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Harris to Hudak: back to the future?

Michelle Robidoux

May 22, 2014

Listening to Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak promise to decimate public sector jobs and services brings to mind an earlier Conservative regime under Mike Harris. 
Anyone who lived under that regime will hear the echo of Harris' punishing cuts and brutal attacks on working class living standards in Hudak's platform. But what is often not as well remembered are the similarities in arguments that raged before the 1995 election about the betrayals of the NDP, strategic voting and the nature of the anger that fueled Harris accession to power. With the high degree of confusion in this current election, retracing some of the arguments from 20 years ago may provide useful insights for us today.
On June 8, 1995, Harris' Conservatives won a majority at Queen's Park and immediately set out to implement their platform, the 'Common Sense Revolution'. Welfare was slashed by 21.6 per cent. Provincial income tax was cut by 30 per cent. Regulations were slashed and water testing was privatized, leading to the Walkerton disaster. Thousands of public sector jobs were cut, hospitals were closed, teachers came under attack, thousands of nurses were laid off and services downloaded to municipalities. Indigenous activist Dudley George was murdered by the OPP after Harris instructed them to clear Ipperwash Provincial Park. Demonstrators and striking public sector workers were attacked by police on numerous demonstrations. A period of brutal austerity had begun.
How were the Conservatives able to win a majority after plainly advertising most of what they intended to do to Ontario?
Harris claimed that getting Ontario's economy "back on track" meant cutting the province's $11 billion deficit at any cost. This deficit cutting, he claimed, would provide impetus for job creation. This spoke to many workers hurting from job losses across the province.
But very importantly, Bob Rae's NDP government had opened the door to this austerity logic. Ontario in the 1990s was in the grips of a harsh recession. Rae demanded $2 billion in wage cuts within the civil service, eventually leading to a forced twelve days of unpaid leave for all civil service workers, including teachers and nurses. This misnamed "Social Contract" also re-opened collective agreements of all public sector unions, and froze the wages of all public sector workers. If as NDP implied, working people were responsible for the deficit and high taxes, then why vote for the party that would deal with the "problem" reluctantly and half-heartedly? Why not vote for the real Tories who promised to get the job done with conviction? Anger at the Social Contract contributed to driving the NDP from a majority government to third party status in 1995, to the benefit of Harris' Tories. 
The NDP's betrayal of support for same-sex spousal benefits also angered many who vowed never again to support the party. This betrayal of the NDP base and the threat of Harris winning divided the labour movement. While some unions unconditionally and uncritically supported the NDP (including Steelworkers, UFCW and CEP), other unions called for "strategic voting" (voting for Liberals where they could beat the Tories), as well as for abstaining in the election altogether. The unions that called for a vote for the NDP did so on a basis that pretended like there was nothing wrong with imposing austerity on public sector workers. Down the road the lead to union leaders stating that Rae days are better than layoffs (as if these were the only two options!).

At the CUPE Ontario division convention just prior to the 1995 election, then-President Sid Ryan and guest speaker Buzz Hargrove from CAW said that workers should abstain in the election. This provided a convenient cover to both leaders for their own failings. Sid Ryan did not have to explain why he didn't call strike action during the Social Contract. Buzz Hargrove didn't have to explain his terrible role in sabotaging a strike at Dehavilland the summer before. In spite of this, CAW locals at Dehavilland and in Guelph called for a vote for the NDP. As Socialist Worker argued at the time, "Workers should beware of tough-talking leaders who "talk left" when nothing is on the line but drop the ball when action is called for."

Both of those choices allowed the trade union officials to cover for the lack of their own leadership in key fighting workplace battles. The issue with an employer opening collective agreements and attacking conditions should be a no-brainer for any trade union. But the lack of an independent relationship to the NDP, especially in power, meant a punishing fratricidal battle that still affects Ontario’s labour movement today. Had the labour leadership responded in a united way to Rae’s imposition of austerity with workplace struggle against these policies, the outcome of the 1995 election could have been very different. And it probably isn’t a stretch to say we would be in a better position to fight austerity today.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Conservative leader Tim Hudak vows to cut both corporate taxes (slashing government revenues) and the deficit. Declining revenues will "create a crisis" along the lines that Harris did in education. This will set the stage for a ferocious attack on already threadbare social services. As well, Hudak has put forward a series of proposals designed to weaken unions' ability to organize and defend workers. His model is the right-to-work policies of Michigan but more importantly, the anti-union policies of Wisconsin.
Some economists predict that the combination of Hudak's cuts to jobs and corporate taxes will spin Ontario into a recession. But he is still getting a hearing for his fictional 'million jobs plan', even though it couldn't be more fantastical. There is nothing supporting Hudak’s claims that slashing 100,000 public sector jobs as well as corporate tax cuts will lead to private sector jobs growth. But that doesn’t stop him from rolling out his “million jobs” banner at every photo-op.
If the evidence supporting his claims is so flimsy, why is he still getting any hearing at all? Déjà-vu all over again. The Liberals presided over a brutal period of job losses. From 2008 to 2009, 390,000 jobs were lost in Canada, 206,000 in Ontario alone. Many of these were good manufacturing jobs. The Liberals led the charge against Ontario’s teachers, taking away their right to collective bargaining. They threw away billions of public funds for short-term political gain (gas plants), and stank up the place with corruption and cronyism.
This should be a ready-made opportunity for the NDP to make gains if they had even the most minimal programme of reforms to tackle the pressing issues facing working people and the poor in this province. Yet in this election, the Liberals appear to the left of the NDP, and the NDP has worked hard to campaign on the right. In the months leading up to the election call, the NDP would not support the very popular campaign for the $14 minimum wage. In fact, the party was completely silent on the issue, as thousands of workers mobilized across the province to demand change from Kathleen Wynne. Last year, when teachers were battling the Liberal government, Horwath sat out a mass rally against Wynne's attacks on teachers, seemingly fearing that the "taint" of support for labour would damage her electoral chances.

Even Horwath's current slogan "Makes Sense" harkens back to one of the worst eras for working people in Ontario, Mike Harris' "Common sense revolution." Horwath is bizarrely targetting small business and Conservative voters as "growth areas" for the NDP vote. This is a disaster for workers and will only encourage "strategic voting" strategies calling for a vote for Liberals, the other boss’ party

So this is a confusing picture, to say the least. How do we make sense of what is happening? Why is the NDP so right-wing? What can we do to stop Hudak and his Tea-Party policies?
Understandably, many people who had hoped that the NDP would stand up for workers’ rights in the current election have felt disgusted at the vacuous, dumbed-down policies put forward by Horwath. A $100 rebate on Hydro cannot begin to address the real hurt that decades of neoliberalism have inflicted on workers. For the Liberals to be campaigning to the left of the NDP gives a new meaning to the slogan "vote NDP without illusions."
This is part of a pattern of social democracy embracing neoliberal policies. Around the world, parties similar to the NDP have bought into these policies wholesale, agreeing that workers must pay for the crisis of the system. Disillusionment and anger are understandable in the face of this, and can play a key role in propelling action demanding a real alternative to the Tories and Liberals’ austerity policies. But in electoral terms, the notion of punishing the NDP at the polls is mistaken. Neither abstention nor "strategic voting" will deliver punishment for Horwath, nor will they protect from Hudak.

The only option for progressives in this election is a vote for the NDP – not because it will provide the change we are looking for, but as basic expression of workers’ confidence to organize separately from the bosses. No matter how little progressive content appears in Horwath’s election platform, the reality on the ground is that key progressive activists across the province will be pulling the vote and organizing to defeat Hudak and Wynne.
The unions which have already ceded to "strategic voting" have moved a step further away from any notion of workers organizing themselves to fight. There is nothing progressive about capitulating to the argument that the Liberals and NDP are now somehow the same. From the point of view of both the base of the party, and its connection to the trade-union bureaucracy, the NDP is not at all like the Liberal party.

But as important, the unions that are uncritically backing Horwath are out of touch with a swath of their members who face employers demanding huge concessions, and who are angry that the NDP is content to campaign on issues with no substantial impact on their lives.

In the electoral arena, the only option at the moment for workers is to vote NDP – not as uncritical support for Horwath’s platform, but because the NDP is still the only party that embodies a connection with the organized working class. If the NDP is trounced in the June 12th election, it is Bay Street and the corporate elite who will feel emboldened. And that will have a negative effect on the confidence of activists and union members to fight.
But whatever the results of the election, the key political question remains struggle. Struggle holds the key to pressuring the NDP to fight, to pushing Hudak and his Tea-Party agenda back, and to building the confidence of ordinary people to do what is necessary to stop the decimation of jobs, services and the environment. The 1,400 strong demonstration against Line 9 on May 10th is a good example. The call for an Environmental assessment of Line 9 must be part of the all-candidates discussions across the province. 

No matter what party forms the next government, building unity in struggle – between workers, Indigenous peoples, environmentalists and social justice activists – will determine what those at the top are able to get away with. There isn’t a moment to spare in building that type of fightback. The last time an Ontario government tried to implement such brutal measures, 11 one-day, one-city general strikes were the response. We have been through so much since those struggles – from anticapitalist mobilizations to the anti-war movement to Occupy and Idle No More – these struggles hold the key to fighting back and to producing a fighting alternative to the NDP’s enragingly low horizons.
If you like this article, join the discussion "Harris to Hudak: lessons in the fight against austerity", June 1 at 5:30pm at the Steelworker Hall, 25 Cecil St, Toronto.
And register for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include "After the election: taking on the anti-union threat in Ontario and Quebec", "Rebuilding our unions: a rank and file strategy", and "The NDP and the crisis of social democracy."

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