Doug Ford has many tricks up his sleeve. After more than three years of the most vicious attacks on working-class people, and the criminal mishandling of the pandemic, the premier of Ontario has at last turned a new leaf! Yesterday, we had Doug Ford the callous millionaire; today we have Doug Ford the Good, “man of the people”, who has become so concerned about the welfare of commoners that he has generously decided to increase the minimum wage to $15—a whole 65 cents per hour extra!
Unfortunately for Ford, this pre-election stunt has fooled absolutely no one. No one, except apparently for Unifor president Jerry Dias and Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) president Warren “Smokey” Thomas, who appeared side-by-side with Ford at the press conference where the minimum wage increase was announced. Either these two leaders are the most gullible men alive, or this represents the latest cynical and cowardly betrayal of the labour movement. Leaders standing on the basis of such craven class collaborationism must be denounced and replaced by a fighting leadership worthy of the name.
Ford’s ‘change of heart’
Ford’s abrupt about-face began in late October with the announcement of the Working For Workers Act, which mandates employers to allow workers to disconnect from online communications after working hours, bans the use of non-compete agreements in employment contracts, and requires business owners to allow delivery drivers to use the bathroom when delivering items. This was followed on Nov. 2 with the announcement that a new minimum wage of $15 per hour will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.
Many of the problems that this new legislation claims to solve were caused by Doug Ford in the first place. In November 2018, Ford cancelled former premier Kathleen Wynne’s planned $15 minimum wage increase and replaced it with a wage freeze, ending annual increases to the minimum wage, which previously was indexed to inflation. The effect of this was a gradual erosion in workers’ standard of living. Fifteen dollars of today’s money would have been worth $14.30 in 2019. Workers will actually be five cents an hour poorer than they were when Ford first cancelled Wynne’s minimum wage!
As for the so-called “Working for Workers Act”, it’s worth remembering Ford’s track record in following his own laws. When he isn’t personally using the notwithstanding clause to run roughshod over Charter rights, Ford spends his time making sure that his big business buddies can exploit workers in unsafe conditions without penalty.
For example, in the first year of the pandemic, the government received reports of more than 15,000 COVID-related workplace violations and only took decisive action to stop work in 24 instances. It’s unsurprising, then, that workers are skeptical that even the very limited protections offered by the new act will be enforced.
Nevertheless, even paltry “concessions” such as these still seem out of character for someone like Ford, who has made a name for himself as one of the most viciously anti-worker premiers in Ontario’s history. Originally elected in 2018 under the reactionary slogan “Open for Business”, Ford immediately declared open war on the working class, cutting billions from social services, health care, school budgets and student loans, while increasing class sizes, killing rent control, eliminating paid sick days, attacking democratic rights of students and much more, all in the first year of government. These massive cuts laid the foundations for the COVID-19 pandemic to tear through the province and, combined with Ford’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic itself, are responsible for the deaths of almost 10,000 people in Ontario.
So why the about-face? Ford won the election not by appealing to union workers, but with a right-populist program promising to cut income tax and fuel prices while finding $6 billion in “efficiencies” (i.e. cuts). This strategy won over a layer of people that were so disgusted with the previous 15 years of establishment corruption, headed by the Ontario Liberals hand in hand with the Bay Street capitalists in Toronto, that they were willing to try anything to find a way out.
However, Doug Ford did not represent a break with the status quo but an extremely vicious version of it. Today this is well known. In the early days of the government, Ford managed to attack nearly every segment of Ontario’s population and became almost universally hated. In particular, Ford’s traditional bases of support in areas like Etobicoke and Brampton were among the areas hit worst by the pandemic, driving a rapid shift to the left among these workers. And despite a brief bump in popularity at the start of the pandemic, Ford today remains one of the most unpopular premiers in the country.
The next election will take place against a backdrop of extreme social polarization. A recent poll showed that 35 per cent of Canadians are opposed to capitalism and 53 per cent support the idea of “radically transforming [the] economy”, which includes greater health funding, higher wages for “essential workers”, and affordable child care. The reality is that right-wing policies are extremely unpopular. Doug Ford may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but even he seems to be cognizant of this fact. This is the real reason behind his new “left” colouring. The Grinch has not grown a heart.
Labour leaders lurch to the right
Ford’s shift to the “left” has been greatly helped by our two labour leaders, who have bent over backwards in an attempt to paint the Ford regime in rosy colours. In a disgusting betrayal, Jerry Dias and Smokey Thomas appeared side by side with Ford at the government press conference where the minimum wage increase was announced and even shook hands with the premier.
Ford is not the only politician who’s changed his tune. Dias has long been the torchbearer of the so-called “strategic voting” strategy, which encourages people to support the Liberals to keep out the Conservatives. Unifor even spent more than $1 million on an anti-Conservative ad campaign under the leadership of Dias, who at the time said, “There’s not a ton of differences [between the NDP and Liberals] and ultimately we can live with either, but it’s the Conservatives that always pick on working-class people.” In June, Dias even pledged to massively increase political donations to kick out the Progressive Conservative party in the next election. So why is he sharing a podium with this rabid reactionary and even shaking hands with him? How did “Anyone But Conservative” become just “Anyone”?
As we have explained before, “strategic” voting in practice means support for the Liberals. This was demonstrated quite graphically in the last week of the 2018 election, when the union bureaucrats, including Dias, continued to call for a vote for the Liberals even after their popular support had all but collapsed and it was clear that the New Democratic Party (NDP) could be the only possible opposition to Ford. This was especially criminal given the fact that during Wynne’s term she carried out an openly anti-worker policy by cutting corporate tax rates, privatizing important services like Hydro One, and taking away the right to strike from education and transit workers. During the election, after it became clear that the NDP represented a real threat from the left, the Liberals launched a series of attack ads against NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, with the main point of attack being the right to strike. Wynne even promised that if elected she would immediately pass back-to-work legislation against the York University workers’ strike, a move that was subsequently carried out by Ford himself. On the issue of workers’ rights (and many others) the Liberals and the Tories are in perfect alignment.
According to the “strategic voting” strategy, workers should vote Liberal because they are more “progressive” than the Conservatives. This is justified by the left-wing promises trotted out by the Liberals at election time before they inevitably break all their promises once in government. But the problem of who to support at the polls is not simply a question of this or that policy, but a class question. The Liberals are the party of the Bay Street capitalists. Therefore the fact that they consistently support an endless series of attacks against the working class should surprise no one, least of all our labour leaders.
The labour leadership has adopted a policy, not of class struggle against the bosses, but of negotiation with the ruling parties within the framework of capitalism. This frees them from the miserable business of organizing strikes and allows them to get on with the far more fruitful work of applying for cushy Senate positions, or in Dias’s case, lobbying city council to have a street named after yourself. From this perspective, once you have crossed the class line, which devil you make your Faustian pact with is incidental. If you can negotiate with the party of concealed class war, why not negotiate with the party of open class war? Once you have abandoned class politics, everything can be sacrificed at the altar of expediency. But the souls that are being sacrificed are those of rank-and-file workers, who have to suffer under continued corporate rule.
While Dias hides behind the smokescreen of strategic voting, in OPSEU president Smokey Thomas we see the most open display of class collaborationism. In April, as the third wave of the pandemic was reaching its height, Thomas released a scandalous statement calling for “open collaboration” with the Ford regime and even attempted to portray Ford in a sympathetic light, saying, “I have come to know the Premier. I know he is distraught. I know he cares. I know he is working around the clock. The burden of leadership, whether he signed up for it or not, weighs heavy in life or death decisions.”
Thomas’ most recent statement, titled, “Our progress is more important than partisan politics” and released two days after the press conference, is a continuation of the same policy. Thomas has tried to present himself as staunchly independent and “non-partisan”, saying, “I am not beholden to any political party and I certainly won’t funnel money into their coffers. I’m not so certain that the same can be said for some of my fellow board members.” The question remains: what exactly is meant by this “independence”? Does Thomas mean the independence of the working class in their struggle against all capitalist parties, or does he mean the personal “independence” of Smokey Thomas from the workers he claims to represent? Or perhaps he means “independence” from the consequences of throwing his own union members under the bus?
The answer to this question can be found further on in the statement, where we read the following:
“Is this government perfect? Hardly.
“But, if someone had told me that a government staring down the barrel of a $38 billion dollar deficit would not slash and burn the public sector, I wouldn’t have believed it – not for a second. Especially not a Conservative government elected on an austerity agenda.”
This is a particularly revolting example of a labour leader using the same talking points that the right wing uses to attack union jobs. Any labour leader worth their salt should be cutting through this language and exposing the hypocrisy of the bosses. There is nothing in Thomas’s statement that points to, for example, the fact that the Canadian billionaire class increased their wealth by $78 billion in the first year of the pandemic alone. There is also nothing that exposes any of Ford’s numerous tax cuts to Ontario’s richest. Thomas should be explaining that deficits and cuts to essential services are not natural and inevitable phenomena, but a consequence of the fact that the rich refuse to part with their hoard. Instead we have Thomas openly defending the bosses using their own phrases. This is the logical conclusion of business unionism, which is incapable of anything other than making deals with the bosses’ government behind the backs of the rank and file.
We do not wish to bore our readers by stating the obvious, but for the benefit of our labour leaders it bears repeating: only implacable opposition to the Tories, and all bosses’ parties, can be the basis for a successful struggle against austerity. Any concessions made to the class enemy weaken the struggle, and as the old labour saying goes, “weakness invites aggression”.
Ford is a millionaire factory owner who only answers to other millionaire factory owners. And in a period of deep financial crisis, the bosses are more viciously opposed than ever to any gain that could strengthen the position of the working class. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is already crying bloody murder over the minimum wage increase, with president Rocco Rossi raising the spectre of “job losses, rising consumer costs, service cuts, and economic hardship” as the horrors that will befall the province (as if they aren’t already happening!) if even the smallest crumbs are thrown to the working class. If Ford is re-elected in 2022, his paymasters will inevitably demand a renewed offensive in the class war that was begun in 2018. One way or another the workers will be made to pay. A timid labour leadership will only strengthen reaction.
Thomas’s statement also reads, “… except for the usual suspects, the announcement, and our support for it, was well received.” By “the usual suspects” he surely means the almost 1,000 delegates of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention who were incensed by the announcement! On the same weekend as Ford’s press conference, dozens took to the convention floor (where Thomas was conspicuous by his absence) to demand that the OFL unequivocally support the NDP in the next election. Resolutions were tabled that called for an open denunciation of Dias and Thomas. This is just one example of the growing contradiction between the militant anger of the rank and file, and the conservative labour leadership which is more and more openly acting as the last line of defense for the status quo.
Class struggle tactics to bring down Ford
The labour movement has had no shortage of opportunities not just to win gains for workers, but to bring down the Ford government entirely. For example, during the 2019 Ontario teachers’ strike there was no lack of desire among the ranks to hit back hard against Ford’s austerity agenda, but unfortunately the labour leadership backed down. Rather than engage in class struggle politics, labour leaders like Smokey Thomas and former OFL leader Chris Buckley limited the struggle to petitions and phoning MPPs, trying to convince Tories to “find their humanity”. This latest capitulation is the logical consequence of these methods.
Even before Ford’s election, the outlines of a growing class polarization in society were apparent. The pandemic has greatly accelerated this process. Workers can see the failures of capitalism everywhere they turn. This is reflected by a massive increase in radicalization in the unions. Everywhere there are strike votes of 90 per cent, 95 per cent or higher. The massive potential of the Superstore workers in Alberta, or the public sector workers in New Brunswick, are excellent examples of this. But in these cases, and many others, the leadership seems hell-bent on bringing these struggles to defeat.
Many trade union leaders and NDP MPPs have already denounced Ford’s “reforms”. However, on the betrayal of Dias and Thomas they have been silent. Former OFL president Sid Ryan has called for all Ontario labour leaders to immediately denounce these leaders and call this what it is—a clear betrayal of the labour movement. We completely agree with this demand. The struggle against the bosses must begin by waging an internal struggle in the unions to rid them of these outsiders, who are nothing more than the bosses’ stooges, and regenerate them from top to bottom to reflect the democratic will and increasing militancy of the ranks.
It is not too late to bring down the Ford government. But to do so, labour must go on the offensive. This must start by breaking decisively with the politics of business unionism. We say, no collaboration with capitalist politicians! The whole history of the labour movement shows that only class struggle methods can defend workers and stop capitalist reaction.