Over the last four years, in response to the right-wing agenda of Doug Ford’s government in Ontario, many union leaders have put forward a perspective of “Don’t fight now, wait for the election.” Today that strategy lies in tatters after Ford’s Progressive Conservatives (PCs) sailed to a second majority government in the Jun. 2 Ontario election. As Alberta union leaders threaten to repeat this mistake by telling workers to wait until the May 2023 election to kick out the United Conservative Party (UCP), Ontario shows this is a recipe for the right wing to win the election.

Doomed strategy

A key moment in the decision of Ontario union leaders to embark upon their doomed strategy was the December 2019 Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention. After one and a half years of Ford’s cuts and attacks, Ontario workers were in a fighting mood, which was reflected at the convention itself. Newly elected OFL President Patty Coates made a speech at Queen’s Park declaring the labour movement’s willingness to shut down the province to stop Ford. Within the convention, our comrades put forward amendments to the OFL Action Plan which would have mobilized affiliates to resist “back-to-work” and “essential services” legislation, and to escalate mass protests up to a one-day general strike to bring down Ford. Speeches in favour of the amendments received standing ovations.

Unfortunately, the OFL bureaucracy quashed these plans to mobilize against the Ford government and refused to let delegates vote on a general strike. As a result, the convention adopted the “Power of Many” (POM) Action Plan without any concrete plan to remove Ford from office before the next election in 2022. The Action Plan detailed the POM campaign’s plan to work towards an NDP government and stated: “The 2022 general election in Ontario will be a defining milestone in our POM campaign.” The election was indeed a defining milestone for the campaign—but not in the way Ontario union leaders intended.

In the years after the convention, the OFL released statements criticizing Ford’s anti-worker policies. It launched a legal challenge to Bill 124, which had capped annual wage increases for public-sector workers at one per cent. But other than voting out the PCs in 2022, the OFL did not put forward any plans that would mobilize workers to bring down Ford’s government. Symbolic of the “wait-until-the-election” strategy was a ”Ford Tracker” on the OFL website, which kept track of Ford’s cuts. To “help stop another Doug Ford disaster”, the page offered only a tool for people to schedule an email to themselves before the election reminding them of the cuts!

By not fighting and rather urging their members to wait until the election to vote Ford out, union leaders ensured there was no credible opposition to Ford before the election. While labour leaders called for an NDP vote, they did so uncritically rather than demanding that the NDP enact a workers’ agenda through bold socialist policies. With none of the main parties putting forward a clear alternative, Ford was able to win in a landslide amid the lowest voter turnout in Ontario’s history.

The irony here is that the policy of “wait for the election”, is exactly the policy that assures defeat in the election, while “fight now, defeat the attacks and bring down the government” is the best way to win both now and in any future elections. By fighting now you cannot assure victory today. But by not fighting now you can assure defeat today. There is a huge difference between fighting and being unsuccessful versus never fighting at all. The absence of a fight leads to apathy and the idea that there is no alternative to the right-wing agenda of the government. Yet even an unsuccessful struggle helps build the forces to defeat the regime, making it easier to defeat them in an election. Not to forget, by fighting now there is always the possibility of winning now and stopping years of regressive attacks ruining the lives of working class people.

A warning to Alberta

In light of this defeat, it is alarming to see Alberta union leaders pursue the same strategy of not fighting and waiting until the election. News releases from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) offer a distressing feeling of déjà vu to those who have followed OFL statements over the last few years. Both criticize Conservative policies, but propose little to nothing in terms of mobilizing union members to fight. Both emphasize legal challenges (which are often struck down) to these policies rather than mass mobilization. The AFL’s “Stand Up to Kenney” campaign website includes the “Kenney’s Cuts Tracker” and a “Take Action Now!” page that allows people to take action by… sending emails to UCP politicians. While an online pledge left open the possibility that “If the government doesn’t listen to our demands, we’ll begin a series of one-day provincewide protests that could include work stoppages” (our emphasis), the AFL never organized any such protests, much less work stoppages.

Despite launching the “Stand Up to Kenney” campaign, in the end Alberta labour leaders played no role at all in the defeat of Kenney. As Fightback noted after Kenney’s resignation, “A Jason Kenney defeated by the working class would have built up the confidence of the latter. It would have severely weakened the UCP and won over layers of rural working class to the labour movement, thus undermining the traditional base of the Tories.” Instead, right-wing populists played the lead role in removing Kenney. If Alberta union leaders refuse to mobilize members to fight the UCP and adopt the same strategy of waiting until the election, they will repeat the same mistakes as their Ontario counterparts. Already, now that Kenney has resigned, the UCP has recovered its position in the polls. A rebranded United Conservative Party, combined with a lack of fight from labour and a mushy-middle NDP, is a recipe for defeat in the 2023 election.

In the same way that reformists cannot achieve reforms because they accept the logic of capitalism which demands cuts and austerity, proponents of the “wait-for-the-election” strategy to defeat Conservatives cannot win elections because they are not fighting Conservative governments now. At the peak of COVID-19, union leaders in Alberta in fact rallied around the state. When workers organized wildcat strikes against the UCP’s policies, labour leaders told them not to fight and to go back to work. Labour leaders who refuse to fight the UCP cannot present a credible opposition to the UCP.

Workers cannot wait another year until the election to fight the UCP. The Ontario election shows that lack of opposition leads to apathy and poor voter turnout. When workers fight back, they might succeed or they might fail. But if workers fight a right-wing government now, it puts us in a better position to defeat the right wing when the election happens. We must fight the UCP now, defeat their regressive agenda now, bring them down now.