Union endorsements for Toronto mayor highlight need for stronger labour politics

PV Labour Bureau 

The race to replace John Tory as Mayor of Toronto has revealed some key challenges facing the city’s labour movement.

Ahead of any official announcement from the Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC), former city councillor turned mayoral hopeful Ana Bailão picked up endorsements from several union locals including UNITE HERE Local 75, Carpenters Local 27, Labourers’ International (LIUNA) Local 183 and CUPE Locals 416 and 79. Bailão, who is widely associated with the Liberal Party, is one of a handful of candidates the labour council actively vetted for endorsement. That list included longtime NDPer Olivia Chow, who many assumed would be the obvious labour pick.

Typically, local unions wait until the TYRLC is further along in its own vetting process before announcing their endorsements. Affiliates aren’t bound by the labour council’s decision, but they often wait out of respect for the collective process. The decision by some locals to not follow the usual endorsement process has frustrated some TYRLC affiliates – CUPE Ontario’s Fred Hahn told media he was disappointed that some locals “have decided to jump the gun.”

In fact, the rush by some locals to endorse Bailão appears to have stymied the entire labour council process, with the latest indication being that TYRLC will not endorse any of the mayoral candidates.

It’s a sad situation for the largest city – and largest labour council – in the country, particularly when working-class struggles are heating up. As working people face soaring living costs, declining real wages, increasingly precarious work, a deepening housing crisis and governments at the Toronto and Ontario level that are devoted to promoting corporate interests above all else, this is a key moment for labour to step up and lead a political fight for workers’ interests.

The frustration at TYRLC is echoed among individual unions. Within CUPE Local 79, for example, a group of members has launched an online petition demanding the union rescind the Bailão endorsement, which they say was made by the local leadership without consulting members.

So, why are sections of the labour movement endorsing her?

Bailão has been previously endorsed by TYRLC for councillor, and some of the unions supporting her now claim to have had positive experiences with her. Carpenter’s and LIUNA know her well from her roles as deputy mayor and chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, through which she developed plans which engaged many of the city’s building trades unions, albeit within parameters friendly to housing developers. Further, UNITE HERE has ties to Bailão through her endorsement of their FairBNB campaign, which advocated for tighter rules around short term rental services like AirBnB that threaten the traditional hotel industry.

But these instances pale in comparison to the bulk of Bailão’s record. She voted to contract out city garbage collection service, a controversial move which saw some 300 jobs from CUPE 416, one of her endorsing unions, disappear and opened the door for further privatization of city services. She also voted against better rent control and adding shelter beds, and for budget cuts for social housing and the violent clearances of people from encampments. She supported cuts to transit routes and increases to transit fares.

As councillor, Ana Bailão was no great friend to unions – voting with John Tory more than 90 percent of the time, she was far more often aligned to the priorities of Bay Street than those of labour.

Developers are certainly excited about Bailão’s prospects. Her campaign recently announced a $2500 a plate fundraiser with the city’s largest developers. This welcoming disposition towards developer funds is nothing new to Bailão – just after her “retirement” from council in 2022 she landed a job with Dream, one of the city’s largest developers with over $23 billion in assets across North America and Europe.

Of course, many workers rely on large developers landing big contracts, to provide jobs and incomes. And certainly, unions representing those workers have an interest in maintaining and expanding those employment opportunities. But there is a big difference between protecting workers’ interests in the political arena, versus cozying up to business-friendly candidates in the hope that they might be more open to awarding contracts to developers who play ball with unions.

In no small part, the backdrop here is framed by the new “strong mayor” powers handed to the mayor by Doug Ford’s Conservative government. Among other things, these powers allow the mayor to override the democratically elected city council by vetoing its decisions or passing bylaws with the support of just one-third of councillors.

Following John Tory’s resignation, TYRLC stated that the mayoral byelection was “our chance to stop the steady stream of right-wing mayors who, for more than 12 years,” and called for a mayor who “deeply values the lived experiences and inputs of working people, including respect for unions [and] who will respect our democracy and who will renounce “strong mayor” powers.” Olivia Chow has publicly stated that she will not use these powers, while Ana Bailão has told media that she intends to use them.

Democracy, economics and social policy all intersect in this byelection. This is why it is so critical that the union movement – through labour council – undertake a coherent, principled, progressive and united campaign on behalf of working people. Labour needs to set its own bar and push candidates to measure up, rather than adapting its policies to mirror those of the candidate most likely to win. Labour politics need to be focused on what is best for working people, not on what is “least worst.”

The election is June 26, which still leaves time for labour to intervene effectively. But it needs to move quickly. Even though some of the larger unions in the city have broken ranks, labour council can take concrete steps to engage and mobilize its affiliates and working people in a campaign for the most progressive candidate and policies. In fact, a strong, militant campaign based on independent labour policies is the best way to bring all unions into the united action necessary to win gains for working people. It’s also the best way to identify and promote a strong, labour-oriented mayoral candidate.

There is no shortage of policies around which Toronto and York Region Labour Council can organize with its affiliates, ahead of June 26:

Real action on the housing crisis

  • Expand and improve city-owned social housing by building new rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units and repairing existing ones.
  • Provide sufficient and safe shelters for unhoused people and stop encampment evictions.
  • Push the provincial government to roll back rental costs to 20 percent of income, implement real rent controls and scrap vacancy decontrol.
  • Expand and improve transitional, supportive and long-term housing to women and children fleeing domestic abuse.

Expand public transit and eliminate fares

  • Restore bus and streetcar routes that have been cut or reduced and add new ones.
  • Eliminate all fares and ensure that all public transit and stations are fully accessible.
  • Oppose all privatization, including P3’s
  • Increase staffing, including restoring guards on subway cars

Create and expand public sector jobs and services

  • Reverse the privatization of waste collection and other city services, and the outsourcing of jobs.
  • Expand public and non-profit childcare spaces and centres, through the $10-a-day childcare plan, and fight for free childcare.
  • Create needed new spaces at city owned Long-Term Care homes.
  • Renovate and upgrade public infrastructure including making all public buildings and services fully accessible and environmentally sensitive.
  • Maintain roads and sidewalks throughout the city.

Real police reform

  • Reduce the police budget and demilitarize police units.
  • Expand programs that de-task police from mental health crisis calls and create community-led crisis response teams.
  • Establish strong civilian control over the police through a completely independent civilian agency with powers to fire, hire and discipline, that is publicly accountable and transparent.

Defend and strengthen local democracy

  • Renounce the “strong mayor” powers which undermine local democracy and the public accountability of an elected city council.
  • Press to entrench the rights and status of municipalities and school boards in the constitution, so that they cannot be created, dissolved or altered at the whim of the provincial government.
  • Fight for City Council and the public to be able to determine the size of city wards and the number of elected councillors.

Press for a new financial deal for the city

  • Call on the provincial government to adequately fund municipalities through needs-based grants or by providing wealth-taxing powers to cities.
  • Fight to reduce property taxes by 50 percent, including by removing the $2.2 billion education levy and by uploading the costs for transit, public health, housing and social assistance.
  • Eliminate all development fees, which are passed on to tenants and home buyers in the form of higher rents and prices.

[Photo of Ana Bailão: UNITE HERE]

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