Source: The Canadian Press/Cole Burston

On July 6, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced that due to loss of revenue from COVID-19, the city may be forced to carry out colossal cuts to nearly every vital city service as early as August. If these attacks are carried out, they will have disastrous effects on every layer of Toronto’s working class and poor, and they must be fought tooth and nail.

The city’s finances, which were already precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, have received a violent push from the pandemic. Since the virus first began to spread, the city has lost an average of $65 million in revenue per week. This figure includes $20 million from the TTC, which has seen ridership drop by 80%, but almost every source of revenue has been affected. In April, the city projected that, given a three-month lockdown period and a six-month recovery period, the total loss in revenue would amount to $1.5 billion. If the city sees a resurgence in cases and the lockdown needs to be extended through to the end of the year, the total could grow as large as $2.7 billion. This is an enormous shortfall, representing between 11 and 20 per cent of the city’s total operating budget of $13 billion.

The cuts required to make up this shortfall would totally transform the city. Tory outlined a laundry list of potential service reductions in May:

  • $575 million in cuts to the TTC; subway service on lines 1 and 2 would be cut in half; lines 3 and 4 would be shut down completely
  • Streetcar and bus service on all lines would be cut in half, reduced to every 10-20 minutes on major routes; 4 million Wheel-Trans rides per year would be eliminated
  • $40 million in cuts to child-care subsidies; more than 40,000 families would see subsidies eliminated
  • $101.5 million would be cut from shelter services; a 50 per cent reduction in shelter space
  • Long-term care would lose 1,320 beds (a 50 per cent reduction)
  • More than 19,000 city employees would lose their jobs
  • $23 million would be cut from fire services; $31 million cut from police
  • $40.8 million would be cut from the recreation budget; a loss of 600,000 hours of recreational programming
  • Subsidies for Toronto Community Housing would be reduced
  • Library branches would close

These are only some of the cuts that would need to be made to make up for a $1.5 billion loss—that is, in the best-case scenario! What will happen if there is a second wave? The city will either be forced to impose a second lockdown period and push through cuts twice as extreme, or, more likely, will try to force workers to put their lives at risk to keep businesses open.

Unsurprisingly, the cuts will disproportionately affect the most precarious and impoverished. For starters, there is already a massive homelessness crisis in the city. The shelter system is overcrowded to bursting. It is impossible to practice social distancing in a shelter, forcing many to take their chances on the street, exposing themselves to the elements and the police, who have been newly empowered to shut down tent cities and crack down on “loitering”, supposedly to enforce quarantine. Cutting shelter services in half will turn the homelessness crisis into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.

City-owned long-term care homes will also be gutted. This is just the latest in a series of sustained attacks on public health care in Ontario. The number of seniors looking to move into long-term care is already at an all-time high. If care homes face cuts, pressure on hospital beds will increase dramatically as more seniors are forced to stay in hospital beds while they wait for space to be available in care homes. This will intensify the hallway healthcare crisis. We have already reported on the steady decline of per-capita hospital beds in Ontario, which now stands at approximately 2.5 beds per 1,000 people, well below the World Health Organisation recommendation. In the event of a second wave, all the ingredients are in place for an explosion of cases among seniors and the most vulnerable.

Tory has been pressing the provincial and federal governments to bridge the funding gap and has so far come up dry. Unable to even consider raising property taxes out of fear of alienating his wealthy, property-owning base, he is instead playing chicken with the province and the feds. But it will be the workers and poor of Toronto who pay the price.

Tory’s willingness to sacrifice the working class is especially galling given his recent refusal to even consider any reduction to the Toronto police budget. Those who participated in the numerous protests demanding the police be defunded or abolished will no doubt recognize the utter hypocrisy in Tory’s “warnings”—which are really thinly veiled threats—to make catastrophic cuts to essential social services, while leaving the Toronto police budget nearly untouched. In fact, the police budget was extended by $40.8 million in 2020; even after the proposed $31 million cut, the budget will still be higher than it was a year ago!

Tory announced these attacks just one week after voting against a proposal to reduce the police budget by 10 per cent in 2021, and then voting in favour of another motion to increase the police budget by an additional $3 million—ostensibly to provide body cameras. Leaving aside the questionable value of body cameras, which have been shown to have no effect on the use of force by police, the police budget for 2020 is already $1.2 billion dollars, by far the largest line item in the city checkbook. The vast majority of the budget shortfall could be made up by abolishing the police.

Toronto has been chronically underfunded since the mid-’90s, when the Liberal Chrétien government cut provincial and municipal transfer payments in order to balance the federal deficit. Just a few years later, Conservative Premier Mike Harris and his so-called “common sense revolutionaries” downloaded billions of dollars of funding to municipalities to finance huge tax breaks for the rich. These cuts have forced cities to rely on a combination of property taxes, transit fares, and other programs like public parking to make up the balance. More than two decades have passed since then, but very little has changed.

Nevertheless, the province still imposes legal constraints on what services the municipalities are required to fund and how they can fund them. Ontario enforces such laws for a wide array of services, including social assistance, child care, long-term care, housing, water, waste management, and policing. Because the cost of many of these programs were offloaded onto cities by the Harris regime, they are unfunded mandates. It is ironic that the demand for “no taxation without representation”—a key slogan of the bourgeois American Revolution of 1776—remains unapplied in Canada, more than 200 years later! If Queen’s Park insists that Toronto must have such an expensive and reactionary police force, then they can damn well pay for it themselves.

After the pandemic hit Toronto, Premier Doug Ford gave the city $350 million in funding to increase shelter space, and then passed the buck to the federal government, telling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “just cut us a cheque”. On July 16, Trudeau announced a total of $19 billion in transfers to the provinces, $7 billion of which will go to Ontario, to be disbursed over a six-to-eight-month period. These miserable sums will be nowhere near enough to maintain services. One could be forgiven for thinking that these bureaucrats don’t have two pennies between them to rub together. But the facts tell a different story. Amid the hue and cry of the financial press about the now astronomical national deficit, the Toronto Star published an article titled “Corporate debt bomb threatening recovery” that accidentally let slip the real reason for the eye-watering austerity that is being prepared:

Although they declined to speak to the Star about their efforts, on June 11 the department published a list of business supports — some potential and some already disbursed — totalling around $700 billion.

In an email message, Anna Arneson, spokesperson for the federal finance department, confirmed Ottawa has already given almost $27.4-billion in loans at thousands of companies, but the government cannot name who is getting help as it “does not have prior consent” to disclose recipients’ “business name or other sensitive financial information disclosed in confidence as part of the application process.”

Additionally, a set of unnamed banks has received $10.7 billion in loans, and $260-billion to support “interbank funding,” and “functioning of key finding markets.”

The federal government has advanced a mountain of money, to the tune of 700 billion dollars, earmarked for bailouts to corporations and banks! This is the same tired old song the ruling class has sung for generations: when workers and the poor demand money for healthcare and social services, we are lectured about the virtues of “living within our means”; but when big business comes crawling to the government demanding handouts, they get a blank cheque. It’s one rule for the rich, and another for the rest of us.

If these cuts are passed, they will provoke a social explosion that will shake every layer of society, and could spark a mass movement that rapidly extends well beyond the city limits. This is the real reason why Tory sounds so panicked in the press—not out of any sentimental feelings for the common worker, but out of fear—for his own skin, and the skin of Toronto’s wealthy elite, whose privileges would be threatened by a genuine mass movement.

Fighting these cuts will require the full and energetic intervention of organized labour. The question is, where are our labour leaders? The Ontario NDP launched a petition calling on governments to “work together to protect and enrich the services so many of us rely on”, but offered no concrete demands or calls for mobilisation. Unfortunately, the leaders of the municipal trade unions appear content to let the struggle play out solely in the political field, and have confined themselves to echoing Tory’s call for aid on social media, or have stood aside altogether.

We already know what kind of treatment we can expect from the government of the capitalists. When the TTC laid off 1,200 workers in April, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 leader Carlos Santos lobbied the provincial and federal governments for emergency funding as a solution, Ford responded that he doesn’t have a “money-printing machine”. This may be true, but it didn’t stop him from coughing up $3-million for useless police cameras, or finding a spare $275 million for tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of social services.

Therefore we cannot appeal to the morals of the capitalists, who have shown themselves to be bankrupt in every possible sense of the word. Nor can we be expected to “work together” with these swindlers, who are prepared to fight tooth and nail to maintain their privileges on the backs of the working class.

The only thing that can stop these devastating cuts is an all-out mobilization of the labour movement. City workers in all industries must join forces with the movement of youth and the oppressed that are waging a struggle against systemic racism, and raise a joint call for the halting of all cuts to municipalities, no bailouts to the bosses, and the abolition of the police. This movement is showing the way forward, but for the struggle to be successful it must be combined with the tremendous strength of the organized working class. Not a light shines, and not a wheel turns, without our kind permission, and it’s about time we reminded our friends in government of this important fact. This is what gives our demands real power.

The municipal trade unions must place themselves at the head of this fight, and begin preparations for a defensive one-day general strike in Toronto, with the aim of drawing in the broadest possible layers of workers and the oppressed in the city and beyond. Not one penny can be cut from essential services that the people of Toronto rely on to survive. We cannot allow Tory, Ford and Trudeau to spend one more day toying with workers’ lives.

Not a penny cut from the city budget!

Fund our services!

Abolish the police!