As Ontario’s unions mobilize for Labour Day, they face a challenge not witnessed in a generation. The Doug Ford Conservative government has seen its support fall off a cliff. And yet despite this the anti-worker Ontario regime still stands. Ford can remain in power, cutting and slashing all the way, unless he is given a push. Unless the trade unions do their duty and organize a movement towards an Ontario general strike, workers and every oppressed group will face another three years of attacks from Queen’s Park. It is unacceptable to allow Ford’s hated regime to live a day longer than necessary. This government is weak and unpopular. We need a general strike to bring Ford down.
Ontarians have been lied to and are angry. Doug Ford won the 2018 provincial election by selling the people a false promise of finding $6 billion worth of “efficiencies”. He led people to believe that there would be no cuts, and nobody would lose their job. This was a cynical political calculation by Ford’s inner circle. The reality is that if they had told the truth about the depth and breadth of their planned austerity they would not have won the election, and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath would likely be premier today. But with amazing speed the people of the province have seen through these lies.
Ford managed to gain 40.5 per cent of the vote in June of 2018, but now he is less popular than the discredited former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne. Seventy per cent of Ford’s voters reported that their main reason for voting Conservative was to get rid of Wynne rather than to support the Tories, but now they have discovered that the supposed cure is worse than the disease. One year after the election Ford’s net favourability is -53.5 per cent, compared to Wynne’s -35.3 per cent just weeks before she lost power. This is astounding. Ford’s collapse in popularity has seen the premier being booed at every public appearance for the last few months, most notably by hundreds of thousands of Torontonians at the Raptors victory party.
The reasons for Ford’s fall in support are clear to see. The complete list of the cuts so far is quite shocking, but here are 20 of the worst actions by Ford. During his brief and chaotic reign he has:
1. Slashed flood management funds by 50 per cent while floods inundated the province.
2. Cut more than 700 green energy projects.
3. Cancelled overdose prevention sites during the opioid crisis.
4. Cut $200 million from public health that was implemented after the Walkerton water contamination.
5. Rolled back sex education to the 1990s, endangering LGBTQ youth.
6. Cut Franco-Ontarian services and a new francophone university.
7. Protected racists and homophobes on campus while attacking the right to protest.
8. Cut Ontario Student Assistance for low-income students.
9. Attacked the funding of student unions.
10. Cut university budgets and cancelled three new campuses.
11. Increased high-school class sizes by an average of six students, leading to thousands of lost teaching jobs.
12. Cut education programs on Indigenous history mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
13. Cut legal aid by 30 per cent and banned refugees from accessing the system.
14. Cut Toronto city council in half.
15. Imposed a 4 per cent budget cut on school boards and cancelled $100 million worth of planned repairs.
16. Cut $1 billion from social services.
17. Cancelled the $15 minimum wage.
18. Killed the bill to guarantee pay equity between part-time and full-time workers.
19. Removed rent control.
20. Cut payments to injured workers by 30 per cent.
The Tories also proposed a new funding formula for autistic youth that was woefully inadequate. It was later revealed that his government lied about the reality of the new policy. However, it appears that in the face of a public backlash they are backtracking on this attack. On other issues, such as retroactive cuts to municipalities and school boards, the Ontario government has been forced into a partial retreat to cancel the retroactive component. These reversals show that with sufficient opposition, this weak and unpopular regime can be forced to move.
Yet despite the massive unpopularity of the government, the organized response thus far has been weak and disparate. There has never been an Ontario government that has become so unstable in such a short period of time while facing such a lack of organized opposition. In just a single year Ford and his cronies have become less popular than the worst periods of the Bob Rae and Kathleen Wynne governments, but they are hanging on due to the lack of a coordinated fightback.
Back in March the Ontario Federation of Labour held a conference on how to oppose Doug Ford. During this event OFL president Chris Buckley was at pains to make clear that there was absolutely no prospect of political strikes against the Conservative regime, and definitely not a general strike. Since then the OFL has sponsored small regional leafleting groups, with the supposed aim of moving public opinion in Tory-held ridings. There is no plan for anything beyond this, and the implicit idea is that there is nothing more that can be done prior to the 2022 election. This is a scandalous dereliction of duty by the labour leadership. It isn’t groups of leafleters that are moving public opinion; Ford is doing that work himself by his ham-fisted austerity. People want to know what is going to be done about this government.
Labour leaders have said that they don’t want to make themselves the target of Ford, and are therefore keeping their heads down to support other sectors fighting the cuts. This is naive in the extreme. There is an old saying in the labour movement that weakness invites aggression. Acting like a submissive mutt with a tail between its legs will just get the unions kicked harder. It also begs the question of why these union bureaucrats get paid six-figure salaries while sitting on top of multi-million dollar war chests and thousands of paid organizers, only to allow a bunch of high-school kids to do all the hard work of leading the fightback. If the union tops won’t fight, they should give up their lavish paycheques and expense accounts to those who will.
A few months after the OFL meeting, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) organized its Ontario convention where the issue of so-called back-to-work legislation was a major point of discussion. Fightback activists spearheaded a resolution for the union to defy back-to-work legislation, which was unanimously passed by CUPE Ontario. This was an important victory, but this one step forward was immediately followed by two steps back. When socialists tried to amend the union’s action plan to actually turn the commitment to defy into reality, there was a solid wall of opposition from the CUPE executive. Some even said that unions couldn’t do anything that breaks the law. One wonders what these people thought they were voting on previously. Did they think that they would be defying laws that contain a section saying that defiance was all fine and legal? The reality is that as long as union leaders commit to respecting anti-democratic back-to-work legislation, then governments will use this tool to break strikes with impunity. Unions would not exist today, and the bureaucrats would not enjoy their current perks and privileges, if workers in the past were not willing to break the law. The state is no longer respecting the old gentlemen’s agreements, and it is high time that trade unionists understood this fact.
At the same time as union leaders were saying they would not break the law, the Ontario government was tabling Bill 124. This bill limits public sector wage and benefit contracts to a maximum of 1 per cent net increase per year. With inflation this is an effective pay cut. This bill all on its own should be sufficient to trigger a general strike by CUPE and other public sector unions. But instead the labour leaders are stuck in the blind alley of legalism. Yet again, instead of fighting they appeal such legislation to the courts on the grounds that it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sometimes these appeals succeed, sometimes they fail, but absolutely every time, the movement of workers is diverted into a long drawn-out process that does nothing but enrich a small group of lawyers.
The reality is that people are prepared to fight. We had the fantastic 50,000-strong demonstration for education at Queen’s Park, followed by more than 10,000 protesting against health-care cuts and privatization, while more than 100,000 highschoolers walked out over the class size hikes. Frustration with the lack of action by union leaders even led to a spontaneous protest on May Day where 2,000 people called for a general strike and Fightback played a significant role. The movement is desperately searching for an outlet to bring down this hated government.
There are two major potential areas of conflict arising this fall. University students returning to class in September will be the first to suffer the cancellation of the Ontario Student Assistance Plan grant that offset the cost of tuition for lower income students. There is a possibility of student strike activity against this cut at various campuses. For example, Fightback activists at Ryerson University successfully committed the student union to organize general assemblies and student strikes in the fall term. It is vital that the labour movement supports the university students and joins their strike.
However, the most important area of confrontation is almost certainly at the high schools. More than 5,000 teaching jobs are set to be lost as average class sizes go from 22 to 28 students. At the time class size increases were announced, the (now sacked) Ontario education minister said that this hike will make students more resilient. If that was the case, why stop at 28? Why not increase classes to 38 or 88 to create super students! The minister may have been sacked, but the cut still remains. This development coincides with the teachers’ unions entering bargaining for a new contract, with class size the main issue in negotiations. A perfect storm is in preparation: teachers oppose the hike, students oppose the hike as shown by the fantastic walkouts, parents oppose the hike, but the government is dead set on getting its way. When teachers begin job action over this issue it is sure to be widely popular. But the government cannot back down or its entire austerity package will be in tatters. They are sure to use back-to-work legislation against the teachers.
The teachers’ unions and the broader labour movement will be faced with a decision: Defy the back-to-work legislation, with the support of students and parents who hate the class size hikes, or capitulate in miserable fashion. It is entirely possible that even if the union leaders display cowardice, the students will not accept it and will walk out themselves. It is vital that the rank and file of the unions, united with students and parents, do not allow the movement to be sold out and called off from above. In the event of defiance, the teachers cannot be left to fight alone. The rest of the labour movement needs to join in the wildcat walkout with the aim to build a general solidarity strike. Students, teachers, and parents can spread the movement to other workplaces by setting up solidarity pickets. The Ford regime is weak, and such action could not only reverse class size increases, but even bring down the government. Student/teacher/parent action committees could make this a reality. But what is needed is leadership, courage, and the audacity to take the necessary actions.
Many activists are looking back to learn lessons from the Metro Days of Action general strike movement against Mike Harris in the 1990s. There are many similarities between the Ford and Harris regimes, but there is also one important difference. Mike Harris actually had a democratic mandate for his attacks, and never faced the plunge in popularity to the degree that Ford is experiencing. Ford, on the other hand, lied to the people; he said there would be no cuts and layoffs, and he never said there would be OSAP cuts or class size hikes. If Ford had been honest about his plans, he would never have won the election. Therefore the terrain for the current movement is far more favourable than the general political situation of the late 1990s.
In contrast to the somnambulant approach of today’s labour leaders, within six months of Mike Harris’s election the Ontario Federation of Labour had organized an emergency conference. This conference resolved to organize a series of city-wide one-day general strikes against the Conservative austerity program. One hundred thousand workers struck in Hamilton in February 1996. One million struck in Toronto in October of the same year, with 250,000 protesters filling University Avenue all the way up to Queen’s Park. We may add that all these political strikes were illegal, but that did not stop them from occurring anyway. With such escalating actions there was a real possibility of a province-wide general strike to bring down the government. Harris’s popularity began to suffer and the general strike movement had widespread popularity.
Unfortunately, despite organizing a far larger movement than our present labour leaders, the union tops of the 1990s were also reformists who did not want the movement to get beyond their control. They were just as afraid of the workers as they were of the bosses and the government. Instead of following the logic of the movement, and the democratic direction of OFL conventions towards a province-wide general strike to bring down the government, they instead delayed, demobilized, and eventually called the movement off from the top down. This incredibly powerful movement that was on the verge of victory was defeated due to betrayal from the bureaucratic leadership. The Toronto general strike still remains the largest strike in Canadian history, but has been deliberately forgotten by both the establishment and the union apparatus.
We must learn the lessons of the Metro Days of Action, both positive and negative. The positive lesson is that the people are willing to fight if given a lead and a democratic structure where their voices can be heard. The booing of Ford, the mass demonstrations, opinion polls, and student walkouts show that today there is a clear mood to fight. Some think we can boycott the unions for fear of a sellout. But the reality is that the unions are potentially the most powerful organizations in society with millions of members and resources that no other organization can mobilize. The anti-Harris movement showed the potential power of the unions. But we have to fight to win a leadership of the unions that will not sell out the movement. Labour Fightback is organizing to do this. But we must also build rank-and-file structures, action committees of students, teachers, parents, and rank-and-file workers, that can direct an explosive mass movement from below. We cannot allow the top bureaucrats to hold all the levers of power independent from the democratic control of the rank-and-file who will face the brunt of Ford’s attacks.
OFL president Chris Buckley has said that a general strike cannot be conjured out of thin air. In this he is correct, but he is also doing everything in his power to stop the organization of strike action against the Ford government. The movement has to be built and people need to learn how to fight. But this movement will be built far faster if people know where we are heading. Instead of informational leafleting in Tory ridings, a plan of escalating actions needs to be drawn up. Mass demonstrations, partial, sectoral, and regional strikes, leading up to a one-day Ontario general strike to reverse the cuts and bring down the Ford government. This movement needs to be controlled from below with the involvement of all sectors: high school and university students, community representatives, groups representing women, immigrants, First Nations, and other oppressed groups; all parts of the working class inside and outside organized labour need to have a voice. We need to build towards a one-day general strike against the cuts. We need to be prepared for a general solidarity strike to support workers defying back-to-work legislation. We need a general strike to bring down Ford’s Conservative government.
We cannot sit around for another three years waiting for the 2022 election while Ford destroys everything that makes life half livable. Some pessimists on the left previously opposed the demand to bring down the government, but the progression of the movement shows that this is the only way forward. There is a real opportunity to pick up from where the anti-Mike Harris movement failed and to win an historic victory against this right-wing, pro-corporate government. Fightback is doing everything in its power to educate people on what is possible and the methods that are necessary to win. Together we can build a movement that brings down this rotten government and gives workers the power to decide their own futures. Join us.