Canada: general strike threat defeats “back-to-work” legislation, but workers’ contract unresolved

For the first time, Canadian workers have forced the repeal of back-to-work legislation. The inspiring struggle of the 55,000 Ontario education workers has achieved an important partial victory.

The government thought they would crush the workers by preemptively making their strike illegal, imposing a contract, and violating their constitutional rights with the “notwithstanding clause”. But instead the Doug Ford regime provoked an illegal strike that was spreading into an Ontario-wide general strike. Faced with the immense power of the workers the government blinked, and agreed to withdraw the legislation. We should recognize that this is a significant blow to the use of strikebreaking legislation by capitalist governments, while also recognizing that the education struggle is not over and the workers still don’t have a contract.

The fact that an illegal general strike movement can blow up within one week shows the latent anger in the working class. There is nothing special about Ontario education workers, or anything particularly radical about their union leadership. These workers face the same problems all workers face: decades of wage erosion due to government and corporate austerity, and the prospect of being much poorer due to spiking inflation. Such a struggle could have broken out literally in any sector of the Canadian working class. But it is to the credit of the school support staff organized in the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) that they led the way.

How the strike escalated

The rapid escalation of this conflict is truly astounding. On Sunday, Oct. 30 CUPE gave notice that they would go on legal strike Friday, Nov. 4. CUPE was asking for a very modest $3.25/hour (roughly 11 per cent) each year of the three year contract. This would only compensate the workers for the value they lost over the last decade and allow them to stop their wages being eroded by current inflation. In a time of increased prices and corporate profiteering it is only just that workers do not become poorer. Their strike notice was more than justified by the government only offering two per cent, and that miserable offer did not even apply to all the workers.

Lecce Leech Image CUPEImmediately upon CUPE giving strike notice, education minister Stephen Lecce announced new legislation removing the right to strike from education workers / Image: CUPE

Immediately upon CUPE giving strike notice, education minister Stephen Lecce announced new legislation removing the right to strike from education workers. This so-called “back-to-work” legislation has become a common occurrence in Canadian labour disputes and has been progressively eroding the right to strike. However, this legislation was particularly pernicious. Typically back-to-work legislation sends a contract to binding arbitration. While arbitration is a massive violation of the democratic rights of the workers and usually leads to a bad contract, this legislation did not even do that. Instead, the legislation imposed a contract without any further input from the workers or their union. This imposed contract limited wage increases to 2.5 per cent, approximately five per cent below inflation, while also massively gutting short-term disability leave provisions.

The legislation also stipulated fines of $500,000 per day for unions, and $4000 per day for individuals, who defied the legislation and go on illegal strike. The final insult came with the unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2015 Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the right to strike was a component part of the constitutionally protected freedom of association. The notwithstanding clause meant that there could be no legal challenges to the legislation and the workers had no legal recourse.

These events put the union leadership up against the wall, with no face-saving options. In the past, when faced with back-to-work legislation, union bureaucracies, and even some leftists, repeatedly said that there is nothing to be done. They would say “the law cannot be defied”. They just relied on binding arbitration and a constitutional court challenge, which would take up to a decade to wind through the courts. This successfully demobilized the workers and led to a defeat.

The Marxists consistently argued that until some group of workers defied back-to-work legislation the right to strike is not worth the paper it is written on. We were dismissed as utopians, despite the fact that the labour movement would not exist today if workers were not willing to defy unjust laws that made strikes and unions illegal.

However, the lack of arbitration or legal recourse gave the leadership no way out. The choice was abject capitulation or decisive fight. After a 96 per cent strike vote on an 83 per cent turnout the pressure on the union tops was immense. Workers could not stand losing one fifth of their income over a four year imposed regime.

In a final desperate attempt to placate the government, the union leadership cut the wage demand in half to about six per cent. In doing this they violated their commitment to open bargaining. But this retreat had the opposite effect and merely made the government refuse to bargain anything. Weakness invited aggression. This underlines the importance of rank-and-file workers’ control of the movement at every stage—to stop mistakes and backsliding by leaders.

Faced with no other alternative the union organized an illegal strike on Friday, Nov. 4.

From illegal strike to general strike

It was a truly impressive display on the lawns of the Ontario Legislature in Toronto. Over 10,000 workers and supporters marched against the violation of workers rights. They were united with other smaller pickets around the province. Doug Ford’s back-to-work legislation had the opposite of its intended effect and led to the complete shutdown of the Ontario school system. This was the first defiance of legislation in a generation.

Fred Hahn Image CUPETo their credit, Fred Hahn and Laura Walton responded to the pressure of the workers and announced an all-out illegal strike / Image: CUPE

However, one important question remained unresolved. Would this be just a single day of protest, or would it be the beginning of an open-ended illegal strike. The right wing of the union was surely in favour of demobilization over the weekend. To their credit, Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) president Laura Walton, and CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, responded to the pressure of the workers and announced that it would be an all-out illegal strike. It only took a small ounce of leadership from what is usually a compromising bureaucracy to achieve a historic victory. Committing to indefinitely defy and only going back to work when the workers decide to was the tipping point.

Once the education workers had bravely committed to struggle, the question was raised whether they would be left to fight alone and isolated. Would they be terrorized into submission by fines which would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per day? $4000 per day equals 10 per cent of the yearly wage of the average education worker!

Union leaders met over the weekend in what were surely tense meetings. But on Sunday evening rumours began circulating that there was going to be a Monday morning press conference which would announce an Ontario-wide general strike the following week.

Again, it is impossible to overstate the unprecedented nature of these developments. For decades worker militants had been told that you cannot go on illegal strike, and that you definitely cannot have a general strike, but in one week all those conservative bureaucratic excuses had been thrown into the dustbin of history by the raw power of working class people.

The education workers were not isolated in their struggle either. CUPE reported that 75,000 people had used their website to send protest messages to the government. A poll found that 62 per cent of Ontarians opposed the government, and this rose to 68 per cent of parents. This was quite astounding given that Ford and Lecce were claiming to stand up for the interests of parents. Seventy-one per cent wanted the government to negotiate a better deal, and 78 per cent said that education workers aren't paid enough. Additionally, 48 per cent said they would support illegal solidarity strike action, and 65 per cent of private sector and 70 per cent of public sector union members supported this. In essence this was a positive vote for these union members to go on strike themselves.

As dawn broke over the illegal strikers setting up pickets Monday morning, there was a real prospect of mass solidarity in a movement that could potentially bring down the government.

Ford’s humiliating climbdown

With the expectation of a union announcement of general strike plans, Ford and Lecce organized a nine AM press conference. In a rambling and incoherent tirade against CUPE, Ford announced he was repealing the notwithstanding clause, on the condition that CUPE pull down their pickets. This led to widespread confusion about whether this was a trick or a genuine offer.

Doug Ford Image Andrew LouisWith the threat of a general strike looming, Ford announced he was repealing the notwithstanding clause / Image: Andrew Louis

Union representatives demanded that Ford put his offer in writing and delayed their press conference to review it. Eventually, almost two hours late, dozens of union leaders appeared in front of the cameras. Significantly the group of unions present represented both public and private sector, including construction unions that had previously endorsed the Ford Conservatives on the basis of new infrastructure projects.

The prospect of the normalization of back-to-work legislation and the notwithstanding clause had united all sectors of the labour movement against the eradication of the right to strike and bargain. Even Quebec unions were talking about traveling to Toronto to join the fight, another unprecedented event given the historical divisions between English Canada and Quebec. It appeared as if the potential general strike would have reached every sector of the workforce.

CUPE National president Mike Hancock announced that the government had blinked. They had a commitment in writing that the entire back-to-work bill, including the imposed contract and the notwithstanding clause, was to be repealed as if it had never been passed. Nobody would face any fines and the parties would return to the bargaining table. As a sign of good faith the union would take down the illegal pickets. Laura Walton subsequently said that the union retained the right to go back on strike if necessary.

It is vital that we understand the importance of this event that would have been impossible without mass illegal strikes and the threat of a general strike. As far as we can tell, back-to-work legislation has never before been repealed. This shows the power of the workers.

However, it is also important to understand that this is just a partial victory against the violation of the right to strike. It is not yet a complete victory against wage restraint and inflation. That is the next stage of the struggle.

What tactics to win?

Union leaders are declaring the defeat of the legislation to be a great victory. In a radio interview Laura Walton said that the workers have momentum on their side and are prepared to return to picket lines if necessary. CUPE Ontario sent out a message to supporters stating, “Tomorrow education workers will be back at work and we’ll be back at the table. We will be ready to remind the Ford Conservatives that, if they are not prepared to bargain a good agreement, members will have, and can exercise, the right to strike if needed. And we will remind the Ford Conservatives that the entire labour movement will once again be ready to show their support in any way that’s needed until a deal is reached.”

Workers pickets Image CUPEWorkers must be prepared to go back to the pickets at a moment's notice / Image: CUPE

In talking to the workers on the lines it appears that the overwhelming majority sentiment was relief that the legislation had been defeated and people did not have to worry about $4000 fines.

On Tuesday morning Ford appeared again before the cameras and meekly thanked CUPE and said the government would present an improved offer to the workers.

It is clear that momentum is on the side of the workers and the government is in a weak position. Even right wing pundits have said this. A Globe and Mail editorial expressed the bourgeois’ frustration thus:

The Ford government course reversal was necessary, but it comes with bad side effects. If the goal of this exercise was moderating public-sector wage demands, how does everything done so far achieve that? It does not.
The Ford government has instead weakened itself, undermined its own public support and energized its already emboldened public-sector unions to gun for big pay increases. All that, in just a week’s work at Queen’s Park.”

There would have to be a massive shift in public opinion before Ford would contemplate the use of legislation against the workers again.

While the majority of workers were relieved, there was also a small advanced layer of workers who wanted to continue the illegal strike. On the far left there is a debate about whether ending the illegal strike was a mistake or even a betrayal by the union leadership.

We wholeheartedly commend the advanced workers for their militant class instincts in wanting to continue the illegal strike. We think that these workers are entirely correct to be skeptical about the motives of union bureaucracies that were looking for any excuse to call off and compromise the struggle. However, we also advise these militant workers against getting too far in advance of the rest of the class and finding themselves isolated and defeated.

It is necessary for the most class conscious layers to bring along the mass of the workers and educate them through experience of struggle. Unlike revolutionaries, the mass of the working class does not learn from books, but from real-world events. People were prepared for an illegal strike, and general strike, for the overturn of the dictatorial legislation. But they aren’t necessarily prepared for such radical actions for a wage increase—especially when there is potentially a legal avenue to win such an increase. What is true for the mass of the union membership would also be true for general public opinion.

If Ford’s press conference was a belligerent attack on the workers instead of a climbdown we could be facing a very different scenario indeed. If he said he would fine and imprison 55,000 education workers it would have been pouring more gasoline on the flames and the general strike movement would have likely exploded into a mass movement to bring down the government. This is what occurred in France 1968 when President De Gaulle accused striking students of being children making a mess in the bed. In such a scenario, ending the strike would be giving a lifeline to a totterring regime.

But Ford did back down. And despite the Marxists advancing the slogan “BRING DOWN FORD”, that is not the current state of the consciousness of the mass of the workers. Continuation of an illegal strike at this stage could only be understood as an attempt to bring down the regime. If the advanced guard could not bring the majority of the union and the general public with them in such a struggle they would turn a partial victory into isolation and defeat. In this context we advise against any adventurist actions, while also keeping a close watch on the union leadership against any backsliding or violation of rank-and-file control. There must be no demobilization and workers must be prepared to go back to the pickets at a moment's notice.

Strike for $3.25/hour!

Negotiations have reopened with the government and the legislation is set to be repealed next Monday. The majority of the workers want to see what the employer has to offer. We have to remind everybody that $3.25/hour is actually an incredibly modest demand by the union that merely brings workers back to where they were ten years ago and stops their wage being eroded by inflation. There can be absolutely no backsliding on the 11 per cent—anything less than $3.25/hour is a pay cut!

We must demand complete open bargaining and rank-and-file control. We should not forget the mistake the negotiators made in compromising their demands the day before the illegal strike. If the weakened government does not give the workers what they need, workers must immediately return to the picket lines. Any talk of binding arbitration must be resoundingly rejected. There must be no back-room deals between the bureaucracy and the government.

It is true that taking down pickets has the danger of demobilizing the membership, but this danger can be mitigated if there is consistent mobilization and education about the necessity of struggle. The government is in no position to enact more legislation and the workers have shown that without them the schools cannot run. This approach is the way to show the mass of the workers in concrete practice the necessity of struggle. If people see that the government is not serious they can learn these lessons for themselves and achieve the necessary unity for victory. The advanced layer can also bring along the mass without being isolated. We can use the previous victories and the demonstrated power of the workers as proof against any bureaucracy trying to capitulate. We can say that we were told that illegal strikes and general strikes were impossible, but it was the militant ranks that showed how nothing can defeat the power of workers united. These are the tactics that are needed to win.

Back-to-work = general strike!

It is high time that the labour movement pushes to make the use of back-to-work legislation impossible. The Ontario education workers have shown that mass defiance and the threat of a general strike is what it takes to stop the erosion of the right to strike. This experience must be generalized to the entire Canadian labour movement. People should be reminded that there was not a single penny of fines leveled against the workers or the unions. It needs to be solidified into standard practice that any use of back-to-work leads to immediate defiance and organization of a general strike.

It is notable that 2200 GO transit bus drivers are currently on strike in the greater Toronto area. Usually this would rapidly lead to legislation, but the government has been conspicuously silent after its defeat at the hands of education workers. This experience must be the standard arrangement across the country.

Inflation and capitalist crisis

The backdrop of this struggle is the 40-year high inflation rates. This high inflation is not due to workers’ wages, which have consistently lagged behind price increases, but due to money printing to fund corporate bailouts. In the past, when inflation was low, union bureaucracies could sign zero or one per cent contracts which the workers would begrudgingly accept. But now with food prices and rent increasing by more than 10 per cent the workers cannot stomach such austerity. Workers inevitably demand that union leaders fight to keep up with inflation or they kick out useless leaders who do not fight.

Inflation Image CUPEThis high inflation is not due to workers’ wages, but due to money printing to fund corporate bailouts / Image: CUPE

Some have questioned why Ford took such a belligerent action as to use the notwithstanding clause. Even Liberal Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opposed the Ontario legislation as a violation of the constitution. We have absolutely no illusions in Trudeau the Liberal trickster. His words stink of hypocrisy after he used back-to-work legislation against the postal workers and the Montreal dock workers. His concern is partially a show for electoral reasons to embarrass his Conservative rivals. But he is mostly channeling the concerns of the Canadian billionaire class who would prefer to keep the working class quiet with subterfuge and back-room sellout deals with the labour bureaucracy. One should not wake the sleeping giant of organized labour, like bully boy Doug Ford has just done.

However, there is also a method to Ford’s madness. There was a reason he didn’t just use the traditional method of binding arbitration. Firstly, with the 2015 supreme court ruling upholding the right to strike, without the notwithstanding clause the legislation could end up being very expensive to the government in coming years—despite the delay in court proceedings. Secondly, arbitration would not have given the government what it needed. Ford rightfully said that whatever was negotiated with the school workers becomes a model for the rest of the public sector. This could cost the government tens of billions of dollars in a situation of increased interest rates and more expensive debt servicing. If the arbitrator gave a higher settlement, that would be unaffordable. But if the arbitrator gave a low settlement, no labour group would agree to arbitration as they would know what a terrible deal they were signing up for. Therefore the capitalist crisis forced Ford’s hand into taking such risky actions that have now blown up in his face.

The struggle of the Ontario education workers is merely the opening salvo in a coming class war. It is the responsibility of the entire movement to support CUPE to gain the best deal that can in turn become a model for the rest of the workers. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), who joined CUPE on illegal strike, has even said they would be prepared to shut the province down if necessary. An injury to one is an injury to all, and a victory for one is a victory for all. But the capitalists and their politicians will not take this defeat lying down. Their system cannot afford decent wages for workers and they will seek to push back every gain of the workers. Eventually they may even be prepared to provoke the workers so far as a general strike. This raises the necessity to not just fight for better wages against capitalist inflation, but to overthrow the capitalist system that creates all this inflation. We need to fight for a socialist leadership of the labour movement that can ensure democratic workers’ control of our unions and no sellouts in the struggle. We need to fight for a socialist society where workers will not be under constant attack by the bosses. This partial victory shows us that there is no stronger power than the working class. The task is to build a movement that can bring the workers to power.