A New Type of Political Organization?: The Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Left around the world is undergoing reformation. As the Great Recession has vividly demonstrated, more than three decades of neoliberal capitalism have eroded many of the significant gains won in the immediate decades following World War II. From wage and benefit concessions to reductions in social services, in an openly anti-union political climate, it is now being demanded that the working-class pay for a crisis which it did not create. With the impasse of the anti-globalization and other new social movements that burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, coupled with the inability of many historically progressive unions, trapped in erstwhile social democratic parties, to mobilize their membership base, the Left is in a period of experimentation.

There have been important developments: the emergence of explicitly anti-capitalist parties such as Die Linke (The Left) in Germany, the Left Bloc in Portugal, and the New Anti-capitalist Party in France; the re-emergence of working-class discontent in the streets of Greece, Spain, and Italy; and a left tide throughout Latin America. What about North American developments, however? A June 2010 article by Robert McChesney and John Bellamy Foster discusses the weak state of progressive forces in the United States and their inability to translate significant support for their political positions into commensurate political influence. This article updates reports on attempts in Toronto to build an anti-capitalist political movement bringing together trade unions and working-class communities, first published in the pages of Relay: A Socialist Project Review and Monthly Review.1

Broadening the Anti-Capitalist Base

Workers’ Assembly banner at the June 25, anti-G20 rally.

The idea began in the Spring of 2009, at a meeting of the Socialist Project Labour Committee.2 We were looking for a way to do a number of things at the same time. First, we wanted to explore a new way for the working-class to organize – across the different segments, including organized trade unionists who tended to look after their immediate bargaining and political needs, often totally cut off from non-unionized workers, people involved in community struggles, and workers in either precarious segments of the labour market or out of work. Second, we wanted to end the separation between the public and private sectors (both being hammered by the propaganda machine of business arguing against the “privileged” workers with pensions, decent wages, etc.). Third, we wanted to bring together elements of the Far Left – people who identify themselves as either socialists or anti-capitalists – in ways that might lead us beyond our small groups and narrow ideological tendencies. Fourth, we looked to reach some of the younger radical activists who were either concerned with poverty and welfare issues or involved in student groups and social movements, but who were beginning to question their isolation from organized labour and their tendency to remain limited to single-issue battles. Our approach was motivated by the inability of the labour and social justice movements, as well as opposition political parties, to develop an effective response to ongoing attacks against working-class living standards. It was evident that a fresh organizational approach based on new strategies, new alignments, and new objectives was needed – an approach that came to be dubbed Workers’ Assemblies.

The Socialist Project, one of the initial groups involved in planning the Assembly, always said that we wanted to contribute to the development of a working-class-oriented socialist party and movement – rather than become the centre of it ourselves. But we saw ourselves as being bogged down, and this idea – originally an idea that Bill Fletcher, Jr. raised and Sam Gindin picked up on – provided a project that we thought might eventually move us closer to that goal. As well, we were struck by the unwillingness of the organized labour movement to ally with increasingly isolated and impoverished sectors of the working-class, to link up with community movements, and to address larger social issues. The trade unions were, and still are, mired in concessions, wage freezes, and other kinds of compromises with employers, and a politics of tailing after the social democratic NDP, which was going nowhere – hence the lack of a real fight-back against the crisis.

The starting point was not to launch a pre-formed set of local assemblies but to begin a process. We wrote up an invitation, and sent it out to activists we knew in working-class communities, left trade union activists, and colleagues on the anti-capitalist Left. It called for a meeting to propose the idea of an Assembly to them. This allowed us to attract a core of people helping to build toward the Assembly. From that core, we began to organize a series of ‘consultas’ – consultations centering on specific, hotly contested issues – in order to build momentum and shape the discussion.3

The Consulta Process

The first consulta was on the commonalities and differences between activism in unionized workplaces and anti-poverty movements and on how they relate to each other. The second was on our relationship to the local labour council (which is one of the most progressive nodes of the standard labour movement in Canada), and the third was on the relationship and differences between class and other forms of social identity. The emphasis was on engaging activists of all stripes and political orientations among the anti-capitalist Left in a discussion of our own shortcomings and limitations and how, within a larger collectivity, we could overcome them.

The thinking behind the Assembly was that it wouldn’t be just another event, nor would it focus upon a particular single-issue campaign. We noted that a key shortcoming of such mobilizations was that they tended to dissolve as a given issue or campaign dies down and everyone returns to their own projects. The consulta process, then, sought to actively build and develop our capacities together. This meant attracting new people to an exciting project with new possibilities: conveying to progressive individuals in union locals that this process carries hope; discovering more strength through political ‘mappings’ of communities and corresponding exchanges among groups; learning how to work collectively and democratically among diverse sectors of the working-class; rejuvenating already existing movements; and overcoming the fatalism that saps the mobilizing energy of activists.

The Workers’ Assembly is Born

The First Assembly was held over the first weekend of October 2009. [Ed.: Presentations by Steve Williams and Sam Gindin.] It had mixed results. About 100 people attended from across the left spectrum and some key activist centres (anti-poverty, immigrant rights, left rank-and-file members of the public sector labour movement, student groups, environmentalists, etc). But it was weak on private-sector unionists, communities of colour, indigenous groups, and socialist feminists. As the Assembly progressed, we had some struggles over how to define ourselves (as an organization of individual members, or as a network or coalition of affiliated organizations), in addition to how geographically wide-ranging the organization would be (would it be based in the City of Toronto, the Greater Toronto Area, or stretching the Golden Horseshoe?). The Assembly ended with a plenary where it was agreed that the organization would be based on individual membership and based primarily in the Greater Toronto Area. A Vision Statement was also drafted, but it was assigned to a volunteer-based Interim Coordinating Committee (ICC) to come up with firm proposals for membership, committees, possible campaigns, and a more refined Vision Statement, as well as outreach. The ICC was the scene of a number of debates. The ICC discussed what should be undertaken at the next Assembly, drafted a Vision Statement, tried to determine how a member would be defined, and began to think critically about possible future campaigns.

The Second Assembly was held over one day in mid-January 2010; the attendance increased to roughly 150 people or so, but the participants remained within the same demographics as before. We set up committees (e.g. publications, campaigns, education), adopted a refined Vision Statement, and definitively agreed on the need for individual membership. The Campaigns Committee was entrusted to come up with recommendations for campaigns to adopt for the next Assembly. After the Assembly ended, however, there was a lot of confusion: people signed up for more than one committee and couldn’t attend them all, and different committees stepped all over each other’s toes. Despite this, the Campaigns Committee recommended two campaigns: free public transit and the defense of public-sector services, which were to be voted on in greater detail in time for the next Assembly.

The Third Assembly held in April 2010 saw healthy debates over which campaigns to adopt; whether to move toward an elected, as opposed to volunteer-based, coordinating committee; and whether to have a mandatory dues base. Underlying all of this was a recognition that most of the Assembly was still based on the left groups, activists, and students that had founded it, and that we had to build outwards toward the labour movement and people involved in other community struggles. After the Assembly, most of the work centred on trying to build the Free and Accessible Public Transit campaign; attempting to create a centre of resistance within the public-sector unions and among recipients of social services through the public-sector campaign; and orienting itself toward the G20 activities, debating questions of strategies and tactics. A new ICC was set up, again on a volunteer basis; some agreed to serve a second term. [Ed.: Presentations by Ian McKay and Rafeef Ziadah.]

Numerous organizations have individual members involved in the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (GTWA), a virtual A-Z of progressive organizations in Toronto including most major trade unions – a comprehensive list with links is available on the Workers’ Assembly website.

In-between our Third and Fourth Assemblies, the GTWA, along with other social justice groups, hosted a number of events committed to not only challenging the representatives of the ruling class gearing up for their G20 meetings, but continuing the task of building a sustained workers movement days, weeks, months, and years after the G20 left town. This includes marches, workshops, panels, lectures, discussions, performances, spoken word, film screenings, and open-space plenaries on social justice issues, including forums on health, poverty, and privatization and on developing new bargaining strategies in an era of wage restraint.

The latest Assembly was held on July 16/17th, 2010 and included on Friday evening a public forum on the Free and Accessible Public Transit campaign.4 Saturday morning began with a series of report-backs from the various committees, a discussion on procedures for electing a coordinating committee, rules of conduct at meetings and assemblies, finances and fundraising, and in the afternoon a panel of speakers discussing and analyzing the various aspects of the G20.

The GTWA passed three motions: (1) to form a G8-G20 defence committee to contribute to the movement to drop all charges against G20 protesters; (2) to organize a G8/G20 de-briefing sometime in August or September and to further discuss its implications; (3) to support and endorse the “Toronto Call for a Public Inquiry” into actions undertaken by the G8-G20 Integrated Security Unit. With nearly $1-billion spent on ‘security’ at the Toronto G20, “the reaction of the police, in arresting, detaining, and brutalizing nearly 1,000 people in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, exposes the serious attacks on civil liberties the left faces.”5 The painful experiences of repression, aptly termed ‘Torontanamo Bay’ by some, may unfortunately provide a glimpse into the future, given that struggles over austerity and social services are likely to be the flashpoints of political confrontation in the coming years.6

Three policies were also voted on and passed: (1) coordinating committee elections; (2) discrimination and harassment; (3) and participation, voting, and disruption. Coming out of that Assembly, we have 240 members and 265 supporters (people who want to be kept up on our activities), with members belonging to 40 community/social justice groups and 20 unions/labour organizations. Our six committees/caucuses are dedicated to Campaigns; Membership, Finance, and Outreach; Internal Political Development and Education; Publications and External Political Education; Culture; Labour; and G20 Solidarity. Our upcoming events include our next Assembly meeting tentatively scheduled for mid-October, a public-sector organizing meeting, a labour conference, a G20 forum, and new member orientation.

Prospects and Challenges

While the Assembly has thus far surpassed the expectations of many, it is premature to answer whether or not the GTWA represents a new type of political organization since, as the history of the Left shows, unexpected shifts in political climate and other changing circumstances can quickly derail progressive political interventions. We can, however, offer some personal thoughts, as members, on the prospects and challenges facing the GTWA.

Developing Working-Class Capacities

As mentioned earlier, the objective of the Assembly is to sustain a process, not to launch a ready-made organization. The focus, in our view, is on developing working-class capacities based upon recognizing differences and an understanding of our social interdependence through collective movement-building. However, a good number of committed activists within the GTWA are not so keen on the centrality of the working-class. This remains an ongoing tension, which will surely require further debate and discussion. Although the Assembly process is indicative of pragmatic efforts among the anti-capitalist Left in one city to broaden the efficacy and influence of social justice actors, the dynamics of its functioning will likely force the crucial question of a larger coordinating body, since issues related to un/under-employment, immigration, ecological degradation, and imperialism, for instance, obviously go beyond the local scale. Of course, the insistence on local orientations is crucial to developing a strong, solidaristic base upon which an international solidarity campaign can be built. This may potentially include city-wide assemblies that meet regularly, have an elected and accountable coordinating committee, and are based on democratic and sustained participation from its membership, with prospective plans to begin pooling resources for mutual support (e.g. a common newsletter and website, educational forums, pamphlets, campaigns, public educationals) and, perhaps eventually, an independent political platform. Organizing the various fragments of the working-class, as Engels reminded us some time ago, is a necessary project, since capitalists are always organized: “they need no formal unions, rules or officers.”7

Creating Permanent Structures

The GTWA will likely have to confront the limitations of not having a permanent structure or physical space to bring its effectiveness to the next level.

As mentioned above, given the scale and scope of what we’re up against, just organizing around specific issues and particular constituencies – as impressive and energetic as it may be – cannot add up to the kind of strength we need to bring about comprehensive change. The cost of not having such organizational capacities has become dreadfully clear during the ongoing global economic crisis. Despite sporadic and localized battles here and there, the working-class really wasn’t able to take advantage of this historic moment, since our capacities just weren’t there. In fact, capitalism (including neoliberalism) seems to be emerging more powerful and consolidated than ever. With our weakness so exposed, there is good reason to expect the Right to exploit the situation to its fullest potential.

The current fragmented state of movement politics leaves us frustratingly marginalized, unable to reverse or reshape the political agenda. Overcoming it entails developing organizational forms that can actually win substantive reforms, within and beyond the workplace, let alone attempt revolutionary undertakings. The GTWA will have to discuss how to build our collective political capacities in the absence of a ready-made fight-back organization; what our respective groups are doing independently and what we could potentially be doing together; how to build trust among ourselves and learn to work together; what kind of public campaigns could unite us; and so on. Of course, it will also necessitate a serious discussion on the need for financial resources. Moreover, it will unavoidably involve reckoning with the larger ideological, political, economic, and cultural barriers that confront the different layers of the working-class.

Although assemblies are built locally, the GTWA may develop and new ones may be formed (see below) without losing the strength of their local orientations, raising the possibility of a larger assembly made up of representatives from various assemblies and their communities. If the assembly process is to give birth to an organizational force capable of challenging the hegemony of capital, however, it must surmount the impasse of the old politics of networks and coalitions, as well as business-as-usual unionism.

Coming to Terms with Tensions

Most of the people from the different left groups have worked together quite well, transcending some of the sectarian divisions, without each having to caucus with their small group members. The left groups include socialist groups (IS, SP, NSG, CP, and others) as well as a number of anarchist groups (Common Cause, IWW). That part has been encouraging. But other political tensions exist and need to be addressed over time. The recent experience of the G20 demonstrations, especially the large differences over the appropriateness of different tactics and strategies (themselves rooted in deeper differences over the nature of the state and other major theoretical and practical issues), shows that we must figure out how to debate and solve them.

While there are a lot of people signed up for the Assembly, the core of people doing most of the planning and facilitating remains quite small in number, with a predominance of students and leftists. In other words, we are weak among trade unionists. Moreover, without funds for full-time organizers, the campaigns will have a great deal of difficulty getting off the ground. And the only way we can get funds is by having fixed dues. Participants, however, are still hesitant to commit to the idea until they see the importance and success of earlier Assembly campaigns. This may pose some problems. Additionally, people involved in other struggles are finding themselves torn in terms of time. Unless our Assembly campaigns can get off the ground, we can lose activists to their previous single-issue concerns. Last, there is a difficulty in getting more women and people of colour to take the lead on the coordinating committee. We are trying all kinds of new forms of affirmative action and forms of equity to make that happen.

Positive Developments

Since the GTWA was initiated nearly one year ago, there have been rumblings in various major cities throughout Canada – in particular Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa, but also mid-size cities like Windsor and London – of efforts to begin a similar process. These projects carry great hope as they attempt to develop a new kind of politics, a new way of organizing, a new way of building trust and unity amongst the working-class and, most importantly, of not only protesting but actually developing alternative proposals and potentially winning. As the austerity knife gets sharper and cuts deeper, and class polarization reaches new heights, the GTWA, as with local assemblies elsewhere, has significant potential. The task remains, however, to ensure that this potential gets realized, given the historic opportunity to effect change and indeed, perhaps, “to weaken the ruinous effects of this ‘natural’ law of capitalist production on our class…”8


  1. Robert W. McChesney and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism, the Absurd System: A View from the United States,Monthly Review (June 2010); Herman Rosenfeld, “The North American Auto Industry in Crisis,Monthly Review (June 2009). Also, see Sam Gindin, “Working People’s Assemblies,” Relay No. 30, Summer 2010.
  2. For more information, see Herman Rosenfeld, “New Openings for Toronto Workers,Relay No. 29.
  3. The term first came to us from Canadian activist-academic Judy Rebick who borrowed it from the Zapatistas and who had organized a series of consultations with their base.
  4. For more information see R. Schein, “Toronto’s Free and Accessible Public Transit Campaign,” AlternateRoutes.ca, Issue 26.
  5. Ritch Wyman, “In the Aftermath of the G20: Reflections on Strategy, Tactics and Militancy,” The Bullet No. 381, July 3, 2010.
  6. See the special issue of Alternate Routes, “Saving Global Capitalism: Interrogating Austerity & Working Class Responses to Crises,” AlternateRoutes.ca, Issue 26.
  7. Friedrich Engels, “Trade Unions,The Labour Standard, May 28, 1881. Accessed September 29, 2009.
  8. Karl Marx, Capital Vol.1, 1867, New York: Penguin.

Herman Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based socialist activist, educator, organizer and writer. He is a retired national staffperson with the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor), and worked in their Education Department.

Carlo Fanelli is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Work and Labour Studies at York University. He is the co-editor (with Bryan Evans) The Public Sector in an Age of Austerity: Perspectives from Canada's Provinces and Territories. He is the editor of Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research and maintains a blog at carlofanelli.org.