Toronto city workers’ strike: Silence on the left strengthens the right

During Toronto’s historic 39-day city workers’ strike, the left-wing members of Toronto’s city council at worst sided openly with the mayor, at best sat silently, and in the process opened the door for a newly-invigorated right-wing. It was a débacle several years in the making.

David Miller – Toronto’s mayor – was swept into office in 2003. A long-time member of the NDP, Miller – with a solid caucus of NDP and progressive councilors behind him – was a welcome change from the long run of pro-business Mel Lastman. Without question it has been a much better situation for workers and the poor in Toronto, to have a council headed by a mayor and council with links to the unions and to the NDP.

But there was always a tension. Where does progressive change have its roots? Do we fundamentally change our position in society through the good offices of friendly progressive councilors? Or is the foundation of our progress the mass action of the workers and social movements? Any examination of history will show that it is the latter – the mass movements – from which we win our gains. But there is a tendency, once in office, to forget the mass movements on which all progressive politicians stand, and to develop the illusion that progress comes from the work of a small progressive elite. This was reflected in the quiet withdrawal of Miller from the NDP in 2007. He was choosing the mayor’s office over the workers’ movement.[1]

Enter the confrontation between Miller and the city inside and outside workers. The 24,000 members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 79 and 416 – were asking for a modest pay increase. But the issue around which the dispute came to revolve, was an old provision in their collective agreement, allowing retiring workers to “cash in” unused sick days.

This is a very small benefit – a few thousand dollars at the end of a long career is a small price to pay workers for years of service. It is also a benefit shared by police and fire-fighters in the city – a point that few opponents of the strike bothered to mention. But it became the rallying cry for an extremely organized anti-union right-wing on City Council.[2]

The so-called “Responsible Government Group” went into action from the first minutes of the strike. Profiled in the press again, and again, and again, right wing councilors like Case Ootes and Denzil Minnan-Wong, a pro-business section of council demagogically portrayed itself as “friends of the common person,” the working people inconvenienced by the withdrawal of city services.[3]

It is not hard to respond to this kind of conservative union-bashing.

• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for childcare?
• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for improved pension benefits?
• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for improved health and safety?

They were of course, nowhere. But given a chance to lead an attack on Toronto’s unions – these right-wing councilors suddenly discovered their concern for ordinary people, putting aside for a moment their cocktail parties with Real Estate developers.

But for this simple response to the right wing to get a hearing, the response had to be organized by the left on council. There were people who were in a position to do just that. Adam Giambrone, Janet Davis, Paula Fletcher, Pam McConnell, Howard Moscoe – these are all individuals whose entire political careers have been bound up with the left and the workers’ movement. What we needed was a “Solidarity Caucus” to meet and counter the nonsense coming from the pro-business councillors.

But that would have meant breaking from David Miller. It would have meant showing up on the picket lines (which Moscoe to his credit did) and supporting the striking workers against the position of the mayor. It would have meant a political divide. So instead of solidarity, we got silence.

Sometimes it was worse than silence. July 8, Miller emerged from a closed-door briefing with council where by all reports, councilors – left and right – were united against the workers and in support of Miller.[4]

We risk paying a steep price for this in the months to come. There is contempt and hatred for Miller in the wake of the strike. But the most visible voice articulating this anger has been the pro-business section of council.

We know where this can lead, those of us who remember the years of then NDPer Bob Rae as premier of Ontario. He led a sharp attack on workers’ rights through the “Social Contract.” But NDP members of the legislature would not break from Rae. So the anti-Rae sentiment was captured by the Tories, leading to the brutal years of Mike Harris in office.[5]

Let’s not make the same mistake. We need a left on council and outside council to stand up and challenge Miller for his anti-union stance. We need the anger against Miller to be captured by the left and not the right.

An important step in this direction was the decision by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council to refuse to invite Miller to the annual Labour Day parade. A strike is a line in the sand. Miller stood on the wrong side, and must now pay the price.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] Donovan Vincent, “Miller won’t back any candidates,” Toronto Star, Sept. 9, 2008, p. A.16. The drift away from the NDP was visible much earlier. In 2006 Miller backed Liberal John Godfrey in that year’s federal election.
[2] John Bonnar, “Incomplete information turns the public against CUPE strikers,”, July 17, 2009
[3] Allison Hanes, “ ‘It’s getting harder with every day’; Councillors facing prospect of a long civic workers’ strike,” National Post, July 18, 2009, p. A.15 and Hanes, “Poll serves as warning to pols,” National Post, July 22, 2009, p. A. 10
[4] Brodie Fenlon, Jennifer Lewington, “Council determined not to yield as unions threaten long strike,” The Globe and Mail, July 9, 2009, p. A.10 and Alison Hanes, “Council supports city stance; United Front,” National Post, July 9, 2009, p. A. 12.
[5] For an overview, see Robert MacDermid and Greg Albo, “Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right,” in Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, eds. The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories, Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001, pp. 163-202.

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