Once Again on the General Strike that Almost Was in Ontario, Canada, Part One: The Debate Between Adam King and Abdul Malik

Introduction

For some of the context of the strike, see a couple of earlier posts (The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism and The CUPE Education Workers Strike: A Lesson on the Nature of the Public Sector).

A few more leftists have made commentary on the initial strike of 55,000 education workers and the possibility of a general strike in Ontario. There is a debate between Adam King and Abdul Malik and in the online newsletter Passage  https://readpassage.com/should-cupe-have-kept-education-workers-on-strike/). Then there is Sam Gindin’s analysis on the Socialist Project’s website  https://socialistproject.ca/2022/12/education-workers-lead-but-come-up-short/.

I will restrict this post to the debate between King and Malik and will reserve another post to Gindin’s analysis.

King takes the position that CUPE’s(the Canadian Union of Public Employee) Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSCBU) made the right decision in calling off the strike since Doug Ford agreed, in writing, to repeal Bill 28, the draconian piece of legislation that not only legally forced the striking workers to return to work before they even started the strike but also used the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent any legal challenge to the legislation.

His argument basically is that CUPE’s OSBCU, had it not called off the strike, would have faced one definite oppressive force–the continued existence of Bill 28–and was facing a possible other oppressive force–the Ontario Labour Relations Board’s future decision of whether the walkout was illegal, which, if that were the case, would have workers face a $4,000 a day fine and the union a $500,000 a day fine (for a total of a $220.5 million a day fine) for the walkout, which started on November 4 (a Friday) and continued on Monday, November 7.

Thus, on the issue of the continued existence of Bill 28, he has this to say:

Again, continuing the strike would have left the bill in place — an extremely risky move.

Yes, it would have been risky–but such is life in a society dominated by a class of employers. Workers risk their lives in various ways every day by working for an employer (see for example  Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health  )-but King is silent about the need to fight against this risk; rather, he prefers to look at the risk of the continued effect of Bill 28. (As an aside, when I was a teacher at Ashern Central School, during a staff meeting, Rick Trittart, the Safety Officer for Lakeshore School Division, indicated that educational assistants could not legally refuse to work if their students were violent or otherwise consttuted a threat to the health and well-being of educational assistants if such conditions formed a regular part of their work (educatonal assistants form part of CUPE OSBCU).

Yes, it is necessary to take into account the level of risk when determining whether to act in a certain manner, but it is also necessary to consider the daily risks that workers face as means to be used by employers for purposes over which workers have little or no say. Furthermore, King himself admits that there was substantial support for the striking workers:

Abdul claims that the union had “considerable leverage” and “a favourable legal position.” I don’t dispute that the Canadian labour movement came to the aid of CUPE in a remarkable way.

Given the level of support, both in terms of the union movement and the general public, it would seem logical to take this support into consideration when determining the level of risk. Malik rightly emphasizes the level of support and momentum that Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause had generated:

It’s worth mentioning just how rare the degree of mobilization around Bill 28 actually was. From public support to member mobilization and the threat of solidarity strikes, this was a lightning-in-a-bottle opportunity that would otherwise be unfathomable. The sheer momentum behind this strike can’t be overstated, and is possibly a reason the government backed down so quickly. It’s not a stretch to say this was a generational opportunity to exert pressure and win concessions with far-reaching implications for the broader conditions of working people. If power concedes nothing without a demand, OSBCU was in a position to insist on far more than what they settled for by collapsing the picket lines.

He counters this observation by adding the other possible oppressive situaiton which the striking workers faced: the possible finding by the Ontario Labour Relations Board that the strike was illegal:

I fail to see how the union was in anything but a horrendous legal position. At best, they might have received a favourable decision from the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) after the marathon unlawful strike hearing brought by the government over the weekend. On the other hand, we still don’t know the contents of that decision. Had the OLRB found in the government’s favour and deemed the strike illegal, the government would then have been in a position to levy the considerable fines contained in Bill 28 (double the amount for members, and 20 times the amount for unions normally stipulated by the Ontario Labour Relations Act).

Being in a precarious legal position does not mean that the workers would have been in a precarious power position; if the OLRB had declared the strike illegal, then the workers would have had to decide to continue to strike despite the legal repression or to desist. The issue of the legitimacy of the law could then have become an issue–but King assumes that the declaration of something as illegal by the OLRB would have to be respected.

This is a conservative stance, obviously–caution, more caution, and still more caution. Malik rightly questions such a cautious position, given the momentum and support for the striking workers:

While workers staying and continuing to leave Bill 28 in place would have posed risks, it’s important to reassert that with enough groundswell and unions on picket lines threatening to shut down the province in full, any legal hazards would be largely moot. Moreover, the legal confines of business unionism, and in particular Canada’s adherence to the Rand Formula, exist largely to confine and manage worker dissent. Strict adherence to legal procedure already puts labour in a losing position, as we’ve seen through the decline of union density due to layoffs, cutbacks and government endorsed capital flight for decades.

Malik also points out how, historically, wildcat strikers have often not suffered the threats which governments have made so that King’s estimation of the real threat overstates the risk:

Historical precedent with Canadian wildcat strikes has also demonstrated disciplinary action is often mitigated through mediation, compromise and other legal avenues.

This cautious attitude is in line with King’s evident faith in the collective-bargaining system as a mechanism that produces “good contracts.” He uses this phrase a couple of times in his defense of CUPE OSBCU’s decision to call off the strike:

Second, ending the protest in no way implies the fight is over. There’s a good contract [my emphasis]to win. CUPE members and supporters can still play a role in ensuring that happens.

And again:

 Yes, the protests at MPP offices have ceased and members have returned to work, but there’s a struggle ongoing for a good contract [my emphasis].

Since I have criticized this and similar phrases in other posts, I refer the reader to earlier posts (see, for example, The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process and Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One).

Further evidence of King’s union rhetoric is his reference to a “fair deal”:

Moreover, union leaders made it clear during their press conference on Monday that they will remain on “standby” until education workers secure a fair deal [my emphasis].

Since I have criticized such union rhetoric specifically in relation to CUPE in another post, I refer the reader to that post for evidence of such union rhetoric (see Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One: The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)).

King’s focus on achieving a collective agreement without addressing wider issues also comes out in his weak justification for OBSCU’s decision to call off the strike without any call for an immediate repeal of Bill 28 before doing so:

Before addressing each point a bit more, I have to say that I think too much is made of the government not reconvening to repeal Bill 28 immediately. I agree that the haste with which the bill was passed stands in sharp contrast to the heel-dragging involved in its repeal. However, the union made sure to get Ford’s commitment in writing and bargaining has already resumed, which is equally as important.

Malik answers his objectiion thus:

While you can suggest frustration at the delayed repeal of Bill 28 is an overreaction, it’s also important to look at the idea of momentum here. A delay from people getting off the picket line and back in schools, alongside receding outrage toward the government’s outright animosity for the working class, makes it extremely difficult to whip up new anger or support as the news cycle continues to churn. Delaying Bill 28’s repeal is nothing but a concerted effort to enforce a cooldown period for labour militancy — and labour has played right into the government’s hands.

King’s approach essentially reduces all struggles to one centered on collective bargaining and collective agreements–well within the limits of the purposes of bureaucratic trade unions and their representatives.

The resulting collective agreement resulted in an actual wage increase was $1 per hour across the board for four years (an across-the-board increase was one of CUPE’s demands–and not a percentage increase offered by the Conservative Ford government ) (see the tentative memormandum of settlement at   https://osbcu.ca/img/tentative_cupe_mos_2022_11_23.pdf#:~:text=The%20wage%20increase%20for%20all%20job%20classifications%20within,hour%202025-2026%20%241%20per%20hour%20b%29%20Salaried%20Employees   ). The issue of inadequate staffing levels, however, was not addressed, so working conditions will still remain at earlier intensive and oppressive levels.

Conclusion

King’s position in supporting the decision to call off the strike reflects the typical union idealization of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements. He assumes, without question, that the primary purpose of going out on strike is to achieve a “good contract” and a “fair deal.” The continued threat of Bill 28 and the possible threat of facing massive fines argue against continuing the strike.

Malik’s position, on the other hand, points out that there was considerable support for the strike and that momentum was building–and such momentum would have likely made the existence of Bill 28 a moot point. Furthermore, historically, wildcat strikes have not ended up with massive fines as such threats evaporate as alternatives are found. By  calling off the strike and returning to work, CUPE effectively broke the momentum that could have maintained pressure on the Ford goverment and obtained much more than they actually did.

Malik’s analysis is certainly more relevant–it shows how the potentialities of a situation precipated by an oppressive action by government could galvanize workers into opposing such a dictator. He recognizes that the potentiality was wasted when CUPE called off the strike before returning to the bargaining table.

Given that that potentiality no longer exists, what are radicals to do? While trying to organize workers, should they not try to have workers come to grips realistically with the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements in addressing their exploitation and oppression?

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