Canada: Ontario strikes and the need for a new workers’ party

Toronto, 15 April – Over 8,000 public sector workers marched on the provincial legislature at the swearing-in ceremony of the new premier. Forty-five thousand workers from Ontario Public Service Employees Union have been on strike since 13 March. The union is asking for wage and benefit increases. The ruling Ontario Tories are proposing a 13 million dollar cut to provincial workers’ benefits and increased control over workers’ pension funds.

Ontario strikes and the need for a new workers’ party (two articles)

CWI correspondents in Toronto describe an important five-week old strike by forty-five thousand workers from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, followed by an analysis of the disastrous shift to the right by the social democratic New Democratic Party, and the emergence of the New Political Initiative oppositional group.


Striking Ontario workers march on provincial legislature

Walkerton tragedy

A major demand put forward in this strike is an end to privatisation of public services and to take back those services already contracted out or taken over by the private sector.

In 1999 in Walkerton, Ontario, 7 people died and 2,000 were hospitalised with e-coli infections as a result of budget cutting, deregulation and privatisation of water testing services. These public services were a direct responsibility of the provincial government until they downloaded to municipalities and/or contacted or sold out to the private sector labs. Hundreds of OPSEU workers were laid off throughout the province.

During the present five-week strike OPSEU is highlighting this tragedy as the fault of the Tories in their vicious campaign to privatise. Less dramatic but equally devastating to workers in Ontario is the increasing privatisation of health care services. OPSEU has made opposition to this and all privatisation of public services a key feature of their strike demands.

Rowdy chants and strong demands

The workers’ morale was high despite five long weeks on the picket lines. Rowdy chants and strong demands made for an exuberant, lively rally. There was solidarity support from both public and private sector unions. Workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees a national sister public sector union led a sit down protest which blocked a major city intersection for two hours, necessitating rerouting of trams and traffic.

The OPSEU leadership presented a militant front along with the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress. The president of OPSEU and the president of OFL made a show of sitting down with workers to block the intersection.

Demanding time with the new premier, the president of the union entered the legislature but was unable to do more than voice a demand to return to the bargaining table across a crowded room.

However, OPSEU leaders wanted a tame demonstration. They had taken certain steps to prevent a storming of the legislature and even ensuring that the noise of the rally was far enough away not to disrupt the swearing in of the new Cabinet inside the building. The main rally was not at the steps of the legislature but about 250 meters south of the building. By the time the speeches were over and the mass of workers proceeded onto the lawn up to the legislative steps the swearing in had concluded.

Need to escalate united action

Just as in the OPSEU strike in 1996 when the workers were ready to do battle and were sold out by the leadership, it is likely that the union leadership will once again make huge compromises and accept minimal gains for the workers. They will draw back from any serious united action against privatisation of public services. Instead of being used to forge a militant coalition of public and private sector workers prepared to use workplace action up to and including 24-hour general strike, the current labour leadership will send these demands back to their respective campaigns departments to lull workers with a false sense of struggle.

Strikers’ receptive to socialist ideas

Socialist Alternative (Canadian section of the CWI) had the strongest representation of any left group at the rally. We brought out five members who distributed 1,000 leaflets with demands for united trade union action to end the privatisation of all public services and to take back all services already privatised. We put forward a demand for a 24-hour general strike if necessary to achieve these demands. The workers were very receptive to our demands, asking for leaflets to hand out themselves and many expressed appreciation for our support.

This article first appeared in The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party (England and Wales section of the CWI)

‘New Politics’ in Canada

In November 2001, the leadership of the near moribund New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), struggling to escape its history as a social democratic labour party, received a shock when 37% of delegates at the party’s national convention voted in favour of the "New Politics Initiative", a left-wing current of left NDP members, and social activists outside the party, proposing to replace the NDP with a new left wing formation. Robert Messing of Socialist Alternative, the Canadian section of the CWI, examines this phenomenon.

NDP in a sorry state

Canadian social democracy is in a sorry state. The NDP is at its lowest ebb since 1961, the year of its founding, and at the nadir for social democracy in the almost 70 years since the NDP’s predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was founded in Regina in 1933. In its first Canada-wide federal election in 1935 the CCF won 8.9% of the vote. In the most recent federal election, held November 2000, the NDP won barely 8.5% of the vote. At the provincial level the NDP is on the verge of losing party status in Ontario. It has been reduced to a mere two seats in British Columbia’s legislature after squandering two terms in power, clings to government in Saskatchewan, the party’s birthplace, and thanks to a rotten coalition with the Liberals, enjoys relative security only in Manitoba.

Just twelve years ago it looked like the NDP achieved its greatest breakthrough, winning its first ever majority government in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, with a third of its population and the country’s industrial heartland. After over half a century of being largely confined to western Canada, where it has formed government at various times in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, it looked like with a breakthrough in central Canada. The party was on the verge of taking power at the national level. Indeed, in the late 1980s the NDP, which seemed to have perpetual third party status, enjoyed a period on the top of public opinion polls.

Abandonment of socialist principles

The meltdown in NDP fortunes can be traced to the party’s abandonment of socialist principles. The Ontario breakthrough occurred on the wings of the party’s election manifesto, entitled ‘Agenda for People’, which promised a number of social and political reforms, including the nationalisation of auto insurance. Premier Bob Rae quickly turned his back on his party’s pledges and led the NDP government into a doomed attempt to run a business-friendly government.

The Rae government also turned its back on the labour movement in 1993 with the adoption of the ‘Social Contract’, a political and economic assault on the workers who had been the party’s staunchest supporters by arbitrarily reopening collective agreements with public sector unions and imposing salary clawbacks to the tune of $2 billion.

While the NDP maintains formal ties with the labour movement to this day, the betrayal of workers through the social contract effectively ended the NDP’s role as a labour party in Ontario and weakened the party’s relationship with labour nationwide. Largely as a result of this break, both the federal NDP and its Ontario section began a precipitous decline. In the 1993 federal election the NDP lost more than two thirds of its seats and was reduced to a nine-seat rump in the federal House of Commons in Ottawa. It faced decimation in working class strongholds such as Hamilton, Windsor and Oshawa. In 1995, the Ontario NDP was booted from power, falling to third party status, after having betrayed labour, cut social programmes and put provincial public services on the road to privatisation.

Disaster of the ‘Third Way’

Rather than draw the obvious lessons from this fiasco and attempt to put forward a bold socialist programme, including massive investment in health and other vital social services, to attract workers and youth, the NDP leadership concluded that what was needed was a move to the so-called ‘Third Way’ and the ‘political centre’. The party’s Ontario wing ran in the 1999 election on a platform virtually indistinguishable from that of the opposition Liberal Party. The result was a second Tory majority, a slightly larger Liberal opposition, and an NDP reduced to a rump of nine seats.

Membership in the Ontario wing has dropped from 30,000 at the time of the party’s breakthrough in the province in 1990 to barely 15,000 today. Canada-wide the party’s membership figures (it is difficult to be precise on as there is no central membership list) have declined from around 100,000 in the late 1980s to around 60,000 today. Over the past decade the NDP has been largely emptied out of its old base of social movement activists and working class militants to become a party of middle class intellectuals, professionals and union bureaucrats.

The lack of a real workers’ party in Canada has been felt on the left. Social movements have become increasingly insular and disconnected from the possibility of accomplishing change by achieving building a mass socialist party that can transform society. Instead, movements and increasingly labour, are moving towards a more American model of working as giant lobbies on the main capitalist parties and the establishment. This has only acted to increasingly marginalise the left and o increase the power of the right in Canadian politics.

The New Political Initiative

Inspired by rising social militancy and the international anti-globalisation movement in particular, the New Political Initiative (NPI) was formed early last summer by a handful of activists, trade unionists, and intellectuals, around the idea that a new party of the left was needed as the NDP was no longer capable of filling that role.

Attracting such notables as the Canadian Auto Workers’ union chief economist Jim Stanford (and the tacit backing of President Buzz Hargrove and the leadership of the CAW, the largest and most left wing of Canada’s major unions – the union had criticised the NDP for years for its shift towards the centre), author and leading feminist Judy Rebick, NDP Members of Parliament Svend Robinson and Libby Davies and several young social movement activists, the NPI attracted 1,000 endorsers, evenly split between members of the NDP and non-members. Rather than completely break from the NDP, however, what was being proposed by the NPI was that the NDP take a leadership role in forming the new party. The NPI challenged the NDP to take on this commitment at its November 2001 convention in Winnipeg, where the movement’s motion managed to win the support of 37% of delegates.

Roughly half of NPI endorsers are members of the NDP, half are not members of the party, some are members of other parties such as the Greens (whose federal leader has explicitly rejected the NPI) and the left economic and nationalist Canadian Action Party.

While the NPI initially described itself as socialist and insisted that the new party would be formed regardless of what happened at Winnipeg, the months leading up to the convention saw a process of moderation and accommodation to the party establishment. The word ‘socialist’ was dropped from the NPI endorsement form, and even the question of whether the NPI is "anti-capitalist" has been a controversial one, with some endorsers fearing that such talk would alienate the party from potential Green and left-liberal supporters. Discussions over a "basis of unity" for the NPI have broken down as a result. A ‘renewal document’ issued by the executive of the NDP federal party in the fall attempted to co-opt the NPI by making vague noises about reaching out to social movements, as well as instituting democratic reforms in the party. The NPI, in turn, extended its timetable for the creation of a new party by several years and became increasingly vague about whether a new party would be launched with or without the NDP. Talk of a new party in the immediate future has been placed on the back burner and the NPI has been granted three seats on the party’s twenty-five member Renewal Committee.

The 37% level of support the NPI won at convention was initially hailed as a great breakthrough until it was pointed out that this is the precisely the same peak the left has traditionally managed in the NDP. It was the level of support won by left leaning MP Svend Robinson, when he contested the party’s leadership in 1995, it is the level which the last major left wing tendency in the NDP, the whimsically named Waffle, won for its manifesto in 1969, and exactly the same level of support Waffle leader, James Laxer, received when he ran for the federal party’s leadership in 1971.

‘Participatory democracy’ and the capitalist state

The NPI sees its lack of programme as an indication of its strength, as an example of its belief in "participatory democracy" and the need for a programme to flow out of a democratic process rather than be imposed, pre-formed, in the form of a manifesto. While it is essential for any programme to be attuned to the real needs of the working class, the idea that one can build a party around a purely structural concept, such as "participatory democracy", and add programmatic content later (if ever) is completely incorrect.

Programmatic content is slowly being developed through practice, however, as NPI activists attempt to build a party on the ground by participating in broader campaigns such as a major campaign in Ontario to defend public health care, and the movement in British Columbia against that provinces right wing Liberal government. Such campaigns can allow the NPI an opportunity to build its organising and mobilising capacity at a local level and give it an opportunity to persuade social movement activists of the need for a party with some sort of socialist strategic vision.

In her book Imagine Democracy, NPI coordinating committee member Judy Rebick proposes participatory democracy and particularly democratising the state as the principle project of the left today, and indeed there is a strong tendency within the NPI that echoes that sentiment. However, this position is devoid of any real understanding of the question of the role of the capitalist state and the struggle to transform society along socialist lines. Though Rebick (and indeed most of the founders of the NPI) have a background as socialist activists, the emphasis on structural political reforms as an end in itself shows a move in thought towards left-liberalism or radical democracy. Absent from Imagine Democracy and the NPI is the very essential concept that in order to take state power and democratise the state one must seize control of the means of production, that is seize economic power, and that the only force in society capable of playing such a role in the name of the vast majority of people is the working class.

Needed: A socialist alternative to the NDP

Socialist Alternative, the Canadian Section of the CWI, endorsed the NPI at the outset and has participated in the movement’s forums. We have been encouraged by the NPI’s formation and agree with its argument that a new party of the left is needed and that the NDP is not capable of filling that role. However, we view the argument that the NDP itself can lead this process as a contradiction of the NPI’s initial assertion, and argue that the NPI should struggle to break the trade unions links with the now openly capitalist NDP and build a new party independent representing working people, the youth, women and the oppressed. A new workers’ party must be inclusive, democratic and federal, allowing all socialist points of view, if it is to attract the new generation of anti-capitalist and radical youth and militant workers.

We also argue that the NPI must advocate a clear economic programme based on a class analysis and socialist demands. No more than the capitalist state can the capitalist economy be ‘democratised’ bit by bit (for a start, as history amply shows, the ruling elite will resort to economic sabotage, armed counter revolution etc, to prevent any serious challenge to their power and profits). Only a planned economy, under the democratic control of the working class, can allow the tremendous resources to be fully put to the benefit of the majority of society.

Whether the NPI will be able to progress towards this perspective or be pulled back into the morass of the NDP on its way to becoming a thoroughly capitalist liberal democratic party, remains to be seen. The next big test will be the NPI’s first national conference in Ottawa (October 4-6), which will decide on structures and possibly a "vision statement".

Robert Messing, Toronto, 18 April 2002.

An edited version of this article will appear in the May 2002 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI section).

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