Liberal-NDP Coalition in Toronto stinks

Last winter there was much ado about the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition federal government. According to Conservatives, it would have violated democracy and bankrupted the state. According to NDP officials, it would have mitigated the economic crisis and provided a very progressive alternative to Harper. The truth is that both claims were wrong.

Do you want to know what a Liberal-NDP government would be like? Look no farther than the malodorous mess in Toronto. Among other things, the unholy alliance that governs Canada’s biggest city allowed basic services to erode, gave the rich a tax holiday, provoked a civic workers’ strike and led a frontal assault on labour’s past gains.

Mayor David Miller, a former NDP member, backed by a coalition of Liberal and NDP city councillors, forced a strike on 30,000 inside and outside city workers (including ambulance, parks and recreation, child care, water, welfare, and garbage collection workers). How? By trying to jam over 110 pages of labour concessions down their throats. The proposed take-aways included attacks on seniority rights, limits on transfer and promotion rights, a freeze on cost of living increases, a two-tier wage structure, and an end to banking sick days.

Over 70 per cent of the work force, represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 79 and 416, are women. The average annual income for city workers is $40,000. None have severance pay. Most of them do not enjoy compensation at retirement for unused sick days — the hot button issue that was disingenuously used to portray the municipal workers as ‘privileged’.

The result of the strike, which ended on July 31 after 40 days, is a 6 per cent raise over three years, one more designated holiday, wage protection for any workers moved to a lower-rated position, pay for rest breaks missed (in courts, children’s services and homes), improved vision care, and a long-term phase-out of the banked sick time (current full-time staff can continue to accrue sick days, or cash them in now, or have their sick days frozen, to draw upon as needed, with a buyout at normal termination; no sick days banking for new hires, who gain a short-term disability plan).

In other words, CUPE members withstood most of the city’s take-away demands, and traded off a concession for some small gains. It was a political defeat for Miller and his ‘progressive’ coalition which alienated both Labour and the hard right wing. Could this fiasco, and the suffering inflicted on city workers and residents, have been avoided?

Toronto, like almost every other city, province and central government in the capitalist world, is suffering a financial crisis. Toronto’s chronic under-funding malaise was not born yesterday. Massive cuts in transfer payments to the provinces by Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, were deepened and accelerated by the Chretien/Martin Liberals in the 1990s with the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). Then the provinces off-loaded to their cities responsibility for infrastructure costs associated with airports, water, sewage, mass transportation, police, welfare, and more – but without the money or tax tools required to cope with it all. So, cities had a huge expenditure problem. And they faced a choice: mobilize residents to fight the changes, or just comply with the neo-liberal corporate agenda.

How did Toronto politicians respond? They cut services, like street cleaning and snow removal, and limited public access to swimming pools, arenas, community centers, and libraries. They reduced water testing and park upgrades.

It gets worse. City Council implemented a range of regressive, consumption-based flat taxes on all citizens, while at the same time reducing commercial property taxes, undervaluing business land assessments and providing major grants and financial assistance to business.

One of the flat taxes Miller instituted, under the provisions of the new City of Toronto Act 2006, is the Municipal Land Transfer Tax, which ranges from 0.5 per cent to 2 per cent of each sale price. Another is the Personal Vehicle Ownership Tax, a registration fee, on top of the already-existing provincial registration fee.

The city gave generous property tax breaks to big business. These include subsidies, tax incentives and/or deferrals for costly environmental clean-ups, such as for empty industrial lands (‘brown-field remediation’), as well as tax incremental equivalent grants (TIEGs), which involve rebates and minimal property taxes for major commercial developers. Such tax give-aways cost the city billions of dollars in lost revenue. Meanwhile small homeowners and tenants face steeply rising taxes, rents and fees, and public services continue to deteriorate.

The Toronto Board of Trade lobbies the city to contract-out more city services and work, and to privatize capital assets like Toronto Hydro, Enwave and the Toronto Parking Authority (worth over $60 billion). But private services end up costing consumers more, and a one-time cash injection from an asset sale doesn’t solve an ongoing under-funding crisis.

So the city turned to cutting its wage bill. It imposed an annual zero, 1 and 1 per cent raise on its non-union staff, and sought to limit unionized municipal workers to a similar increase, and to curtail their benefits to boot. City councillors take home over $99,000 a year. They gave themselves a 2.4 per cent raise, and negotiated (or approved arbitrated) yearly increases of 3 per cent for police, firefighters, public housing, port and parking authority workers.

Did David Miller target CUPE members to win brownie points with the provincial Liberals? Perhaps he has an eye on an Ontario cabinet position. Or perhaps this is just an inescapable consequence of his alliance with, and dependence upon, large corporate and financial interests.

Regardless, Miller’s ‘progressive coalition’ of New Democrats and Liberals is following in the footsteps of ‘third way’ governments led by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Bob Rae. It tries to make workers pay for the crises of capitalism that we did not cause. Moreover, Toronto city bosses are taking advantage of the current economic depression to weaken unions and further lower the standard of living of all working people.

Miller’s Liberal-NDP coalition was backed by the Toronto and District Labour Council at the 2007 municipal election. This is what you get when Labour subordinates its organization and interests to a capitalist coalition. While the NDP has committed many crimes when it held the reigns of government on its own, the party can be held accountable by its Labour and popular base when the latter are organized to fight for a Workers’ Agenda. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, is accountable only to Bay Street.

For that reason it is crucial that working people break the NDP councillors from the Miller regime at Toronto City Hall, oppose an NDP alliance with any capitalist party, and fight for NDP governments committed to socialist policies at all levels. That is the perspective needed, combined with mass action, including sympathy strikes, in support of workers resisting concessions. That’s how to defend Labour’s gains and to make Capital pay for the crisis it created. -Barry Weisleder