Organized labour’s confused response to the McGuinty Liberals’ attack on Ontario’s working-class
By Ajamu Nangwaya and Alex Diceanu
Organized labour in Ontario will continue to put forth a weak and ineffective response to attacks from the ruling class as long as it continues to ignore the reality of class struggle. A perfect example is its current response to a proposed two-year wage-freeze that the Dalton McGuinty-led Ontario government plans on imposing on unionized public sector workers. The provincial Liberals would like to save $750 million per year from a wage-freeze, so as to help manage the $19.3 billion budget deficit. Readers need not be reminded that this deficit is the result of the risky financial speculations of the captains of finance, industry and commerce that created the Great Recession of 2008.
But it is the 710,000 unionized members of the working class and 350,000 non-unionized managers and other employees who draw pay cheques from the government and the users of state-provided services (and private sector workers) who are being asked to bear the burden of paying for the actions of the corporate sector. At the same time as this attempt to take income from the pockets of government workers, the McGuinty Liberals’ have granted a $4.6 billion tax-cut to the business sector.
The leader of the Ontario New Democrats, Andrea Howarth, has signaled her support for public sector workers’ acceptance of a pay cut. She asserts, “I’m quite sure when they get to the bargaining table they will do their part like everyone else does … there is a collective bargaining process that has to be respected.” Wow! Who said that the working-class needs enemies with “friends” like the New Democratic Party (NDP) and its leader Andrea Horwarth?
However, it is the tame and even puzzling reaction of some of Ontario’s major labour leaders that should be of concern to workers in the public sector. The government called labour leaders and employers from the broader public sector to “consultation” talks on the wage freeze on July 19, 2010. Coming out of the talks, this was what CUPE-Ontario president Fred Hahn had to say, “This is not like the early ’90s, this is not about sharing the pain. That’s all just not true”. He was referring to former NDP premier Bob Rae’s unilateral opening of public sector workers’ contracts and the imposition of public sector wage-cuts accompanied by tax increases for the corporate sector. Was Brother Hahn implying that a wage-freeze would be tolerable, if accompanied by the cancelation of the $4.6 billion corporate tax-cut?
No credible union or union leader should contemplate a zero-wage increase over two years – even if the government rescinds the $4.6 billion tax-cut. There should not have been a tax-cut for the capitalist class. Restoring the tax should not be used as a bargaining chip to escape a wage-freeze on public sector workers.
Not to be outdone was the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, Warren (Smokey) Thomas. We will leave it to you to decipher the implicit message in the following statement by Smokey Thomas. “Just because he [Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan] wants something doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. It’s not a social contract. He can propose (a wage-freeze) but he has to bargain it. He can’t legislate it. He’ll lose.” Is it just us or does that sound like a labour leader who is not really in a fighting spirit and just wants to make a deal?
A simple matter of misguided policy?
However, the critical issue for Ontario’s public sector workers is the extent to which many of our labour leaders seem to be completely unaware of the state and employers’ motives for disciplining labour through wage concessions. Ismael Hossein-zaded of Drake University made the following observation, which is quite applicable to the posturing of labour leaders in Ontario:
Viewing the savage class war of the ruling kleptocracy on the people’s living and working conditions simply as “bad” policy, and hoping to somehow—presumably through smart arguments and sage advice—replace it with the “good” Keynesian policy of deficit spending without a fight, without grassroots‟ involvement and/or pressure, stems from the rather naïve supposition that policy making is a simple matter of technical expertise or the benevolence of policy makers, that is, a matter of choice. The presumed choice is said to be between only two alternatives: between the stimulus or Keynesian deficit spending, on the one hand, and the Neoliberal austerity of cutting social spending, on the other.5
Based on some of the statements coming from labour leaders, they may not have gotten the memo that the attack on the working-class (through the slashing of social programme spending, attacks on private sector pensions and wage freezes) is not about good or bad economic policies. Hossein-Zedad must have been inspired to write his paper after reading the following Keynesian-inspired comment by Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan; “From a policy perspective, it makes no economic sense whatsoever. You’ve got a government saying we need to stimulate the economy. The best way of stimulating the economy is through public-sector workers who spend every single penny of their disposable income in their local communities,” But it’s not about the economy, per se. It’s the class struggle, stupid!
Canada’s economic and political elite have clearly given up the ghost of Keynesian economics, which calls on government to either stimulate or restrict the demand for goods and services based on the state of the economy. In the case of the 2008 crisis in capitalism, these neoliberal players felt forced by the magnitude of the impending financial collapse to pump money into the economy. A not-too-insignificant fact was lost on many observers and commentators who gleefully cheered on the capitalist class’ “Road-to-Damascus” moment. The capitalist state in Canada and other imperialist countries will do everything within their power to maintain a business environment that facilitates the accumulation of capital or profit-making, as well as legitimize the system in the eyes of the people. That is all in a day’s work for the state…no surprise here for class conscious trade unionists and other activists!
We ought to note that the recent crisis in the economy caught organized labour off-guard and ill-prepared to mobilize the working-class against that monumental failure of capitalism. For decades, Western corporations and governments have been force-feeding the public a steady diet of tax-cuts. Lower taxes on businesses, high-income earners and the wealthy, the widespread slashing of social services and income support programmes, a massive reduction in state oversight and regulation of corporations and the enactment of anti-union policies and legislation have been the all rage since corproations and Western governments abandoned their class-collaborationist pact with organized labour in the 1970s. Yet at the very moment when capitalism experienced a crisis of confidence resulting from a set of policies that had been hailed as perfect ingredients for economic and social progress, organized labour was caught with its pants down. Its leaders didn’t have a class struggle alternative to Keynesian economics – an economic tendency that was never intended to be used as a tool to end wage slavery and the minority rule of bankers, industrialists and the managerial and political elite.
Presently, the labour movement is ideologically and operationally ill-prepared to effectively face down the two-year wage-freeze demand from the McGuinty Liberals. Unfortunately, labour’s leaders have, in the main, focused on narrow economic demands rather than seeking to politically develop union activists and their broader membership behind a class struggle labour movement platform. Union members have been politically deskilled and demobilized in favour of a social service model of trade unionism. These labour leaders have failed to use their unions’ courses, workshops, week-long schools, publications and other educational resources to educate members of the fact that they are a part of a distinct class with economic and political interests that are different from that of the rulers of capitalist society.
Even the most casual of observers understand that organized labour’s raison d’être is to champion the material concerns of the working-class. And yet, ideologically-speaking, most labour leaders in Canada have cast their lot in with capitalism – albeit a more Scandinavian version. This is why a coherent critique of capitalism is notably absent from most union-organized workshops and events. It should therefore not come as a surprise that many union members have swallowed the employers and politicians’ message that Canada is a largely middle-class country and that our collective aspiration should be to remain a member of this class. If the labour leaders, academics and the media say that the majority of Canadians are a part of the middle-class, it must be so. The development of a working-class consciousness becomes very difficult (but not impossible) in this kind of political environment.
The great majority of Canadians are members of the working-class. They sell their labour, exercise little to no control over how their work-life is organized, have no say over how the profit from their labour is distributed and are so alienated from work that the aphorism “Thank god it’s Friday” has its own acronym. One should never define middle-class status as one’s ability to purchase consumer trinkets, live in a mortgaged home or even own a summer cottage. Middle-class status ought to be defined by one’s exercise of power and control and/or the possession of high levels of human capital found among administrative/managerial elites in the private and public sectors, academic elites and independent professionals.
Labour’s Credibility Crisis
The narrow economic obsession of labour leaders was on plain display when Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan revealed the March 2010 Budget. When it became known that the McGuinty Liberals would be seeking a two-year wage-freeze from public sector workers, this news was all that consumed the attention of most labour leaders. Many labour functionaries scrambled around in search of external and internal legal opinions, requesting briefs from senior staff on the impact of a wage-freeze on bargaining in specific sectors and sending out correspondence to members assuring them to “just act as if nothing had happened”, because they’re “already covered by a collective agreement”. Many labour union offices’ and unionized workplaces’ anxiety was centred entirely on the desired wage-freeze by the McGuinty Liberals. Nothing else!
But today we hear labour leaders talking about keeping money in workers’ pockets to stimulate the economy and that their primary concern is maintaining public services at adequate levels. Why didn’t organized labour deploy its resources to educate and mobilize the public against the $4.6 billion corporate tax-cuts, slashing of $4 billion in transportation infrastructure spending from Metrolinx’s $9.3 billion budget7] and the scrapping of the special diet allowance that benefitted over 160,000 members of the working-class for the unprincely sum of $250 million per annum and a mere monthly average of $130 per person? The provincial government anticipates that the two-year wage-freeze across the public sector will net a savings of $1.5 billion – yet the previous $8.6 billion effectively stolen from the working class failed to push organized labour into action.
The leaders of organized labour did not have the imagination to energize their members and the broader citizenry in alliance with other social movement organizations over the Budget. They could have exposed the class priorities of the McGuinty Liberals. The government’s main concerns clearly have nothing to do with those of us who are poor, live from pay cheque to pay cheque and do not patronize the golf courses where McGuinty and his friends hang out when they are not screwing the public. Listen up public sector labour leaders: the people will not be fooled by your claims to be advocating for the general interest. The broader working-class just have to simply see where you direct the labour movement’s resources and they will clue into the issues that are being prioritized. Take a look at the poor, working-class and/or racialized areas that are likely to be affected by the $4 billion cut to Metrolinx’s budget:
…the austerity moves could affect five planned projects: rapid transit lines for Finch Ave. W., Sheppard Ave. E. and the Scarborough RT, along with the Eglinton Ave. cross-town line and an expansion of York region’s Viva service.
Are we to believe that a class-struggle and anti-oppression informed public education, organizing and mobilization campaign in defense of public services, the social wage and a livable wage would not have had some level of traction with the people of Ontario?
An alternative economic plan or a different labour movement?
In some quarters of the trade union sector, there are talks of presenting an alternative plan to the slash-and-burn neoliberal policies of the provincial government. But, the presentation of Keynesian economic proposals by labour leaders is useless in a climate where the ruling class doesn’t feel threatened by a politically mobilized population, especially without “compelling grassroots pressure on policy makers”. We implied earlier that labour unions have a credibility gap with the broader public if they now assert a desire to “broaden the debate, educate community members and local politicians with a view to engaging in actions that protect public services and build strong communities” as outlined by one union. What would be the purpose of the alternative plans of these labour leaders? The status quo of the 1930s to the 1960s that gave rise to the welfare state is not a transformative option.
There is no such thing as a “contextless” context. Where is the necessary political environment that would force the state to make concessions to the working-class out of fear that they maybe inclined to embrace revolutionary options? When some labour leaders are loosely talking about coming up with an alternative (Keynesian economic plan?) stimulus proposal, they would do well to understand the political implications of the following statement:
Keynesian economists seem to be unmindful of this fundamental relationship between economics and politics. Instead, they view economic policies as the outcome of the battle of ideas, not of class forces or interests. And herein lies one of the principal weaknesses of their argument: viewing the Keynesian/New Deal/Social Democratic reforms of the 1930s through the 1960s as the product of Keynes’ or F.D.R.’s genius, or the goodness of their hearts; not of the compelling pressure exerted by the revolutionary movements of that period on the national policy makers to “implement reform in order to prevent revolution,” as F.D.R. famously put it. This explains why economic policy makers of today are not listening to Keynesian arguments—powerful and elegant as they are—because there would be no Keynesian, New Deal, or Social-Democratic economics without revolutionary pressure from the people.
However, when labour leaders shy away from speaking openly about class-struggle and the nature of our economic system, we have a serious problem. It means that they are not in a position to facilitate a class-struggle, democracy-from-below and self-organizing form of trade unionism.
In order fight this attack on the working-class of Ontario, the labour movements’ rank-and-file activists, progressive leaders and principled labour socialists must engage in shop-floor education, organizing and mobilizing that is centred on a class-struggle, anti-racist and anti-oppression campaign. This approach to labour activism must be done in alliance with progressive or radical social movement organizations among women, racialized peoples, indigenous peoples, youth, students, LGBT community, climate/environmental justice, independent and revolutionary labour organizations, anti-authoritarian formations, and radical intellectuals. It must be an alliance based on mutual respect, sharing of approaches to emancipation and resources and a commitment to the value that the oppressed are the architect of and the driving force behind the movement for their emancipation. It is essential that organized labour open up and transform its leadership and decision-making structures to accommodate the full inclusion of its membership, in all their diversity.
In most of our unions and locals, this means starting from the beginning and we can use this current crisis to take those first steps. There is a lot of frustration among union members and community activists over the inaction of labour’s leadership in the face of this attack – and a desire to do something about it. That frustration and desire can be channeled into building cross-union “fight back committees” that bring together trade union and community activists in a city or town, such as members of the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly have already begun to do in that city. The “fight back committees” can give us a capacity to act independently from organized labour’s leadership. And probably our first acts should be to organize general assemblies in our locals and town hall meetings in our communities to promote a working-class view of the economic crisis and to mobilize our fellow workers and neighbours around militant, grassroots resistance to the McGuinty government and all the forces promoting a new round of austerity for the working-class.
Nothing less than a self-organizing, class-struggle approach to trade unionism will put labour in a position to fight in the here-and-now, while building the road we must travel on our way to the classless and stateless society of the future.
Alex Diceanu is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3906 and a graduate student at McMaster University. Ajamu Nangwaya is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Locals 3907 and 3902 and a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Both authors are members of the Ontario anarchist organization, Common Cause.
 Walkom, T. (2010, March 26). Liberals aim at easy targets. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/ontariobudget/article/785616–walkom…
 Brennan, R. J. & Talaga, T. (2010, March 26) Hudak cut wages deeper. Toronto Star. Retrieved fromhttp://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/ontariobudget/article/785343–hudak-cut-wages-deeper
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 Benzie, July 20
 Hossein-zaded, I. (2010, July 23-25). Holes in the Keynesian Arguments against Neoliberal Austerity Policy—Not “Bad” Policy, But Class Policy. Retrieved from http://www.counterpunch.org/zadeh07232010.html
 Benzie, July 20.
 Hume, C. (2010, March 29). Transit still not a priority. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/ttc/article/787317–transit-still-not-a-…
 The Canadian Press. (2010 April 1). Ontario asked to restore special diet allowance. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2010/04/01/diet-allowance.html
9] Goddard, J., Rider, D. & Kalinoski, (2010, March 26). Miller outraged as budget sideswiped GTA transit. Toronto Star. Retrieved fromhttp://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/785573–miller-outraged-as-budget-sideswipes-gta-transit
 Hossein-zaded, I, Holes in the Keynesian arguments against neoliberal austerity policy.