Toronto blocked the right at the ballot box – now labour has to fight for real gains for working people

PV Toronto Bureau 

Progressives across Toronto cheered when Olivia Chow won the mayoral byelection on June 26. The former city councillor and NDP MP was elected with 37 percent of the total votes.

Chow’s victory ended up being closer than expected, largely as a result of late endorsements her main opponent, Ana Bailão, received from former mayor John Tory, the Toronto Star newspaper and other high-profile supporters. These endorsements represented a panicked coalescence of right-wing forces desperate to hold onto power and maintain the status quo. But, buoyed by a surprisingly high voter turnout (higher even than the 2022 election just last fall), Chow sailed to victory and bested Bailão by over 30,000 votes.

The challenge now for labour and progressive forces across the city is to ensure that Chow’s electoral victory delivers gains for working people. Her platform was mostly focused on rolling back cuts implemented by Toronto mayors over the last two decades, particularly the recent cuts implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, she has pledged to reverse cuts to the TTC and restore transit service to pre-pandemic levels, reopen libraries to ensure seven-day access to their services. She has also indicated that she will address the housing crisis by building 25,000 rent-controlled homes, introducing anti-renoviction bylaws, reviewing and strengthening existing policies and programs for renters, and pressing the provincial government to implement real rent control.

However, while it is a welcome turn from the right-wing policies of John Tory, Chow’s program is not enough to address the urgent needs of Torontonians or to reverse the death spiral the city has been in since the post-amalgamation period began.

For example, while her pledge to build 25,000 housing units is a good start, this still falls short of filling Toronto’s current 80,000 unit wait list for social housing. This gap will no doubt widen during the lengthy eight-year construction timeline. And that’s if the housing gets built at all. The city’s 2019 “Housing First” plan aimed to build 10,000 new homes on city-owned lands, with a paltry 20 percent being “affordable,” but has yet to build a single home.

If Chow can carry through with her plan, there would still be a deficit of around 45,000 homes desperately needed to address the housing crisis. Moreover, Housing First and Chow’s CreateTO plan share a common weakness: most of the housing will never be affordable. Both plans only set aside 25 percent or less of their stock to be affordable housing, and only 10 percent of CreateTO’s projects will be rent-geared-to-income (RGI). According to the City, “affordable housing” is housing that is at or below 80 percent of market rent, meaning that a one-bedroom unit deemed “affordable” in today’s Toronto would still cost $2000 a month. For that unit to represent 25-30 percent of a renter’s income – a common ratio advocated by financial planners and the city’s own RGI percentage – a worker would need earn between $80,000-$100,000 per year, hardly the average wage in Toronto.

It will be a challenge for the labour and progressive movement to make sure that Chow sticks to the promises she made, let alone to improve on them. Part of the problem is that the right-wing and centre-right still dominate City Hall and are strongly supported by the policies of Doug Ford’s provincial government. While electing a left-leaning mayor was critical, it by no means secures a centre-left majority. Chow will have to win over key centre-right votes on council, which will bring pressure on her to capitulate to capital rather than dealing with the needs of the working people who saw her elected.

Only a strong mobilization by working people, around a strong labour-based municipal program that is committed to real progressive change, can force the new mayor and the centre-left on council to resist the coming push from the right and implement reforms that put people before profit.

The propensity of social democrats to drift to the right is readily apparent in the NDP’s experience with provincial government. From Bob Rae’s “social contract” cuts in Ontario, to the anti-environmentalism and submission to oil monopolies in BC and Alberta, social democratic governments have tended to hang workers out to dry.

The same trend can be observed in municipal politics. During his mayoralty, particularly in his second term, David Miller advocated for more than half a billion dollars in cuts to city services which desperately needed funding increases. At the same time, he pushed the provincial government to enact back-to-work legislation against striking transit workers in 2008 (which it did) and in 2009 failed to quickly reach a deal with city workers, which led to another strike. These actions buoyed the electoral prospects of the right wing and directly contributed to Rob Ford’s mayoral victory in 2010. Or look at Andrea Horwath, former leader of the ONDP and now Hamilton mayor, who voted against living wages for city hall staff – in direct contradiction to what she had campaigned on provincially less than a year prior.

As always, right-wing and corporate forces will press City Council and try to force Chow to abandon working people in favour of capital’s agenda for Toronto. In fact, the attacks have already begun, with media across the country reporting on a general state of lawlessness in Toronto, which they attribute to Chow.

The people’s movements, and especially labour, must not simply sit on their hands and wait for Chow to act on their behalf. To do so would simply ensure eventual capitulation to the right. Instead, the left and progressives must seize this opportunity to push for a genuine alternative for working people in the city. We must be a backstop against a rightward drift, but we must also be a force pushing for more.

Labour can look to its own history, including campaigns like the Days of Action against the Mike Harris Conservatives in the 1990’s, and prepare for the fight that is coming. Chow’s election provides an important opening, but success is by no means guaranteed – labour, as always, must mobilize to set the political bar and press her (and council) to meet it. By setting our sights on a true victory for working people, we can deal a blow to corporate power in the city.

[Photo: Twitter @oliviachow]

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