by Sam Cheadle
Over 800 labour activists from across the province responded to the call of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) on March 25 to attend a “Take Back Ontario Conference” at the Metro Convention Center, just a few blocks from the Toronto Stock Exchange. The event was billed as a discussion to initiate a coordinated fightback against the Conservative Doug Ford government. But it was not a decision-making body — more like a public forum. Since Ford’s election last June labour and activist groups like Socialist Action have been calling for an emergency OFL convention where elected delegates could set policies and make plans for a general strike. With the “Progressive” Conservatives holding a majority of seats in the Legislature, many on the left emphasized that we cannot afford to wait until the next election to challenge this government directly. It is imperative that labour make the province ungovernable and thwart the hard-neoliberal austerity agenda, before irreparable damage is done. SA members Julius Arscott and Barry Weisleder spoke early from floor mics to argue for escalating actions towards a general strike to oust the Tories. Many folks applauded. To deflect this sentiment, former UNIFOR staffer and current OFL President Chris Buckley asked “Can we mobilize 100,000 people tomorrow in Ontario to fight the Ford government?” But isn’t this the wrong question? What we need to know is: How do we prepare to mobilize 100,000 people? Sending activists back to their communities, to have tea with their neighbours, is not going to reverse the Ford agenda. An effective response from labour is needed. It is time to draw a line in the sand, to unequivocally state that the movement will defend every union local and every public service from further privatization and theft. That means when Ford tells teachers “don’t even think about strike action”, the response should be “See you on the picket line!” It means when a PC politician’s office is messed up, don’t make sappy apologies; double down and denounce the violence inherent in taking over $3 billion in wages away from Ontario workers when the planned $1/hour increase in the minimum wage was cancelled just before Christmas. It also means putting resources into community groups to engage in direct actions, not telling rank and file activists to go build the movement, while the labour brass thinks about getting on board. The labour leadership has been putting the rank and file to sleep for the past 30 years. Now witness the full consequences of that.
What are some highlights of the conference? Injured workers issues were discussed, the idea of an OFL rapid response network was promoted, and one speaker, migrants’ rights activist Preethy Sivakumar laid out some stunning truths that are not often aired in official union gatherings. She spoke about the connections between racism and inequality, how right wing political leaders use racism to divide the working class and maintain economic equality, and how union members are not immune to these types of narratives. She maintained the number one job of unions is to “eliminate competition between workers and lift the floor for everyone.” Massive support was pledged for a health care rally on April 30 at Queens Park. Attacks on the construction unions were analyzed. Again, for effective actions to come from these discussions we need uncompromising leadership. Organizers of the April 30 rally should look to shut down Queen’s Park and fan out from the lawn, stop traffic, push aside the barriers, and take over the front steps. Who knows, workers might decide to address the legislature. Union leaders representing members in the construction trades who tacitly supported Ford during the June 2018 election need to be replaced.
The OFL conference was followed by an evening “Stewards Assembly” convened by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, with attendees seated by electoral district. While it was interesting to connect with local area activists, the assembly severely limited cross-city input (there were no mics on the floor). By the end of the evening the mood of disappointment was palpable. Chris Buckley gave another tiresome speech, dolling out a few contradictory and self-serving phrases. After the event organizers released a statement that accurately reported the “massive turnout for yesterday’s Stewards Assembly spoke volumes about the appetite to get organized and build solidarity.” But the nearly one thousand rank and file activists in the room received little more than platitudes. Exceptional was a speech by author Linda McQuaig and some short videos featuring rank and file activists who are battling austerity within their workplaces.
Nonetheless, the small opening offered by the labour bureaucracy should be seized. Resolutions passed in community and labour groups that call for mass action are needed. Support striking workers. Defy back to work legislation. Confront and shut down alt-right and white supremacist groups where they appear. Occupy spaces that are under threat from the Thug Ford government. The slogan of ‘educate, agitate, organize’ must take on a more radical meaning, and come to life, to spark mass resistance and force an entrenched labour bureaucracy to join us on the street as we confront the major assault on the working class in Ontario that is taking shape at breakneck speed.