Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:

 

Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.