Source: AP Photo/Matt York

Following the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests quickly engulfed the United States. These protests soon gained steam internationally, including in Canada, with thousands of protesters raising slogans such as the demand for the arrest of the officers involved, and the defunding and abolition of police. Black Lives Matter Toronto has organized several protests with the call to defund the Toronto Police Department’s $1.1 billion budget by 50%, and reinvest in new and existing community services for Black, indigenous, and other impoverished and marginalized people. Faced with this fantastic movement, the absence of the Labour movement stands out like a sore thumb.

Following May 25, most of the major working class organizations in Canada have come out with statements and policy plans regarding anti-racism and police brutality. However, when we look at these statements we find that they have important omissions. On June 20, the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) came out with a policy plan acknowledging systemic racism in policing and society as a whole. So far so good. Their statement then went on to pay lip service to the movement and its most popular demand, writing,

Tens of thousands of people in communities across Canada have marched in the streets demanding justice, an end to systemic racism and fundamental change to policing – including the defunding of police… We cannot and should not simply dismiss the call to defund police.

However, after stating that the dominant demand of the George Floyd movement cannot be dismissed, they then proceed to detail a policy that never mentions the words defund or abolish! 

Without a clear commitment, with clearly stated numbers, to at least defund, if not abolish police, the ONDP’s policy platform is so many empty words. They play a trick of dismissing the call to defund police while saying it cannot be dismissed. With this approach, it is not surprising that the NDP has not been able to forge strong links to this radical mass movement.

The statement gets even worse with regard to anti-Indigenous racism in policing. The ONDP writes, “The OPP must actively recruit Indigenous Police Officers, and actively work to repair broken relationships and broken trust.” This statement asks Indigenous people to join a system which directly oppresses them: the racist capitalist system which hires gangs of armed men and women to invade indigenous land to protect profits. The racist police state will not be erased by hiring more Black and Indigenous officers. The ONDP fails to understand that systemic racism means that the police, as a wing of the capitalist state, is inherently racist. This racism does not rest on the accumulated personal prejudices of “a few bad apples”, it is the entire system which breeds and requires racism. This is why recent studies in the US have demonstrated that police departments which have hired more Black police officers have not seen a decrease in killings of Black people. The only way to end police racism is to end the police. The steps to reform policing put forward by the ONDP are not real solutions to the problem of systemic racism in Canadian society, and will do nothing to address systemic racism in the police. 

Federally, the NDP also has a confused approach to the movement to defund the police. While some local representatives of the federal and provincial NDP have taken up the demand through petitions, such as NDP Toronto-St.Pauls, federal leader Jagmeet Singh has waffled on the issue. In an interview with Global News Singh said, “Black Lives Matter has been calling for defunding the police, and what that means is looking at how we spend money, so at the federal level it’s looking at where we spend our resources.” He then claimed that we need a “mixed approach” to defunding the police. What this actually means is vague, unclear, and like the ONDP’s statement, contains no firm numbers or commitments. What is clear is that the federal NDP is trying to simultaneously support and not support the demand to defund the police. Black and Indigenous working class people do not need  “conversations about redesigning government funding”, but real systemic change. The time for weasel words is over. 

Perhaps the Candian Labour Congress, which represents 3.3 million workers, will fare better than the NDP? The CLC released their communiqué on June 8, with president Hassan Yuseff stating,

Anti-Black racism is a destructive force in our society afflicting families and communities… Canada’s unions are committed to fighting all forms of discrimination and are urgently calling for accountability and systemic change.

But Yussuf ends up saying even less than the NDP. Despite the fact that the CLC organized a webinar with Sandy Hudson, co-founder of BLM Canada, to discuss police racism, the CLC itself refuses to adopt the slogans defund and abolish as its own, instead preferring platitudes. 

The CLC leadership also completely misunderstands the source of racism. They state, “The CLC is committed to raising awareness on the role of Canada’s labour movement to combat anti-Black racism.” We are well past the stage of “raising awareness”. Racism does not exist because working class people are uneducated about it. The focus on “raising awareness” while avoiding action gets very close to blaming the working class for being the source of racism. Racism exists because it is profitable for the ruling class and is promoted by the media and the state via policing. To be sure, workers can succumb to the indoctrination of the racist system, but they will only overcome such prejudices via mass actions, not by being lectured by high-paid bureaucrats who do everything to avoid the real fight.

The organizations of the working class have been inactive while millions are on the streets. Millions more are looking to the CLC for leadership. And yet these organizations refuse to support the demands of the movement and take an active role in the struggle. Instead they bow down to the Trudeau Liberals by lobbying them to create more bureaucratic positions, and inquiries to tell us what we already know. There is no weaker way to put forward demands. 

In early July, a poll reported in the Globe and Mail stated that 75 per cent of Canadians “believe the RCMP has a problem with systemic racism”, with a further 35 per cent believing the RCMP is unable to be reformed. In addition, according to this poll 46 per cent overall support defunding the police. While this is not a majority, it is three times the current support of the NDP, who would have a lot to gain by echoing these sentiments. These statistics demonstrate the fact that these issues are very much at the forefront of Canadian consciousness. For the organizations which claim to represent the working class to ignore or obfuscate the demand to explicitly defund the police, in favour of Band-Aid solutions such as “exploring new methods of community safety”, is to stay behind the movement and act as a bulwark against real systemic change. The leadership of the mass organizations are also betraying their role of turning public opinion even further to the left. Even more people would support defunding and abolishing the police if these demands were supported and explained by leaders with a mass platform.

The statements put forward by the CLC and the NDP are even more pathetic when contrasted with the actions of other working class organizations on Juneteenth 2020. The International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU), representing 42,000 workers, stopped work for eight hours at all 29 ports on the West Coast, including Vancouver, both in solidarity with the George Floyd protestors, but also to recognize the anniversary of the 1865 emancipation of all slaves in the United States. In addition to this act of solidarity, following the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis bus drivers signed a petition refusing to transport arrested protestors or transport the police to protest locations. Hundreds of Minneapolis union workers, encompassing postal workers, nurses, teachers, and hotel workers, also pledged to refuse to aid police as they arrested protestors. These tremendous acts need to be advanced and replicated because in the final analysis there is no power stronger than the working class. Without workers nothing moves, nothing is made, and nothing functions.

Statements put forward by the Ontario Federation of Labour, CUPE 3903, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have been a notable contrast to the poor leadership of the NDP and CLC. On July 10 the OFL alongside the Coalition of Black Trade Unions put forward the demand to defund the police, writing,

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) supports Black liberation groups and their call for the defunding of police services. Specific demands for change will look different from city to city, depending on the needs of the community. There is, however, an understanding that fundamental and disruptive change is required: defund the police.

In addition, despite a lackluster statement from the national office of CUPE, on June 5 CUPE union local 3903 raised the demand to defund the police, stating that it is needed to save lives. On July 8 CUPW, a historically militant union, also highlighted the demand to defund the police. It is clear that mass pressure from below has influenced these unions to take on the slogans of the mass movement, and it is unlikely that without the mass protests these unions would have adopted these demands. The next step for the unions must be to organize in solidarity with the Black community, just like working class organizations have done in the United States, in order to show the way forward and by demonstrating the collective strength of the working class in action. 

It is high time that the overpaid bureaucrats at the top of the mass organizations get out from behind their desks and onto the streets. It is a tragedy that the power of the working class goes unrealized because of this criminal lack of leadership. It is beholden on the leaders of the labour movement to take up and amplify the demands coming from those fighting on the front lines. Bureaucrats who are unwilling to struggle should be shown the door. We need to mobilize the mass force of organized labour to advocate, to demonstrate, and to strike, in order to abolish the racist police force and the capitalist system which they serve.