The campaign against Doug Ford’s anti-protest law has been a huge success. There have been well-attended and enthusiastic forums at McMaster U., University of Waterloo, and UofT. The protest at Ryerson University attracted more than 100 people and received wide press coverage. The campaign even provoked an attack from the National Post. Subsequently, the pressure of mobilization has forced Ryerson Senate into retreat and confusion, while the UofT Student union has adopted a bold resolution that refuses to participate in its implementation, as have the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and various union locals.
The movement is building momentum and widely supported by groups as diverse as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, to Latin American and Palestinian solidarity activists, to harm reduction and reproductive rights campaigners. Just two weeks ago there was an energetic rally outside the building that houses York University’s President and Board of Governors. Future campaign events are being planned in Oshawa and other cities.
Even if universities eventually capitulate to Ford’s dictat, the campaign has already succeeded in its aim to protect student protesters from frivolous repression. University spokespersons have been forced to backtrack and limit how the law will be applied. The awareness raised and pressure mobilized has had real effects that are to the benefit of all who are fighting against the Ford government and its far-right friends who want a safe space from student protest.
However, despite the successes of the broad-based campaign against Ford’s suppression of free speech and assembly, some have chosen to weaken the struggle. Unnamed individuals have been contacting organizations and encouraging them to not endorse the campaign. Speakers have been told to pull out of events. The pretext for this are unspecified allegations against an unnamed person (or persons) who are supposedly associated with the Marxist organization Fightback. This stems from a conflict that erupted during the recent strike of CUPE 3903 at York University.
Fightback is one of the largest left organizations in Canada, and is particularly strong in Toronto and York University. At York, about 50 students regularly participate in Socialist Fightback Student club activities. Fightback activists decided to take the initiative to launch the campaign against the anti-protest law after the rest of the left appeared to either be unwilling or too small to take on this important issue that will impact the entire left. Fightback does not own the issue, or the campaign against the government directive. The attack by Ford affects everyone on the left, and an injury to one is an injury to all. The students who launched the campaign have reached out widely to encourage other prominent groups and individuals to come onboard and make the campaign their own. Those who have participated have expressed how impressed they have been with the campaign events so far. If others wish to take on this campaign, then Fightback will be more than happy to step aside and play a supporting role. The anti-protest law is a clear issue where a united front of groups and organizations with a sizable constituency can have a real impact.
With regard to the non-specific allegations, Fightback takes this question very, very seriously. Any manifestation of harassment, sexual or otherwise, is totally unacceptable. Any instance of harassment is immediately investigated and proportionate action taken. We have conducted an internal review to determine if there are any instances of harassment that could in any way be related to the non-specific allegations. We have found nothing. If we had found anything we would have taken immediate action against any culpable individuals. The fact that the allegations are unspecified does not help. We do not know what is alleged, against whom, on what date, at what location. We have approached independent groups and individuals to see if they could investigate and/or mediate to resolve this dispute. Unfortunately this has been denied to us.
Fightback has been told to reflect. We have done so to the ability that any organization can reflect over unspecified allegations. With regard to the York dispute, the comrades have actively reflected on any actions they may have taken that do not meet the accepted standards of the community. Leading members of our York club have attended training put on by the Centre for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education at York University. If anybody knows what Fightback as an organization can do concretely to resolve this situation, we are more than open to suggestions.
The unfortunate fact is that by withholding a name, there is no way to take action. If there is an abuser, the absence of a name means they cannot be held accountable, potentially putting people inside Fightback at risk. It also has the effect of permanently staining the reputation of a sizable revolutionary organization with no avenue for a resolution. It has also been said that no victim should be forced to name their abuser. This is true. But then there cannot be collective punishment of an entire organization, based on unspecified allegations against unspecified individuals who may or may not be a member of that organization. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh accepted the endorsement of Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, who has faced fairly credible accusations of spousal assault. And yet there was no ban on Singh when he spoke at the CUPE 3903 picket line, and no ban on the federal NDP. We are not saying that there should be a ban on Singh or the NDP, but are merely pointing out that the case against Fightback has far fewer details than the above scenario.
We suspect that for some of those conducting this whisper campaign, the point is not to resolve issues of harassment, but to sideline an active group of young radicals for sectarian purposes. Harassment, for them, is not an issue to be resolved, but a tool to be weaponized. When Fightback is asked to “reflect”, what is in fact meant is that it must disappear, dissolve, and liquidate. For one of the largest left groups in Canada to disappear, dissolve, and liquidate when the left is under attack by Doug Ford’s anti-protest law, or when over 25,000 Torontonians voted for the white nationalist Faith Goldy, would be totally criminal. Far from dissolving, we need to step up our organizing against the far right. Instead of liquidating, we need to do everything in our power to assist oppressed communities to fight back against Ford’s attacks. If Fightback had disappeared there would currently be no campaign against the anti-protest law, leaving many students open to administrative repression. Sectarian whispers serve to weaken the left and strengthen the right. Toronto has been especially notorious for the extreme sectarianism on the left, and it has had tangible negative effects at York University in particular.
How sectarianism weakened the York strike
CUPE 3903 at York University has a reputation for being one of the most militant union locals in the country. Strikes at York have won the employees there some of the best contracts in the sector. However, during the 2018 contract negotiations the York administration clearly developed a plan to break the union. They put concessions on the table, refused to bargain, and then turned to the Ontario Liberals and the Doug Ford Conservatives to force through back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration. This was not any normal round of negotiations, but a political fight to publicly weaken a troublesome local that could serve as a positive example to other workers. Therefore, normal tactics would not work.
The only way to win against the blatant political campaign to break the union would have been to wage the widest campaign possible; to put forward every effort to spread the movement beyond the union, to the students on campus, around the city of Toronto, and to the workers of the province. It was necessary to link the demands of the union to the need for free education for students, and decent work for all workers. Against the Wynne Liberals and Ford Conservatives it was necessary to wage a campaign for the democratic right to strike and demand that the rest of the labour movement join in. These are the ideas that we consistently argued for on campus and on the picket lines to the best of our ability. Unfortunately this approach was not adopted, and the strike ended in demoralization and defeat as the union leadership limped towards the inevitable legislation with no perspective of defiance.
The leadership of CUPE 3903 is currently held by a “left” faction that is influenced by academic “Marxian” politics. Ironically, it was this faction that was critically supported by Fightback during the 2015 York strike. At this time a more right-wing group that was closer to the central CUPE and NDP bureaucracies was in control and was advocating a sell-out settlement.
The beginnings of the 2018 strike were encouraging, with a militant mood on the picket lines and good student solidarity. Fightback has consistently supported CUPE 3903 during all the disputes over the last couple of decades, and 2018 was no different. However, there was one important difference between previous struggles and this year’s strike. Over the years Socialist Fightback Students has grown from being a small and marginal group to being the dominant organization on the York left. Without much conscious mobilizing, Fightback supporters would regularly make up about 50 per cent of the participants at events that brought the left together. Many rank-and-file campus workers and students welcomed this increased organization and profile for socialist ideas. But those affiliated with Maoist, Stalinist, or anti-Leninist academic tendencies resented our presence. Such sectarianism is typical of the Toronto left, which would prefer to see no mobilization at all rather than mobilization associated with a tendency they oppose.
A couple of weeks into the strike, students working in solidarity with CUPE occupied the York Senate meeting room. This was an exciting development that attracted about 100 students in the first days. The occupation could have been the launching pad for a wider movement of students for demands that went beyond the strike, such as free education. Unfortunately, this is when vague accusations were levelled against Fightback in a heated atmosphere where all were lacking sleep. At this point a mature union leadership could have intervened to determine if there was in fact any substance to the accusations. If there was, action should be taken to hold any individuals accountable. The leadership should have recognized that a healthy student solidarity campaign was beneficial to the success of the strike, and mediated an end to disputes. Instead of resolving disputes, the union leadership fanned the flames against an organization they were personally ideologically opposed to. Instead of cooling things down with the aim of determining the facts and finding a resolution, things were brought to a boil. Non-specific accusations were levelled at meetings without any corroboration. The accused were not only excluded, but were not even informed that the issue would be up for debate. The decision was taken to ban half the organized student solidarity movement from the strike. This not only flew in the face of natural justice, but set off a chain of events that ruined the solidarity movement.
Once the precedent had been set that non-specific accusations could be used to settle political scores, the occupation (now re-christened “reclamation”) entered a downward spiral. One group accused others of being homophobic. These individuals were in turn accused of being white supremacists. All fought over control of the thousands of dollars that the union was expending to supply the sit-in. Solidarity events organized by this group were small, with no more than 30 people in attendance, and did not reach new people. New people were even excluded from voting and debating how the occupation was to move forward. Eventually there was a split with two separate “reclamation” Facebook pages being formed (and one side taking all the union money). In this condition of weakness the administration moved to kick out the small remaining group of occupiers. Now, criminally, the administration is trying to make an example of eight of the students and union members involved. In order to avoid expulsion, the administration is insisting that the eight admit guilt and sign a statement that commits them to abandoning politics. This is a scandalous demand and should be resisted by all means necessary. But we should also recognize that this victimization is only possible because the movement became small and weak.
These events also coincided with the provincial election in which the York strike arose as a major issue. The Wynne Liberals had broken their promise to respect collective bargaining and moved to implement back-to-work legislation. The Liberals, together with the Tories, tried to use this as a wedge issue to attack the Ontario NDP. We have many reasons to criticize NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, but to her credit she solidly opposed the anti-union rhetoric levelled by the big-business parties. But here the sectarianism of the CUPE 3903 leadership also played a negative role. Coming from an academic Marxian background opposed to the NDP, they could not enter into a united front with the party in fighting the back-to-work legislation. This was despite that fact that CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, is a well known figure on the left and a strong NDP supporter; while the right wing of the labour movement was giving closet support to the Liberals. We agree with the necessity to critique the NDP leadership when they compromise, but here is a clear example of the union taking a lukewarm attitude while the party was doing the right thing. CUPE members could have been mobilized en masse to protest Liberal and PC election events. The anti-NDP prejudice of the union leadership did nothing to help defeat the legislation when it came.
With no perspective to spread the strike, no plan to defy the inevitable legislation from Doug Ford, and with the student solidarity movement in disarray, demoralization began to set in. Two rogue members of the CUPE 3903 unit 2 bargaining team effectively scabbed on the union and entered into separate negotiations with the boss. Unit 2 encompasses precarious contract faculty that must re-apply to teach courses term by term, and are far less likely to have alternative sources of funding than graduate teaching assistants. This rogue negotiation produced a sellout agreement on functionally the same terms as those rejected by union members previously. Notably, this agreement contained no protection against victimization for those supporting the strike. The rest of the leadership, rather than expel the secret negotiators, allowed them to defend the sellout to the membership and put it to a secret ballot vote. Dispirited, and with no perspective of victory, unit 2 members voted to accept.
With the union divided, and legislation coming, the strike limped on like a man awaiting his execution. The “left” argued that it was more noble to be put out of one’s misery rather than to die by one’s own hand. In the end, it made little difference when the coup de grâce came down on July 25. There was no hope of defiance or spreading the movement. There was no barrier against victimization of activists. The employer, with the assistance of government, had won a total victory.
As one final insult after the passing of back-to-work legislation, the union leadership that had presided over this failure hurriedly called new executive elections in the middle of the summer while much of the membership was away. In this way the same slate largely won re-election unopposed. It is not clear whether any bylaws were bent or broken, but by using such methods you will never build a militant democratic trade union that can inspire workers and beat back the bosses. There are now rumours that unit 2 members wish to split away and form their own union. This would only weaken the struggle and cement divisions between the workers.
The tragedy is that this depressing end was not inevitable. The early days of the strike were militant and enthusiastic. This local that had been in the vanguard of the labour movement could have bloodied the nose of the new Doug Ford regime and drew a line in the sand to defend the right to strike. But sectarianism ruined the strike and led to the current bad state of the union. This has even spilled over to the undergraduate population where anti-union and anti-strike sentiments are being exploited by the right wing.
For a united front against Ford and the far right
Sectarianism is a luxury that the Toronto left can no longer afford. The Doug Ford government is on the warpath and everything is on the chopping block. The leaders of the unions are passive, so there has been no mass response to the attacks. The far right has been emboldened by Ford and Trump while labour gives support to liberals such as Jennifer Keesmaat. While the left in Vancouver was able to unite behind an impressive campaign by the Coalition of Progressive Electors, in Toronto a divided left allowed the racist Faith Goldy to come in third with more than 25,000 votes. As the saying goes, you can hang together or be hanged separately.
Harassment is an issue that must be dealt with head-on and cannot be swept under the carpet. This means that there needs to be thorough investigations whenever there is a hint of inappropriate behaviour, and individuals held accountable for their actions. None of this has occurred with regard to the accusations at York, either leaving people at risk, or sullying the name of hundreds of revolutionary activists for sectarian purposes with no avenue for resolution.
Fightback calls for a united front of all left organizations with a sizable constituency against the attacks of Ford and the far right. This is not unprincipled “left unity”, where all discussion is silenced and people are forced to hide their banners. We call for a united front in the best tradition of Lenin, who said, “march separately, but strike together!” Organizations are free to choose their own priorities, free to present their ideas, organization, and criticism openly, but unite in struggle against a common threat. This is the same approach taken by anti-fascists in 1920s Germany. At the time, division was rife in the labour movement, largely as a result of the Stalinist belief that reformism was the “twin” of fascism. As a result, left-wing workers spent more time attacking each other (often physically) than they did the fascists. Hitler later admitted it was these divisions which allowed him to take power so easily. Calls went up to bridge the divide and to build a genuine united front against the fascist menace. Unfortunately, the efforts of these heroic workers was drowned out by the sectarianism of the main workers’ parties, leading to the victory of Hitler. One hundred years after the defeat of the German Revolution, we must learn the lessons of the past.
Regardless of whether or not others decide to conduct sectarian sabotage, Fightback will organize under the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. This was shown at the Ryerson Senate where we fought alongside the Black Liberation Collective and other student groups to fight the administration’s capitulation to Ford’s free speech mandate. We will fight against the victimization of the eight activists at York. We will unite against the far right, as we did at the protest against Steve Bannon on Nov. 2. Where we agree, we will support the efforts of others on the left and mobilize our forces to maximize the impact of a protest or action. We call on others to take the same approach. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.