by Doug Nesbitt
The current Ontario election could be an immense turning point for organized labour in the province and across Canada.
As union activists know, the Tim Hudak Tories are promising devastating public sector layoffs of 100,000 people, union-wrecking right-to-work legislation, and the privatization of the already unjust Workplace Safety Insurance Board. And his claims of creating one million jobs have been debunked again and again. We can also expect back-to-work legislation against striking public sector workers, and even “essential service” legislation: while the same “essential services” are cut to the bone.
The connection between the attack on unions and public services and programs could not be clearer. To use public education as an example, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, says Hudak’s agenda means firing 19,000 teachers and support staff, increasing class sizes, and eliminating teachers for special needs students.
With an enemy like Hudak leading the polls, many Ontario unions are continuing their “strategic voting” work to defeat the Tories. Strategic voting, which means voting Liberal over the NDP where the Liberals are best positioned to keep the Tories out office, has been going on since 1999.
This Anybody-But-Conservative approach of the unions is the fallout of the NDP Rae Days and Social Contract, and the squabbling at the top of the Ontario Federation of Labour during the Days of Action protests and strikes against Harris (1995-1998). Ontario’s unions remain divided in electoral strategy, and these divisions and defeats of the 1990s have narrowed the Ontario labour movement’s abilities and confidence to punish and stop employers and governments outside of elections alone.
Bill 115 and privatization
But as teachers learned with the authoritarian Bill 115, supporting the Liberals is a deal with the devil. In addition to attacking teachers with Bill 115, recall the Liberals floated a more expansive bill to attack 650,000 public sector workers in the fall of 2012. Only McGuinty’s prorogation and resignation stopped the bill from coming forward. McGuinty also robbed TTC workers of ATU Local 113 of their right-to-strike through essential service legislation.
Meanwhile, the Liberal record on privatization and contracting out of public services and labour law is pretty awful since they were elected in 2003. Healthcare, education and frontline government workers have not seen the attack on services through contracting out, privatization and workplace restructuring stop since the Liberals defeated the Harris-Eves regime in 2003. In many ways, the Liberals have got away with a lot because they talk progressive while continuing to unroll the same privatization agenda. OPSEU’s “Epic Fail: A Short History of Privatization in Ontario” is a must-read on this subject.
As for the social safety net, the Workplace Safety Insurance Board continues to deny benefits to seriously injured workers while social assistance has yet to be restored to anywhere near the levels they were when Harris made his 22% cut in 1995. The working poor, the injured and sick, and the unemployed have no ally in the Liberals.
While Unifor President Jerry Dias criticized the NDP’s decision to vote against the “left-wing” Liberal budget, OPSEU has rightly pointed out that the Liberals have presided over a relentless privatization agenda of public services that many unions and community groups have been fighting for years.
Plant closures and corruption
The Liberals have also presided over a relentless series of plant closures while cutting corporate taxes on the grounds that it produces jobs. The Liberals have no strategy to stop plant closures which have devastated many small towns like Tilbury and Fergus and even larger towns and cities like Chatham, St. Thomas, and London. These closures are robbing Ontario of the skills and machinery necessary for any serious job-creating infrastructure projects, including urban and inter-city transit expansion which the Liberals claim to support.
Meanwhile, the Liberals did next to nothing to save Leamington from the Heinz closure and its over 1000 jobs (750 union plant workers, 350 migrant agricultural workers) despite its ideal transport location and being surrounded by some of the best farmland in North America. The Liberals actually gave Kellogg’s $4.5 million to renovate their Belleville factory and then let Kellogg’s close their state-of-the-art London plant, which will put 600 workers on the street.
Last but not least, the Liberals are a corrupt party of corporate power. They have cut corporate tax cuts to some of the lowest in the Western world while blowing billions on the Oakville gas plant and overseeing the pilfering of public funds by unelected, largely unaccountable upper management of public services. With attacks on workers and public services, like Bill 115, they have tried to balance the books on the backs of workers and used anti-democratic rights-stripping legislation to enforce it.
The Trouble with the NDP
What makes the current election even more worrying is the surprisingly right-wing NDP campaign. NDP leader Andrea Horwath was already getting criticism when she failed to endorse a $14/hour minimum wage demand being driven by a province-wide grassroots labour and community campaign. Horwath instead expressed concerns about a minimum wage increase on small business. They would be crushed, she claims, by big corporate competitors. Such words are an abandonment of the hundreds of thousands of working poor in Ontario. It also lets large employers like McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s get away with paying poverty wages.
If Horwath wants to protect small business from ruthless corporate competition, the NDP should find a way to curb corporate power through other forms of legislation, not by holding down the minimum wage.
Maybe the most disappointing NDP announcement was Horwath’s promise of an “accountability” minister in cabinet to oversee $600 million in budget cuts. Gone, it seems, are the days when the NDP was fighting “corporate welfare bums” to redistribute wealth for programs of social uplift. It is very worrying that the NDP has opted for the “austerity agenda” in which there is no alternative but tightening our belts while the rich grow fat off subsidies and tax breaks. As public sector workers know, budget cuts without layoffs means restructuring in the workplace. It means more power for managers, overwork, mismanagement, and a deterioration of quality in any frontline services. Millions will see public services deteriorate while public sector jobs become worse.
Fred Hahn of CUPE-Ontario has criticized this NDP policy: “the government doesn’t have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem. The mantra about government overspending is an illusion used to justify cuts in public spending, something more and more voters are seeing through…Ontario needs a minister devoted to finding new revenue sources that will protect the public services that support our economy. If Andrea Horwath wants to distinguish herself from Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak, that would be a better way to do it.”
One thing is for certain: Ontario labour’s lack of organized power is one reason why Horwath has been allowed to move right.
It is no wonder many NDPers, inside and outside organized labour, are quietly or publicly criticizing the party they want to vote for. Right now the problem of the NDP raises more questions about electoral strategy for organized labour than it answers. One thing is for certain: Ontario labour’s lack of organized power is one reason why Horwath has been able to move right.
Beyond the Ballot Box
With many unions throwing organizational weight and resources behind strategic voting against Hudak, it becomes fairly clear that labour is on the defensive. Strategic voting comes from a position of weakness, not strength. The character of the anti-Hudak campaign also demonstrates this weakness.
For example, the Working Families coalition of unions in Ontario is again pumping out ads to fight the Tories. By focusing on Hudak and while other union ads focus on specific issues, the door remains open for strategic voting. There is nothing wrong with labour producing these ads, but they are not the same and not a substitute for organizing. The same criticism can be made of the CLC’s “Fairness Works” ad campaign which is happening without an organizing strategy linked to it.
Only through organizing, educating, and activating the membership of the unions can organized labour begin to build the collective power necessary to change the political climate in Ontario and begin bringing serious pressure to bear against whoever forms the next government.
Fortunately, the Ontario Federation of Labour is moving in this direction. The #StopHudak town halls around the province have drawn in hundreds of union activists ready to fight Hudak. The town halls aren’t just panels of speeches by talking heads and labour leaders. They are workshops where real discussions, planning and strategizing is happening.
Meanwhile, the coalition of labour and community groups around the $14/hour minimum wage campaign is rebuilding the community-labour alliances that have been left in disrepair for too long since the defeats of the Harris years.
Win or lose, time to organize
Whoever wins the election, the task for union activists remains the same: reorienting our internal and external union work towards strategic and long-term organizing. Confronting a pro-austerity Liberal government or a union-busting Tory government will require organizing inside our unions to rebuild stewards networks and train new shopfloor activists and leaders. These networks will be the essential backbone of a labour movement in Ontario if Hudak wins and makes union dues voluntary.
Other areas of focus include building meaningful relationships with community groups. This means coordinated organizing between unions, especially at the the level of labour councils and area councils.
One of the best places to start organizing is around Canada Post. There is still plenty of public support to save Canada Post from the privatization agenda being spearheaded by massive cuts and layoffs and the elimination of home delivery. Through door-to-door petitioning, union activists have a huge opportunity at their disposal to build a movement that can stop the attacks, and contribute to building a bigger movement beyond just the Canada Post fight.
Last but not least, this means beginning the serious work of orienting our provincial, national and international unions outward to organize the unorganized. We only need to look south and see how American fast food and retail workers have taken the lead on this with unions like SEIU and UFCW throwing large amounts of resources into hiring organizers.
There are no easy answers in Ontario right now. No words on paper can provide a solution to the electoral dilemmas that are forcing us to vote strategically. The only way to shift the politics of the province and put employers and anti-union parties on the defensive – and keep the NDP on side with workers and the poor – is long-term strategic organizing.