OFL Power of Many: Time to power up!

5 key ingredients to a stronger labour movement

In 2017, the OFL Convention projected a general tone of comradery and unity, an image that suggested many of the crises plaguing the movement through previous years had been resolved. Two large affiliates – Unifor and OPSEU – had returned to the fold. This, combined with the sale of the OFL building, had enabled the federation to retire a million dollars of debt. During the election of officers, wave after wave of trade union leaders stood at the mike and praised the “FedForward” team led by Chris Buckley, for having reunited and stabilized Ontario’s house of labour.

Politically, Ontario workers had just scored a big win with Bill 148, the “Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs Act.” The legislation, which passed during the convention, increased the minimum wage to $14 on January 1, 2018 and to $15 by January 2019, and also included a host of other improvements in sick leave, equal pay, vacation and emergency personal leave for all workers. Many trade unionists had worked tirelessly with community allies to win this reform, and they were justifiably stoked.

With this wind in its sails, the OFL convention adopted a massive 118-point action plan for the immediate period. Its centrepiece – introduced through an amendment from the floor and theatrically set up by guest NDP speakers – was a campaign to mobilize 1 million labour votes for the New Democrats in the 2018 provincial election. The Kathleen Wynne Liberals were heading into freefall, the dragon of “strategic voting” was slain, and labour was poised to seize the day.

Heady days, indeed.

Except, only two years down the road, things haven’t turned out so well.

The idyllic unity from 2017 was deeply ruptured only two months after the convention, with Unifor leaving the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial federations after charges of raiding hotel workers. Labour councils across the country lost key activists as Unifor delegates were ordered out by an angry CLC leadership. Ironically, while throwing these local union bodies to the fire, CLC President Hassan Yussuff and OFL President Chris Buckley, both Unifor members, kept their positions by magically becoming members of other unions.

So, currently, the largest private sector union in the country – and in Ontario – is outside the house of labour and seems quite content to be there. On the other side, outside of the loss of revenue, neither the CLC nor the OFL seem particularly concerned about the situation either. This doesn’t exactly project an inspiring vision of the importance of trade union federations.

The provincial election, as we all know, was an absolute disaster. Despite some initial hurrahs from a few NDPers who were excited to form the Official Opposition, it is abundantly clear that the Doug Ford Conservatives are one of the most aggressively anti-worker governments Ontario has seen for a long time.

Of course, the election outcome isn’t the fault of the OFL leadership. But they do need to take responsibility for the near-total lack of an organized fightback to the Ford government.

It’s not that a fightback doesn’t exist. Individual unions in the health and education sectors have worked with community allies to organize escalating campaigns and mobilize huge rallies, in defence of those programs and the workers who provide them. High school students twice organized province-wide walkouts involving thousands of young people, to protest changes to the sex-ed curriculum and cuts to school funding. They were supported by teachers, who refused to teach the Tories’ sex-ed curriculum. Climate strike protests – also initiated by young people – have quickly grown into the largest demonstrations in the past 20 years.

There are all sorts of examples of people organizing and mobilizing against austerity and privatization. The problem is, the OFL isn’t putting its shoulder to the wheel. Ontario’s labour federation leaders seem more content to show up and speak at someone else’s podium, than to commit the energy and resources needed to coordinate, build and escalate a provincial fightback. The leadership’s proposal to move from biennial to triennial conventions will only further reduce democratic engagement and the ability to mobilize within the labour movement. For all their talk of “capacity building” key labour leaders are ignoring the fact that trade union capacity is built through class struggle, not by avoiding it.

This is no time to sit back and watch the clock on the OFL’s website tick down while waiting for the next election – the Ford government’s aggressive corporate agenda needs to be opposed and stopped, now.

Ontario needs a strong fightback, and a strong fightback needs a strong OFL.

Here are our 5 ingredients for a stronger labour movement in Ontario:

  1. Re-vision the “Power of Many” campaign as the basis for a structured common front. It needs to unite labour and community groups in an escalating fightback that includes the political strike weapon. Workers, and especially poor and oppressed people, cannot wait for the next election – both the federal and provincial governments are vulnerable at the moment. There needs to be mass political action now.
  2. Rebuild unity of the labour movement, on a class struggle basis. The dispute between the heads of Unifor and the CLC may not have a simple resolution. But, at the same time, simple unity on paper doesn’t advance working class interests. Local anti-cuts assemblies, bringing together all unions and community organizations that are committed to building a mass campaign, are the best vehicle for developing strong unity through coordinated action. To work, local assemblies need to be grassroots-led and connected through a democratic provincial network.
  3. Organize and mobilize community-labour solidarity flying squads, to support and defend local struggles. Picket injunctions and back-to-work legislation are common tools used by bosses and governments to weaken workers and unions. Coordinated mass solidarity, that includes cross-picketing and direct action, is proven to be an effective tactic.
  4. Promote and organize around a progressive, working class political program. Defending programs and services against cuts is critical. But as austerity policies continue, it’s also important to move onto the offensive. The OFL needs to lead campaigns for public ownership of industries facing shutdown; increased health and public services; a nationalized transportation industry to build electric passenger, light industrial and mass transit vehicles; and massive social housing construction and rent rollbacks. In the process, labour can win key reforms and put pressure on political parties to advance and defend working class demands.
  5. Elect leadership that will fight! Starting with this OFL convention but including all levels from the CLC to union locals, workers need to know that the people leading the movement won’t just sit on their hands – and everyone else’s – when things get hot.

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