Fighting Mayor Ford’s Austerity Regime

Workers in Wisconsin have responded to attempts to destroy collective bargaining rights in the public sector with massive protest actions. These actions have galvanized workers in other states to confront their own employers and to support the movement in Wisconsin.

Public sector workers and public services in Toronto face similar attacks under Mayor Rob Ford. These attacks need to serve as an organizing impetus for a new Left in Toronto that can challenge the Ford agenda and ultimately pose an alternative that offers a real vision of social justice in the city. This requires a Left with real social weight that can both organize effective activism and challenge the Ford agenda at the level of ideas, reaching out to the broader public with a clear message to build solidarity. Public sector strikes are always political, and this will be especially the case in the Ford era. Strategies to build solidarity and engage in the battle for public opinion are crucial. This is not only a battle about the working conditions of public sector workers, but about the future of public services, the organization of work and the shape of the city.

Ford, Road Rage and Austerity

Elected Mayor of Toronto on October 25, 2010, Rob Ford aims to make road rage the guiding principle of civic government. He seems to have crafted his transit policy one day when he was pissed off at being stuck behind a slow-moving streetcar that kept stopping to let passengers off and on. Given his performance in council debates, he probably yelled a lot and shook his fist. Now, he wants to get the fucking things off his streets once and for all.

Rob Ford’s outstanding characteristic as a city councillor was his capacity for losing it. He would blow up and yell, without any regard for the usual niceties of council debate. He has the standard characteristics of a bully, who uses his explosive rage and sheer stubbornness to try to intimidate others and get them to back down. It would be tempting to think of Mayor Ford as simply a buffoon. But so far, he seems to be getting his way on City Council, even though the overall composition of councillors elected did not change very much from the previous “reform” administration.

The reason that we have to take Mayor Ford seriously is that his is the immediate face of the Age of Austerity that is sweeping toward us. In response to the global slump that started with the financial meltdown of 2008, governments have been slashing public services and attacking the wages and working conditions of public sector workers. This austerity agenda has led to militant responses, ranging from strike waves to student protests to outright revolutions, in Britain, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Wisconsin – and most dramatically in Tunisia and Egypt.

Despite these sometimes brilliant fightbacks, at this point the austerity agenda is generally advancing. And Toronto’s Mayor Ford lines up perfectly with this agenda. Sometimes an election victory takes on particular importance because of its timing at a key political moment in world events. That is true of the election of Rob Ford.

We will do ourselves a grave disservice if we simply dismiss Mayor Ford as an idiot, or say his election doesn’t matter. Ontario Premier Mike Harris looked like a buffoon too, and yet he advanced the neoliberal agenda despite the mobilization of a massive movement against key aspects of his program, including an illegal teachers’ strike and day-long city-wide days of action that included near-general strikes.

The project of neoliberalism has sometimes been dramatically advanced by the actions of slash-and-burn wreckers (the bad cops) whose job is to bust up the existing agreements and expectations. But at other time neoliberalism has relied on rationalizers (the good cops) who consolidate the program and claim to be doing all in our own best interest.

The wreckers are necessary to end a set of arrangements and understandings that has some legitimacy in the eyes of the public, unions, the media, and even some employers. These bad cops fiercely embrace neoliberalism and rage against big government, overpaid workers, welfare and the current state of things. They may cause some collateral damage in their political tantrums, but that is part of the cost of change – you need to break what was there so you can “fix” it.

Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris was a classic wrecker, and some of his agenda in such areas as education, funding to municipalities and transportation (such as the downloading of highways onto municipalities) was probably irrational even from the perspective of business. But he did the job of busting things up, as did Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and British Columbia Premier Bill Bennett.

But others have tried to mask the brutal nature of the neoliberal agenda and given it an air of inevitability. These are the reformers, often social democrats (like the NDP) who are elected claiming to make things better for working people. But they are completely resigned to the neoliberal framework. They sometimes even wince at the cuts as they make them. Because they are supposed to be on our side, they can play a critical role in undercutting opposition by presenting the neoliberal agenda as the only reasonable option. They play an important role in consolidating the new order and cooling down the temperature of politics to make neoliberalism a program for sustainable capitalist administration and not just a battle plan.

Former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who is now a Liberal Member of Parliament, prepared the way for Harris by attacking public sector wages (through the social contract), cutting services and initiating key aspects of education “reform” among other policies. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Toronto Mayor David Miller were also in large part good cops for neoliberalism. It is in many ways these reasonable neoliberals who convince people that (in the words of Margaret Thatcher) “there is no alternative,” showing that even the folks on our side slash services, cut taxes for the rich and corporations, attack wages and working conditions, and bash migrants and people living in poverty.

“But others have tried to mask the brutal nature of the neoliberal agenda and given it an air of inevitability. These are the reformers, often social democrats (like the NDP) who are elected claiming to make things better for working people. But they are completely resigned to the neoliberal framework. They sometimes even wince at the cuts as they make them.”

The global slump since the financial crisis of 2008 has pushed governments onto the offensive, shoring up profitability by ransacking public services and firing or slashing the wages of public sector workers. Mayor Ford and his rule of road rage align well with this agenda.

One factor contributing to Ford’s victory (this article cannot do justice to the many factors involved) was widespread public resignation to neoliberalism. The previous David Miller administration combined neoliberal priorities with limited reforms. There was certainly no alternative presented in the last election. Very large numbers of people no longer see any hope of improving their lives through solidarity, fighting back collectively and winning real changes in society like improvements in wages, working conditions and social programs. Ford’s simple message of ending the gravy train and paying less taxes fits with an electorate that has largely lost hope for a better world.

There are bitter fights ahead, with tremendous significance. Turning back the austerity agenda at the municipal level and at other levels of government will take a massive and effective community mobilization, uniting workers and people who use public services. The road rage agenda means that Ford will not back down easily, and will deliberately provoke and escalate fights.

Ford and the Age of Austerity

Mayor Ford has been working quickly to implement his agenda. In his first few months in office, he has already pushed motions to deprive transit workers of the right to strike, announced the privatization of garbage collection in part of the city, and proposed the private development of a new subway line along Shepard Avenue. He has announced the end of the “war on the car” and restated his commitment to ditching the Transit City plan designed to deliver rapid transit to a much wider part of the city using streetcars. He has demanded budget cuts across the board to fund his tax cuts, and there are already service cuts pending on some bus lines, in libraries and community centres and elsewhere.

A sizeable surplus left by the previous administration of Mayor David Miller has given Ford a bit of breathing room to limit service cuts for one year while cutting taxes. Next year they are planning to really go to town. The Toronto Star (February 8) reported that the Mayor’s brother and advisor Councillor Doug Ford told fellow members of the budget committee at a January 21 meeting that in 2012: “We should outsource everything we can.”

This is a big bargaining year for municipal workers, and the attack on public sector employees is likely to be brutal. Ford plans to ransack the public infrastructure of the city and replace it with private for-profit services. He opposes public spending on the arts, suggesting instead that rich patrons be found for any cultural projects. He favours private and ecologically unviable transit in the form of the car (of course, ultimately dependent on public roads) over public mass transit. This agenda is the Toronto face of the broader Age of Austerity.

The overall project of the Age of Austerity is to complete the neoliberal agenda in a hurry by permanently destroying the infrastructure of public services that has been seriously eroded by cutbacks through a process of attrition over the last 30 years.

The corporate and state austerity project has three goals: saving the private sector from its rotten debts, attacking public sector workers to wipe out the last “good” working-class jobs and destroying public services and replacing them with private for-profit institutions, to get rid of the idea that people have any rights to programs or services.

The most immediate goal of the austerity agenda is to save corporations from the impact of the bad debts (especially but not only the financial institutions such as banks) that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. This is not a municipal issue, but it frames the context in which Mayor Ford is operating. Governments have covered massive losses in the private sector to shore up corporate profits and are planning to make it up by slashing expenditures. For a chilling account of this, see David McNally’s book Global Slump (reviewed by Charlie Post in New Socialist Webzine).

The second austerity goal is to viciously attack public sector workers. This is very deliberate, as key public sector workers have been able to preserve some elements of “good” working-class jobs (a degree of security, living wage and decent pension/benefits) won in union struggles in the 1940s-1970s. Over the past thirty years, these conditions have been stripped away from many private workers, who increasingly find themselves working part-time, for relatively low wages and without pensions or good benefits. And of course, many employees never had security or a living wage.

The Ford attack on public sector workers began by moving against the right of TTC workers to strike, and will progress through the year as bargaining proceeds. The privatization of public sector jobs, such as garbage collection, is designed specifically to drive down wages and working conditions. Ford ally and Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday was quoted in the Toronto Star (February 8) saying “many more services are begging to be contracted out.” He went on, appealing to resentment against those holding “good” working-class jobs: “There certainly are a lot of things that we could look at, and anything that’s labour-intensive here is very expensive, we know that the cleaning of police stations … cutting grass and digging and labour-type work. We pay pretty good pay around here – a lot better than the people who pay the (tax) bills get.” The Ford administration will try to isolate public sector workers as privileged fat cats, and it is going to take serious political work and effective alliance-building to challenge this perception (as I discuss below).

The third goal is to wipe out public services in everything from transit to daycare to community centres, so that we are forced to rely on private, commercial, profit-making ventures or non-profit organizations that tend to serve as outsourced public services offering considerably lower wages and less security. The ultimate goal is to destroy the notion of a right to any sort of public service in any area, leaving people with only the “right” to what they can afford to buy on the market. The privatization of garbage collection is an example of this, but so is the destruction of Transit City and its replacement by a mythical and impractical subway.

The end result will be more people dependent on the car. And as services erode, from child care to community centres to libraries, more people will be forced to turn to private alternatives or, in the case of people with low incomes, do without. Indeed the attack on public services is necessarily a war on the poor. The rich will always have alternatives. Social assistance is already at sub-poverty levels, and further cuts along with the erosion of community services will drive more and more families and individuals into hunger, illness and homelessness.

Wanted: A Left to Stop Ford

It will take a mighty movement to defeat the Ford agenda and turn back the age of austerity. We need a Left that can reach out to broad layers of the population, communicating a political alternative effectively and contributing to effective activism that really makes a difference.

Such a Left has an important role to play, in coordinating political organization, learning strategic lessons from the movement and popularizing ways of seeing the world that challenge the dominant perspective from politicians, business leaders and the media. Unfortunately, the Left now has little of the social weight it had through most of the 20th century. There is, of course, exciting and important activism going on. Crucial struggles are being waged and sometimes won. But the Left is currently in a relatively marginal position, mobilizing relatively small numbers and reaching few with its ideas. It needs to move out of the margins to begin to show through activism and through engaging in the battle of ideas that another world is possible.

To build a new anti-capitalist Left with real social weight, we need to strengthen the strategic capacities, communication skills (both talking and listening), political analysis and effective solidarity that are the basis of our counter-power from below. It is our collective ability to take the streets, to grind workplaces to a halt, to occupy schools, offices or plants, and to counter the dominant ideas that enables us to win reforms in a capitalist society and to ultimately overturn the system. Solidarity and collectivity are not automatic, but need to be built and rebuilt through the development of our capacities to communicate with each other, to understand the way the system works and to act together with increasing effectiveness.

If the Left is on the margins, it means the ability of the working-class (in the broadest sense, including all those who do not own or control key productive resources such as companies or patents) to build a counter-power through solidarity is at a low ebb. This is a time when we need to re-establish our ability to win, overcoming the widespread resignation that means that attacks on workers, migrants and the poor are seen as inevitable and irreversible. We need to re-establish a presence in public debate, influencing the way key issues are framed and countering the dominant viewpoint at every level.

Building a new Left with social weight means transcending the inherited Left politics that have got us to where we are today, including the sectarian ethos of seeing other Left groupings primarily as enemies and the lack of an integrated analysis that genuinely includes ecological consciousness, feminism, gender and sexual liberation, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. We will not move beyond the legacy of 20th century socialisms and anarchisms by casually dismissing the knowledge built up over the last 150 years of struggle, which provides essential resources for the future. But we need to recognize that the programs of previous Lefts do not provide straightforward answers to the challenges we face.

The Left politics we now inherit developed in particular places under specific conditions. Changes in ways of life and the organization of work undercut the foundations of an old Left that grew in particular conditions. Political victories and defeats change the agenda and the defining issues of the day. As we learn from the shortcomings of previous Lefts, new Lefts must emerge more attuned to the possibilities and challenges of the times. This happened in the early years of the 20th century and to some extent in the 1960s-70s. It needs to happen again now.

There are signs of this new Left in current struggles against poverty, for migrant rights, in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and in solidarity with Palestine, among others. But the Toronto Left is relatively fragmented and often fractious, which is an obstacle to working together on a new scale and collaborating in the development of new political frameworks for education and activism.

There are many legacies that need to be overcome to build a new Left with social weight. The weakness of Left politics has led to a separation of analysis from action, leaving theory to become academic and therefore incomprehensible and useless, while activism is too often uninformed by serious strategic thinking and honest self-reflection. Too often, the existing Left has adapted to working mainly with other radicals, and has only limited capacity to reach out and engage others. We need to be able to offer a compelling explanation of events that does not reduce the world to simple slogans or rely on complex academic terms, communicating to the widest possible range of people including those who are not already anti-capitalist.

The current Left is imbued with a profound sense of pessimism that the mass of workers might become radical activists, leading some (like the NDP and union leaders) to simply pander to workers as they are, while others (in radical organizations and movements) casually write them off or imagine that they are already radicalized and just waiting for the right call. Finally, there are patterns of tactical inflexibility, where seriousness about an issue is measured by adherence to a single style of activism, and debate about effectiveness is blocked.

A New Left

To build a new Left, existing radical forces need to come together with an anti-sectarian ethos and an outward orientation toward engaging with others and building a broader project. This outward orientation needs to be transformative, meaning that we learn as we engage, and we are changed by the experiences and perspectives others bring with them to the movement. It is not a question of simply recruiting to our politics, but also learning and changing the character of our movement as it broadens.

Activist cultures develop in specific circumstances, so that the characteristics of the movement match the conditions of work. The slow, patient organizing and capacity building of the Workers’ Action Centre and other community organizing programs (focused on a locality or a specific group, for example) has its own rhythms. Union activism requires a long-term perspective, as people develop formal and informal networks among co-workers often in difficult circumstances. Student activism, in contrast, allows for and indeed requires some degree of haste, as the school year is short and there is an ongoing turn-over of activists as they graduate. And these are just a few examples.

A Left with social weight must span these various environments and combine these efforts, engaging activists in a range of situations. That means tremendous openness and patience as we learn from one another, understanding that what works in one milieu might not work in another while at the same time recognizing that we are responding to the same system that frames all of our work.

The anti-capitalist Left will need to work toward developing a learning and listening culture in which Left pluralism is really nurtured. The 20th century Left tended to develop a winner-take-all approach to political interchange that short-changed genuine engagement with those who disagreed. Often, real progress in Left mobilization relies on interchange that allows people to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of recent actions, the effectiveness of our tactical repertoire, and the fit between our ideas and the realities we face.

A successful fight against Ford in Toronto will require broad coalition building that pulls together a wide range of constituencies and organizing styles. Democratic and broad coalition-building is not easy, but it will be necessary to work together in new ways to challenge the austerity agenda. Specifically, it will be important to find ways to balance effective militancy with an orientation to drawing in new layers of activists. This will require sites for clarification on issues of strategy and tactics, encouraging wide-ranging debates about such issues as the character of union bureaucracies, the impact of precariousness on working-class organization, and the effectiveness of various protest modes.

Finally, a new Left needs to find its voice in public debates about politics at all levels, understanding the role of cultural production, political education and activism in the battle of ideas. This means using the existing media as well as enhancing our own. An anti-capitalist Left needs to be able to explain in clear and compelling terms the way the system works, while at the same time engaging in ongoing public debate about the issues of the day.

A whole host of arguments are bound to come up in the context of Ford’s offensive, and we can begin preparing ourselves to face them now. How do we answer the challenge that others (for example, private sector workers) have already made sacrifices, and now it is the turn of the public sector? How do we explain in clear language the links between these cuts and a particular kind of capitalist crisis?

Toward a New Left: The Workers’ Assembly

The financial crisis of 2008 galvanized many on the Toronto Left to try to do things differently to prepare for the battles to come. Three important projects developed out of that impulse. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) launched OCAP Allies to get activists working together in new ways. A number of groups (the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Toronto New Socialists, No One is Illegal-Toronto, OCAP and Socialist Project) cooperated in the Popular Education and Action Project, which held a series of forums on the crisis. And the Labour Caucus of Socialist Project launched the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (GTWA) process, engaging with a wide variety of individuals and groups in a consulta process before calling the first Assembly.

The GTWA has emerged as a sustained effort to serve as an umbrella for a new anti-capitalist Left. It has now established campaigns on public transit and G-20 defence, a series of educational coffeehouses, regular assemblies and a project to organize a network of labour activists. It has an elected coordinating committee. It is well placed to contribute to developing a new Left with real social weight that can build opposition to the Ford austerity agenda.

But the Assembly has yet to develop the needed spaces for collaborative work by Toronto’s radicals around strategic and tactical questions. It has not focussed on the challenge, for example, of discussing, debating and taking practical steps to build the kind of Left that can actually stop Ford and turn back the austerity agenda.

Members of the Workers’ Assembly liven-up the rally in support of Steelworkers in Hamilton. [Photo: Ali Mustafa]
The GTWA can contribute to the anti-Ford struggle at two levels: engaging in the battle of ideas and providing a space for strategic reflection and movement-building. At the level of the battle of ideas, the GTWA could hold workshops on key questions with the goal of developing resources (leaflets or pamphlets or comics) that will help popularize an alternative analysis of the crisis and the Ford offensive. This means providing spaces for clarification through discussion and debate to address the varying analyses of the nature of the crisis, the character of trade unions and their leaderships, the importance of electoral politics and many other issues. A robust analysis of the austerity agenda is important for action, and for the development of materials that can provide a clear anti-capitalist take on events for new layers of potential activists.

The GTWA can also play a role in the development of broad, democratic and inclusive movements. The transit campaign can work with a wide range of activists around transit issues in the face of the Ford attacks, linking together mobilization for adequate bus routes in underserved areas with the defense of Transit City, raising the question of free transit while at the same time working to build a much broader movement. The GTWA Labour Committee is contributing to the work of building new networks of worker activists to respond to the coming attacks.

Overall, the GTWA can provide a site for some of the crucial discussions and debates that need to take place as we strengthen our movements to engage in the coming battles. To do this, the GTWA needs to continue to commit itself to working toward a real integration of class politics with ecological consciousness, feminism, gender and sexual liberation, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. At this point, participation in the assembly process has been disproportionately white men, many of whom are older with lots of Left experience (and I am one of them). The Assembly has not set a path toward a transformative process that can move beyond particular sections of the existing Left. Of course, this is no simple question, but it begins with a frank recognition of the problem and a firm commitment to working in new ways.

For example, when people counterpose “class” and “social movements,” they often imply that working-class questions and those of race, gender, sexuality and indigeneity are somehow separate. Concretely, over the next year we are going to face the challenge of bringing together the defence of “good” working-class jobs in the public sector with the defence of public services for the poor, and the battle against precariousness that includes migrant rights. It is a real political challenge to find the right political framework and strategic orientation to pull together active solidarity along these lines. The Ford team is already making it clear that they are going to try to isolate public sector workers as a privileged layer. We need to discuss ways to defend “good jobs” that are integrally linked to improving the situations of those with limited incomes or working in precarious situations.

The GTWA was launched in anticipation of precisely the kind of challenge Mayor Ford is bringing to the anti-capitalist Left in Toronto. The next year will be extremely difficult, demanding a great deal of patience and collaboration as we engage in urgent fightbacks. If the Assembly can begin to find a role in rebuilding an anti-capitalist Left with social weight, it will make a huge contribution to the anti-Ford fightback and building the next new Left. •

Alan is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University, an activist in a variety of social justice organizations, and an author of numerous articles and books such as The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood, 2014).