Rob Ford, brought to you by …

Support for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is evaporating with stunning speed. Few want to be associated with a man who has publicly and brazenly lied about past behaviour, engaged in open and obnoxious physical bullying, and now on public television used misogynist and degrading language. His mayoralty is disintegrating in a cloud of scandal and shame. We need to be clear, however, that Rob Ford is more than just one, dysfunctional, white former football coach from Etobicoke. He came to this dance party with many partners. Think back to the 2010 municipal elections, and remember the luminaries and institutions that counselled us to take a chance with Mr. Ford. A partial list would include …


Jim Flaherty, Tory Finance Minister, Government of Canada, who “said on CBC radio … that he was endorsing Rob Ford for mayor” (Fiorito, 2010).
Don Cherry, Hockey Commentator: “I was in their [the Ford brothers’] corner right from the start … Rob’s honest, he’s truthful” (HoofandCycle, 2010).
• Toronto Sun editorial board (2010): “It’s time to take City Hall and the City of Toronto in a bold, new direction. Rob Ford is the man to get it done”.
• National Post editorial board (2010): “In our opinion, Rob Ford is the best candidate”
Christie Blatchford (2010), columnist for The Globe and Mail: “Every blue-collar, working-class, anti-intellectual bone in my body finds him [Rob Ford] oddly endearing”.
Margaret Wente (2010), columnist for The Globe and Mail: “Sometimes, I think only a moron [sic] could vote for Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. And sometimes, I think I might vote for him myself”.
David Booth (2010), Driving columnist for The National Post: “Let’s get rid of streetcars; Vote for Rob Ford”.
Marcus Gee (2010), columnist for The Globe and Mail would eventually step back and come to warn his readers about the potential problems of a Rob Ford mayoralty. But in February, 2010 – when Ford had yet to announce his candidacy – Gee was calling Ford “the right guy for a lefty race”, and urged him on with the rallying cry: “Run councillor, run”.
• On city council, Ford backers included Mike Del Grande, Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt; Giorgio Mammoliti, Ward 7, York West (“I don’t want to be a backbencher”); and three members of the “Responsible Government Group” – Peter Milczyn, Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore (“it’s time for a real change in attitude at city hall”); John Parker, Ward 26, Don Valley West (Rob Ford is “the only mayoral candidate who will delivery the change that Toronto taxpayers are looking for”); and Frances Nunziata, York-South-Weston (Alcoba, 2010; Anonymous, 2009; Moloney, 2010; Thomas & Rider, 2010)

It is incredibly satisfying to dwell on the 2010 positions of these one-time Ford backers and revel in the error of their ways. Don Cherry can now retreat from politics and restrict his retrograde musings to the hockey rink. David Booth can focus on mufflers instead of municipal politics. Christie Blatchford can find other means to demonstrate her self-professed anti-intellectualism (an odd label-of-choice for a career journalist). And Margaret Wente – well, she’s probably busy in plagiarist rehab at the moment (Kenyon, 2012).

But revelling in the disintegration of the Ford posse will only take us so far. We need to ask ourselves how someone as horrendous as Ford could find himself in the mayor’s chair, and that raises some uncomfortable issues which need to be addressed by the Toronto left and progressive community.

The political terrain of 2010 was the perfect petri dish where the Ford bacilli could multiply. That terrain featured a municipal left which was demoralized, in disarray and discredited in the wake of the 2009 city workers strike (the following is based on Kellogg, 2009).

In 2007, David Miller would let his membership in the New Democratic Party (NDP) lapse (Donovan, 2008). But in 2003 when he ran for mayor and won, his NDP membership was well known. Miller gathered around him a cadre of NDP and left-leaning councillors, and this left wing council was the political face of Toronto for much of the first decade of the 21st century.

The Miller era shed a spotlight on a perennial questions in politics – where does progressive change have its roots? Is the key thing to have good people holding office? Or is the key thing the mass action of the workers’ and social movements? Toronto’s historic 39-day city workers’ strike in 2009 showed just how important these questions are.

The 24,000 members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 79 and 416 – were asking for a modest pay increase. The issue, however, 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 was 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 small or not, this benefit became the rallying cry for an extremely organized anti-union right-wing on City Council (Bonnar, 2009).

This is the moment that the “Responsible Government Group”, mentioned above, emerged into prominence. Constantly represented in the press by right wing councillors such as Case Ootes and Denzil Minnan-Wong, this pro-business section of council demagogically portrayed itself as “friends of the common person,” inconvenienced by the withdrawal of city services (Hanes, 2009a, 2009b).

It would not have been hard to counter their propaganda. A “Solidarity Caucus” could have made a few simple points to galvanize those who supported the unions.

• 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?

Importantly, however, this would have meant not just attacking the right-wing members of the “Responsible Government Group”. It would have meant attacking the position of the “progressive” Mayor David Miller.

This was the challenge facing Adam Giambrone, Janet Davis, Paula Fletcher, Pam McConnell, Howard Moscoe – all individuals whose entire political careers had been bound up with the left and the workers’ movement. They did not meet that challenge. To do so would have meant showing up on the picket lines (which Moscoe did, to his credit) supporting the striking workers, and openly standing against the position of the mayor. It would have meant a political divide. They were not prepared to take this step. Instead of solidarity, we got silence.

Miller, the ex-NDPer, stood hard against the unions. The left-wing members of Toronto’s city council at worst sided openly with the mayor, at best sat silently. The combined effect was disorientation and disorganization of the left in the city, and the creation of a huge opening through which someone like Rob Ford could enter.

We had seen this film before. In the early 1990s, then-NDPer Bob Rae, as premier of Ontario, led a sharp attack on workers’ rights through the “Social Contract.” NDP members of the legislature (with the honourable exception of a small handful, most prominently, the late Peter Kormos) would not break from Rae. As a result, the anti-Rae sentiment was captured by the Tories, leading to the brutal years of Mike Harris (MacDermid & Albo, 2001).

We need to remember this history. The electoral pendulum could well swing left in the next election. Currently leading the polls is prominent NDP politician Olivia Chow (That, 2013). But replacing Ford with Chow is only a small part of what is necessary to change politics in Toronto. We need a left willing to stand with the social movements, the workers’ movements and the oppressed, even when that means dividing from progressive politicians.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg

References

Alcoba, N. (2010, September 25). Team Ford asks supporters to fight back. National Post, p. A.18.

Anonymous. (2009, March 26). Milczyn garners local support for “Two Per Cent Solution.” Etobicoke Guardian, p. 1.

Blatchford, C. (2010, August 21). Built Ford tough: The gadfly that Torontonians need. The Globe and Mail, p. A.2.

Bonnar, J. (2009, July 17). Incomplete information turns the public against CUPE strikers. rabble.ca.

Booth, D. (2010, October 22). Let’s get rid of streetcars; Vote for Rob Ford. National Post, p. DT.2.

Donovan, V. (2008, September 9). Miller won’t back any candidates; But mayor urges voters to ask how parties will invest in cities. Toronto Star, p. A.16.

Fiorito, J. (2010, September 24). With mayoral endorsement, Flaherty will get us nowhere. Toronto Star, p. GT.3.

Gee, M. (2010, February 6). Rob Ford, please run. You’re the right guy for a lefty race. The Globe and Mail, p. M.3.

Hanes, A. (2009a, July 18). “It’s getting harder with every day’; Councillors facing prospect of a long civic workers’ strike. National Post, p. A.15.

Hanes, A. (2009b, July 22). Poll serves as warning to pols. National Post, p. A.10.

HoofandCycle. (2010). Don Cherry and Rob Ford “…for all the Pinkos out there, that ride bicycles…” Youtube.

Kellogg, P. (2009, August 13). Toronto city workers’ strike: Silence on the left strengthens the right. PolEcon.net.

Kenyon, W. (2012, September 26). CBC turfs Wente from media panel: Q radio show “suspends” her from ethics segment. Toronto Star, p. A.13.

MacDermid, R., & Albo, G. (2001). Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right. In The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories (pp. 163–202). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Moloney, P. (2010, October 16). Councillors choosing sides as Ford, Smitherman battle: New poll suggests Ford still has small lead. Toronto Star, p. GT.2.

National Post. (2010, October 23). Rob Ford; Editorial: Why a vote for Ford is a vote for fiscal sanity. National Post, p. A.1.

That, C. T. (2013, November 14). Poll: 62% of Torontonians wouldn’t vote for Ford in 2014 “under any circumstance.” CTVNews.ca.

Thomas, N., & Rider, D. (2010, September 23). Not everyone is on Ford bandwagon: Even some right-leaning councillors say they will wait and see before backing a mayoral candidate. Toronto Star, p. GT.1.

Toronto Sun. (2010, October 17). Rob Ford for Toronto: Editorial. Toronto Sun.

Wente, M. (2010, October 5). Two and a half cheers for Rob Ford. The Globe and Mail, p. A.21.

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

References

[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,” rabble.ca, 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.