The CUPE Education Workers Strike: A Lesson on the Nature of the Public Sector


Premier Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to prevent a union legal challgenge to legislation forcing education workers back to work despite the workers not even going out on strike yet should give the left pause for thought. Is not Ford’s government part of the public sector?

And yet the social-democratic or social reformsist left frequently idealize the public sector (as the good) (see for example  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One  , or  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two  or    The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services      contrasting it with the bad (the private sector).

Of course, the social-democratic left will deny that what they mean by the public sector includes the likes of Doug Ford. However, he was elected premier of Ontario despite their wishes, and he does form part of the public sector. What the reformist left want is, however, to elect “progressive” leaders and prevent the election of such right-wing leaders as Doug Ford. However, there will always exist the possibility of the emergence of such right-wing leaders as Ford in such a system since the power of employers remains intact. Furthermore, Ford’s power comes from the hierarchical nature of government and not just from the nature of Ford’s politics.

The social-democratic left should be questioning the democratic nature of the public sector and not just Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause. That it does not do so should give one food for thought.

French History and Ford’s Use of the Notwithstaning Clause: A Lesson to be Learned

Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause (and his imposition of a maximum increase of one percent increase in wages in the public sector via Bill 124, legislated in 2019 and quashed just this week by an Ontario court, which Ford will apparently appeal) has parallels with French history in the nineteenth century.

Napoleon had followed up the plebescite with a wave of arrests that left the French branch of
the IW A disoriented and leaderless. The entire twenty-year period of Bonapartist rule, Engels [Marx’s friend] lamented to Marx on August 8, has “produced enormous demoralization. One is hardly justified in reckoning on revolutionary heroism.

Engels in this instance was mistaken; he underestimated the creative capacity and potential of workers. Napoleon III entered into war between 1870 and 1871 with Prussia (a part of the North German Confederation in 1867).  Napoleon lost power to the provisional government, headed by Adolphe Thiers in 1870. Early in 1871 there was a French vote for peace–but not for right-wing reaction of the Thiers provisional government (which installed itself in Versailles, outside Paris due to the radical climate that then prevailed in the capital). .From Richard Hunt (1984), The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels. Volume 2.  Classical Marxism, 1850-1895, page 112:

The overwhelming vote for peace [between Prussia and France]  in February 1871, then, had not
been a simple vote for restoration, a state of affairs which must have been appreciated at Versailles if one notes, as Marx was bound to, the zeal with which the Versaillese hermetically sealed off communication between Paris and the rest of France, immediately passed legislation which strangled self-government in all towns of more than 20,000 inhabitants, adopted a new law restricting freedom of the press, and enacted what Marx characterized as a “new-fangled, Draconic code of deportation” for political offenses. The National Assembly did not behave like a government confident of its own popular support, or one under which democracy would long survive.

Ford’s draconian measure of not only passing legislation that forced the workers back to work (even before they went out on strike) was intensified by a further draconian measure of invoking the notwithstanding clause. Draconian measures, though on a larger scale, were instituted by the provsional government in Versailles in 1871. The executive branch of the modern government will always be a threat to a democratic way of life because of its hierarchical and unelected nature.

When the French army suffered complete defeat in March 1871, first the Parisian National Guard revolted (when Thiers’s government tried to strip Paris of its cannon, then those residing in Paris revolted, setting up a government independent of the provisional government. The Parisian government was called the Paris Commune.

This government elected its administrative body and did not rely on a hierarchy of unelected civil servants or officials. Hunt, page 130:

The ninety-odd councillors who formed the communal assembly- or the “Commune” in the narrow sense Marx employs here-did their administrative work through ten commissions (for finance, public works, justice, etc.) elected from among their own numbers and responsible to the whole assembly, just as each councillor was in turn responsible to to his popular electorate in the ward, by whom he could be recalled at any time. The intent was to make all administrative posts elective and responsible,
which would have the effect, as Marx elaborated in his First Draft, of “doing away with the state hierarchy altogether and replacing the haughteous masters of the people into always removable servants, a mockresponsibility by a real responsibility, as they act continuously under public supervision.”

The potentialities of some situations give rise to the calling into question of hierarchies and power structures that have dampened the creative power of workers. From Kristin Ross (2015), Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune:

In one of his earliest essays, Rancière suggests that the poetry written by workers like Pottier, stealing time in the late night hours their schedules allowed them, was not a means of revindication—neither the form nor the thematic content of the poetry were what mattered. “It is not through its descriptive
content nor its revindications that worker poetry becomes a social oeuvre, but rather through its pure act of existing.”17 The poetry illustrates neither the misery of the worker’s conditions nor the heroism of his struggle—what it says, rather, is aesthetic capacity, the transgression of the division that assigns to some manual work and to others the activity of thinking. It is the proof that one participates in another life. When Marx says that the greatest accomplishment of the Paris Commune was “its own working existence” he is saying much the same thing. More important than any laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions—first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic or intellectual labor. The world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images. When that division is overcome, as it was under the Commune, or as it is conveyed in the phrase “communal luxury,” what matters more than any images conveyed, laws passed, or institutions founded are the capacities set in motion. You do not have to start at the beginning—you can start anywhere.

In facing the Ford government, with its unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to impose directly the class power of employers on the workers, workers could, potentially, come to perceive the gross class power of the executive of the modern government or state and to understand that it could not be used to express their own class interests:

The new sentence Marx felt obliged to add to the new preface to the Communist Manifesto he wrote in 1872—”the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose”—indicates clearly the distance that the Commune made him take toward his earlier thoughts about state centralization.25 What he now understood was that under the Second Empire, the state’s formal independence from civil society, its growth as “a parasitic excrescence” grafted onto civil society, was itself the form through which the bourgeoisie ruled.26 Attacking the separation between the state and civil society was not one of communism’s remote objectives but was instead the
practical means for its attainment, the very medium for class struggle. The form of the Commune, in turn, was less a form than a set of dismantling acts, the critique-in-act of the bureaucratic state, a critique that, in Marx’s words, amounted to the state’s abolishment. The Communards had not decreed or proclaimed the abolishment of the state. Rather, they had set about, step by step, dismantling, in the short time they had, all of its bureaucratic underpinnings. An acting, not a parliamentary body, the Commune was both executive and legislative at once. The army was eliminated; all foreigners were admitted into the Commune; state functionaries were eliminated (certain of their tasks still existed, but they were performed by anyone—at a worker’s salary, and subject to immediate recall); priests were sent off to “the recesses of private life.”

The Social-Democratic Left’s Silence About Executive Power

The social-democratic or reformist do not even mention the issue of the undemocratic nature of the exeuctive power. Their focus is on Ford–as if Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause were not an expression of a deeper-lying problem of the undemocratic and hierarchical nature of the public sector. Of course, it was indeed necessary to criticize Ford’s undemocratic move, but there is no hint that the very structure of the executive power of government is undemocratic. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which supported a wildcat support strike of its own section of education workers in favour of the striking education workers, made the following press release  (

“Bill 28, which is a legislative attack on workers’ constitutional right to fair and free collective bargaining, was introduced on October 31 after CUPE gave its five days’ notice for job action, with the possible start of a strike on Friday, November 4.,” says an OPSEU news release. “Bill 28 preemptively prohibits these workers’ right to strike, imposes massive fines, imposes four-year long collective agreements, and invokes the notwithstanding clause to preclude any legal action against Ford’s unconstitutional and undemocratic attempt at strong-arming.

The issue of the undemocratic nature of the executive branch of the government is not questioned, though. In other words, OPSEU presents Ford’s actions as undemocratic–but not the general nature of the executive branch of modern government, with its hierarchy of power and appointed positions–much like the dictatorial hierarchy that exists in employer-dominated workplaces (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Marxist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, developed some points that are relevant for the issue in relation to participation in the government (rather than the participation in elections or in parlaiment or congress). From Michael Brie and Jörn Schütrumpf (2021), Rosa Luxemburg
A Revolutionary Marxist at the Limits of Marxism, page 88:

In the debate on socialist participation in government, Luxemburg established four decisive theses for her understanding of the state: (1) reforms within capitalism never transform the capitalist character of property relations so fundamentally as to bring forth elements and tendencies of a new order. Socialism cannot be ‘implemented’ as a gradual transformation, but rather must be done so by a state with an entirely socialist character. The seizure of state power by the working class is the actual goal, as this is the only way to overturn the economic order. (2) The bourgeois state is the most significant impediment to a socialist reorganisation of society. It forms the wall that must be battered down for a revolution to be initiated. (3) From the executive of a bourgeois state, only bourgeois politics can be pursued, whereas in the legislative branch, it is possible to attempt to implement social reforms while ‘simultaneously opposing the bourgeois government as a whole – something that is manifested,
among other places, in the rejection of the budget’ (Luxemburg 1979a, 485). (4) Struggling to protect bourgeois democracy and being prepared to undertake revolutionary violence go hand-in-hand.

The social-democratic or social-reformsit left, by contrast, fall all over themselves trying to elect “progressives” to government–and never question the necessarily anti-democratic nature of the exeuctive branch.

Rather, they speak like Herman Rosenfeld, when he speaks of reforming the police:

Shouldn’t that institution [the police] be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

Compare this with what happened during the short period of the Paris Commune: police as a separate unit controlled by a central authority independently of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers was abolished and a new force was created, subject to power from below. From Marx, The Civil War in France, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 22,  page 331:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, of acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes [my emphasis], and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the
Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The vested
interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of State disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves.b Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of
the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State was laid into the hands of the Commune.

Indeed, if a general strike did in fact arise, the issue of the organization of the police and its anti-democratic nature might have arisen as well. After all, when a general strike arises, the issue of the responsibility for public safety arises. The separation of the police as a separate force to oppress workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers then might arise.

Since financing both the wages demanded by the striking workers and the issue of funding of extra staff separated the two sides, the an indication of an altnerative source of revenue by shifting resources from the police to schools could at least have been highlghted.

One of the issues that arose during Covid was the abolition or defunding of the police. This too could have been raised as an issue and another spoke that revolved around the hub of a general strike.


The lack of criticizing of the undemocratic nature of the executive power of modern government by the social-democratic or reformist left should not come as a surprise to radicals. Like much else, the social-democratic or social-reformist left lacks any intention of criticizing its own cherished assumptions–such as the implicit view that we live in a democratic society. There is some democratic aspects, to be sure, such as elections, but they are hardly matched by the dictatorial structures and processes characteristic of both the executive branch of modern government and the power of employers at work.

The idealization of the public sector by the social-democratic or social-reformist left must be criticized at every turn. The public sector is hardly the embodiment of democracy.

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