Public anger at Premier Doug Ford has reached boiling point over his government’s gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. The anti-worker policies of Ford, keeping dangerous workplaces open and refusing to legislate paid sick days, directly fed the third wave and are now dragging Ontario into the abyss. Hospitals and health-care workers are overwhelmed as infections reach terrifying new heights. Yet at this very moment, the head of Ontario’s largest public-sector union has thrown Ford a lifeline and openly called for collaboration with his despised right-wing government.
Warren “Smokey” Thomas—president of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents 180,000 members across the province—came to Ford’s defence on April 17 in a shameful statement that brought the class collaborationism of Canada’s labour leaders to a new low. With workers rightfully angry at a government that has prioritized corporate profits over workers’ lives, Thomas took the government’s side. His statement is a disgrace to the labour movement and the most extreme example of the union leadership’s utter bankruptcy. Right-wing union leaders such as Thomas are no longer mediating between bosses and workers: they are actively taking the side of the bosses. They must be removed and replaced with a fighting union leadership.
An insult to workers’ intelligence
In his statement, Thomas minces no words: “we need collaboration” with the Ford government, he says. The OPSEU president goes on to paint the most flattering and sympathetic picture of Ford while attacking his critics. “Accusing the Premier of being uncaring, callous and more concerned with finances than health is simply dishonest,” Thomas says. What is truly dishonest is for a union leader to insult the intelligence of his members by defending this anti-worker government.
Health professionals have long pleaded with Ford to legislate paid sick days and to close non-essential workplaces to reduce the spread of the virus. Ford has consistently refused. On April 19, his government again rejected motions by the opposition to implement both of these measures. However, under massive public pressure Health Minister Christine Elliott said the next day that “gaps still remain” in paid sick days which the Ontario government was “going to be addressing.” Time will tell the degree to which the government will address those “gaps”.
“I have come to know the Premier. I know he is distraught. I know he cares. I know he is working around the clock. The burden of leadership, whether he signed up for it or not, weighs heavy in life or death decisions. Armchair quarterbacking is far cozier.
“Stop lobbing rhetorical bombs, end the name calling and hostility. Now is not the time for posturing along party lines that has been so front and centre. We must come together now.”
Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Thomas lobbing his own “rhetorical bombs” by accusing Ford’s critics of “armchair quarterbacking”, what we have here is a variation on the idea that “we’re all in this together” during the pandemic. But workers have seen with their own eyes how empty this rhetoric of shared sacrifice is. While bosses have raked in profits sitting comfortably at home, essential workers have been forced to put their lives at risk and continue to work in unsafe conditions for pitifully low wages. Many of these workers have died.
Ford lionizes essential workers as “heroes” while denying them paid sick days, just like the capitalists he represents who refuse to give workers hazard pay or implement necessary health and safety measures. How can workers “come together” with the same bosses who have demonstrated they don’t care whether workers live or die, so long as the profits continue to flow?
“I am calling on the Premier to share the burden, widen the tent and bring all voices into a room where egos can be checked at the door for the good of Ontario. Let’s hash it out; determine a course, develop a narrative everyone can trust and understand. And finally let’s implement it once and for all.”
The actions of employers and the Ford government have made it clear there is no “shared burden” between bosses and workers. Ford has ignored the voices not just of workers, but of health experts who have called for paid sick days and closure of non-essential businesses to stop the virus. Why should workers expect anything different from this government in the future? Thomas is effectively telling workers who criticize Ford to shut up.
“With nearly 4,500 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Ontario today, it’s clear that the answers must come quickly. Real answers from leaders who care more about people than their own futures.”
What Thomas makes clear is that real answers will not come from right-wing labour leaders such as himself. His statement is hypocritical in the extreme. In fact, it is class collaborators such as Thomas who care less about the well-being of workers than they do about their own futures—their comfortable salaries as top bureaucrats, and their cozy relationship with the enemies of working people.
Rising tensions within OPSEU
The context for Thomas’s statement is noteworthy. With anger growing against Ford, labour leaders are beginning to feel pressure from rank-and-file members. But instead of leading effective mass action, bureaucrats such as Thomas are attacking members who dare to criticize them. Shortly before his public defence of Doug Ford, Thomas released a bizarre red-baiting statement criticizing an article published last year in a socialist magazine. His attack on the “disciples of Lenin” is a testament to growing left opposition inside the union.
Internal tensions are rising within OPSEU due to anti-democratic maneuvers by Thomas and the union leadership. Last December, Thomas presided over the decision to postpone OPSEU’s annual convention for the second year in a row. As a result, Thomas—elected to a record seventh two-year term in May 2019—will see his term as president extended for another year, as will all elected officers at the local and provincial level. By postponing the convention, OPSEU leaders will also avoid public airing of an internal dispute with their staff union, the Ontario Public Service Staff Union, which has accused OPSEU of “unfair labour practices”.
At least one OPSEU executive board member has resigned in protest over the decision to cancel this year’s convention. The flimsy excuse that the pandemic made it impossible to hold a convention is belied by other major unions and political parties who recently held virtual conventions. One OPSEU member, who spoke to Fightback on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation from union leaders, said many rank-and-file members are growing frustrated with Thomas’s “autocratic” leadership style and his portrayal of Doug Ford as an ally to workers. In that respect, Thomas’s latest statement continues an ongoing trend.
In March, for example, Ford’s latest budget prompted an OPSEU statement that Thomas “commends the Ford Conservatives for rejecting austerity and says they must stay the course and continue to focus on rebuilding Ontario in the long-term.” What planet is Thomas living on? Throughout his two years in power, Ford has “stayed the course” of attacking workers, cutting social programs, showering public funds on his wealthy friends, and shielding employers from liability for COVID-19 deaths. If Ford is now scrambling to reverse himself and address “shortcomings” in paid sick days, it is only because his government’s handling of the pandemic has proven so disastrous that critics are increasingly calling for his resignation.
Need for direct action
The growth of a left opposition within OPSEU is reflective of the failure of union leaders to take effective action for their members. Expressing support for paid sick days in words and making phone calls to Conservative MPPs is not enough. Nothing will happen until workers exert their true power: the ability to withhold their labour. In fact, workers have been exercising this power throughout the pandemic, regularly refusing unsafe work. But time after time, it is union leaders who have called for the halt of such actions and sheepdogged their members back to work.
A fighting labour leadership would support workers to the hilt in any job action refusing unsafe work. It would also lead the charge to demand paid sick days by organizing action across the province. There is intense anger at the Ford government, and the vast majority of people in Ontario support legislating paid sick days. A recent poll commissioned by Unifor reported that Ontarians support the implementation of paid sick days by a margin of four to one.
Wednesday, April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers who have been injured or killed on the job. A more appropriate day to hold stay-home strikes, walkouts and sick-ins would be hard to find. The unions and NDP should take the lead in organizing this action and call for paid sick days, full pay for workers sent home during lockdown, double hazard pay for essential workers, and workers’ control of health and safety committees. Ontarians are sick of this government. Workers have the cure. Mass direct action can bring the pandemic under control and bring down Ford. To do this, we need to remove class collaborators such as Smokey Thomas from leadership positions and replace them with militant class fighters.