Canada: Militant action wins! A critical look at Ontario politics

Since the betrayal of the Ontario Days of Action in 1996-97, the movement in Ontario has been at one of its lowest levels. This is in contrast to the rest of Canada where most provinces are seeing some of the most militant labour actions since the 1970s. In both British Columbia and Québec, we have seen a burgeoning general strike movement while Newfoundland recently saw the largest strike in the province’s history.

Since the betrayal of the Ontario Days of Action in 1996-97, the movement in Ontario has been at one of its lowest levels. This is in contrast to the rest of Canada where most provinces are seeing some of the most militant labour actions since the 1970s. In both British Columbia and Québec, we have seen a burgeoning general strike movement while Newfoundland recently saw the largest strike in the province's history.

Last year, Ontario saw the least number of days lost to strikes since 1976 (the first year available for such statistics published on Statistics Canada's website). Most of the Ontario left has struggled to explain the downturn of the labour movement and have spent much energy in trying to re-invent themselves. Some have turned away from the working class and towards other marginalized groups in the hopes that this will reinvigorate the struggle against capitalism in Ontario.

Unlike these groups, genuine Marxists use the tools provided by Marxism to understand the situation today. There is nothing "wrong" with the working class in Ontario. Using dialectics, we are able to understand that this contradiction in the mobilization of the working class in Canada is an example of the combined and uneven development of revolutionary struggle. Although the movement is relatively inactive in Ontario at the moment, it will eventually pick up as in the rest of the country. The problems facing workers in the rest of Canada are pretty much the same as those facing Ontario workers. Ontario workers are no better off than their counterparts in BC, Newfoundland, or Québec. (And it can be argued that the situation for most workers in Ontario is actually worse.)

By ignoring or abandoning the fight of Ontario workers, these groups are, in fact, stating that workers are satisfied with their present situation. It does not take a genius to realize that this is an absurdity. One only needs to walk the streets of Toronto or Hamilton or any urban centre in Ontario to realize the anger and misery afflicting workers. One would have to be blind and deaf not to realize this!

Crisis in the labour leadership

As we have explained for the past two years, one of the primary reasons for the downturn in the Ontario labour movement has been the lack of leadership provided by the mass workers' organizations. The question of leadership is important for Marxists and it is no surprise that Trotsky begins his Transitional Programme by addressing this problem:

"The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. The economy, the state, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis, characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society. The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary into a revolutionary state is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership: its petty bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connection with it even in its death agony.

In all countries the proletariat is racked by a deep disquiet. The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines." (Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, 1938)

The reformist leadership abandoned Ontario workers during the Days of Action and since, have failed to provide any leadership against the Harris, Eves, and McGuinty governments. They have gone so far as to derail potential militant strikes. Seeing that no one is set to defend their interests, Ontario workers have become incredibly demoralized.

In his document, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, Trotsky wrote how trade unions would collaborate with the capitalist state in order to show the bosses that they could be dependable and reliable, in the hopes that the bosses would play nice with them. In the end, it would allow the union bureaucracy (on the basis of capitalism) to "fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism." We have seen this time and time again in the first couple of years of the McGuinty government. The nurses' union has not shown any will to confront the government, despite the fact that just a year after being elected, the Liberals decided to eliminate 1,000 nursing jobs in the province. Although most of the teachers' unions were without a contract for nearly two years, their leadership refused to strike. Perhaps most frustrating was Sid Ryan and CUPE's dithering regarding reform of OMERS, the pension plan of Ontario public workers.

There is little choice for workers on the political stage, either. The 2003 provincial election revealed the masses' disgust with the Conservatives and the attacks by the likes of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. On the surface, it looked like there was a massive base of support for Dalton McGuinty and the provincial Liberals. However, if we dig deeper, we can also see that the voter turnout in 2003 was the lowest in over a century! What this means is that although workers were ready to turf out the Tories, they were not exactly clamouring for the Liberals, either.

Where was the New Democratic Party (NDP) in all of this? Well, the most lasting image that the public had of the NDP in that campaign was NDP leader Howard Hampton holding a giant wooden slice of Swiss cheese. (Like most people, we too don't know what this meant.) The Ontario NDP has continually failed to put forward a platform that comes even remotely close to addressing the needs and demands of Ontario workers and youth. The best that Hampton & Co. have been able to do is provide a platform that is the same as the Liberals', only slightly quicker. Today, the NDP has managed to claw back to official-party status and is completely irrelevant in Ontario politics.

It isn't idle speculation to claim that workers are looking for some inspiration and leadership to fight back against the bosses. In contrast to the provincial NDP, the federal NDP and Jack Layton have provided a tiny bit of credible leadership - and this has yielded some real gains in Ontario. The NDP was able to sweep all of the ridings in working-class cities like Hamilton, Windsor, Timmins, and Sault Ste. Marie. They came within a fraction of a percent of winning both ridings in Thunder Bay. The shame is that if the Ontario NDP could play a leading role in being the parliamentary voice of the working class movement, they could make very significant gains in the 2007 provincial election. Unfortunately, at the moment, there is a very real possibility that we will see the Conservatives return to power in Queen's Park next year.

Ontario workers waking up?

In last year's perspectives for Ontario, we mentioned some atrocious statistics that show how the standard of living for Ontario workers (particularly in the urban centres like Toronto) has plummeted. According to a 2004 study by the United Way, a quarter of Toronto's neighbourhoods are now classified as "high poverty neighbourhoods", where at least 25% of residents live below the poverty line (i.e. twice the Canadian average). Worse, in every single neighbourhood in Toronto, the unemployment rate was under 10% meaning that these people were living in poverty even though they had employment.

One can only be blind to believe that the working class in Ontario is satisfied with their lot in life. Although the statistics may not show it, the workers and youth have no faith in the bosses or politicians. And, the capitalists know this.

Marxists do not fetishize elections but they do provide a brief snapshot of the masses' mood at a given moment. The decisive defeat of the Conservatives in 2003 showed that workers were not going to tolerate any more of the attacks that characterized the Mike Harris and Ernie Eve era in Ontario. The Tories are traditionally the party of the Ontario bosses but they are more than happy to go with their "backup goalie" - the Liberal Party.

In contrast with the Tories, the Liberals are able to put a more humane face to the bosses' interests. The Liberals' 2003 platform promised all sorts of goodies for the working class. A number of unions and union leaders campaigned for the Liberals and urged their members to elect McGunity and his cronies. It is no lie to state that the Liberals relied on the unions to get elected.

This reliance on the trade union bureaucracy has meant that although they may have a huge majority at Queen's Park, the Liberal government is actually a very weak one that cannot fully implement the bosses' agenda (again, this is a reflection of the general trend at the federal level, too). The result has been a vanilla government - one can hardly tell it's there. Besides the introduction of the anti-worker health tax immediately after being elected, the only government act that most people would be able to name is a ban on pit-bulls and other dangerous dogs!

However, the capitalists have grown impatient with the slow pace of the Liberals (and their reformist counterparts at Toronto City Hall). The bosses are yearning for a return of the good old Mike Harris days when workers could be hammered and the profits rolled in. The voices of Bay St., the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, run daily articles praising provincial Conservative leader John Tory and right-wing Toronto mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield. On 12 Jun. 2006, Pitfield clearly announced the bosses' political agenda when she stated that she hopes to "get rid of" municipal unions in Toronto because "they have become too powerful under Mayor David Miller." She went on to say, "Why were unions created originally? It was because people were working in deplorable conditions. In 2006, we cannot say that that is still the case." (Toronto Star, 13 Jun. 2006)

In response, over the last year, we have begun to see the provincial and municipal governments adopting a much harsher line with labour and youth. The time of compromise is clearly over. Now, they are not willing to cede even the slightest concessions to the workers without a huge fight. One result has been that the leaders of some unions and organizations, such as CUPE Ontario or the Canadian Federation of Students, have meekly surrendered their fights rather than risk their positions by mobilizing their members to fight back.

Other unions, however, have decided to fight and we are now seeing a return of the militancy that Ontario workers have shown in the past.

One of the first obvious signs of this new mobilization of workers was last year's CBC lockout (see "CBC locked out across Canada"). To the surprise of some, there were no reports of scabs and very little apparent infighting amongst CBC workers. After nearly two months of being locked out by management, the workers emerged victorious and prevented CBC management of further eliminating full-time positions at the public broadcaster.

This past March, community college instructors walked off the job near the end of the semester for Ontario college students. Despite the attacks and threats made by the provincial government and the bourgeois press (and in one case, a cowardly assault on the picket line which killed one striker), community college instructors were able to force the Ontario government to go to binding arbitration over improved working conditions and improved conditions for students.

Even though it isn't a traditional strike against an employer, we must also mention the Six Nations' occupation of a housing development at Caledonia (see "Defend the Six Nations Occupation"). Contrary to what the anarchists and reformists claim, this was not simply a battle pitting Natives against non-Natives. As had been reported in the Toronto Star, this was a symbolic fight against the Canadian State and development companies (i.e. Canadian capital) and this one broken agreement was chosen to be the spark for this struggle.

The Native protestors in Caledonia were also pitted against the government-imposed band council who took a calculated stand opposed to the occupation of the housing development. The "elected" band council was imposed by the Crown upon the Six Nations in violation to the traditional matriarchal government that had existed for centuries. Rightly, the protestors viewed the band council of being collaborators with the government and development companies, and helping in the continued oppression of the Six Nations. In effect, the Six Nations occupation is a reaction by working-class Natives against all of the elements within capitalism that have oppressed indigenous people across the country - different levels of government, capital, and the small number of Natives who have participated in this oppression and grown wealthy because of it.

Perhaps the most important struggle so far has been that of the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) workers. In April of 2005, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 came within minutes of shutting down Toronto's transit system. At the time, Toronto NDP Mayor David Miller and the NDP Chair of the TTC, Howard Moscoe, were baffled at how the president of the union, Bob Kinnear, took a line of actually defending his workers' interests. In the end, the TTC and the union agreed to a hasty contract that met the union's main demands - preventing further outsourcing of maintenance in the TTC.

This year, the union complained that the municipal government was doing nothing to protect TTC workers from assault. Furthermore, the TTC had decided to force the majority of maintenance staff to work night shifts in order to cut costs, with little regard to the effect this could have on workers' lives. As they are used to doing, TTC management did nothing when faced with these complaints. Besides, they thought, what could the workers do? To their shock, TTC workers went on a wildcat strike. Over 700,000 people depend on the TTC everyday in Toronto and most of these people were stranded on a Monday morning with no way to get to work. Even though the strike lasted less than a day, the Toronto Star estimated that the TTC strike cost over $40 million to the economy in Toronto alone. Further enraging the managers and the politicians was the fact that although they were ordered back to work, the workers remained on strike even though Miller and Moscoe were threatening the union leaders with imprisonment if the strike continued.

Just a week later, the union was set to go on another wildcat strike until Miller and Moscoe went around TTC management in trying to reach an agreement with the union. In the wake of this, the TTC general manager, Rick Ducharme, felt compelled to resign because in his view, the politicians were more interested in meeting the union's demands than the TTC management's needs - another victory for the union.

Militant action wins!

The TTC union's leader, Bob Kinnear, is symptomatic of a larger trend in the labour movement.Kinnear came out of nowhere to be elected as the union president in 2003, defeating the candidate that was unanimously supported by the outgoing executive. Kinnear is not a socialist and probably not a leftist; he is, though, a rank-and-file militant who was tired of the old compromises with management and wanted to see real gains for his fellow workers.

Militant leaders like Kinnear are a reflection of the mood of the working class. Members of the rank-and-file can become elected as leaders because workers are tired of the excuses and compromises offered by the traditional bureaucrats. The victories of the new leadership help to further radicalize the workers who begin to make even more militant demands. This, in turn, forces the leadership to turn further to the Left.

As Marxists, we recognize the dialectics of the election of people like Bob Kinnear and the victories of the TTC, CBC, and college workers. When observed in a formalistic manner, these victories seem inconsequential. However, we are not formalists!

There is little doubt that the victories of the TTC union, and those of the CBC workers and college teachers, will have an effect on the Ontario working class. People who appeared to be labour-friendly, such as Dalton McGuinty and David Miller, are being shown for who they really are - the political representatives for capital. Workers know that they will need to begin to fight for their rights.

More importantly, all of these struggles have emerged as victories for the workers. After many of years of inactivity, the message is clear for Ontario workers: militant action wins! Already, we are seeing the first symptoms of dissatisfaction within Canada's largest private sector union. For the first time, Buzz Hargrove was challenged for the leadership of the CAW by Willie Lambert who is running on a platform that challenges Hargrove's alliance with Paul Martin and the Liberals, as well as the numerous cuts that the CAW has accepted from General Motors and Ford.

We can also expect that there will be a challenge emerging within the Ontario NDP. As the class struggle begins to heat up once again in the province, workers will be looking for a political expression to their struggle. The NDP is Canada's party of the working class and the workers will expect the NDP to reflect their demands.

Conclusions

We are at the very beginning of a pivotal time in Ontario. The down-turn in the labour movement is coming to an end and Ontario workers are beginning to mobilize once again.

The Ontario working class is one of the strongest in Canada. Ontario is the centre of Canada's manufacturing sector; many of these jobs pay very well and have been a result of long struggle by unions in the post-war period. However, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last few years, only to be replaced by minimum-wage service jobs that are highly precarious. We can be sure that these workers will not accept their fate silently.

Even though we have seen a steady shift of Canada's economy westwards in the past few years, Ontario remains the economic heart of the country. Well over 40% of Canada's economy is based in Ontario, and Ontario possesses a full third of Canada's population. The growing movement of the workers and youth in Ontario will confront capital not just in the province, but across Canada as well.