The election of Doug Ford as Premier of Ontario has generated much discussion about the Harris government in the 1990s – in particular, the response by trade unions and community organizations to vicious attacks by a neo-liberal government on social services, health care, education and workers’ rights. This is very instructive as people grapple with the best way forward today. Inspiring stories of the city by city general strikes that shut down workplaces across the province and involved millions of people, have given many a sense of confidence that we can take on the assaults that we know are coming. We may not organize in exactly the same way as we did in the 1990s, but the lessons learned can be very helpful as we campaign on issues such as the Fight for $15 and Fairness with community partners.
A more recent example of a coordinated union mobilization is the response to Conservative Tim Hudak’s threat to bring in “right to work” legislation in the 2014 provincial election. At that time, these measures – which had previously only been enacted in the southern states of the US – were implemented in long-time labour strongholds such as Michigan. The threat of right to work eventually pushed union leaders to set about developing campaigns within workplaces across Ontario.
Significant resources were allocated, and rank and file members were booked off to work on the campaign. Labour councils, which unite union delegates across all sectors, took on a major responsibility for training activists and mobilizing members to fight this existential threat to all of our unions. It was a campaign that won the hearts and minds of many workers, and the Tories who were initially expected to win the election, went down to defeat.
It was very important that union after union stepped up to the plate and put their funds into this huge effort. But it was the rank and file activists who responded to the attacks that made the difference. There was a mass mobilization of stewards and ordinary members to take on this assault on unions.
Hudak had hoped to tap into anger and insecurity caused by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the lack of decent jobs, to convince workers they would be better off if they weren’t required to pay union dues. The prospect of not paying union dues under ‘right to work’ was sadly attractive to many members, who didn’t think unions were actively protecting their interests.
A plan was put together that gave a road map on how to arm union members with information about the threat posed by Hudak’s policies. Training sessions and stewards’ assemblies were organized. In our own union, the Steelworkers, a “war room” was set up in the Toronto Area Council hall, with every work site posted on a board. Step by step, contacts were developed in each one. In every workplace, there are the activists – but on the other side, there are those who are with the bosses. There is a large majority in the middle. The goal was to solidify the activists, and then speak to each of those in the middle, convincing them of what was at stake for every working class person in the province if Hudak and his Tories were to win.
We developed a data base of sympathetic members and held lunch time meetings at workplaces where we were able. Members organized to talk to their fellow workers on the shop floor, at plant-gate leafletings, listening to their issues and what they needed from their union, and of course talking about the importance of this campaign. Questions and answers were developed to prepare activists and anticipate the issues that would come forward.
Rank and file committees were set up and as the weeks went by, the results were becoming clear. The working class in all its diversity will fight in its own interest. Socialists and other activists knew what was at stake and went all out to ensure that ordinary workers had a voice in determining their future. The role of these rank and file organizers was critical to the success of the campaign.
There is a long history of rank and file networks and stewards’ councils in many countries. One example is the Clydeside stewards in Scotland, whose motto was “We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
We have seen the recent US Supreme Court Janus decision, which is a body blow to public sector unions. We know that Doug Ford has promised to stop the implementation of the $15 minimum wage on January 1, 2019 and other aspects of Bill 148, such as equal pay, paid emergency leave, and union successor rights will undoubtedly be under attack. As the fight against ‘right to work’ showed, our ability to resist depends on retooling our unions for the fights ahead. We have to take up the same strategy which we used to defeat Hudak and defend these hard-won gains for all workers in this province by organizing the strength of the rank and file.
This was first published on socialist.ca