The Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) held its biennial convention on April 13-15 at the Hamilton Convention Centre. The conference of about 1,000 New Democratic delegates was held in the shadow of the Ontario provincial budget which, even before the meeting began, was already becoming a source of tension between various factions within the party. Party leader Andrea Horwath has been under enormous pressure from the press and from big business to vote in favour of the austerity budget being presented by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal minority government.
The McGuinty budget puts forward significant cuts that are unrivalled since the years of Mike Harris. They include the freezing of social assistance and ODSP rates, over 1,000 layoffs, an across-the-board wage freeze for public sector workers, reducing healthcare expenditure increases to 2% annually, and, probably most significantly, all this came with an open declaration that any unions that try to fight against these cuts would be subject to strike-breaking legislation, a direct threat against the very right of workers to organize.
Despite these deep cuts, Bay Street has made its displeasure over the budget clear. The budget does not go far enough in their eyes, evidenced by the fact that only a small portion of the Drummond Report’s recommendations went through. Although the budget hammers labour, it is quite different than what Drummond had envisioned in a column he penned for the Globe and Mail; in his eyes, Drummond wanted the budget to “reform the way the government delivers virtually every service.” For this reason, the Tories have already declared that they will not support the budget. Regardless of this, the budget was most definitely influenced by the Bay Street interests who are howling for a hard-line to be taken against the trade unions, in order to gut living and working standards in an attempt to get the bankers’ government out of the massive debt crisis they find themselves in.
The NDP membership has been anything but quiet about this declaration of class war by the Liberal Party. Indeed, McGuinty threatens to claw away decades of hard-fought gains and to trample on basic labour rights, including the right to strike. Most notably Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), and Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, have vocally and publicly challenged the Liberal budget. They have openly called for the NDP to oppose the budget, and have said that it is worth fighting an election on the question of austerity.
Therefore the pressing question going into the convention was obvious — would the Ontario NDP capitulate to big business and support the austerity budget, or would it provide leadership to workers and the poor across Ontario in fighting austerity?
The rank-and-file send a message: Don't capitulate to Bay Street!
On the first day of convention, the party brass put forward an emergency resolution titled “Support ONDP Caucus”. The content of the resolution was clear — the rank-and-file should support the negotiations of the parliamentary caucus with the Liberals over the provincial budget. This effectively meant shoring up support for a possible “Yes” vote by the ONDP caucus at Queen’s Park, given that Andrea Horwath has publicly stated that she wants to do everything possible to avoid another provincial election. Moreover, given the opposition to the austerity budget from significant portions of the rank-and-file and the Ontario labour movement, it was a ham-fisted attempt by the Queen’s Park caucus to artificially impose unity upon the NDP membership..
To the dismay of the party brass around leader Andrea Horwath, a major challenge erupted from the ranks of the party. OFL president Sid Ryan gave a rousing speech challenging austerity and the burden of the deficit and crisis being placed on the working class. His speech was met with massive applause and a standing ovation from significant sections of the convention. A motion was then made to refer the emergency resolution back to the executive, with the directive to change it to include a section demanding that the ONDP caucus fight to increase social assistance, protect collective bargaining rights, bring about labour reform, and increase corporate tax rates.
Despite attempts to use technical manoeuvres to sabotage the motion, it was put to a vote. The first vote was extremely close. Despite this, the convention chair declared the resolution defeated. The floor challenged this ruling and demanded a standing vote. The results from the standing vote showed a vote of 218 to 200 in favour of the motion being referred. This was an embarrassing set-back for the parliamentary caucus. Unfortunately for them, their attempt at presenting a united face backfired and helped to expose the cleavage within the party. Fightback activists present at the convention were proud to stand in support of this motion, which was put forward by Sid Ryan and had the backing of the labour movement. For working people, youth, the poor, and the elderly, the coming provincial austerity will have a devastating effect in a province already reeling from the initial impact of the capitalist crisis that began in 2008. The Ontario NDP must act as a vehicle for the struggle against austerity — as the parliamentary voice of the working class — instead of buckling to the pressures from Bay Street.
Splits in the party bureaucracy emerge
On the second day of convention, it was clear that the divisions witnessed on the first day, and which had expressed themselves in the debate around austerity, has begun to deepen. Early on in the morning, it was very clear that the ONDP executive elections were going to be hotly contested. Three slates had been formed. The first was based on the parliamentary wing of the party, which put forward Neethan Shan, a Tamil activist, as their candidate for ONDP president. This slate also notably ran a candidate for almost every single position on the executive, including against incumbents who intended to seek re-election. This is almost unprecedented. The second slate was backed by labour and had Andrew Mackenzie, from the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), as their proposed candidate for ONDP president. Mackenzie had backed Sid Ryan and the OFL in opposing the Liberal budget. The third slate was put forward by the Socialist Caucus, with Barry Weisleder as their candidate for party president.
This was a serious division in the party. The ONDP's executive has had a very strong labour presence for years. For this reason, the NDP leaders and the labour leaders could reasonably be described as being mostly the very same people. However, the Hamilton convention changed all this.
A day after convention, the author of this article asked a veteran labour activist, and New Democrat for 40 years, about what he thought of the executive elections. He mentioned that he had never seen a labour slate that was separate from the establishment-backed slate in his decades of activity in the party!
Even more indicative of this cleavage within the party was that it was evident that several hundred supporters had been bussed in to support Neethan Shan’s candidature. The majority were Tamil and Sikh (from the Brampton area) party members who had been pushed to attend in masse to ensure victory against the labour wing of the party. While labour had pushed against Andrea’s outright capitulation, and won the vote by a slim majority on the first day, it was now clear that they were outvoted.
This mobilization showed the determination of the parliamentary wing of the party to put their own people into positions of authority. Mackenzie, and other party stalwarts with labour links such as incumbent vice president Mike Seaward, went down to defeat, replaced by candidates that could be counted on to potentially aid in the Liberals’ passing of the austerity budget. In his election speech, just as he was being cut off, Mackenzie closed by saying, “I won't be beholden to Queen's Park.” This was a clear jab at the parliamentary faction.
What forces have led to this division in the ONDP?
Some will analyze the current split on the basis of personality politics. This is an entirely incorrect way to view it. Divisions between different sections of the NDP bureaucracy have always occurred. The difference is that they have normally been dealt with behind closed doors, and an agreement has been taped together. Indeed, this has consistently been the case for decades!
This division coming out into the open is directly a reflection of the crisis in capitalism, and the polarization of broader society. Fightback has always explained that the polarization of society would inevitably be reflected within the mass organizations of the working class. The current crisis in capitalism, which is particularly deep in Ontario, has forced the McGuinty Liberals to carry out massive austerity under the pressure of their Bay Street financiers.
This has created a massive response and anger from the working class in Ontario. Workers are looking for a way to fight, and are challenging the logic of austerity. They want to know why they have to foot the bill, while Bay Street posts record profits, and receives tax breaks and bailouts from taxpayers. An example of this growing anger is the recent fury displayed by teachers in Ontario; the Liberals are intent in freezing their wages, even though they owe much of their electoral support over the past nine years to the teachers’ unions.
The labour leadership is one step closer to the working class and feels the growing pressure from below more acutely than the NDP’s parliamentary caucus, who themselves are one step closer to the bosses and the ruling class. The labour leadership has to fight against austerity if they are to have any credibility with their own members. Meanwhile, the NDP members at Queen’s Park feel the need to be seen as “responsible managers” of capitalism. Because of the extreme crisis of capitalism, this dichotomy is finally being forced to come to the fore and explains the actions at the Hamilton convention.
This is no mere split between personalities. In fact, the labour wing of the party was not looking to provoke an open division. It is true that they were trying to pressure Andrea Horwath to pose a real challenge to the austerity, instead of capitulating so easily. Nevertheless, it was the parliamentary wing’s imposition of the emergency resolution that precipitated this open split on the convention floor. The labour leaders would have been content to come to a deal and to solve this rift behind closed doors, as normally happens.
At the same time, we should not fall into the trap of viewing the attack on the labour wing as being an intentional effort of the parliamentary wing to push out labour from the party. It would be incorrect to compare the Hamilton ONDP convention to Tony Blair’s attempt to sever the labour link in the British Labour Party. As was said, the ONDP caucus is under enormous pressure to vote “yes” to Dalton McGuinty’s austerity budget. Therefore, they were forced to keep the executive of the ONDP clear of those who were calling for opposition to the Liberal budget, which included party stalwarts and labour-backed candidates.
Nonetheless, with the gauntlet dropped on the first day, labour leaders such as Sid Ryan were forced to stand their ground on the question of austerity, which then rallied the rank-and-file to their side resulting in winning the vote. The clearest evidence that the labour wing was caught off guard is that the party brass ran a full slate against them on Friday, and then bussed in hundreds of supporters on Saturday to effectively win most of the positions on the ONDP executive. There was little obvious organizing or mobilization on the part of the unions. The lack of representation from affiliates such as the OFL, CUPE Ontario, and UFCW on the new ONDP executive is a turn away from the tradition within the party.
Based on the developments at the convention, Fightback activists called for a vote for the labour-backed slate which centred on presidential candidate Andrew Mackenzie. Despite being hesitant to openly challenge Andrea, the labour slate was solidly opposed to any deals and agreements with the Liberal austerity budget. Long-time NDP activists will know that a majority of labour has traditionally been on the right of the party, and has been used to attack left-wing currents that have historically developed in the NDP; their open opposition to austerity and building a resistance to the dictates of Bay Street are a very welcome change.
It must also be noted that, in the context of an anti-austerity slate backed by labour, the slate of the Socialist Caucus generally served to divide the vote of the anti-austerity left-wing of the party.
Class struggle and the ONDP
Fightback has long-explained that the polarization of society would inevitably be reflected within the mass organizations of the working class. The 2012 ONDP convention is just the beginning of this polarization. It is no accident that Horwath only managed to achieve a disappointing 76% support in her leadership review. If the NDP’s parliamentary caucus is to vote in favour of this year’s austerity budget, then what will happen next year, and the year after? Bay Street has, correctly, pointed out that massive austerity will be necessary to fix the budget deficit over a period of years; the 2012 budget is just the first step.
Workers are showing that they are willing to struggle to defend their jobs and their standard of living. The present crisis in the system rules out the ability to reform capitalism — the ability to give it a “human face”. Unlike the post-war boom period, the ruling class cannot afford concessions and reforms. The Drummond Report revealed the bosses’ own pessimism about the future of their own system. If the NDP and the labour leadership are going to provide a lead and fight for a better life for workers and youth, then it must ready itself to confront the ruling class head-on, not attempt to reach back-room deals with them.
Instead of leading the fight against the largest attacks on working people in over a generation, the NDP leadership is putting forward a “pragmatic” agreement that, in essence, supports the Liberals’ brutal budget. It is telling workers that there is no alternative to austerity. Despite this lack of leadership, workers and youth across Canada are moving into struggle to defend their livelihoods — from Quebec students, to the wildcat strikers at Air Canada, to workers at Caterpillar and US Steel, to the Occupy movement. The millions are starting to pose a challenge to the status quo. The rank-and-file of the NDP and the unions reflects these currents, and the labour leadership is sensitive to the pressure from below. This is the fundamental cause of the cleavage in the ONDP.
The crisis in the ONDP is precisely the crisis of reformist ideology that has gripped the labour and socialist parties across the advanced capitalist countries. This is similar to the processes we see across Europe, where the Greek “Socialist Party” has carried out the worst cuts in Greek history and has totally discredited itself in the eyes of the workers. In Italy, Britain, Spain, and Portugal, social democratic governments have all been kicked out of office after implementing anti-worker attacks.
Going forward in the struggle against austerity
The main reason given by the parliamentary wing of the party for negotiating with the Liberals is that Ontarians do not wish to go to the polls so soon after the last provincial election. This lack of confidence in the working class is terrible, given the fact that the most recent polls, released as of the writing of this article, put the NDP at 31% support in the province, their highest level of support since the early 1990s and just three percentage points behind the first-place Tories. In northwestern Ontario, 96% of respondents supported the NDP’s call to tax the rich, with the remaining 4% “unsure”! This is the sentiment of working-class people in Ontario. If the Ontario NDP ran on a clear, anti-austerity platform, they could form the next government.
It also bears mentioning that the hundreds of Tamils and Sikhs who were bussed in to support the Queen’s Park slate were mobilized so on the basis of personality politics. This is a shame precisely because immigrant workers and youth will be the most devastated by the austerity cuts. Racial minorities suffer much higher unemployment, are more reliant on services, and are the first to be laid off, and therefore often reliant on social assistance.
Many of these people were very open to socialist ideas, and enthusiastically engaged with the activists of Fightback. Instead of being mobilized to vote for a slate that is capitulating to Bay Street, immigrant workers, as part of the broader working class, must be mobilized into the NDP to help build a fighting labour and socialist party. Organized labour can play an important role in this.
If organized labour is going to be able to challenge austerity, it will have to mobilize its membership. The April 21st demonstration against austerity and against the McGuinty budget was a first good step. The establishment of the Common Front organizing group is another positive step. This must be used to organize a mass movement, with escalating tactics, to stop the austerity budget. This should include making preparations for a one-day general strike across Ontario, in the event that McGuinty and the Liberals do not back off from their austerity agenda.
At the same time, organized labour should mobilize its membership into the Ontario NDP. The way that we can best ensure that the party will be fighting austerity instead of making back-room deals is to make sure that the best workers and young activists are in the party and present, holding the leadership to account.
Bay Street has declared war on the working class. We must prepare for the struggle ahead. This necessarily means ensuring that our organizations, the trade unions and the NDP, are mobilized and prepared to stand firmly against the offensive of the bosses.
Fight austerity on the streets, at the workplace, and at the ballot box!
Farshad Azadian is the current co-chair of the Toronto Young New Democrats. Julian Benson was a founding co-chair of the Toronto Young New Democrats.