and (3) literature for members who decide to push back against these rallies. Each in and of itself is an insufficient response. For example, a public statement in isolation from the others comes off as a ‘sternly worded letter’ and we know how effective those have been at dissuading far-right organizing.

We passed the public statement at our executive council. But we also passed the other two. And if it is true that our membership’s political attitudes align with the general population, and if it is true that our executive council (a representative body of the general membership) is similar to membership, it was surprising that each motion passed unanimously. It is a marked departure from the typical scope of operations to assert, as our action plan did, that union leadership will notify all members that a rally will happen when management declines to do so. This puts the union at odds with management’s liberal approach, which appeals to the right to free expression, handles demonstrations as security concerns, and also discourages counter-action on the part of employees. It is also a marked departure that a political statement with explicit anti-racist messaging passes unanimously. There are typically objections that anti-racist or other anti-oppression messaging is outside the traditional union mandate. I have reproduced the text of the leaflet below in Part III.

I will admit that the foregoing analysis focuses on a very small sliver of organizing in general. But if it is correct that our local’s membership is not nearly as radical as conservative fever-dreams would indicate and all three prongs of the union’s political response were unanimously approved at our executive council, then we need to propose some explanation for that unexpected outcome. They could, for example, still face opposition in a general meeting.

In my view, our response was successful (so far) because it focused on two narrow political issues. As the leaflet’s title indicates, we contend that covid-denialist movements are anti-worker and mistaken about the analogies they have drawn to historical forms of oppression—the leaflet focuses specifically on analogies to Segregation. Our members were directed to return to in-person teaching around the peak of the Omicron wave and one of the top member concerns involved access to proper personal protective equipment to reduce spread of COVID-19 and protect employees and students at the college (how that was handled within the college is a different discussion). I believe that there is legitimate anger toward anti-maskers and the trucker convoy being uncritically framed as representing workers’ grievances.

As for the leaflet, I think both our executive council and the subcommittee that approved it recognize that it offers an unequivocal statement rejecting the analogy between public health orders and Segregation, and that it serves as an education piece to distribute to members and students who, in circulating around campus, would encounter these rallies without the requisite historical knowledge—Canadian public education isn’t much better than American education when it comes to the history of racism and white supremacy in North America—to identify the obvious fallacies in covid-denialist propaganda. Yet further work needs to be done. It has been rightly pointed out that an education piece ought to be produced examining the covid-denialist appropriation of feminist slogans such as “my body, my choice.”

Though a faculty union would not likely emerge as an antifascist fighting force, we have taken the initiative to build an antifascist response into existing organizational structures when the labor sector we belong to has yet to formulate a coherent and autonomous political response to covid-denialism.

III. The Leaflet: “Anti-Maskers: Anti-Worker and Mistaken About Segregation”

The following text was approved by our local’s Anti-Racism Action Committee.

Groups protesting mask mandates and vaccines at Douglas College are actively spreading misinformation about the public health orders in effect at the college and drawing false analogies between their movement and the history of oppressed peoples. Individuals resist mandates for a number of reasons despite the harm it might cause to others. They may not see their attitudes and beliefs reflected in covid-denialism as a movement. Nonetheless, we must meet the politics of this movement head on: it propagates misinformation and false analogies that do not hold up to scrutiny. Indeed, covid-denialism is anti-worker and mistaken about Segregation.

Mask Mandates

First, Douglas College—with the exception of a few select programs—does not require vaccination for work or study within the institution. Anti-maskers present mask mandates as a violation of their freedom, but here they clearly run counter to workers’ demands. The faculty of Douglas College were directed to return to campus on January 10th, during what was possibly the peak of the Omicron wave. The current mask mandate mitigates the risk of transmission on campus—a protection that workers themselves have sought to maintain to protect themselves, staff, students, and their respective families. Therefore, the “freedom” to refuse a mask constitutes an anti-worker action.

Appropriating Symbols of Oppression

Second, participants in the covid-denialism movement—which as a whole is a far-right, white political movement—have likened their cause to the history of the struggles of oppressed peoples. Anti-vax and anti-mask protests are the latest manifestation of a covid-denialist movement, which formed in opposition to lockdowns. Their opposition was premised on the idea, shared with some right-wing politicians, that so-called herd immunity would engender survival of the fittest. More recently, and worryingly, anti-vaxxers have begun to describe themselves as “pure bloods.” And let us not forget that far-right movements, propagating white supremacist, ableist, sexist and transphobic propaganda were present at the birth of the movement against public health orders. Even if some particular anti-vax groups do not have an actual backwards connection to these original anti-lockdown movements, they remain permissive if not accepting toward the propagation of far-right and fascist propaganda within the movement.

Thus it is especially offensive when anti-vaxxers appropriate symbols from the struggles of the oppressed to legitimate their grievances. We are familiar with instances where anti-vaxxers have compared their treatment to the ghettoization of Jewish peoples under Nazi legislation, and the primary symbol associated with that treatment: the yellow Star of David. They have been rightly criticized for doing so. Anti-vaxxer groups readily mix with far-right groups; there have been numerous instances of antisemitic propaganda being propagated within these networks. It may appear to be a contradiction between appropriating the yellow Star and antisemitism. A pseudonymous antifascist scholar untangles the knot of this contradiction:

their attempt to draw a parallel between the conditions of present society and those of historical injustice and oppression is not as it appears—that is, an acknowledgement of these prior injustices. Recall that far-right groups regard human inequality as natural and desirable as long as their in-group is at the top of this hierarchy. In white supremacist ideology, Jewish peoples are the natural inferiors of “Aryans.” For the white supremacist and antisemitic elements of anti-vaxxer groups, when they evoke the yellow star, they mean that what they take to be natural hierarchies have been overturned, and there the injustice occurs (M.I. Asma, On Necrocapitalism, Kersplebedeb, 307).

In other words, the covid-denialist movement objects not to the oppression of marginalized peoples but rather their perception that their interests have been marginalized in society. Despite the fact that the pandemic has been prolonged by politicians glad-handing covid-denialism and “keeping the economy going” through public health orders driven by facilitating capital accumulation and politics rather than epidemiology.  Despite the fact, demonstrated by lax enforcement of denialist demonstrations including the so-called “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa, that they have the sympathy if not complicity of the police (who have shown themselves in their resistance to vaccine mandates covid-denialists themselves).

Thus when covid-denialists compare their situation to Segregation, one is left to wonder: what Segregation? They have captured parts of conservative political networks in both the United States and Canada. They have, in both countries, potential allies and sympathizers in the police.

In no uncertain terms, covid-deniers have no right to evoke the horrors of Segregation. Segregation in the United States was for ten decades the political suppression of, and the systemic degradation and humiliation of Black Americans. And not only the US; similar conditions prevailed in Canada: “public education, immigration, employment and housing were all subject to a veiled Jim Crow-style segregation that either formally or informally kept Black persons in social, economic and political subjugation” (Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives, Fernwood Press, 33).

Covid-denialist movements present aspects of Segregation out of context to draw false analogies. They point to vaccine mandates at certain public functions and present these mandates as the suppression of their rights. But public health orders are drawn up to balance various rights (or, more specifically, the balance of social forces represented by the assertion of rights), where it must be acknowledged that any supposed right won by covid-denialists is a burden shifted to workers, the immunocompromised, and persons with disabilities.

Covid-denialism never claims anything more than a shallow semblance to the system of Segregation in the United States—which amounts to denialism toward both the de facto and de jure violence and systemic oppression faced by Black communities. Covid-denialists not only can vote (and do), but they have well-placed allies in major conservative parties. There is no analogy to lynch-law justice, which perpetrated more than 4000 documented racial terror lynchings in twelve US southern states from 1877–1950 (Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America). There are no housing covenants which ghettoized Black Americans and other oppressed peoples. They have not faced chronic underfunding in segregated schools (a history with ongoing contemporary consequences). Nor have they been exploited as an under-class, “an unskilled reserve labor force to be super-exploited for the benefit of every other section of…society” (James Boggs, Racism and the Class Struggle, Monthly Review Press, 23).

The comparison of public health orders to Segregation amounts to the minimization and denial of the depth and magnitude of Segregation and its ongoing ramifications. Far from minimalizing the pandemic, they have embraced it as an opportunity for building their reactionary political program. They are—to draw finally an appropriate analogy to the history of racism in North America—descendants of the segregators, not the segregated.


John Garvey said...

I thought that the leaflet was an exemplary example of good politics and good
education. Well done comrades!


Syndicalist 872412 said...

Work-related vaccine mandates weaken the right to employment and make the goal of full employment less attainable. Leftists should oppose them.