The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) held its 2019 convention from Nov. 25–29. This gathering occurred under the shadow of the Doug Ford provincial government’s recent implementation of a 1 percent wage cap on all public sector workers, setting off what has the potential to become a fierce struggle with Ontario teachers. The central issue at convention facing the 1,000 delegates was the question of organizing a general strike against Ford. This question polarized the week’s proceedings and garnered great enthusiasm among delegates.

On the first day, several left-wing resolutions were passed on the floor, including one in support of the Bolivian working class as they fight against a right-wing coup; a coup scandalously supported by the Canadian federal government. Labour Fightback activists also passed a resolution to defy back-to-work legislation, which got unanimous support from the floor. This was the culmination of one-and-a-half years of work, taking the resolution through various locals and labour councils to get it to convention. We passed this resolution at the 2019 CUPE Ontario convention, as well as Workers United Canada Council and CUPE Local 1334, who adopted it on their own initiative! We would like to thank all those who also supported the resolution from the floor, whether they spoke on it at the mic or voted for it. This shows us that there is clear consensus to defy impositions of back-to-work legislation in the labour movement. It is now up to labour leadership translate it into action.

Labour Fightback activist and a trade union delegate of Workers United Jennie Ernewein defended the resolution on the floor:

On day two, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) officially started their work-to-rule action. This context provided a heightened militant, fighting mood to discussions around defying back-to-work legislation, strike action, and other left-wing points of debate. There was also the election of the new OFL executive. The establishment slate of the OFL included Patty Coates (former Treasurer) for President, Ahmad Gaeid as the incumbent for Vice President, and Janice Folk-Dawson, a new addition, for Treasurer.

The only opposition to this slate came from two far-left, militant activists with the Worker’s Action Movement. Barry Conway, with the International Workers of the World and Vice President of CUPE Local 5167, ran for President of the OFL. Running for Vice President was Kurt Young, a Toronto-area sheet metal apprentice with SMWIA Local 30 and supporter of the group Socialist Action. These two candidates ran on a militant, anti-austerity program, far to the left of the establishment slate. They lacked resources and an organized base, but had a bold plan to bring the Ford regime down with general strike action.

After the votes were counted, Conway received 35.5 percent of the vote, which was an improvement from 18 percent in his last election run two years ago. Young received 33 percent of the vote. From a delegation of 1,000, this meant that more than 300 delegates voted for candidates far-left of the establishment slate. Many who voted for these two anti-establishment candidates barely knew who they were. This marks a significant rejection of the status quo leadership of the OFL by delegates, as many voted for anyone but the establishment. Labour Fightback would like to congratulate the Workers’ Action Movement candidates for making historic gains for the left.

On day three, all delegates at convention gathered outside the halls of the Sheraton Hotel, where the convention took place, and marched in the pouring rain towards Queen’s Park to show support to Ontario teachers.

At Queen’s Park, newly elected OFL President Patty Coates made a speech declaring the movement’s readiness to shut down the province against Doug Ford,

“And he [Doug Ford] needs to know that we are willing to shut this province down. If he continues to cut our public services, attack our education, attack our healthcare and lead us to privatization, we will shut it down, we will shut it down, we will shut it down!”

When the rally returned to convention, there was an electric atmosphere around discussions to amend the OFL’s Action Plan. A dozen speakers from various unions across the province came to the mic and called for strike action to be included in the Action Plan. This included speeches calling for solidarity strikes with Ontario teachers and for the OFL to organize towards a one-day general strike.

Jennie Ernewein of Labour Fightback — with the help of her fellow delegates from Workers United — put forward the only amendments to the Action Plan in this regard, and we would like to thank all labour activists who supported these amendments through their speeches. The amendments were as follows:

  1. Mobilize affiliates to resist future impositions of “back to work” and “essential service” legislation, including mass political protests and solidarity strikes. 
  2. Mobilize affiliates with escalating actions of mass protests up to a one day general strike to defeat Bill 124 and bring down the Ford government.

The first amendment added teeth to our resolution passed on day one, and more importantly committed the OFL to action on defiance of back-to-work legislation. The second committed the OFL to go beyond their original plan of waiting years until the next election. Sister Sara Labelle, a trade union activist with OPSEU, came to the mic to support these amendments. In her speech, she quoted another militant trade union leader in the USA, Sara Nelson, 

“You can write a law that says it’s illegal to strike, but there comes a day when that law means nothing. When thousands of people put their hands in their pockets at the same time, there is no moving them.” 

This powerful statement and a passionate call for further strike action by the OFL, received a loud, standing ovation from the delegates on the floor. Several others, including Labour Fightback’s Jennie Ernewein, also intervened to defend the amendments:

Rank and file democracy or bureaucratic control?

On day four, there was a final debate and vote on the OFL’s Action Plan. There was also a surprise intervention by an OSSTF executive on the mic, officially announcing that their federation will have a one-day province-wide walkout on Dec. 4 if the Ford government did not concede to their demands, and she asked that the OFL show solidarity in this regard.

Unfortunately, the new executive of the OFL, including its resolutions committee, rejected our two Action Plan amendments quoted above, that would have committed the OFL to a one-day general strike. This is despite these amendments having garnered a series of standing ovations the day prior. The OFL bureaucracy controlled the process, not allowing resolutions to be voted on from the floor until approved by the resolutions committee. After rejecting the two amendments, the committee instead put forward the following single sentence in its place:

Action 25: [NEW]: We will organize a mass general action across Ontario to demonstrate the power of working class unity.

Several labour activists came to the mic to explain that this new amendment did not include anything concrete and prevented the OFL from committing to a “general strike” to bring down Ford. Despite making a speech to “shut it down” at the rally at Queens Park, Patty Coates did not follow through on putting this kind of language in the Action Plan at convention. In fact, Coates and the committee took part in systematically purging the term “general strike” from the Action Plan. The debate became heated as some delegates challenged Coates as chair. However, delegates were eventually bureaucratically shut down from trying to force the amendments to a vote from the floor. Former OPSEU executive Gino Franche said, 

“I disagree with what is in the Action Plan. We need to do all this [organizing points in the Action Plan]. We have been doing this for years and years and years. We are good at it but we need to do more. We need true leadership to come out to our members.”

Unfortunately, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn, came up to the mic and made a speech supporting the establishment Action Plan, while expressing concern over the exclusion of the commitment to organize a general strike. The debate was extended until the end of the day with discussion continually centering around adding the term “general strike” into the Action Plan. Jennie Ernewein intervened exclaiming,

“…I’m a big fan of rank and file democracy, and I think we should take a vote of the delegates around the question of building towards a one-day general strike, I do not want a resolutions committee to decide that alone.”

This appeal for a direct vote on adding a general strike to the action plan was well received as most delegates were confused by the process and found it frustrating and discouraging. Unfortunately, the OFL bureaucracy controlled the process, continually deferring a decision back to the committee, not allowing the delegates to vote on the question of a general strike. If the delegates were able to vote on the amendments, instead of a small group of committee members deciding in private, it is likely that the call for a general strike in the Action Plan would have passed. 

Some establishment supporters made assertions that members were not ready to lose one day’s pay, which showed a clear disconnect between the tops and rank and file workers who are already seriously affected by Ford’s cuts. Also, why let a backroom committee decide on this, rather than letting workers themselves decide what actions they are prepared to take to beat back Ford? Others from the establishment showed a bit more restraint and promised that a general strike could be interpreted from their new amendment (Action 25 sentence quoted above). However, the debate over inclusion of general strike language showed a clear divide between those who were willing to organize for one and those who were not.

Sean McNeill, a delegate from Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), countered the establishment by speaking about the importance of labour leadership. Sean said that many workers are willing to make sacrifices, but they need labour leaders to give a clear direction and provide resources to make them feel that it is worth doing so. In his support for the amendments, he said that he felt the OFL needed to give a clear call for mass action up to a general strike to send a strong message to Doug Ford and provide the membership with confidence that they will be supported in mobilizing for this action.  

The debate dragged on for hours, exhausting delegates and dampening the electric mood from the day prior. In the end, the OFL executive, hiding behind the resolutions committee, refused to let the delegates at the convention vote on the question of a general strike. The Action Plan was adopted without the term “general strike” or any concrete plan to get Ford out of office before the next election in 2022. 

At convention, there was a clear shift to the left among delegates and a clear majority for a general strike. If the delegates had been given the opportunity to take a direct vote on the amendments, rather than allow a small group of committee members at convention decide, there is no doubt that general strike action would have passed. Most delegates represented an underlying pressure of rank and file workers across the province eager to fight Ford with a general strike. With Ontario teachers already announcing a province-wide walk-out on Dec. 4, this pressure is mounting. 

Doug Ford is deeply unpopular. The anger is palpable and people are looking for an outlet to fight back against the Ford government. There is no doubt that if the OFL provided an ounce of leadership, the Ford government would fall, stopping the vicious program of cuts in its tracks. Unfortunately, thus far there has been little to no leadership given by the OFL and this same approach is reflected in the bureaucratic quashing of a one-day general strike at the convention. The OFL bureaucracy’s rejection of general strike mobilization is a vital mistake. They must either be forced to organize towards a general strike with a concrete plan or be swept aside by a new generation of labour leaders willing to fight against Ford and the wealthy elite.

Labour Fightback stands for genuine rank and file democracy in the labour movement. We are proudly bringing the socialist, militant traditions of the past back into labour. If you agree with these ideas, join us!