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Taking on the Ford agenda

David Bush

July 14, 2018

The election of a majority PC government led by Ford in Ontario will unleash a new wave of attacks on public services, workers and the oppressed. It will be a familiar picture of austerity for the many and gifts for the rich, but couched in right-wing populist rhetoric of being for the little guy.

Ford’s Throne speech on Thursday stated that “Ontario is open for business” while at the same time making his government “a government for the people”. Ford outlined that the PCs will be “lowering taxes, reducing the regulatory burden, and making life easier for entrepreneurs.” Ford made it clear that they will “reject the old compromises”, “embrace change”, and “not dither and delay” as “no dollar is better spent than the dollar left in the pockets of the taxpayer.”

The labour movement and those on the Left will have to grapple with how best to organize against these attacks in a way that allows us to push our own agenda. This is no simple task.

Ford’s campaign was purposefully vague. After successive election defeats in which the Tories were open about their intentions, Patrick Brown and then Ford, stuck to a strategy of soft pedalling their intentions. On offer were a couple of high profile promises, like reducing gas prices, cutting taxes, ending hallway medicine and reducing hydro rates. This was framed within a political narrative of finding efficiencies in order to make Ontario “open for business” and being a “government for the people.”

To assuage fears that a PC victory would mean massive austerity and job cuts, Ford went so far as to say in the debates that no one will lose their job. The PCs never released a fully costed platform because they knew it would expose their true intentions of squeezing public services in order to give tax breaks and handouts to the rich. While Ford mentioned stopping the $15/hr minimum wage in his leadership bid, he didn’t campaign on this or even mention it in debates--knowing even 40% of Tory voters support the $15/hr minimum wage.

The Tory Agenda

Having formed the new government, their austerity is already underway. After being sworn in the new PC government announced a hiring freeze for the public sector. The freeze in reality is job cuts and austerity in public services through attrition. And there is little doubt Ford aims at stopping at freeze. The government has already scrapped $100 million earmarked for school repairs, and limit OHIP+ coverage for people under 25. Ford also announced the scrapping of the deeply flawed cap and trade program and by extension the green energy fund.

The government opens its summer session with three priorities: to end the strike at York University, to formalize the end of cap and trade and cancel the White Pines Wind Project. But the summer is likely to full of other announcements by the government around capital spending projects and regulation changes, none of which require legislative changes. We can assume any new spending or rule changes announced by the previous Liberal government, like the three percent rise in ODSP/OW rates are dead in the water.

Like all austerity agendas, reducing social programs is intertwined with increasing attacks on oppressed groups. Despite throne speech lip service calls to “move past the politics of division,” Ford has already begun attacking queer, Indigenous and racialized people. He rolled back the sex-ed curriculum 20 years, stripped the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation of a dedicated minister, promised to unleash police from supposedly “onerous restrictions,” blamed the housing crisis on refugees and promised to build a memorial to glorify war. This divide and conquer agenda is part of the Tory attack on the working class as a whole.

Battle over Bill 148

One of the top priorities of the government will be to rollback the new employment standards and labour law reforms implemented in Bill 148. The most vulnerable parts of Bill 148 are the sections of the Bill which are not yet in effect, such as the fair scheduling provision and the $15 minimum wage, which become law on January 1, 2019. The equal pay for equal work provision is also likely to be attacked as they are potentially extremely expensive for employers and have not really been implemented on the ground. It is also possible the government could go after Personal Emergency Leave days, either rolling back the two paid days or trying to limit how they are used like Liberals did with PEL days in the auto sector.

All aspects of Bill 148 relating to unions, such as protections against contract flipping and making it easier to join a union, are on the chopping block. They are difficult to explain to the public and defend in isolation. It is quite possible the government could also attack the building trades. Rules around enforcement and collection of fines are most likely to be weakened as well. The 175 ESO officers that were to be hired by 2021 have already been cut.

This Bill 148 fight will be a priority and how it is conducted may very well set-up the conditions for other struggles. If the government and business can attack workers’ rights with little resistance they will feel confident to expand their austerity agenda. If the Tories move ahead with tax cuts and continue the likely path of running deficits, we should expect more aggressive and deeper cuts across the public sector. There is every reason to believe this will be linked with a privatization strategy targeting hospitals, transit, schools, and the LCBO.

The question remains as to whether Ford’s government launches an aggressive assault on all fronts, or seeks to divide and conquer its opponents in smaller set piece battles.

Harris Redux?

Many on the Left see Ford’s victory as Mike Harris redux. Harris’ medicine for the workers and the poor after his election in 1995 was to initiate massive cuts to social programs, roll back labour rights, and unleash a carnival of reaction. Harris, unlike Ford, won a massive 45 percent of the vote in both 1995 and 1999 by explicitly stating his aims of crushing unions, ripping up social programs, and delivering a big 30 percent income tax cut (that overwhelmingly helped the top 10% income earners). The Harris cuts did not go unchallenged. It is important to understand how workers resisted the Tories, not to just for inspiration, but to also to understand the mechanisms and strategies of building a broad opposition and learn the lessons of why it fell short.

We must also remember it is not just the Left that learns lessons, some of those now occupying top strategic positions in the new Tory government have also learned from their experiences in the Harris and Harper governments.

The Harris years in Ontario were part of a broader trend across the country and the world of neoliberal restructuring that was taking place through the 1980s to the early 2000s. Harris’ attacks on social programs and workers’ rights was about a restructuring of the existing (though limited) welfare state in Canada. The 1990s recession, and the rise of the neoliberal right in U.S. and UK, had opened up the space for both the federal and provincial governments to push through major changes to the welfare state: privatizations of key public assets, transformational cuts to welfare, tax cuts, rewriting employment and labour law, regulation of industry, gutting of most public programs, attacks on public education and employment insurance.

In the 1990s governments in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, as well as the federal Tories and Liberals, all embarked on an extensive remaking of Canadian welfare state in order encourage profits, squash the militancy of workers and align social and economic policy with the economic orthodoxy. In BC, the NDP squeezed the welfare state in the 1990s, with Gordon Campbell’s Liberals elected in 2000 and taking a hatchet to the welfare state.

After the initial cuts and privatizations ushered in at the provincial and federal levels, governments pursuing neoliberal policies to boost profits and encourage economic growth were hamstrung. Deep cuts to social welfare and massive privatizations were no longer possible without drastic attacks to core services that no only would engender massive political struggle, but would probably be self-defeating for capital accumulation.

Harper for instance made some major cuts to institutions like the CBC, attacked women’s organizations and altered rules around EI but these cuts were cosmetic in comparison to what the Liberals did in the 1990s. When faced with the 2008 recession forced Harper to actually engage in some modest deficit spending to avoid a deeper recession.

Ford’s challenges

In our current context it is likely Ford will try to push for big cuts to the public service, privatizations and download services onto municipalities. The massive deficit he is likely to run after pushing through tax cuts will provide an opening to pursue this austerity agenda. But it is far from clear how this will be achieved. Welfare rates in Ontario are already at the bone, having never recovered from Harris’ 22 percent cut in 1995. Hospital cuts and education cuts are major potential political flashpoint. After his announcement of a spending freeze, public furor forced Ford to back track and say it would exclude nurses and teachers. He could do what the Liberals were doing and aim to and use privatizations to hide government deficits.

The choices and circumstances facing the new Ford government are far from straightforward. The economy has been growing for the past number of years at a low clip, but increasingly signs point to global slowdown. It is highly likely Ford will have to deal with some sort of recession. The social and economic policy formulas used in the past to create “good business conditions” like tax cuts, privatizations and cuts to public service are increasingly impotent. On top of that the PC party is an unstable coalition of social conservatives, small-town business owners, rightwing populists and big business Bay street types. When things are going well keeping this motley coalition of the right together is easy, but when faced with economic or political challenges these contradictions within the PC Party and the ruling elite will most undoubtedly emerge.

The Ford government has already started rolling out its reactionary agenda. In the Fall this trickle of bad news will turn into a torrent of legislation. Multiple fires will likely emerge as Ford attacks workers’ rights, social assistance, women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and public services. This presents the left with a number of challenges about how to respond and prioritize these fights in relation to their capacity. While this will not be the naked assault of neoliberal restructuring of the Harris years it will be something quite different than the velvet glove strategies of the Liberals.

Debates In Our Movement

Since the election a number of strategic issues about how to respond to Ford have emerge and the Left has to have clarity about how to navigate these debates.

1) We need proportional representation. The PCs won a majority of seats despite winning only 40 percent of the vote. When non-voters are factored in Ford won a quarter of voting age adults in the province. This is an important fact and we must remind ourselves that Ford’s victory is far from overwhelming. But some have seized on this to make the case that the key priority should be to change the voting system to some sort of proportional representation system. While First Past the Post has many shortcomings, the notion that PR is some barrier to right-wing politics belies the fact that many countries using PR systems like Germany, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Australia and Italy have all seen the far-right either grow dramatically or enter government. Changing our electoral system is not a silver bullet as it does nothing to address the underlying economic and social conditions which breed right-wing populism. It also feeds into right-wing rhetoric about “Ford Nation” by writing off the 40% who voted for Ford as a monolith, rather then dividing Ford’s base by campaigning on issues that benefit workers and the oppressed--like the $15/hr minimum wage.

2) Protesting doesn’t work. This is a classic liberal line, that popular mobilization and protest will only embolden the right. Some who look back on the Harris years looked at the protests and strikes as ineffective in stopping Harris. Of course it is the opposite that is true, the Days of Action and constant popular mobilizations had made Harris deeply unpopular and blunted his worst attacks, it was only when those protests and strikes were reigned in that Harris was able to regain his footing and popularity. Building popular opposition on on the streets and in workplaces will be key to defeating Ford’s agenda. Bill 148 was not delivered by a benevolent Liberal government but won by workers struggle, and its broad base of support prevented Ford from campaigning against it and from even mentioning it in the throne speech. The Tories want to roll back Bill 148 and stop the $15/hr minimum wage, but they are starting from a position of weakness, not strength, and continuing to broaden the campaign can keep them on the back foot.

3) Just wait for the NDP. There will be severe pressure to turn every campaign and popular mobilization into a mechanism which serves the NDP electoral ambitions. As the next election nears the NDP will put major pressure on movements to be quiet and get behind the NDP, especially with socialist MPPs like Joel Harden now in the party. Waiting passively for the NDP to rescue us in four years will not work and is the best way to ensure Ford is reelected. Or like Mulcair’s embrace of centrism after the federal orange wage, it will allow the Liberals to rebuild themselves. The NDP’s orientation will be to keep the opposition to Ford at Queen’s Park, but for most people what happens in the bubble of the legislature matters little. Forfeiting political independence would be a major strategic mistake. We need to seize on every opportunity to build our movements, to fight for victories now; this is the best way to take on Ford’s policies and drive him out of office.

4) Deficits are bad. All three parties during the election more or less accepted at least some sort of deficit spending. It is more than likely part of the opposition to Ford will focus on his growing deficit to call him a bad economic manager. While Ford is likely to run deficits, he will also use that as an excuse to implement more austerity. There is the possibility the NDP will target Ford on this front by saying “elect us, we promise sound economic policy and balanced budgets.” This appeal to Bay Street thinking will serve to hem in the left and shift the debate on economic policy to the right.  

5) Focusing on Ford the person. Ford is an idiot, a liar, a bully, a drug dealer, a snake oil salesman who drove his own business into the ground while robbing his brother’s widow and kids. There is little to be gained in targeting Ford the person. Name calling and personalizing the opposition to Ford will not convince anyone outside of the already converted. Many people who support Ford are drawn not necessarily to his policies but to the fact the he supposedly speaks for the little guy, for people who feel iced out of our political and economic system. By focusing on Doug Ford the person we turn him into the victim and deflect debates about his actual policies. We need raise the level of political consciousness, not lower it.     

6) We need a movement of movements. We need to build unity in struggle, but what how do we do that? It would a strategic miscalculation to attempt to build an anti-Ford coalition and constructing a basis of unity first and then engage in struggle. Unity must be built on a foundation of shared struggle and action. The best method to chip away at Ford’s support is to build broad support by opposing specific elements of Ford’s agenda and pulling new layers of the class into the fight. Socialists always aim to knit struggles together to create a totalizing picture of injustice and inequality. But this is not an abstract proposition, it requires actual movements to knit together to create that fabric of a broad political struggle.

Some on the Left look to outline a program of how we can escalate the fight against Ford. But these plans rarely amount to much beyond dryland swimming because they are far removed from the actual capacities and conditions on the ground. As Rosa Luxemburg noted, about the idea of agitating for abstract strategies, “It is just as impossible to “propagate” the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the “revolution.” “Revolution” like “mass strike” signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”

What Next?

It is these “definite political situations” which we must understand and seek to build to take advantage of. The capacity and confidence of the Left, the trade union movement and the student movement are not strong. We cannot simply be reactive in politics, as that is a recipe to grind ourselves into dust. We have to think about what our political priorities are and focus our energies on them. We have to do this without being unresponsive to shifting political winds. A degree of nimbleness is required to find ways to relate to whatever is moving on the ground, while also finding a way to set the agenda and build our base.

If we understand the fight over Bill 148 as one of the first key struggles that will impact the entire working class, especially its most oppressed members, we have to find out how we can draw in new layers of workers into activity and activate passive supporters. This will require us to extend our networks inside trade unions and in the NDP and pose practical political choices that forces them to either fight or exposes their lack of leadership. We should be pushing for motions asking for concrete material action like book offs for union members to work on the Fight for $15 and Fairness, donations and a coordinated effort and resources from labour councils. We should be pushing NDP MPPs, riding associations and activists to organize town halls and canvasses around the $15 minimum wage.  

Across much of the globe the political terrain is becoming more polarized as centrist political parties have been unable to tackle the challenges of our times. The political polarization in Canada and Ontario is occurring but is relatively weaker than what is occurring in Europe and the U.S. The conditions which produced Ford’s right-wing populist victory of social conservatism mixed with anti-elitism is rife with contradictions. Which side of those contradictions emerges will be shaped by the political struggles to come. Win or lose if we don’t fight with eye to building the capacities and strength of the working class in the long-term we will assuredly face an empowered  set of bigots and bosses on the right.

Join the People’s Rally on Queen’s Park, July 14 at 11am

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