In the past year, the entire world has been thrown into convulsions. Almost overnight, the underpinnings of the capitalist system were thrown out the window. Governments around the world have thrown billions upon billions toward trying to prop up the system. Almost every government has gone massively into debt. Some economists are even predicting that within a few years, the US federal deficit may top $9 trillion! In Canada alone, the latest financial statement put out by the Conservative government has the federal deficit at $56 billion for this year.
Even if the worst of the financial crisis is over (which it may or may not be), this actually doesn’t address the questions raised by the prospects of the recovery, one that every capitalist institution acknowledges will be a very weak one. All of these debts that have been incurred by capitalist governments need to be paid back. As economic growth will be anaemic at best, and no bourgeois government will be in a mood to reverse corporate tax cuts, it will be the working class that will be forced to pay for this crisis. Mass service cuts, layoffs, and other attacks will be the order of the day as the bosses and their representatives in government look to balance the books.
This is very plain to see in Canada. Both the Liberals and Tories have very shady plans on how a $56-billion deficit will be paid off in a few short years. Stephen Harper, Jim Flaherty, and Michael Ignatieff all agree that somehow, they will balance the books without cutting services or increasing taxes. These gentlemen expect to pull off this magic trick by having an economy that will power ahead in a recovery similar to the one after the Second World War. There is one slight problem with that scenario; after WWII, the United States was the only imperialist power to emerge relatively unscathed from the war. The singular might of US imperialism after the war was able to tear down tariff barriers and protectionist measures, thereby partially alleviating the contradictions between international capital and its hemming in by the nation state. This was combined with the super-exploitation of the former colonial countries of the Third World. This scenario does not exist today.
In fact, the opposite is true today. Any recovery is going to be a tremendously weak one. The Bank of Canada, which has optimistically stated that the recession is already over in Canada, is predicting barely over 2% growth next year. Even if this number holds true, it is extremely likely that job losses will continue. Even Ignatieff is predicting that we could see another 200,000 people lose their jobs before all is said and done. It is even more unlikely that the well-paying jobs that had existed before the crisis will suddenly return in a recovery. As witnessed by the sell-outs at the Big Three automakers and the intransigence in the municipal strikes in Toronto and Windsor, the bosses want to ensure the best possible “cost certainty” going far into the future.
The working class movement recovers
A simplistic view of society would assume that under these conditions, workers would be rising up to challenge the bosses and the entire capitalist system. However, any person who is connected to the working class would realize that this is often not the case. Aside from a few examples, the general trend around the world has been that the economic crisis has stunned the workers’ movement. Instead of going on strike, workers are bowing their heads and hoping that they can maintain the jobs they currently have. Workers are scared of losing whatever little they have left. To the bosses and the economists, the crisis is simply measured in numbers and unemployment statistics. For workers, the crisis can mean lost food and lost homes. Workers want to believe that this is simply a temporary crisis and that if they work hard enough and sacrifice enough, then things will return to the way they were.
In September’s editorial, we outlined how Canada, and Ontario in particular, are the current exception to this trend. Over the past three years, labour militancy in Ontario has continued to increase with both the number of strikes and workers’ resilience towards harder attacks, by both the bosses and their allies in government, increasing. This has even culminated in workers occupying their own workplaces in several very public instances. In some of these struggles, workers have been able to achieve full or partial victories that have shown that even in the midst of a crisis, workers can come out victorious if they decide to fight back.
One reason why Ontario workers seem to be further ahead than their brothers and sisters in other provinces is that in many respects, the economic crisis hit harder and much earlier in Ontario than in the rest of Canada. For decades, the foundation of the Ontario economy has been the manufacturing sector. However, the manufacturing sector has been buffeted for years before the crisis “officially” hit the world. According to Statistics Canada, 770,000 Ontarians are currently employed in manufacturing; that number was closer to 1.4 million when Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals took power in 2003. Historically, it has been the manufacturing sector that has been able to sustain the “myth of the middle class” — working class people who are able to afford a nice car and house in the suburbs. We must not forget that these conditions and benefits were only won through militant struggles by the workers in the 1930s and 1940s, and became the bedrock of the Canadian labour movement. But, these jobs have disappeared and are now being replaced by minimum-wage jobs in fast food restaurants or call centres. The foundation of the economy has disappeared.
In addition to this, after years of attacks by the Tories under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, the McGuinty Liberals were largely elected by the support of some key unions who believed that the Liberals would usher in an era of “class peace.” Six years later that illusion has been shattered. Increasingly, the Liberals are beginning to resemble their Tory predecessors. The Liberals have shown no qualms in taking away the right to strike for Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and York University workers. The Liberals have pressured municipal governments into taking a hard line with their own unions (as evidenced in the prolonged Windsor and Toronto civic workers’ strikes). The provincial government even pressured local school boards into blackmailing the teachers’ unions – forcing the unions to accept extra unpaid prep time for teachers, after collective bargaining agreements had been reached, under threat of imposed contracts.
Unlike in the rest of Canada (and the rest of the world, for that matter), Ontario workers have had a prolonged experience of “crisis.” For the last six years or more, Ontario workers have bowed their heads, put their noses to the grindstone, and waited as one “crisis” after another swept the province – 9/11, SARS, the high price of oil, the high Canadian dollar, the manufacturing crisis, and now the latest crisis of capitalism. However, the long-promised recovery has not occurred, or at least, hasn’t brought about any real recovery for most workers.
Just as Ontario seemed to have entered the crisis first, they also appear to be preparing the groundwork for attacks before other governments. As mentioned earlier, the federal government is still keeping quiet about how they will balance the books once the country “exits” the crisis. In Ontario, both provincial and municipal governments are already strongly hinting at the mass cuts and attacks that are rapidly coming.
At the time of writing, the Ontario Liberals have just announced that the Ontario provincial deficit currently stands at a whopping $24.7 billion, far surpassing even the bankers’ worst estimates. In large part, the deficit is based on the massive bailouts handed to the auto industry, and the fact that corporate tax income fell by 48% this year. Almost immediately, McGuinty and the Liberals began talking about the need for “restraint” and making “difficult choices.” The corporate media is talking about privatizing the LCBO and the introduction of “Dalton Days”, a return of forced unpaid time-off for public sector workers that was seen under the Bob Rae NDP government in the early 1990s.
At the same time, the Toronto municipal government is forecasting a deficit in the $500 million range for next year and is coming up with a “Big Hurt” budget, as described by the Globe and Mail. Toronto City Hall, which already battled with civic workers this past summer, is now asking for “permanent” 10% cuts in spending in every city department over the next two years. Even these cuts are not supposed to be enough; city councillor Adam Vaughan said, “Short of rolling back a contract, you’re talking about laying people off at some point.”
We are entering a new epoch of capitalism where an economic recovery will actually bring more attacks on workers, this will have a transformative effect on the working class movement and their organizations, specifically the trade unions and their labour parties. The old leaderships with their old ideas who tried to reach conciliation with the bosses will need to be swept aside. In this new epoch, even the most basic of reforms will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to win from the bosses and the government. Workers will need to push for a new leadership that is willing to fight and get them real tangible gains in their struggles.
In Ontario, we are already seeing the beginnings of this in the labour movement. One of the first obvious signs of this radicalization was within the TTC union and the election of a rank-and-file militant in Bob Kinnear. Kinnear was elected over the objection of the union’s exec. Kinnear bargained hard against the City of Toronto and was able to win concessions after not bending and leading his union into a difficult strike. The Toronto Star even labelled him “the most hated man in Toronto.” But, after the last contract negotiations with the City, TTC workers took things even further and refused to ratify a recommended contract offer, going out on strike and catching the city unprepared. The radicalization of the masses has a logic all its own and even these new left-wing leaders can be overtaken by the demands of their workers.
The TTC workers’ union isn’t the only example of a leftward turn within the Ontario labour movement. The Steelworkers have played an important role in leading militant strikes and even witnessed a factory occupation by its members at a parts plant in Scarborough. Their international president, Sudbury native Leo Gerard, gave one of the most fiery and left-wing speeches at the latest NDP federal convention this past summer. It should be remembered that at one time, the Steelworkers were a bastion for the right wing within the NDP. CUPE Ontario leader Sid Ryan, long seen as one of the most radical labour leaders in the country, is rumoured to potentially be the next president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. The Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers union (CEP) have openly talked about supporting worker occupations and nationalization of the energy sector.
A new left turn in the Ontario NDP?
And, it now appears that there are the beginnings of a left-wing shift within the Ontario NDP, still in a disorganized manner but one that may be gaining ground. This is running counter to the general rightward shift being seen in most of the other provincial NDP sections across Canada.
On the contrary, at the most recent Ontario leadership convention, we witnessed a leftward movement in the party with the election of Andrea Horwath as the new Ontario NDP leader. In the initial stages of the leadership campaign, little was said by any of the candidates with little to differentiate themselves from each other. In this atmosphere, it appeared that the establishment candidate, Peter Tabuns, would waltz to an easy victory. On the final weekend of the campaign, however, Horwath, began to talk about the need to save jobs in the face of the manufacturing crisis, thereby aligning herself with the labour wing of the party. Horwath talked about NDPers not needing to “check their socialism at the door.” This resonated with the party’s rank-and-file who, probably to the surprise of many, elected her NDP leader. Since her election, she has openly talked about the need for nationalizations to save jobs. Left-wing MPPs who had previously been on the fringes of the party, such as Peter Kormos and Cheri di Novo, are playing a much more vocal and public role for the party. Horwath also rightfully condemned the nonsense around the proposed name change for the federal NDP in Halifax, saying that the debate was taking attention away from real issues that affected working class people. The two candidates who advocated Blairist ideas, Gilles Bisson and Michael Prue, finished dead last in the Ontario leadership race.
The conditions within the Ontario NDP are truly interesting because we may be seeing a leadership that is further to the left than the party bureaucracy. With the general shift of the party leftwards (including the increased presence of Marxists within the party), this could potentially undermine any attempts to stifle democratic life within the party. It is precisely at this time that the NDP needs to become an activist party, in order that it can attract the best elements from the working class movement who are looking for an answer to the dead-end that is capitalism. The election of Horwath and the Ontario NDP’s more radical stance is the first sign of revitalization of the party.
We know that in the upcoming “recovery,” the bosses are going to try to make the working class pay for the cuts needed to restore financial equilibrium. This will probably lead to more bitter defensive struggles by workers, like those we have recently seen in Windsor, Toronto, and Sudbury. If this leftward mood continues and can be deepened within the NDP, we will almost certainly see these struggles reflected within the party. On the basis of having to adopt more radical demands that reflect the struggle of the workers, we could see the NDP playing a very major role in Ontario politics and attracting a whole layer of militant young workers.
Some of the strikes of the past summer have shown that even in the toughest of times, it is possible for workers to register victories. But, victories are impossible if the workers’ organizations, the unions and the NDP, are not willing to lead workers in a fight against capital. Militant ideas and tactics can win. It will only be on this basis that we will be able to stand up against the upcoming cuts and attacks. By standing on such a platform, the unions and the NDP can revitalize themselves and at the same time, organize the movement of workers into a force that can finally bring down the irrational capitalist system.