PV Ontario Bureau

 Reprising the role of Scrooge, but without the charming ending, Doug Ford’s Conservatives ended 2018 with one final “Humbug” to Ontario workers, legislating energy workers back to work three weeks before they had even started to strike.

On December 13, 6000 members of the Power Workers Union rejected a contract offer from Ontario Power Generation, and the next day PWU issued notice of a 21-day countdown to a strike. Immediately, the government met in special session and, within four days, passed pre-emptive back to work legislation that suspended the workers’ right to strike. Bill 67 was a stunning attack not only on labour’s right to strike, but also to bargain; the earliest a strike would have occurred was January 4, 2019, leaving at least three full weeks to achieve a negotiated contract.

The legislation also refers all outstanding issues to arbitration, with the stipulation that the settlement reflects a comparison between the PWU members and their counterparts in the private sector. A broad comparison between the average wages of a power plant operator at OPG and those in the largely privatized US energy industry suggests that private sector power workers are paid less than two-thirds of what their OPG counterparts make. OPG is a highly profitable Crown corporation, whose net income in the third quarter of 2018 alone was $283 million, double that of the preceding year. The arbitration criteria regarding wage comparisons will undoubtedly help to pad that bottom line further and make the publicly-owned institution more attractive to privatization. Ford is overwhelmingly committed to privatization, and Bill 67 directly serves those interests.

The attack on the Power Workers is the latest example of Doug Ford’s rapid-fire neoliberal austerity agenda for Ontario. In a mere six months, his government has unleashed a widespread assault with the intention of clearing a social, economic and political path for increased corporate access, profit and power. The breadth of these attacks affects the incomes, working and living conditions, and social and economic rights of millions of working people – employed and unemployed, organized and unorganized, from young workers to retirees.

Faced with these kinds of threats – to labour rights, to public services and institutions, to racial and gender equality, to Indigenous people, to the environment – working class people expect to see a big fightback movement building in Ontario.

There have been several impressive moments of spontaneous struggle, evidence of a high degree of opposition and capacity to mobilize. But there have been very few steps taken to develop the unity, organization and militancy necessary to confront and defeat Ford’s government and the neoliberal austerity agenda behind it. While Doug Ford channels Ebenezer Scrooge, the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour plays the Ghost of Fightbacks Past, shuffling along silently and more inclined to focus on the 2022 provincial election than lead a resistance to current attacks.

Clearly, 2019 needs to be a Year of Resistance in Ontario. The question is, how do we get there?

Ontario Communist Party leader Dave McKee notes that well before the Ford government, there was ample evidence of a fighting mood among Ontario workers. “We saw the OPSEU college faculty strike, CUPE’s fights at public libraries and Children’s Aid Societies across the province, USW’s ongoing struggle against the liquidation of Canada’s steel industry, UNITE-HERE’s strikes for a $15 minimum wage at campus food services, and Unifor’s strike at CAMI to protect jobs and wages in the face of NAFTA. We saw strikes at Carleton and York Universities, the latter being the longest university strike in Canadian history, the defiance of teachers’ union who refuse to stop teaching a progressive sex education curriculum, the Unifor workers who blockaded the Goderich salt mine against scabs during their 11-week strike at Compass Minerals, and the community members who reinforced that blockade when the company got an injunction against the union.”

In the late 1990s, the speed and breadth of the Mike Harris government’s attacks led to spontaneous and mass mobilization. This spontaneity was a key factor in rapidly building up fightback structures that organized the single-day general strikes and protests of the Ontario Days of Action.

In some instances, these grassroots efforts pulled the provincial leadership into action, which McKee says demonstrates the capacity of class struggle positions to win over the majority.

“So, building local community-labour solidarity is really critical. If we can forge dynamic, engaging fightback committees at the local level, and then connect them provincially, it projects the militancy, audacity and tactical creativity needed to unite and engage the entire labour movement in a militant and dynamic class struggle. The important lesson from the Harris years is that spontaneous resistance and opposition needs to become organized if it is to be sustained and developed. That’s the way we can make a difference in 2019.”

 (The above article is from the January 1-31, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)