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Labour’s fight against austerity: lessons from Hudak’s defeat

Pam Johnson

June 21, 2014

Although Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals won a majority in Ontario, the real story of the 2014 election is the sound defeat of Tim Hudak and his hard line platform of attacks on workers, unions and the public services.
Media analysts say this indicates no mood for Hudak ‘tea party’ politics, which was not apparent going into the election with polls showing Hudak in the lead. Hudak’s announcement of the 100,000 public sector job cut near the end of the campaign backfired miserably, and attempts to square these cuts with the creation of a million jobs was a strategic and mathematical blunder. 
Trade union solidarity against Hudak
Hudak missteps were not the only reason that he went down in flames. The other critical element was the role of trade unions that carried a clear and unified Stop Hudak message. Both public and private unions poured resources into a Stop Hudak media campaign and internal messaging to their own members. 
Evidence that this plan was working showed when the PCs lost a by election in February in Niagara to NDPer Wayne Gates, a trade unionist. After this defeat and following internal party strife, Hudak backed away from the "right-to-work" piece of his platform. 
Workers’ rights campaign and rank and file organizing
This broad level of solidarity within the labour movement is unparalleled in recent decades and was key to Hudak’s defeat. But, trade union leaders needed to be pushed by pressure from below. When Hudak’s white paper announcing his intention to attack unions came out nearly two years ago labour leaders failed to respond to the threat. 
But there has been growing concern about attacks on unions in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana--as well as the palpable anger of growing layers of workers against concessions and cuts, and support for the $14 minimum wage campaign.
When the Toronto and York Region Labour Council hosted a mass meeting to put workers’ rights on the agenda, hundreds attended. The approach was a rank and file organizing strategy to raise the issue and to boost union renewal from the bottom up.  Subsequent town hall meetings organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour, other Labour Councils and some union area councils carried the Stop Hudak message and supported the building of rank and file networks. 
This activity, although not massive, was building the pressure. When the election was called and leaders could see a possible Hudak victory, unions produced a flood of videos, TVads and resource, and utilized social media to amplify the message. Hudak was defeated and the effectiveness and solidarity across the labour movement as a whole was duly noted by the media and the defeated PCs.    
NDP and ‘strategic voting’
The downside was support for 'strategic voting' for the Liberals to ensure Hudak’s defeat. Sadly, Horwath, who had been steadily moving right and distancing herself from her trade union base, did not relate to the anger against austerity. 
Horwath’s unwillingness to support the minimum wage campaign, trade unions rights—she was a no show at a 30,00 strong labour rally against Liberal Bill 115, and a populist play for small business votes made her appear to be less progressive than the  Liberals. Anger at Horwath’s rightward shift and fear of Hudak pushed people to the Liberals. 
Wynne’s plan: austerity for public sector workers
Despite Wynne’s tack to the left, a close look at her budget shows that it contains the same austerity measures proposed by Hudak and her predecessor Dalton McGuinty. The centrepiece is an attack on public sector workers and unions--and by extension, to public services.
In her first statements after the election she recommitted to this plan saying there is no money for public sector workers who have had wages and benefits frozen and rolled back for two years already.
Her promise to cut $1.25 billion to balance the budget will mean the loss of 30,000 public sector jobs and the services that go with them. The "austerity speak" about balancing budget puts Wynne in lock-step with the neoliberal agenda that has been thoroughly discredited.  
Keeping up the fight against austerity
But Wynne is getting no honeymoon. A protest against cuts to refugee health four days after the election called out the Liberals for not fulfiling their promise to reinstate cuts. Injured workers who are being harassed and denied benefits are planning actions across the province. 
What was accomplished by rank and file organizing to revitalize union militancy, even on a small scale, in defeating Hudak must continue and developed. This will keep pressure on both the union leadership and the NDP. More importantly it builds the confidence of workers to fight for themselves and to turn their unions into a force to fight for their interests.
Join the discussion "Social democracy: why does it disappoint?", Tuesday JUne 24 at 6pm at OISE (252 Bloor St West, St George subway), room 8201

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