A Rankandfile.ca editorial
Well, Ontario, that was a shitty election!
This is an important occasion to go back to basics and think about how organized labour is going to fight Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party.
First, let’s dispense with a story being spun by the mainstream media. As the votes were still coming in, the talking heads on TV were already saying Ford’s re-election represented a new “blue collar” coalition with the PC Party.
This is a lot of nonsense. Ford lost 400,000 votes and was re-elected with the lowest voter turnout in Ontario history. By definition, the vast majority of people who didn’t vote are part of the province’s working majority. The even larger decline in NDP votes – over 800,000 – is more evidence that working people didn’t vote.
That said, the conservative efforts in Ontario and elsewhere to curry favour with labour leaders and working people is now a serious problem. O’Toole tried to do this with little effect. Ford learned from O’Toole and made more headway in the form of several local union endorsements. Federal Conservative Party leadership candidate and anti-union fanatic Pierre Poilievre is also making appeals to working people by targeting the rising cost of living.
The threat of right-wing demagogues preying on working people is real. The only antidote is building a new labour movement that can channel anger and frustration towards a democratic project of reversing rising inequality through the redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom, and taking back control of workplaces and decision-making from elites.
There is a very simple basis upon which we do this. Labour’s power is still in the workplace, and Doug Ford’s base is still the business elite. This relationship is the major weakness of the Ontario PC Party. This is where we have to strike hard and strike with precision.
Inflation wage strikes and new organizing
Hammering Ford’s business base means coordinating and supporting contract fights against inflation wage cuts, and plowing more resources into organizing the unorganized. Inflation wage strikes are already happening in Ontario, and there are definitely new openings to union organizing with Amazon and Starbucks being high profile examples.
In Ontario and Alberta, the Teamsters have been planting seeds of union organization at Amazon through leafleting efforts. We’re seeing the Steelworkers move on Starbucks in Alberta, and there is no reason why similar efforts wouldn’t fly in Ontario.
In terms of contract fights, warehouse workers and cleaners have set new wage settlement standards through collective bargaining and strike action. Sobeys warehouse workers in Whitby won 19.5 over four years without a strike. Over 2,500 Toronto cleaners won 16.6 percent over 3 years. At the Metro Etobicoke warehouse, a weeklong strike was fought over wages and the workers won 16 percent pay increases over 4.5 years. In the wake of the strike, Unifor is reporting a deal for part-time warehouse workers that includes a new comprehensive drug plan and wage increases of at least 31 percent over three years.
More organization and encouragement is needed to bring wage settlements closer to inflation which hit 6.8 percent in April. In addition to picket support, labour activists have the opportunity to open up wider discussions inside our unions and labour councils on the inflation question. Inflation is hitting all union workers hard, and this is a chance to stoke a new combativity in our local union ranks and prepare for serious contract fights.
In terms of organizing the unorganized, likeminded union activists can campaign around motions at local union meetings, labour council, or conventions to direct more union finances into organizing.
Labour councils are good places to strike organizing committees to begin the process of mapping the local area, developing an organizing strategy, training union members in organizing, and identify pro-union contacts in various workplaces. Local initiatives like this will add weight to higher-level motions for union resources to be plowed into organizing.
Targeting Ford’s Welfare for Business Owners
The business class have lived well off big public subsidies during the pandemic. It’s widely known that many major corporations are posting record profits. It wouldn’t be possible without major government support. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) was a $100 billion slush fund for 460,000 businesses with no restrictions relating to company profits, savings, executive bonuses, or shareholder dividends.
Provincially, the Ford government doled out $11.2 billion in business subsidies. By comparison, many healthcare workers have waited many months for promised pandemic bonuses while also facing Bill 124 wage cuts.
Like the federal CEWS, there is blatant corruption in Ford’s business subsidies. The 2020 Ontario Small Business Support Grant paid out $210 million to 14,500 ineligible businesses. When the Auditor General reported this, Ford told his business base to keep the money. The same program paid out $714 million more than the lost revenues posted by companies receiving the grant. Ford to told them to keep the money. Another $16 million in property tax and energy rebates was spent on 3,000 ineligible businesses. Ford told them to keep the money. These are just two programs. There were others offered by the Ontario government – in addition to numerous federal supports.
You wouldn’t know it, but business bankruptcies and insolvencies during the pandemic actually declined through 2020 and 2021 because of these massive public subsidies. The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario reported that 2020 saw the lowest number of business bankruptcies in Ontario in twenty years, and a significant drop in insolvencies, too.
However, there are now signs of rising insolvency and bankruptcies. This started in the last quarter of 2021, right after the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy ended its 18-month run. Expect the business lobby to double down on their successful strategy of handouts from Ford. After all, Open for Business means it’s a welfare state for business owners, a brutal “free market” for workers.
Infrastructure and privatization
Hammering Ford’s business base also means targeting the corrupt privatization deals that the Ford government is advancing in infrastructure, like light-rail projects, highways, and public sector buildings, notably long-term care. These are issues that are ripe for door-to-door canvassing, city-wide mailers, and public education meetings. They also open up opportunities for disruptive actions, such as picket lines and occupying management offices.
There are two easy targets for labour to single out. As Rankandfile.ca exposed at the start of the pandemic, the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which serves for-profit interests, is deeply integrated into the Ontario PC Party and the Ontario Liberals.
The for-profit companies comprising the OLTCA have not only been protected from lawsuits by new legislation brought forward by Ford’s government, but the government is also spending tens of millions on new long-term care builds for these companies. Every city and almost every town in Ontario is plagued by these long-term care parasites.
Agitation around public non-profit ownership can include putting pressure on local public health units and elected municipal councillors to take a stand against these corporations driving down conditions of care and work, and sending taxpayer money to shareholders and executives. Bringing the healthcare question down to a local focus will also serve to expose the Ontario PC’s top prospects in the “farm league” of municipal politics.
The other easy target is the corrupt crown corporation Metrolinx. Metrolinx is behind the often disastrous and costly LRT projects around the province. Metrolinx was first created by the Ontario Liberals and has been protected by Doug Ford. It’s mandated to build transit projects through corrupt and secret “Public-Private Partnerships” usually with multinationals like SNC-Lavalin. But we’ve also seen Metrolinx bend to organized pressure from union workers, as in the case of fares being cut massively on the Union-Pearson Express.
The Metrolinx transit strategy is pretty simple: profits are privatized and the public carries the can. This is why Ford has done nothing to shake-up this Liberal creation. As with long-term care, municipal politicians can come under direct pressure around these deals in large cities like Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo, Mississauga, and Brampton.
There is a real opportunity to envision a new transit system across Ontario. Restoring Ontario Northland rail and bus service is an obvious and easy step. The ATU’s call for “national public intercity transit” is an important part of this, as is Unifor’s new campaign to expand VIA Rail and protect it from further privatization. Organized labour already has the building blocks of a new transportation strategy that can be promoted while we take on Ford’s corrupt methods and singular focus on private car transportation.
When it comes to public transit, ATU and Unifor members have very common interests. The disastrous Unifor raid on ATU 113 in Toronto did immense damage to this potential partnership, but Unifor President Jerry Dias is now gone, and principled trade unionists in both unions have an opportunity to build a new relationship. Unifor members have an opportunity to put pressure on presidential candidates to publicly repudiate the disastrous ATU 113 raid.
What about the public sector?
Ontario’s public sector unions have been stuck in legal-legislative traps while austerity measures have ground down conditions for decades. Still, there are important openings that could open up major fights against Ford.
The Ontario Public Service contract ratified in early 2022 operates within Bill 124’s wage-cut law. While the contract has a wage reopener clause in the event of Bill 124 being thrown out in the courts, there are no guarantees. Either way, the groundwork can be laid now for a major offensive on wages when the contract expires in 2025. With Smokey’s retirement and OPSEU’s newly-elected leadership team, there appears to be space again for a new direction.
In the education sector, bargaining is starting with school board workers, including the 55,000-strong Ontario School Board Council of Unions (CUPE). On average, school board workers are only making $39,000 per year. The last contract was settled within the 1 percent wage cap imposed by Bill 124. With Bill 124 no longer in play for these workers, there’s a big fight coming. Recall the last round of bargaining went down to the wire in the fall of 2019.
With the big teacher contracts also expiring this year, labour must anticipate the inevitable attack on “greedy” public sector workers. Ford has already stated his priority is “the best deal for taxpayers” – as opposed to public education. Defending rising public sector wages has to be counterposed to Ford’s wage cuts and the business class handouts, as well as the government’s general assault on public education funding.
School board trustees are easy targets as well for wider labour pressure. Bringing the school boards into conflict with the provincial government over education funding and concession bargaining would ensure even more pressure is brought to bear against the Ford government.
As we saw a decade ago in the Bill 115 fight and during the 2018–2019 round of bargaining, high school student walkouts will be a critical element in neutralizing Ford’s attacks on educators. Once the right-wing propaganda starts targeting high school students as pawns of the unions, then you know they are on the defensive. Big student walkouts across the province don’t track with thinking people as a union conspiracy. Only the crackpot base of the Ontario PC Party will think that.
In the healthcare sector, the traps are even greater because of anti-strike legislation. However, the potential power of a healthcare worker revolt is massive. Healthcare workers have a huge reservoir of popular support dwarfing anything Ford could ever hope for. There is still deep support for public hospitals and health services. There are few public defenders of the long-term care profiteers besides the Ontario PCs. Halting healthcare privatization and making up for the Bill 124 wage cuts will one day require unions to begin the arduous work of preparing for mass defiance of anti-strike laws which contravene the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on the right to strike.
This is not pie-in-the-sky. Alberta healthcare workers waged a one-day healthcare wildcat in October 2020 against massive job cuts and the assault on the healthcare sector. The lessons of this strike are yet to be properly disseminated because of the very serious legal dangers face by the workers and the union, AUPE. Based on what we know from other examples, such as the 1981 Ontario hospital strike and the 1999 Saskatchewan nurses strike, preparation and training of members is critical to the strength, endurance and success of major confrontations in healthcare.
Leadership and elections
Waiting another four years for union leaders to make a move against Ford won’t work. As laid out above, there are many opportunities for labour activists to focus on building, training and strengthening local networks to coordinate union drives, contract fights against inflation, and disruption against privatization. Start local and take on the employers and their lobby groups backing Ford’s agenda of permanent austerity, union-busting and business welfare.
In the public sector, confronting wage repression and austerity is going to be very politicized. Just like a union drive, members and the broader public need to be “inoculated” against the inevitable and predictable government counter-attacks and lies. This is an essential prerequisite for solidarity co-ordination between unions and in communities to support bargaining battles.
Waiting for the next election would be another disaster. The pull of a narrow electoral strategy has to be rejected. Labour activists cannot afford to contract out politics to an electoral party while the PC majority rules the legislature with impunity. Dragging down Ford’s support requires a political education that no party can provide. This education is only going to come from a new labour movement that can wield real power through action on the job and in the streets.
It’s time for a new union power to emerge in Ontario that can take on the business interests and parties responsible for three decades of union busting, growing inequality, austerity, privatization, and loss of local democracy and control.
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