Divisions in labour movement undermine effort to stop Harper

Teachers and allies protest the Ontario Liberals' attack on teachers' union rights in 2012.
Teachers and allies protest the Ontario Liberals’ attack on teachers’ union rights in 2012.

By Larry Savage and Stephanie Ross

There is no shortage of reasons for the labour movement to organize against the re-election of the Harper government. On the labour rights front, the Conservatives have aggressively used back-to-work legislation to end or preempt legal strikes, attempted to undermine unions’ political capacity through onerous and one-sided financial disclosure laws, and attacked collective bargaining rights and working conditions in the federal public service. EI coverage rates are at their lowest since the program’s inception in 1940. The government failed to significantly improve public pensions or invest in a national child care program, and instead rolled out a tax break for the wealthiest based on a 1950s vision of the family. The Conservatives have backed Canada Post’s decision to end door-to-door mail delivery, and have cut thousands of decent and important public service jobs. Meanwhile, precarious employment and income inequality continues to expand unhindered. All this offers union activists plenty of motivation to put all their energies into #StopHarper efforts in 2015.

If the labour movement’s political divisions are not sufficiently patched up in advance of the 2015 federal election, we risk another four years of destructive Conservative policies whose harms will be increasingly difficult to reverse.

However, divisions over political strategy amongst Ontario’s unions put these efforts at risk. Union divisions are anchored in a tangled web of political and personal disputes, some dating back more than twenty years. In the aftermath of the Social Contract austerity program, unions were deeply divided over whether to support Bob Rae’s NDP government in the 1995 election, with public sector unions and the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor) withholding their support. In the mid-to late 1990s, unions disagreed sharply over how best to fight back against the Harris government’s anti-union agenda and in particular over the Days of Action strategy of rotating one-day strikes.

The same unions that refused to endorse the NDP in 1995 promoted this movement-based strategy of organizing demonstrations in coalition with community organizations. Others, including the Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Machinists argued for a return to electoral political action, concerned that continued strikes would harm the NDP’s chances in the 1999 election. This latter debate was further complicated when the unions supporting the Days of Action themselves split, with some like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) reconciling with the NDP and others—including the CAW, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), and the teachers’ and nurses’ unions—promoting voting strategically for the Liberal or NDP candidates best positioned to knock off Tory incumbents in the 1999 provincial election.

After the Liberals formed government in 2003, Ontario unions remained divided. Those who had supported strategic voting opted to work with the new government to extract narrow pro-labour concessions for their particular sectors, while others opposed the Liberal agenda as merely neoliberalism “light”. When the McGuinty government went after education workers’ collective bargaining rights in 2013 with Bill 115, many New Democrats expected all of the labour movement to return to the NDP fold. Instead, many unions retained ties to the Liberals for fear that the Conservatives, now led by Tim Hudak, might be returned to power and implement an anti-union “right to work” law that even Harris wouldn’t introduce. In the run up to and aftermath of the 2014 provincial election, unions realigned again, with OPSEU now solidly behind the NDP and knocking heads with the Ontario Federation of Labour and Unifor over the perception that the #StopHudak campaign left the Wynne Liberals off the hook for their anti-labour indiscretions.

The Political is Personal

In other words, Ontario is home to the most politically divided labour movement in Canada. Making matters even more complicated, these political divisions have gone hand in hand with leadership challenges and personality clashes. Even for most close observers of the OFL, it is difficult to disentangle which debates hinge on questions of principle and which on questions of ego. A particular flashpoint has been the leadership of Sid Ryan, the former CUPE Ontario leader who was elected OFL president in 2009 with broad support from a wide spectrum of unions. Under Ryan’s leadership, the OFL has adopted a renewed activist approach, to a mix of cheers and jeers from different segments of the labour movement. While Ryan is no doubt a polarizing figure, under his leadership the OFL membership has grown considerably and the organization enjoys a much higher profile than it did under his predecessor, Wayne Samuelson.

This higher profile is both a blessing and a curse for Ryan. While the political influence of central labour bodies like the OFL are important to the health of the labour movement overall, many unions prefer central labour bodies to play a subservient role to individual affiliates who “pay the freight” and want strict control over decisions concerning priorities, finances and strategy. This dynamic was clearly in evidence in 2011 when OPSEU, SEIU, Firefighters, the Ontario Nurses’ Association and the Society of Energy Professionals stopped paying dues to the OFL because of discontent with Ryan’s leadership. The Society has since returned to the fold, but the Steelworkers announced in October 2014 that they would be joining the dues strike, over concerns with Ryan’s financial management of the Federation, thus deepening already existing divisions.

What lessons do labour leaders send to current and potential union members by attempting to stage a coup rather than using the OFL’s existing democratic structures to debate the organization’s directions and contest its leadership positions?

The dues strike is controversial and poses significant financial problems for the Federation. It also raises some important questions about how the labour movement should deal with internal disputes. In this case, rather than use the democratic avenues available to contest decisions and shape priorities in the OFL, including the option of running a candidate against Ryan for the presidency of the Federation, the leaders of several powerful affiliates are withholding their dues in an effort to provoke a financial crisis and thereby force Ryan from office. Ryan’s supporters liken these leaders to free-riding union members who refuse to pay dues despite benefitting from the union’s good deeds. This analogy will no doubt irk labour leaders who are on the outs with the OFL President, perhaps because it cuts a bit too close to the bone. Their collective opposition to voluntary payment of dues in the workplace is simply inconsistent with their use of this strategy vis-à-vis the OFL.

In the end, whatever union members think of Sid Ryan is secondary to what they think about the practice of union democracy, a deeply engrained principle in the labour movement that ought to be safeguarded at all costs. What lessons do labour leaders send to current and potential union members by attempting to stage a coup rather than using the OFL’s existing democratic structures to debate the organization’s directions and contest its leadership positions? Is this a legitimate way for dissent to be expressed within OFL affiliates themselves?

What is at stake?

These internal fights are not just an interesting labour soap opera: there is a lot at stake for workers and the general public who have been subject to eight years of the Harper government. Ontario will no doubt be a key battleground for the #StopHarper movement in 2015. There is also a real opportunity here: public opinion polls have not been kind to the Conservatives in recent months and opposition parties are poised to make gains in seat-rich Ontario, where the government currently holds an overwhelming majority of seats.

While Ontario’s labour movement justifiably took credit for the leadership role it played in the successful #StopHudak movement in the run up to the 2014 Ontario provincial election earlier this year, repeating that feat federally while internal union battles continue to fester will be very difficult. Unlike the Ontario PCs, who helped engineer their own defeat with a nonsensical plan to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, the more battle-worn Harper Conservatives will enter the election with the advantage of incumbency and an overflowing campaign war chest.

If the labour movement’s political divisions are not sufficiently patched up in advance of the 2015 federal election, we risk another four years of destructive Conservative policies whose harms will be increasingly difficult to reverse. Working people, whether unionized or not, will undoubtedly pay the price for organized labour’s continued political disorganization.

A version of this piece was published on Rethinking Labour.

Larry Savage is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University. He is a former member of the OFL Executive Council. Twitter @Prof_Savage

Stephanie Ross is Associate Professor of Work and Labour Studies in the Department of Social Science and Co-Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University. Twitter @stephross_york

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