Four ways workers can revive a fighting OFL

PV Labour Bureau  

In November 1995, some 2000 workers gathered at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention, and they made history.

The backdrop, like today, was a hard-right provincial government that was intent on attacking labour rights, underfunding and privatizing public services and institutions, rolling back equality gains and trampling on Indigenous rights – in short, doing whatever it could to steamroll working people and transfer tremendous wealth to its corporate friends.

The OFL convention that year was a tense one. Many workers on the floor had already begun to move into action against the Mike Harris Tories, and they expected the federation to step up to help lead an escalating resistance. But the leadership lagged behind the militancy of the grassroots. Furthermore, bitter divisions had emerged among several unions over their relationship with the provincial NDP, following the Bob Rae government’s “social contract” legislation.

So, when the OFL executive failed to reflect the fighting spirit of the floor, tabling a tepid action plan that included just a single one-day protest against the government, delegates stood up and took charge of their federation.

The outcome was impressive – on a resolution from CUPW, the convention amended the action plan to dedicate the OFL to organizing a series of city-by-city shutdown strikes and protests, leading up to a province-wide general strike. Proposals to focus on “voting the Tories out of office in the next election” were literally booed off the stage.

Thus launched the historic Ontario Days of Action. Beginning with a shutdown and protest by 10,000 people in London, the campaign grew and spread quickly to communities across Ontario. The Hamilton Day of Action drew over 100,000 people, and the campaign culminated in the Metro Toronto Days of Action which shut down the country’s largest city and put over 250,000 into the streets.

While the convention’s target of a province-wide shutdown never materialized – the Days of Action were scuttled before then by the right-wing social democratic OFL leadership, which insisted that labour’s attention needed to be turned to “re-electing the NDP” – the campaign was a huge leap forward for independent labour political action, labour-community solidarity, and the working-class movement as a whole.

The 1995 OFL convention and the Days of Action set the bar for a fighting labour movement in Ontario.

It’s a bar that delegates to this year’s convention can meet and surpass. Working people in Ontario are in motion, but they need the OFL to fully enter the fray – they need a coordinated, escalating province-wide struggle that is led by labour.

Here are four concrete ways that convention delegates can revive a fighting federation:

  1. United, active solidarity with the strike movement.

Faced with soaring living costs and after decades of corporate and government takebacks, workers in both the private and public sectors are saying enough is enough. They’re challenging their bosses – and sometimes their union leaderships – to deliver strong contracts with big wage gains and cost-of-living allowances, job security, defined-benefit pensions that provide livable retirement incomes, and an end to two-tiering schemes downgrade wages and benefits for newer workers.

Workers are increasingly using the strike weapon in this fight, and the OFL can help build an active, united solidarity movement. This includes supporting workers in unions that are outside the federation, like Unifor and Teamsters. A rising tide lifts all boats – an injury to one is an injury to all!

  1. Deepen labour’s fight for healthcare and housing

Doug Ford has made it abundantly clear that health and housing are key sectors where he wants to increase corporate profiteering. But these are also areas in which the labour movement has worked with strong movements to defend and expand social programs and institutions.

The Ontario Health Coalition has consistently mobilized people across the province to oppose healthcare privatization, including through this summer’s community-run referendum in which over 400,000 people voted against privatization. The OFL and a number of unions have long supported the coalition, but this needs to increase quickly if we are to fight off Ford’s agenda. The federation could substantially boost its funding to the OHC, encourage other unions to likewise, facilitate more unions becoming involved with the coalition, and work to more deeply engage the grassroots in the fight to defend healthcare and to expand it to include pharmacare, dental, vision, mental health and long-term care.

Similarly, the labour movement has strong policies on housing and a long history of support for tenants’ movements and housing organizations. But the crisis has become so serious that more needs to be done. In 2018, the OFL convention passed a resolution calling for a massive housing program to build publicly owned and socially provided affordable units, as well as rent rollbacks and rent controls so that nobody is compelled to spend more than 20 percent of household income on housing. It’s high time to activate that resolution, by working with labour councils to build a locally based, province-wide campaign that can unite unions, tenants, anti-poverty groups and community organizations.

  1. Build the struggle against militarism and war

The bloody siege of Gaza has sparked massive protests in communities across Canada and around the world. Many unions and other labour bodies have issued strong statements calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to Canadian political and military support to Israel, even in the face of fierce attack from right-wing groups which equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Opposing this siege, and war and militarism in general, is a key part of the working-class struggle for peace, justice and international solidarity. So long as huge proportions of government budgets are spent on arms, working people will be left scrambling over the scraps to fund jobs, pensions and health, education and social programs. If NATO and its allies including Canada are allowed to continue their global aggression, including through developing and spreading nuclear weapons, we will soon not have a planet capable of sustaining life.

The OFL convention can issue a strong condemnation of the siege of Gaza, call for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces, and call on the Canadian government to halt its diplomatic and material support for Israel. The federation can also support blockades of plants that send weapons to Israel.

The OFL and affiliated unions need to join and build the peace movement, engaging union members in the fight to cut the military budget and reallocate funding toward people’s needs and climate justice.

  1. Adopt an action plan that builds toward a province-wide strike

Just as at the 1995 convention, working people across the province need and want delegates to adopt an action plan that includes an escalating campaign of resistance to the Conservative government, building toward province-wide action and including the political strike weapon.

There will be tremendous pressure on the convention to turn its attention to the next provincial election and commit unconditional support to the NDP. While electing progressive labour candidates is important, the struggle must be built now. Doug Ford is not waiting until 2026 to privatize healthcare, decimate public and post-secondary education, roll back labour rights, deepen inequality, and shift billions of dollars from working people to the coffers of corporations and the very rich. Labour cannot afford to wait either.

The OFL’s “Enough is Enough” campaign is positive in that it involves labour leading with its own demands like raising wages, stopping privatization, lowering prices and rents, and making the banks and corporations pay. But what has been missing is an escalating action plan and a foundation based on labour-community solidarity.

Working people in Ontario need this convention to lead and build the fightback – through independent labour political action, labour-community solidarity, support for local grassroots fightback committees, and by uniting in struggle with all unions including Unifor and the Teamsters.

To do this, the labour movement needs leadership – beginning with the OFL leadership – that is willing to fight and to take mass independent labour political action to do it. It needs a leadership able to unite the movement in struggle for labour’s policies, and to link the labour and people’s movements in the fight for jobs, for public services and social programs and for peace and reallocation of war spending for people’s and climate needs.

This convention is a chance for delegates to revive a fighting OFL – working people demand nothing less.

Photo: Hamilton Day of Action, when 100,000 people shut down the city, Feb 1996

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