Not necessarily a general strike, but a general strike if necessary
In Ontario, a public sector union has won an important but limited and temporary victory. What comes next matters a great deal.
For those who watch politics as one would watch professional wrestling, Progresive Conservative premier Doug Ford’s offer to repeal the loathsome Bill 28, which overran constitutional rights to impose a contract on 55,000 education support workers and prohibited them from striking, must be a let down. Those people might say the same thing of the decision by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to accept Ford’s climb down, pack up the strikes, and return to the bargaining table from which they were driven by an unreasonable government. And yet politics, while entertaining for some, isn’t entertainment.
Politics is the processes, systems, institutions, and relations of power through which we struggle to sort out who gets what, when, and how, as Harold Lasswell would put it. Politics matters in the symbolic and material lives of each and every one of us. Pundits and other observers might treat it as a game, but it’s not. And while the day might have played out differently in Ontario, especially as CUPE prepared the ground for a general strike in the province as early as November 14th, the course of this particular Monday ought to be welcomed—for now.
It was just over 100 years ago that the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 saw nearly 35,000 workers put down their tools and hit the streets to fight for decent wages, the right to collective bargaining, and safer work environments. It would take years for workers to secure the labour rights fought for during the spring and early summer of that year before the government and the Royal Northwest Mounted Police violently put down the strike, but the mass action propelled the cause forward. Before Winnipeg, there was the Printers’ strike of 1872 during which Toronto printers agigated for a nine-hour work day, which led to the right to join trade unions in the first place. The labour rights Canadians have today have been secured by those who put it all on the line in Winnipeg, Toronto, and elsewhere over a century ago. We continue to fight for those same rights today despite them being enshrined in constitutions, labour codes, and elsewhere.
CUPE’s decision to accept Ford’s offer to rescind Bill 28 in return for ending strike action is wise. Despite the fact CUPE has chosen to hold back on a general strike, for the moment, the battle continues and broad action remains an option in reserve. There are reasons to be optimistic bargaining could end well for workers. Already, labour has sent a message to governments, conservative and otherwise, across the country that the rights of workers aren’t to be abrogated. The mobilization, solidarity, and public support of the last several days are a win and a prelude to future victories.
All things considered, CUPE made their decision on Monday from a position of power. They retain the right to strike should talks break down again or if Ford fails to make good on his word to repeal Bill 28. While some point to the fact that Ford’s offer amounts to requiring the union to end their strikes in exchange for him repealing a bill that forbids them from striking—thus producing a net-neutral result—the fact is the union is in a stronger position than they were before, and they will be in a legal position to resume strike action if they must. They’ve shown their strength and solidarity, too, while gaining broad support across the province.
The public, who were paying attention to the issue, by and large took the union’s side. As Abacus Data found in their poll of November 4th and 5th, 50 percent of respondents opposed Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to run roughshod over worker rights — with a mere 36 percent supporting his move. More to the point, perhaps, 62 percent of people blamed the provincial government for schools being closed.
The government lost the framing war as they attempted to blame the union for being intransigent and greedy, neither of which is true. While CUPE had widespread public support, however, such backing is a battleground that can be won and lost. Rather than choosing to fight the framing war, the union decided to hit the bargaining table to do the work it came to do, which is to get a fair deal for education support workers.
Unions across the province, indeed throughout the country, have CUPE’s back, which further strengthens their position. At a CUPE press conference on Monday, several major public and private sector unions joined them on stage in a broad show of solidarity. The presser sent a clear message: while CUPE is choosing the bargaining table today, the struggle isn’t over. If Ford fails to bargain in good faith and if he refuses to offer a fair deal, it’s back to the picket lines, this time en masse. Ford cannot possibly risk redeploying a similar anti-worker bill again, nor can he break out the notwithstanding clause once more—at least not without expending more political capital than he has in store and possibly risking his government.
The show of solidarity and the high level of public support for CUPE and its workers reflects a broad understanding that Ford’s (pre-emptive) trampling of labour rights and assault on collective bargaining is an existential threat to the well-being of workers across the country. Today it was CUPE; tomorrow it could be your union. Today it was Ontario; tomorrow it could be Alberta. Or Saskatchewan. Or Manitoba.
An attack on workers anywhere is an attack on workers everywhere, and so each bout ought to be fought as if it were your own. Because workers are essential to everything we do from schools to grocery stores to hospitals to delivery services to sanitation and beyond, ensuring they get a fair deal, safe working conditions, and respect ought to concern all of us. Moreover, we should centre the fundamental consideration that it is a moral imperative to fight for and protect the dignity of workers as human beings.
Like it or not, CUPE must still go through Ontario’s conservative government to get a deal. They’re right to return to the bargaining table to fight for one, but no one should trust Doug Ford. His government cannot be taken at its word, as a recent decision to to develop the province’s Greenbelt in Southern Ontario, after promising not to, reminds us. Accordingly, CUPE ought to make sure Ford, his government, the province of Ontario, and the country know it is prepared to resume strike action and extend that action to a general strike. Not necessarily a general strike, but a general strike if necessary, one might say.
The Ford government might be hoping they can defuse the bomb they’ve set by temporizing. It falls to each and every one of us to ensure that hope doesn’t materialize. Instead, we ought to keep up the pressure and prepare to mobilize in support of workers should Ford fail to live up to his commitment to bargain in good faith—especially if he does so by way of an all-out assault on labour rights and constitutional norms.
No right can be taken for granted. We ought to be eternally prepared to re-assert each of them, not the least of which are those that workers have fought and died for. Those are the same rights we struggle to protect and realize in their entirety today in their name and in our own.
Glad to see this piece because I think we may be at an inflection point with regards to both workers rights and basic rights. What comes next is indeed critically important. On a day where our southern brethren are set to launch themselves into the abyss, Canadians should pay close attention to what awaits if we don't actively participate in the democratic fight. The short term win by CUPE was good news but the job of protecting basic rights is never-ending. The forces that work against it do so tirelessly and with limitless budgets. Perhaps Ford's arrogance in attempting to undermine the Charter gave the long dormant Canadian labour movement a shot in the arm, but resting on the general good sense of Canadians won't be enough long term. The other side plays the long game. I've watched the labour movement disintegrate over the past 40 years. And with it the ideas of equity, fair wages, and common purpose. Alberta and Saskatchewan have been stumbling in that direction for some time. When attacking some of the poorest paid workers by attacking their Charter rights becomes a viable strategy with no accountability, we risk winding up where the US finds itself today. The fight here extends beyond CUPE and Ford's machinations.