by Julius Arscott *
The Ontario Federation of Labour convention, held in Toronto, November 20 -24, saw several large affiliates that withheld dues for four years rejoin the House of Labour in Canada’s most populous province. The dues strike by OPSEU, SEIU and ONA, actuated by a factional battle between conservative union bureaucrats and the progressive past president of the OFL, Sid Ryan, crippled the federation, forcing it to sell its headquarters building. The right wing coup replaced CUPE’s Ryan with UNIFOR’s Chris Buckley.
Many workplace and equity issues were discussed at the convention, but the OFL brass exerted every effort to keep ‘divisive’ issues off the floor. Several resolutions submitted in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli apartheid state, as well as for the eco-socialist LEAP Manifesto, were buried at the back of the resolutions book. Convention guest speakers included former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, current ONDP leader Andrea Horwath, and Black Lives Matter activist Desmond Cole.
The legislation that broke the community college teachers’ strike, passed in the Ontario Legislature on the eve of the convention, hung over the proceedings like a foul cloak. The teachers’ battle against precarious work and for workplace democracy evoked great admiration and support, tinged by bitterness at the outcome. Outrageously, at a march of a few hundred of the 1,100 delegates led by Buckley to Queens Park there was no mention of the strikebreaking legislation; only praise for the labour law reform Bill 148. Important gains in the form of better union organizing rules, and a rise to a $15/hour minimum wage by 2019, cannot justify turning a blind eye to Liberal government strike breaking and the lasting blow it deals to collective bargaining.
Try as it did, the OFL leadership was unable to prevent a debate on a motion to endorse the union-based New Democratic Party in the next provincial election. The amendment to the official Action Plan carried, but was challenged the very next day. The challenge, orchestrated by the pro-Liberal right wing, and ironically backed by supporters of the Communist Party, was soundly defeated, bucking the trend of so-called ‘strategic voting’, a not so modern version of Samuel Gompers’ “reward your friends, punish your enemies” brand of labour opportunism. The weakening of the party of the unions only fostered illusions in the Liberal side of Bay Street, and served to reinforce the austerity agenda of the state. The role of socialists and labour militants within the NDP is not to be cheerleaders, but to fight for the interests of the working class against capitalism and its labour lieutenants.
A CUPE rank and file activist, Barry Conway, ran for OFL President against Chris Buckley, on an stridently anti-austerity and anti-fascist platform. Conway gained a respectable 18% of the ballots cast despite the lack of an organized effort. It was a sign of a growing rejection of status quo unionism in Ontario.
At a lunch break, the leftist Workers Action Movement hosted a well attended public forum titled “How to Fight Austerity – lessons from the College faculty strike”. Guest speakers came from the college academic division, as well as from UNIFOR and Latin America. During the entire convention, Socialist Action sold dozens of copies of its press, and staffed a well stocked literature table which attracted interested delegates from across the labour movement.
An emergency resolution, reaffirming organized labour’s right to collectively bargain and strike, was passed on the last day of the convention. Mike Palecek, President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, said that labour should be prepared to defy anti-worker legislation and build the general strike which is needed to defeat the bosses’ strikebreaking, austerity agenda.
* Julius Arscott, a member of the Executive Board of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, was a delegate to the OFL Convention.