PV Labour Bureau
The Ontario Federation of Labour launched its Enough is Enough campaign on January 28, with about 400 labour activists from across the province participating in the online event.
Armed with a set of policy demands that generally speak to working people’s most immediate and pressing economic and social concerns, the campaign has the capacity to mobilize millions of people – unionized and non-unionized, public and private sector.
The question, then, is how to use that broad basis of unity to engage workers in a dynamic, escalating campaign capable of defeating the Ford government’s neoliberal austerity agenda and winning progressive reforms.
Many lessons can be drawn from labour’s history of struggle, including the massive provincial mobilizations during the Days of Action against the Conservative government of Mike Harris.
Like the Enough is Enough campaign, the Days of Action were organized under the auspices of the Ontario Federation of Labour. And, also like now, unions had to commit and work to overcome differences and divisions with the labour movement – then, the main division was between the “Pink Paper Unions” and the public sector unions and CAW, and now it involves the labour movement within the CLC/OFL house and those outside (Unifor and Teamsters).
In the 1990s, the Days of Action campaign was built on active unity between labour and community organizations at the local level. This community-labour solidarity was coordinated into coalitions and a provincial network. Throughout the Ontario, labour councils worked with community social justice coalitions to mobilize support and participation in scores of resistance actions in throughout the province.
This combination of local grassroots organizing and provincial networking proved an important vehicle for escalating the resistance. On the one hand, it ensured the success of the individual rotating Days of Action – for example, when the first one was organized in London, Ontario in December 1995, several dozen busloads of protesters arrived from communities throughout Ontario to bolster the shutdown and rally by 10,000 local workers and residents.
At the same time, through these solidarity actions in support of local Days of Action, working people and their organizations gained experience that was necessary for building a solid base of resistance and escalating the struggle. In the process, new committees were formed, new ideas and tactics were identified and tried out, solidarity expanded and people’s resolve to continue the fight deepened.
Local community-labour solidarity organizations were a concrete forum for bringing together public and private sector trade unionists and social justice and community activists. Working locally, they were critical to organizing and sustaining resistance over the long haul.
Without that kind of preparation and coordination from the local to the provincial level, calls to shut down individual communities during Days of Action – and especially Toronto in October 1996 – would have been empty leftist sloganeering, the type we hear all too frequently today.
The trade union movement is critical to building mass resistance. The labour movement is massive and has the ability to fund, organize and sustain a struggle over the long term. But more importantly, labour is unique among social movements in that it is organized at the point production. Unlike any other movement, labour has an inherent capacity to bring protest to the economic level.
But at the same time, the labour movement is not like social justice groups which people join because of a shared political commitment. Trade unions are composed of people who share a workplace or trade and whose focus is their job and working conditions. Unions often need to educate and organize their members for political action, which many see as a secondary consideration.
This is where active community-labour solidarity can help to build resistance. Because of their specific and shared political focus, social and community movements are often (although not always) the first to organize. Actively supporting these efforts helps pave the way for labour to become involved in the struggle in its own name, and to rev up its own engine in order to help lead it forward. This was certainly the case in the 1990s – the earliest actions against the Harris government were launched by anti-poverty groups and the Ontario base of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and these organizations’ connections with labour helped to bring more trade unionists into the fight early on.
The same is true today, with movements like the Ontario Health Coalition, Justice for Workers (formerly Fight for $15 and Fairness) and the ODSP Action Coalition already actively organized on the ground in many communities. Deepening these groups’ already existing ties to the labour movement, by engaging more labour councils and union locals in their campaigns, is an important step.
Undoubtedly, the absence of two large unions – Teamsters and, especially, Unifor – is a factor that weakens the labour movement’s ability to launch and lead a political struggle. That these unions are concentrated in major industries in the private sector means that a significant section of the working class sits outside of the CLC/OFL house of labour.
But divisions within the labour movement are not new, and they have been overcome before. In the early days of the Harris government, the OFL was split between public sector unions and the CAW who withdrew their support for the NDP over the 1993 Social Contract, and twelve major private sector unions (the “Pink Paper Unions”) who fiercely continued their support for the NDP. While the unions all remained within the OFL, the division between them was arguably sharper than any now, with the Pink Paper group often pointedly blaming the public sector unions and CAW for Harris’ election victory.
But the concrete work of building the fight against the Conservatives, whose policies clearly threatened the vast majority of union members, necessitated and facilitated a working unity of the entire labour movement.
The same can and must be achieved now. Certainly, the united front that labour – OFL affiliates or not – used to defeat Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause is something to build upon. A genuine campaign of action to resist austerity and neoliberalism, and to demand policies for people’s needs, offers a realistic and progressive conduit for rebuilding unity. Working people should insist that all unions are included in efforts to build Enough is Enough, including in local committees and the provincial coordination.
Labour’s independent political demands
While its organizational strength was apparent, one of the big weaknesses of the Days of Action was the lack of political direction. Even within the committees organizing the actions, some people argued that the government simply needed to “slow down” while others called for Harris to be brought down before the next provincial election.
This problem was rooted in the lack of a set of political demands. Without policies to act as glue over the long term, the movement never really grew beyond being a protest movement. This meant that it was shockingly easy for opportunists to scuttle the Days of Action after about two years, as focus began to shift away from escalating the protests and toward supporting the NDP in the next election. The prevailing view seemed to be that if the movement didn’t have a political plan heading into an election, it needed to step aside for someone who did.
Looking at that weakness from the 1990s shows the importance of the political demands which Enough is Enough has articulated and placed front and centre. They aren’t perfect – there are areas which could be strengthened – but they do provide a meaningful, progressive and positive basis for a direction forward, around which strong tactics can be developed.
This set of independent labour political demands is an important step forward for the working-class movement in Ontario. It immediately helps develop the resistance from a defensive protest movement into a class-oriented one that can fight for, and win, progressive demands.
It isn’t guaranteed, of course. Workers will need to press their unions to commit to Enough is Enough – with money and organizers, but also by educating and engaging their membership. They will need to determine what the campaign (and the resistance in general) means to their specific workplace, community and industrial sector, and organize actions on that basis. This is perhaps especially true for workers in the private sector, where the neoliberal attacks are often less obviously felt.
The stakes are high, and the situation demands action. The labour leadership has provided the basis for a good campaign – it is now up to the working class to build it.