Friday, July 15, 2011

Ontario Austerity, the Days of Action and How Unions Became So Pathetic

There was a time when unions in Canada fought for jobs, pensions and wages like they meant it. And it wasn't so very long ago. Well, it was a while - back in the 1970s, to be exact. Back then Canada had the highest rate of unofficial strikes in the advanced industrial world outside of Italy. The postal workers were probably the most militant or at least were the public face of union militancy - in their strongholds they ran the workplace and if a supervisor tried to suspend a worker, the whole workplace would walk out. Not surprisingly, workers made gains in conditions and living standards. It was the postal workers who won maternity leave and were among the first to win same sex spousal benefits.

The business press, politicians and the right wing hated it. They've spent the last thirty years trying to break the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and while they haven't managed to do so, they have weakened them, as evidenced by the most recent lockout. The Harper Tories simply imposed back to work legislation and a worse deal than management's last offer and threatened fines that would have destroyed the union in a matter of days if they'd been able to collect them. And without broader solidarity to break Harper's will, it's pretty certain that they would have been able to.

And there's the rub. The assault on the most basic union rights have been so internalized and normalized that nobody blinks an eye when the federal government threatens back to work legislation against a couple of thousand call centre and customer service workers at Air Canada - a now private company. This sadly typical level of repression without any significant victory against it by any section of workers has had a profound conservatizing influence on workers generally and, perhaps more importantly, both rank and file leaders and the heads of unions.

There was a moment in the 90s when there was a real chance to shatter the common sense that fightbacks against governments were impossible. That was most typified by the Days of Action movement in Ontario but there were corollaries in both BC, Nova Scotia and in Quebec. In Ontario, after the utter betrayal of working people by the Bob Rae NDP government, which broke open collective agreements, eliminated student grants, backtracked on public auto insurance and even capitulated on a freebie like same sex spousal benefits, the very right wing Mike Harris Tories were elected with a majority government. Their whole strategy was to play upon the demoralization of the population by promising to attack the weakest in society - welfare recipients - and put the boot into the NDPs base - the union movement - that the NDP had already softened up.

However, from the very beginning there were big mobilizations against the Harris Tories. The first ones came from the LGBT community, which had only recently been mobilized to fight against the NDP's betrayal on same sex benefits. Then there were protests by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and, perhaps more significantly, a new coalition called Embarras Harris that mobilized around 12 thousand people to Queen's Park in the fall of 1995 as the provincial parliament was just beginning to sit. That proof that there was a fighting spirit even after a right wing landslide, gave confidence to union activists who, shortly afterwards at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention, voted to launch the Days of Action movement. This was to be a series of one day, one city general strikes, combined with marches to take on the Tories.

This demonstrated the excellent and building momentum and the first general strike in London, Ontario, was a big success despite the incredibly cold day in December, 1995. This was followed up by an even bigger strike and mobilization in Hamilton in February, 1996. There was a real sense of a big social movement everywhere in Toronto. You couldn't walk down the street without seeing people wearing anti-Tory pins, hats and t-shirts. People would nod and acknowledge your opposition to Harris. But if there was an incredible and fast-expanding enthusiasm amongst a growing minority of ordinary people - there was also trouble at the top of the union movement.

Two Sides of The Same Sell-Out

The fight amongst the union leadership was bitter but neither side represented any sort of way forward for the movement. In the private sector, unions like the Steelworkers, UFCW, SEIU and others formed what were known as the pink paper unions - so-called because of a joint paper that they had released that called for a recognition of the reality faced by the NDP during a recession, demanded that austerity from "our" government be accepted, insisted on uncritical support of the NDP and stated that the role of unions was in negotiating contracts, not challenging government policy. For the public sector unions, this was anathema. The NDP had attacked their members. And to not challenge government policy meant surrendering their bargaining rights, which they obviously weren't going to do.

Neither side had any realistic assessment of what the goals for the Days of Action movement ought to be. For the Pink Paper unions, their only interest was in rebuilding support for the recently decimated NDP. The trouble was that the NDP had so thoroughly pissed off every single person in the province it would be - as we've discovered - almost a generation before they could recover even their meagre standing from the 1980s, prior to the coalition government that they formed with the Peterson Liberals. When the stupidity of their idea became apparent to them by the fact that the NDP stayed stuck just this side of the grave, the Pink Papers insisted on calling off the Days of Action. If the working class weren't smart enough to support the party that had just shafted them, then the working class could go to hell. This was most strongly typified by the t-shirt put out by the Steelworkers that was bright yellow and carried the slogan: "Don't blame me, I voted NDP."

The public sector leadership weren't much better. Having totally failed to mobilize their members when the NDP was attacking them, they were now rightly seen by private sector workers as whiners who had very nearly split the union movement over a demand to disaffiliate from the NDP. If they had struck against the NDP's imposition of concession contracts, the public sector could have won solidarity from rank and file workers in the private sector. Not fighting and then calling - effectively - for the destruction of the NDP, without any alternative on offer, was a way to divide the workers' movement, not unite it in a fightback. That passivity was a prologue for their attitude to the Days of Action movement.

Public sector union leaders - and the Canadian Auto Workers - sought to continue the days of action and even to expand it, with support growing amongst some of them for a one day province wide general strike. But to what end? The slogans raised during the whole movement were abstractions: "take back Ontario", "Ontario, yours to recover". There wasn't a single concrete demand raised as a mobilizing cry: "hands off the anti-scab law", "no rollback to welfare rates", "restore university funding", etc. Never. Not one. The simple reason was that for public sector union leaders, the battle for this or that concession wasn't one that was fought on the streets or workplaces. It was negotiated by clever full-time negotiators in the hotel conference rooms. Negotiating is their whole raison d'etre - if workers could win better contracts by their own efforts, what do they need a full-time bureaucracy for? Their vision of the Days of Action movement was that it would demonstrate to the intransigent and contemptuous Tories that union leaders represented a significant constituency that needed to be taken into consideration. After all, that was how things were run in Ontario for decades.

The fundamentally different - but equally ineffective - strategies of the union leaderships meant that while there were ups and downs - most notably the Toronto General Strike, when a quarter million people marched through the city - the general direction was towards fragmentation and demobilization. Private sector unions simply dropped out of the movement and, after Toronto, the Days of Action was taken to smaller and smaller venues. Then it was just unceremoniously wound up.

It's clear now, in retrospect, that this was an enormous defeat for the working class of Ontario, with knock-on effects that still plague the union movement to this day. The unions turned inwards following the DofA, with unions raiding each other's workplaces in growing numbers. The CAW disaffiliated from the NDP and raided SEIU, a Pink Paper union extraordinaire, leading to the CAW being kicked out of the OFL. Ultimately, the CAW has ended up as a conservative union - more conservative than the Steelworkers, their old rivals, ironically - accepting concessions contracts and calling for a vote for the Liberal Party. The OFL has remained an ineffectual body and the tentative alliance between public and private sector has only been maintained by keeping it ineffectual. OFL president Sid Ryan's attempts to inject a modicum of activist spirit into the moribund body has led to a near split and certain unions withholding their dues, leading to layoffs. And, most important, no public sector union in Ontario has staged any generalized fightback against austerity or concessions since the Days of Action. The union leaderships, genetically predisposed to passivity and fatalism, were given all the excuse they needed by the defeat of the biggest movement in a generation or more.

All of which brings us back to today.

Dalton McGuinty is laying off nearly 2,000 jobs and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union - which led an impressive fight against Mike Harris but who were isolated and ultimately defeated - have rolled over. The best that they can do is ask their members to wear pink and put on band-aids that say "cuts hurt". It's pathetic and utterly juvenile.

But even this is better than what is happening in Toronto. Here we know that there is as much hatred of Rob Ford, as much potential to mobilize as there was under Mike Harris. Ford is a lightning rod for disgust and anger. That was visible this spring when a union called demonstration mobilized 10,000 people, the largest demonstration in the city perhaps since the anti-war movement was at its peak in 2003. And what public presence have the unions had since then - sweet fuck all. They touted the fact that city council voted to have public oversight of private bids for garbage collection as though this were some sort of victory. And when it was announced the other day that "voluntary layoff notices" had gone out to all city workers - with Ford and his allies stating that they will resort to involuntary layoffs if not enough workers accept his crappy offer - there was barely a peep from the unions. The librarians held a press conference and that appeared to be it. There has been no public petition or post card campaign, no demonstrations called, no strikes, no pickets. Nothing. It appears that they have given up without a fight.

When I wrote an article for Xray Magazine back in May about garbage privatization, which included a critique of union passivity, a reader criticized me, saying that the unions were doing the hard work of mobilizing and that "people with brains and principles understand that this fight has just begun." I'd like to think that I have a little of both brains and principles but I have yet to see the evidence of any fight beginning, ending or carrying on, now two months since I wrote the original article. The sad and obvious truth is that the union leadership pursued exactly the same strategy with exactly the same perspective as back in 1995-96 - they held a big mobilization whose purpose was to demonstrate that they were important and ought to be talked to, and then they let the momentum dissipate while they focused on depositions and producing publicity materials that had no conclusion in action and weren't read by even their own members. The sad truth is, union leaders still think that there's room for old style union business unions, they can't understand that the choices they face are class struggle or obsolescence. Until they do - or, more likely, until the membership forces them to realize the new reality with the return of wildcat strikes - public sector workers will continue to see their wages, benefits and conditions eroded faster or slower, and their numbers decline through layoffs and attrition.


It’s ‘pink slip day’ for Ontario public sector workers - thestar.com
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