In the past couple of years, we have seen an incredible mobilization of the Canadian working class as the contradictions within capitalism have become even more evident. Last year, we saw the greatest strike wave in Newfoundland’s history; New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have had to deal with major public employees’ strikes; Québec recently saw a massive mobilization of students and workers against the Charest government; and in British Columbia, a series of wildcat strikes led up to an aborted general strike that would have shut down the province. Ontario, however, has been the exception where last year, we saw one of the lowest levels of strike activity in the past 30 years. Does this mean that things are great for Ontario workers?
Reflections on the 2003 elections
As we mentioned in an article last year (“Ontario Liberal Budget Continues Assault on Workers“), the Ontario Liberals under Dalton McGuinty were elected upon the premise that they would reverse nearly a decade of vicious attacks on Ontario’s working class. The Liberals made a huge number of promises, ranging from freezing post-secondary tuition fees to building more social housing to treating labour unions with “respect.” Not surprisingly, the Liberals swept into power winning 72 of the 103 seats in the Ontario legislature, including all but three seats in Toronto (with those going to the NDP).
In addition to the Liberals’ provincial election victory, people in Toronto also elected an NDP mayor, David Miller, and an overwhelmingly left-wing city council that had promised to build social housing, rebuild the TTC (Toronto’s public transit system), and improve public services that are relied upon by the working class.
What the 2003 elections reveal to us is that Ontario workers were fed up by the rabid attacks of the Conservatives under Mike Harris, Ernie Eves, and Mel Lastman. However, there was little trust for the Liberals, either, considering that only 57.9% of people turned out to vote, one of the lowest voter turnouts in Ontario’s history. And what about the NDP, the mass party of the workers? Well, the NDP’s campaign was mostly a regurgitation of the Liberals’ platform, with a few slight differences. (For example, where the Liberals promised to raise the minimum wage from $6.85/hr to $8/hr by 2007, the NDP wanted the same increase done immediately.) Furthermore, workers (particularly public employees) had still not forgotten the NDP’s attacks on labour when they were in government in the early 1990s. Even though there was a tremendous opportunity in the election, the NDP was only able to win 7 seven seats at Queen’s Park… not even enough for official party status.
The Liberals in power: not a workers’ party!
As Marxists, we knew that the Liberals would never govern in the interest of workers. Both the Liberals and Conservatives are parties of the Canadian bourgeoisie and it is their interests that are foremost on the minds of McGuinty & Co. Not surprisingly, the Liberals continued and deepened the old Tory attacks on workers by instituting a highly regressive health tax, de-listing services from the Ontario public health plan, and increasing the costs of getting licenses and other government services. (See http://www.marxist.ca/Documents/04june_ontariobudget.htm)
This past November, Ontario’s health minister announced plans to eliminate 1,000 nursing positions in the province because there was not enough money to pay them. Most teachers and school janitors in the province have been without a contract for nearly two years while the government proceeds with negotiations at a snail’s pace.
And students received a blow when the Liberals (in collusion with Bob Rae) announced that tuition fees were going up, again, in September 2006 even though they are already the second highest in Canada. Although the 2005 budget released in early May is supposed to provide “relief” for students, it is hardly enough for working class students. The budget proudly calls for the re-establishment of student grants that had been eliminated by the Tories. However, only 16,000 students per year will qualify for grants of up to $6,000, and only if their families earn less than $35,000 annually (figures from the Toronto Star, 12 May 2005). Besides the fact that only 16,000 students will “benefit,” the fact that grants are capped at $6,000 is a slap in the face to working class students! The average tuition fee in Ontario is just under $5,000 (and is due to rise in September 2006), and that does not include things like books, rent, food, or transportation costs. Add to this the fact that for students to qualify for the grant, their families have to virtually live in poverty, which means that students are most likely unable to rely on family support.
Even though McGuinty tries to distract our attention by blaming the federal government for his inability to carry out his election promises, the Liberals were still able to find an extra $400 million lying around to give to the operators of a casino in Windsor. And, we can’t forget the hundred of millions in perks that the government was offering to Bombardier, one of the richest corporations in Canada.
However, the most notable way in which the Liberals rewarded the interests of capitalism in the budget is how they are allowing capitalists the right to construct (and operate?) schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure. Although the Liberals had campaigned against the use of “public-private partnerships” in the 2003 election after fiascos such as the construction of Highway 407, this is exactly the same thing. A spokesperson from a pension investment firm commented that business would be interested in purchasing public infrastructure, but that they would want a contract “cut in stone” that would result in a “good business arrangement that will last for 25 to 30 years” (National Post, 12 May 2005).
Capitalists are not happy either!
As we expected, the McGuinty Liberals have clearly shown their class orientation. But, just like with his federal counterpart Paul Martin, capitalists are not too happy with Dalton McGuinty’s performance so far. The problem, in capitalists’ eyes, is that McGuinty isn’t attacking the workers hard enough!
Ironically, the Liberals had to rely a good part on the support of workers and, more importantly, labour unions for their victory in 2003. Ontario capitalists were more than happy to support the rabidly right-wing Tories (and have done so throughout Ontario’s history). This is not to deny that the Liberals are a party of the bourgeoisie; it is simply that the Liberals are the Ontario bourgeoisie’s second choice. The Liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place: they want to serve the interests of capital, but they cannot wholly alienate their source of support from the last election… yet.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the Liberals are going to proceed with an ambivalent approach to governing until the next election in 2007, and then ratchet up their attacks on the working class. Greg Sorbara, Ontario’s minister of finance, attended a meeting of the Empire Club immediately after releasing his budget, promising the financial elite that the provincial budget deficit would be eliminated in 2008 (i.e. a year after the next election). His message to the business community is this: be patient with us while we fool the workers, and we’ll reward you in the end!
No way forward for Ontario’s working class
Although McGuinty and the Liberals swept into power less than two years ago, their popularity has plummeted. Not only have their promises not come true, conditions for the working class in Ontario have continued to worsen under the Liberals. Just walking the streets, you can see the anger and disgust that people have for the “Fiberals.”
Ontario (and Toronto, in particular) are the industrial and financial heart of Canada. Ontario produced over 41% of Canada’s GDP in 2004, and almost 34% of all Canadian businesses were based in the province. Yet, it is here perhaps that the contradictions of capitalism are most evident and we can confidently say that capitalism truly is in crisis… there is no way forward for the working class under capitalism.
The period between 1995 and 2002 – which coincided with the Tory years under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves – was one of the most prosperous periods in Ontario history. Manufacturing boomed and Ontario’s economy grew at a fantastic pace. This was in stark contrast to the early 1990s when Ontario was mired in one of its worst recessions in history. The Tories promised a “Common Sense Revolution” that would reverse the worsening living standards that had characterized the Bob Rae NDP government (1990-95).
The statistics from this period are truly staggering. Last year, the United Way charity published a report titled “Poverty by Postal Code”, which detailed poverty statistics for the city of Toronto, classified by neighbourhood. As mentioned, although the Ontario economy supposedly boomed from 1995 to 2002, the number of jobs in Toronto grew by only 11%, but the vast majority were poorly-paid service jobs. In fact, manufacturing jobs (especially full-time and well-paid ones) actually decreased during this time period. Median income also dropped by 4.2%, the largest decrease in Canada. By the end of the 1990s, the income gap between the richest and poorest 10% in Toronto stood at a staggering $251,471; in other words, the richest 10% earned over 27 times more than the poorest 10%!
Poverty isn’t simply limited to a few people living on the streets. The United Way report shows just how widespread poverty is in Canada’s largest city :
- The number of poor families in Toronto increased by almost 69% between 1981 and 2001.
- The number of “high poverty” neighbourhoods (where the poverty rate is higher than 25%) in Toronto increased from 30 to 120 between 1981 and 2001.
- In 23 neighbourhoods, the poverty rate is greater than 40%.
- 43% of all renting individuals or families spend over 30% of their income on rent (which is another indicator of poverty, according to Statistics Canada).
- 66% of neighbourhoods have a poverty rate of at least 12% (the national average).
The differences in class are becoming even sharper as the poor are ghettoized: nearly half of all poor people now live in poor neighbourhoods compared to 18% in 1981.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is the fact that even in the poorest neighbourhoods, the employment rate was almost 90%! This means that even though people may have jobs, they are still living in poverty! Many workers are forced to work as many as three jobs to try to make ends meet.
Although the general economy was “booming” in Ontario during the Tory years, the working class saw none of the benefits. In fact, their position became even worse. This just shows that even when capitalism is doing well, it can no longer provide a way forward for the working class. In Canada’s industrial heart, we can see the crisis of capitalism at its clearest.
The crisis of leadership
Yet, unlike the rest of Canada, Ontario labour has not erupted against the capitalist bosses, even though workers here have been attacked to such an extent. One of the fundamental problems with Ontario labour is the lack of leadership.
During the 2003 provincial election campaign, we saw the pathetic display of some key labour leaders urging their members to vote Liberal (the second party of the bosses) instead of the NDP (Canada’s party of labour). These included Buzz Hargrove (the leader of the Canadian Auto Workers union), the Ontario Nurses’ Union, and several of Ontario’s teachers’ unions. (The Ontario Secondary Schools’ Teacher Federation donated $8,400 to the Liberal Party, the maximum amount allowed, according to the Toronto Star [2 June, 2005].)
Since the election, the Liberals have given very little to the unions and in many cases, have continued the Tory attacks. However, the unions have not reacted. Most of the teachers’ unions have been without a contract for nearly two years, yet they only started a work-to-rule campaign this past January! As word spread that all four major teacher federations would be in a position to cripple the school system in September, one by one they began to sign sub-par contracts with the Ontario government. In November, the Liberals announced that they would be laying off 1,000 nurses yet the nurses’ union did little more than scold McGuinty.
Recently, we saw more militant labour action from the Toronto transit workers’ union but it too fizzled just before the workers went on strike. The union leadership was sticking to its guns and refusing to concede any ground on pension financing and further contracting out by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). Both the municipal and provincial governments were terrified of the public anger that would result from a transit strike (over 1 million people depend on the TTC everyday). Minutes before the strike deadline, however, it was announced that the TTC and the union had reached an agreement that was far from what the union had been demanding. Barely half of the union membership ratified the deal later in the week. Subsequently, we found out that Toronto mayor David Miller had basically told the union to accept the deal or risk facing a much more unfriendly government in their next round of bargaining.
As Trotsky famously wrote in “The Transitional Programme”:
The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. The economy, the state, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis, characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society. The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary into a revolutionary state is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership: its petty bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connection with it even in its death agony.
In all countries the proletariat is racked by a deep disquiet. The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines.
This is the problem that we are seeing in Ontario today. The leadership of the mass unions are refusing to confront the capitalists and their representatives in government and they are telling their members this. The masses in Ontario rose up during the Days of Action in the late 1990s, but they were sold out by union leaders who have failed to show any leadership since then. Instead, most of the large unions took on a passive role and have contracted out their activist work to small groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) who have helped to preserve the unions’ left flank while allowing the labour bureaucrats to do nothing.
In addition, we are also seeing a phenomenon where the unions are joining up with the bourgeois parties and being co-opted. In “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Trotsky described how unions would collaborate with the capitalist state in order to show the capitalists that they could be dependable and reliable, and hoping that the capitalists would be nice to them. In the end, it would allow the union bureaucracy (on the basis of capitalism) to “fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.” This is what we are seeing in Ontario as one union after another allies themselves with the Liberals and sign bad contracts because, as they see it, “it’s better than nothing.”
Across Canada, the workers have risen up to confront the capitalists. In Ontario, the bureaucracy within the trade unions and the NDP have acted like a pressure cooker, attempting to keep a lid on the growing anger from the masses. However, the labour bureaucracy is not stronger than the forces of history and soon, the Ontario workers will erupt and lead the Canadian working class in struggle against capitalism.
Notes:  In 2002, Statistics Canada classified poverty in Toronto as one person earning less than $19,261, or a family of four earning less than $36,247. (Canadian Council on Social Development)