OFL convention – lots of sizzle, but workers are waiting for the steak

Ontario Labour Bureau  

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention on November 20-24 marked a period of transition and tension in the province’s labour movement, with a new leadership elected and workers looking for a fighting federation to champion their struggle against post-pandemic austerity and corporate pushbacks.

The convention was the culmination of the OFL’s “Enough is Enough” campaign, launched in January 2023, which served as the guidepost for the “Vision Statement” and Action Plan that delegates debated. While the campaign’s policy and action demands have been well received by affiliate unions, presenting strong positions on critical issues for workers and nominally included the buildup to a general strike, Enough is Enough suffered from a lack of mobilization and action. With a continued preoccupation on an election-focused strategy, the OFL and the affiliates didn’t back up the campaign’s strong demands with the necessary organizing infrastructure, resourcing and engagement at the community level. This meant that it really only had one action, on June 3, which drew a modest 20,000 into the streets across the province.

At the same time, though, militancy and action are increasing quite dramatically among the labour grassroots across the province and the country. This year has seen an explosion of rejected tentative agreements and strikes, as working people clearly tell bosses, and sometimes union leaderships, that they are fed up and are prepared to fight for more in the way of wages, pensions and working conditions.

Of course, this trend is uneven. But even in those cases where union leadership is retreating from the necessary militancy – for example, the move by OSSTF leadership to trade away the strike weapon in favour of binding arbitration – there is a growing and organized pushback from sections of the members.

This contradiction – between a labour leadership that is dominated by right-wing social democratic politics, and a union membership which is pushed to the brink and in desperate need of strong leadership committed to class struggle – was the backdrop to the convention, with debates reminiscent of those at the 1995 convention which initiated the Ontario Days of Action. This was evident on the convention floor itself, with increasingly restless delegates bucking against the stage-managed agenda as the week wore on.

Thankfully, the convention was able to come together on some crucial questions, including opposing the genocide in Palestine, despite right-wing agitation from the floor.

New leadership coronated early

The convention elected a new leadership on its second day. CUPE’s Laura Walton and Jackie Taylor of USW were acclaimed as president and executive vice-president while Ahmad Gaied from UFCW, the only member of the outgoing executive to seek reelection, easily won back his seat as secretary-treasurer.

Running as “Team Ignite,” Walton, Taylor and Gaied ran on the energy of last fall’s strike by 55,000 Ontario education workers, which was led by Walton. The new leadership made strong statements about renewed worker militancy and talked about the power of the strike, but they did not propose actions that would build a mass struggle of working people and their allies. More problematic is the fact that the convention itself – filled with a host of panels, keynote addresses, special guests and community awards – did not provide delegates with anything close to sufficient time for the necessary discussion and debate about how to move labour into action.

The key question is whether or not the new leadership will turn the list of demands in the Vision Statement and the Action Plan into real, escalating action. The good news is that these documents maintain the strong list of demands found in the original Enough is Enough campaign – these include raising wages, rolling back price on basic necessities like food and rent, and fighting privatization. Additionally, the Vision Statement speaks out against regressive policies and taxation, which would add more pain for the working class, and highlights the importance of building the fight against the surging far-right. With the right resources behind it, this would be a strong platform for the new executive to carry out – and one which Ontario workers desperately need.

Convention delegates crave action

Like several recent labour conventions, this one seemed designed to avoid having delegates discuss the resolutions and Action Plan. There is a desperate need to adjust the convention agenda to prioritize those items, which are key, rather than clumsily fitting them in around various “sideshows” which take up most of the day. Only about 50 percent of the resolutions came to the floor, and without sufficient time to deal with them properly.

Several delegates were frustrated at the resolutions committee for not prioritizing resolutions that had the sharpest action proposals or commitments of money and other resources from the OFL and affiliates to key campaigns such as the Ontario Health Coalition and housing. Even after repeated requests from delegates, the bulk of these resolutions did not come to the floor.

Part of the explanation for this (apparently, although this was not communicated to the convention floor) is that the OFL doesn’t allow the convention to direct the executive on expenditures. But this is a problematic practice which virtually ensures that delegates – who are overwhelmingly the grassroots membership of the labour movement – have no collective say in what the federation’s priorities should be when it comes to money and resources. In fact, they can’t even discuss those matters in the convention, because the resolutions are stripped of the monetary proposals.

This situation boiled over when one delegate rose in opposition to the order of the day saying, “Later today, we’ll be having a discussion in the Action Plan about healthcare, and during the resolutions debate a discussion on housing. I’m curious to know why the resolutions committee has yet to bring forward two resolutions which directly commit resources and direction to the executive on how we should carry out campaigns [for housing and public healthcare], and I’m eager to get them to the floor.”

The intervention clearly resonated with those on the floor, with another delegate challenging the resolutions committee to bring the healthcare resolution to the floor by shouting the resolution’s reference number between each of their presentations. After being called out of order by the chair, the delegate rose on a point of privilege to explain why it was so important the OFL fight for public healthcare, to thunderous applause.

The resolutions which did hit the floor – and this has been the case for many conventions – were notably thin on content which would have sparked serious political discussion. While they often covered important topics for labour – rights for oppressed groups, health and safety, housing and other issues – they were often broadly focused and politically neutered, with nearly all passing unanimously without much discussion.

As the need for decisive action from the labour movement has grown, delegates are understandably frustrated with agendas which distract them from the most important work of the convention: political debate, policy development and action, as opposed to simple affirmations of labour’s values. For the OFL to be revived as a fighting federation, the rules which govern conventions need updating so that their focus returns to the important business which delegates are there to conduct.

For example, it is truly incredible that the convention paid so little attention to the wage issue, and the loss of real wages to inflation, when that is so obviously what workers are most concerned about and most willing to fight back on. Unlike other provinces – most notably in Quebec, where the Common Front unites four unions representing 420,000 public sector workers into a joint fight for significant wage increases – Ontario has no coordinated campaign on wages. Instead, individual unions seem to do whatever crosses their minds and fits their specific purposes.

It is not up to the OFL to bargain wages or coordinate bargaining, but it certainly can and should campaign in a way that makes it easier for unions – and non-union workers – to achieve higher wages. Surely, that should be the federation’s top job at the moment. And yet, the convention didn’t tackle it.

Labour’s ongoing debate about the NDP

One debate which the convention could not avoid was the ongoing one about labour’s relationship to the NDP.

This time, the issue was raised by an OPSEU delegate who introduced an Action Plan amendment that would commit the OFL to unconditional support of the Ontario NDP during elections, condemn “strategic voting,” and strongly encourage affiliates to do the same.

The argument for this amendment was that the NDP’s electoral (and policy) weakness is the result of an unsupportive labour movement, whereas uncritical support would realign the NDP with labour and allow a strengthened party to win electoral power and roll back the conservative agenda.

While this view had strong support from a large section of the floor which remains well entrenched in a social democratic electoralist vision, it was countered to some extent by delegates and even some unions who are frustrated by the NDP’s timid and opportunistic positions. This criticism was pushed a step further by the Hamilton District Labour Council (HDLC), which introduced an emergency resolution to “pause” the OFL’s affiliation with the Ontario NDP until party leader Marit Stiles reversed her ouster of Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama for her statements in solidarity with Palestine. (Stiles was conspicuously absent from the convention.)

While the convention voted to not entertain the HDLC’s emergency resolution, delegates were embroiled in another chapter of a debate which has remained unchanged at least since the Days of Action in the late 1990s. Namely, whether labour should provide unconditional and full-throated support to the NDP or exercise a version of “independent political activity” that never seems to move past strategic voting.

And therein lies the problem with this particular debate. While it is presented as a “for or against” stance on the NDP, it is really just an argument conducted by two factions of social democracy who have differing strategic orientations towards labour’s relationship to the NDP itself. The really important question isn’t a shallow one about who loves the NDP more, but a deeper one about how the labour movement should organize and fight for a political agenda that benefits the entire working class.

Resurgent Action Caucus works for a revived left

The narrow debate on the NDP illuminated the positions of the Action Caucus, whose resurgence was certainly one of the high points of this convention. The caucus, which has worked for decades to unite labour around class struggle positions and actions, weighed in on the NDP issue by pointing to the importance of labour’s independent political action. In particular, they argued that the labour movement needs to speak in its own voice, set its own political bar, and challenge parties including the NDP to meet it.

This is especially important now, when a provincial election is still 3 years away. While electing progressive labour candidates is important, the struggle against the Conservative government 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. Working people and the labour movement cannot afford to wait either.

Delegates told PV that the Action Caucus held meetings ahead of the convention and convened regularly at the convention itself. Meetings typically involved over a dozen delegates from several different unions, and over three times that number participated in the caucus’s chat group during the convention.

The challenge for the Action Caucus now is to build on its work at the OFL convention and continue to organize the genuine left in the labour movement. By mobilizing at the local level, the caucus will be in a position to help working people push for a fighting labour movement between now and the next convention in 2025, at which point it will hopefully be able to support strong progressive candidates for OFL leadership.

[Photo: OFL]

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