Class war­fare and the Irv­ing Ship­yard

Nova Sco­tia’s bosses would rather crip­ple or kill their own com­pa­nies than ne­go­ti­ate with their work­ers.


With the hol­i­days com­ing to an end, ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Irv­ing fam­ily’s Hal­i­fax Ship­yard Inc. and its union­ized work­ers are set to re­sume this month with the help of a me­di­a­tor. In De­cem­ber, the work­ers, mem­bers of UNIFOR Ma­rine Work­ers Lo­cal One voted over­whelm­ingly in favour of a strike man­date af­ter the em­ployer tabled a raft of de­mands for con­ces­sions on rest periods and safety reg­u­la­tions. The Irv­ings are the eighth rich­est fam­ily in Canada and de­spite amass­ing an un­fath­omably large for­tune they’re now de­mand­ing that they get a lit­tle bit richer by try­ing to force 800 ship­yard work­ers to give up a lit­tle bit more.

We’re now four years into a pro­longed pe­riod of ob­vi­ous and open class war­fare which has been waged from above. The history of cap­i­tal and the state do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to bring work­ing peo­ple to heel goes back cen­turies in Nova Sco­tia. But since 2013 the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment and pri­vate sec­tor bosses have shed any pre­tense of ac­cept­ing open ne­go­ti­a­tions and have cho­sen to use a com­bi­na­tion of in­tran­si­gence and ex­cep­tional leg­is­la­tion to break unions and sup­press wages.

The most no­table labour bat­tles have been in the pub­lic sec­tor with teach­ers and wa­ter work­ers forced on to picket lines, zero pro­vin­cial pub­lic sec­tor con­tracts suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­ated and at least a dozen pieces of sub­stan­tial anti-labour leg­is­la­tion passed since 2013. But pri­vate sec­tor bosses have also changed tac­tics and de­cided that dig­ging in their heels on even small is­sues is prefer­able to try­ing to com­pro­mise with their work­ers. From the Chron­i­cle Her­ald to Egg Films, Nova Sco­tia’s bosses would rather crip­ple or kill their own com­pa­nies than ne­go­ti­ate with their work­ers.

Here’s the thing about the econ­omy: The di­vide be­tween pri­vate and pub­lic in­dus­tries is an ar­ti­fi­cial one and the Irv­ings demon­strate this bet­ter than any­one. Their wealth has come from pub­lic re­sources that the labour of gen­er­a­tions of At­lantic Cana­di­ans has trans­formed into pri­vate profit. Tech­ni­cally, the Irv­ings are a pri­vate em­ployer, but the re­source they ex­tract comes from Crown land, trav­els on pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture and is of­ten sold to gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties. De­spite be­ing worth over $7 bil­lion dol­lars, the Irv­ings have parked that money off-shore for 45 years in or­der to make sure that they’ll never pay their fair share of taxes.

The Hal­i­fax Ship­yard’s largest cur­rent con­tract is a deal to build war­ships for the Cana­dian navy us­ing tax­payer dol­lars. The pro­cure­ment pro­gram is worth up to $40 bil­lion. On the side, they’ve also got another con­tract worth $2.4 bil­lion to build pub­licly fi­nanced Coast Guard ships in Hal­i­fax. These projects are be­ing built in a fa­cil­ity whose up­grades were paid for by a $304 mil­lion dol­lar gift from the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment and, for some rea­son, they were also given an ab­surd tax-break from the city of Hal­i­fax.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing bil­lions dol­lars in con­tracts, and hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in di­rect sub­si­dies and tax breaks, one of the rich­est fam­i­lies in Canada (or Ber­muda) now ex­pects ship­yard work­ers to work even harder and less safely.

The re­fusal by the Irv­ings to ne­go­ti­ate a fair deal with their work­ers tells us a lot about the na­ture of the econ­omy and about labour re­la­tions in this prov­ince, but it also tells us a lot about what the ul­tra-rich want. They don’t need any more money or power, but for some rea­son they want it and they’ll do what­ever they need to do to get it. It’s up to the rest of us to stop them.

Chris Par­sons (@cul­ture­ofde­feat) is a po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer, health care ac­tivist and oc­ca­sional writer from Hal­i­fax. He is the co-host of Dog Is­land, At­lantic Canada’s premier cul­tural-Marx­ist pod­cast.

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