Soon after the 2018 Ontario provincial election, still giddy after the NDP’s “breakthrough” to take Official Opposition status, the labour movement did exactly what it should not have done – it sat on its hands.
Rather than engage and mobilize working people against Doug Ford’s right-wing majority government – as labour in Alberta did following Jason Kenney’s 2019 victory – most trade unions in Ontario opted to wait for the next election. The OFL even put a clock on its website to count down the days until “a progressive government” arrived, an event apparently ordained for June 2, 2022.
In the four years since, the labour leadership has squandered many good opportunities to build active and escalating resistance to what is generally acknowledged to be one of the most right-wing governments in Ontario’s history. Despite Ford’s immediate attacks on working people (cancelling the $15 minimum wage and introducing wage cap legislation for over one million broader public sector workers) and efforts by some labour bodies to mobilize against these attacks, the OFL did not organize any notable action until February 2020 – when their online countdown clocked had already ticked away for over 20 months.
In the process, the labour leadership essentially handed free rein to Ford, and he ran with it. With the notable exception of the struggle in education in late 2019 and early 2020, the Conservatives have largely been able to set the parameters of public discourse so tightly that most criticisms of them have not stuck.
The results of this “head in the sand” approach are now bitterly clear – Ford comfortably led election polls throughout the campaign and, perversely, was even able to posture as “working for workers.” The Conservatives received endorsements from a number of unions in the building trades and, prior to the election, enjoyed a joint press conference with then Unifor president Jerry Dias and then OPSEU president Warren “Smokey” Thomas.
Those endorsements and photo ops are certainly not the fault of the OFL which, to its credit, has maintained a detailed public tally of Ford’s anti-worker, anti-environment and anti-democratic record. However, as the province’s trade union centre the OFL must accept that such weaknesses are a logical outcome of its strategy of avoiding an escalating campaign of mass resistance, preferring instead to wait for the NDP to win.
Gains for working people have never been “gifts” from labour-friendly governments; they are won and defended through class struggle. Without a doubt, class struggle includes the parliamentary arena – but it can never be limited to those confines. To sit back and wait for a friendly government is to watch as capitalism turns the clock back on progress.
A tough lesson, but also a predictable one, which applies across the country. The real question is whether labour has learned its lesson and will lead a mass, escalating resistance over the next four years and beyond.
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