After months of threats, Premier Doug Ford’s Tory government has at last tabled its central, planned attack on the working class with Bill 47, the Making Ontario Open for Business Act. If passed, it will reverse nearly every legal reform won by the labour movement in the past decade, and it must be fought tooth and nail.
What workers stand to lose
Bill 47 not only freezes the minimum wage at $14 until the end of Ford’s first term, but also freezes annual increases to the wage normally indexed to inflation for three years. In effect, this amounts to a minimum wage cut. It also takes away workers’ rights to paid days off and reduces their ability to leave in cases of sickness, bereavement, or emergency.
The bill hits precarious workers especially hard. It claws back the rights of part-time and temporary employees to pay equal to that of their full-time colleagues. It takes away precarious workers’ rights to a minimum of three hours’ pay when on call, and their right to refuse to be on call whenever their boss demands it.
On the trade union front, the bill takes away the right to card check certification for workers in building trades, home care, and temporary help agencies—allowing bosses to bully these workers out of unionizing. It also re-imposes a six-month limitation on locked out or striking workers’ rights to reinstatement.
These attacks will be a disaster for Ontario’s workers if they aren’t stopped.
A recent study by the United Way and McMaster University found that 32 per cent of all workers in the Greater Toronto Area are stuck in low-wage, insecure employment. As a result, although they often balance several jobs, their earnings keep them trapped in poverty and misery. Anything that lowers minimum earnings or empowers employers to punish or fire workers will push these disadvantaged workers down even further.
Ford’s anti-worker agenda clear for all to see
Though much of Bill 47 is genuinely terrifying, one can hardly be surprised that Ford and his Tory government are looking to attack the province’s worst paid and least secure workers.
Doug Ford is a millionaire factory owner who himself became enormously wealthy on the backs of exploited workers. He has used his business experience to make the case for his premiership.
Additionally, attacking workers’ rights has been an explicit goal of Ford’s since his earliest days in politics. When Ford was a Toronto councillor, he was a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth supporter of the cuts and privatization schemes put forward by his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. It was during this time that the pair famously promised to “privatize anything that isn’t nailed down.”
Although Doug Ford ran without a platform in the Ontario provincial election, and therefore has no mandate for his anti-worker agenda, he has remained remarkably consistent about his intent to slash the minimum wage since he became Tory leader. Both he and his cabinet ministers have reiterated that intention in public statements, opinion pieces and the like, repeatedly, in the months since.
They’ve shown no willingness to bend on this issue. And, the labour movement has, thus far, done little to change that.
Weak tactics invite bolder attacks
After Ford was elected premier, a small CP story reported that Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Chris Buckley tried to meet with Ford to convince him to keep his hands off the minimum wage. The article notes Buckley’s request was ignored.
Though we do not know if or when Buckley or Ford met up, we do know that little else was done by the OFL leadership in response to this government’s explicit, reactionary agenda in the following months. A look at the OFL’s Facebook page lists only the June 16 “Hands off” the minimum wage rally, followed by a solidarity contingent for IATSE workers on August 17, a “lobby training webinar” on August 6, and finally the Sept. 15 “Day of Action.”
On Sept.27, Ontario’s Chamber of Commerce announced it was stepping up its lobbying efforts, demanding a full repeal of recent labour reforms. In response, the Ontario Federation of Labour also issued a release titled “Email PC MPPs to say: Hands off $15 minimum wage!”
This effort was supported by OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas. Thomas argued the only hope for Ontario’s workers was not a mass movement, but appeals to the “humanity” of Tory MPPs.
OPSEU issued a press release on Oct.3, titled “OPSEU President calls for common sense revolution inside Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party.” The release states that “there are a lot of good, caring Conservatives in Ontario,” and demands Tory backbenchers and MPPs “rise up” against Ford’s acquiescence to business pressure.
The OFL followed that with a release, on October 5, titled “Phone Ontario Cabinet Ministers and tell them to keep Ontario’s decent work laws!” It insisted that if the Tory cabinet ministers heard what cutting the minimum wage would do to average people, they would cease the effort.
On Oct. 12, OFL President Buckley said, “It is not too late for Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet to do the right thing and help Ontario workers.” A few emergency actions were then called across Ontario the day before the legislation was tabled. Fightback activists attended the rally of about 400 in Toronto, which despite being energetic, unfortunately made no mention of escalating tactics.
The argument that Ford’s offensive against Ontario’s workers can be halted by phone calls, letter-writing campaigns, and pleading to the “humanity” of Tory ministers was also echoed by some on the left.
For example, on Oct.2 Pam Frache, the Ontario co-ordinator of the Fight for $15 and Fairness, told Canadian Press, “We still think there’s time for the premier to change his mind, to do the right thing and to stand with the people, not with the corporate elites.”
Since the bill was tabled, the campaign co-organized a rally in Toronto and solidarity rallies elsewhere. It has called for demonstrations against the Chamber of Commerce in Windsor, a panel in Kingston, and a student rally in Toronto at the end of November. These are good initiatives.
Nevertheless, the campaign’s recognized leadership continued to echo the OFL’s strategy of guilting the Tories out of attacking workers. For example, on Friday, Oct, 26, an article by Chloe Rockarts and Gerard Di Trolio, on RankandFile.ca, reiterated that the Tories could be talked out of attacking workers. The article, titled “Ford takes on Bill 148, but there is resistance”, ends with a quote from Frache that reads:
“The threat is on the table at Queen’s Park. They are threatening poverty wages for the foreseeable future for the most vulnerable workers in the province. They’re threatening paid sick days, which has real life consequences. We’re still asking for Doug Ford to stand up to the big business lobbyists, and to stand with the people.”
The reality is that asking Doug Ford and his Tory MPPs to stand up to the bosses is like asking King Louis XVI to stand up to the French aristocracy.
To reiterate: Ford is a millionaire factory owner. Though he is not a particularly bright man, one can be confident Ford at least understands that remaining profitable requires cutting costs and raising revenue. That means keeping his workers as overworked and underpaid as possible. If factory owners could be talked into paying workers enough to live on, the working class would never have needed either trade unions or minimum wage laws.
Simply put, Doug Ford has a class interest in making sure poverty pay remains legal.
More recent evidence, in turn, suggests Ford is aware of this class interest. Soon after Bill 47 was tabled, his government released another article titled “Ontario’s Job Creators Support Making Ontario Open for Business.” Most striking is the third paragraph in a backgrounder document, as it shows the government feels living wages, sick days and the right to refuse precarious work, to name a few, are “unnecessary burdens.”
Around that time, the Toronto Star reported, Ford spoke to the Ontario Economic Summit in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There, he urged other business owners to join his government’s offensive against workers. Ford said “Not everybody out there supports making Ontario open for business…We’re prepared for the fight ahead.”
There is also no reason to believe other Tory ministers are any friendlier to the needs of working people. For example, Ontario’s Labour Minister, Laurie Scott, is a career politician who was as close to John Tory as to Tim Hudak. Similarly, Ontario’s Health Minister, Christine Elliott, founded a corporate law firm and has an explicit mandate to slash health care spending. These people are there to serve the rich, at the poor’s expense.
Many rank-and-file and working class activists have been mobilized around the fight to raise the minimum wage in Ontario. People have worked hard, leafletted, organized, knocked on doors, and done everything they could to turn the tide. But we have to be honest and say that these workers have been let down by the labour leadership.
Bad leadership comes with bad consequences. The labour and left leadership had no reason to believe that the Ford Tories’ minds would be changed by reasoning with them politely. In effect, as Ford and his ministers became more aggressive in their explicit commitment to cut the minimum wage and slash workers’ rights, the leadership of the labour movement remained largely calm and passive. And, with Bill 47, we see the results. Weakness and vacillation only ever invite aggression.
Instead of calling for a revolution in the Ontario PCs, we need a revolution in the Ontario labour movement. Instead of creating any illusions that Ford could ever “stand up to big business lobbyists”, we need to explain that the Ford Conservatives are the party of big business. It is ridiculous to say that Ford must stand with the people—instead we should say bring down the government!
The working class and its simmering rage
After the bill was tabled, Scott had the windows to her office, in the sleepy town of Lindsay, smashed and graffitied with the phrase “Attack Workers We Fight Back $15,” scrawled on its side. Though it will do little to stop the bill, this act clearly reflects the burning anger in society.
In response to these actions Todd Smith, the Tory house leader in the Legislative Assembly, demanded with a slight tone of fear that the OFL, the $15 and Fairness campaign, “and these other radical groups acknowledge the fact that a line has been crossed.”
The bill also sparked spontaneous demonstrations and emergency actions in Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton, Waterloo, Peel, and Oakville. CityTV captured the mood well with the headline “Growing Unrest Over Labour Laws”.
These are, of course, just the latest, small signals of the growing radicalization that is taking place among Canadian workers.
A majority of Canadian workers consider themselves working class or poor. Increasingly, many see the political system and the economy as being stacked against them, delivering only attacks to satisfy the rich. This has been expressed in the past few years with high strike votes of 90 per cent, 95 per cent, and even 100 per cent.
In addition, the ruling class is frightened especially of young workers who will be hurt by these attacks. It was only a few years ago that David Stewart, then head of the Conference Board of Canada, warned Canada’s bosses that if the living standards of young workers do not improve, young people will “get fed up”, and establish a “pattern which has disturbing implications going forward.”
But anger without organization can only take the movement so far. If the leadership of the OFL and the rest of the labour movement can’t seize the opportunity provided by the mass repulsion at Ford’s government, it will simply lead to demoralization. And with that demoralization, turnout and involvement will dwindle. If this occurs, Ford will only be emboldened to attack workers further.
Re-learning to fight
Doug Ford is not Canada’s first reactionary, anti-worker premier. Throughout history, workers and youth have fought back against similar attacks. It was only six years ago that Jean Charest’s anti-worker and anti-youth austerity government was paralyzed by workers and students during the Quebec student strike and working class solidarity efforts. That strike, and its related demonstrations, eventually brought down Charest’s reactionary government.
The current approach of “let’s convince Ford” is merely preparing the way for a capitulation when Bill 47 is enacted into law. The leadership has given no indication that the present, very partial mobilizations will in fact go anywhere. The current actions are too few and far between to scare Ford. Furthermore, these efforts were organized by the Fight for $15 & Fairness campaign, with the OFL providing only peripheral support from the sidelines. Compared with the OFL, which represents over one million workers, Fight for $15 has far fewer resources and is thus limited in what it can accomplish. As a result, while Fight for $15 activists have devoted many hours to organizing actions across the province, these have only attracted a few hundred people on average, far less than what could be mobilized if the unions had done their duty and taken the lead.
The OFL has effectively “contracted out” its organizing responsibilities to a relatively small network of activists, placing the full burden of resisting Ford’s attacks on them. It should not be the responsibility of the Fight for $15 campaign alone. The OFL is a much larger organization with greater numbers and resources at its disposal. Only by setting these into motion can a truly enormous fight back against Ford be built.
People will only come out to protest if they think it is going somewhere. That is why it is essential to adopt the demand of bringing down the government and making the province ungovernable. A good place to start would be to amass thousands of workers outside the Tory Party Convention taking place on Nov. 16-18 at Toronto’s Congress Centre. Only the OFL has the resources to make this happen. As recently as 2013, under former OFL president Sid Ryan, 25,000 protested outside the Ontario Liberal convention and forced the repeal of Bill 115 that attacked teachers’ right to strike. But now with even more attacks on the table, nothing is being organized by the OFL!
In all likelihood not even a protest of 25,000 would be sufficient to defeat the Ford Conservatives and their reactionary agenda. They are united with big business to push through attacks on the working class. Therefore the labour movement needs to hit the bosses where they hurt—in their moneybags. If we are to overturn Ford’s agenda, we must prepare the conditions to organize political strikes. Political strikes go beyond the narrow demands of contract negotiations and instead cut across all sectors of the working class. Ford wants a province that is “open for business”; the labour movement needs to show him that there will be no business while he is attacking workers and the poor. This has been done before with the Metro Days of Action against Mike Harris, and it can be done again with sufficient leadership from our unions. We need to force this government out of office by collective action. Working class people cannot afford four more years of Doug Ford. Workers need leadership from their organizations now more than ever. The time to fight is now.