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Spartacist Canada No. 162

Fall 2009

Toronto City Workers Beat Back Anti-Union Offensive

NDP, Union Tops: Obstacles to Class Struggle

On July 31, Toronto city workers in Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 416 and 79 returned to work after a bitter 39-day strike in defense of union gains won over decades of struggle. Their partial win against a massive anti-union assault, coming in the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, was a welcome break in an almost unbroken pattern of grim working-class defeats.

Calling the city’s outrageous demands—118 pages of givebacks—“fair and reasonable,” Toronto’s social-democratic mayor David Miller led the charge to destroy sick benefits and gut seniority rights. Right-wing politicos and media commentators salivated over a golden chance to greatly weaken the unions, a prelude to further privatization and further shredding of government and social services. The attack on the city unions was meant to serve as a wedge to divide working people, pitting better-paid unionized city workers against the poor and unemployed, dividing younger against older workers and driving down conditions for all.

Instead of rolling over in the face of the city’s demands, 30,000 workers in CUPE 416 and 79 threw down the gauntlet and walked off the job. As uncollected garbage mounted on the streets, so did the media’s anti-union vitriol. Reviled as greedy, city workers—at least 10,000 of whom work part-time and have no paid sick days—were said to “enjoy perks that others can only dream of” (Globe and Mail, 26 June). Ontario’s deputy premier, George Smitherman, put himself at the head of a gang of strikebreaking “volunteers” to clean up garbage, as did local councillor and former CUPE official Giorgio Mammoliti.

The capitalist economic crisis is destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions here and internationally as the ruling class seizes the opportunity to extract massive concessions from workers, all for the greater glory of profit. In Canada and the U.S., public sector workers are a major target. In California, hundreds of thousands of government workers have been handed unilateral wage cuts of 14 percent through mandatory three-day furloughs each month. From Chicago to New York, city governments are handing out layoff notices and savaging workers’ gains.

In Canada, the ruling class is gunning for health care and other benefits, and above all pensions. Older workers are to be thrown on the scrap heap to retire on crumbs, while sick, disabled and pregnant workers are now targets for dismissal. Last November, postal workers in the Public Service Alliance of Canada struck for over a month, unsuccessfully, against the destruction of their sick plan. In Windsor, devastated by mass layoffs in auto, city workers struck in mid-April to defend retirement benefits for new hires but in the end yielded on this, starved out after nearly four months on the picket line.

But Toronto is not Windsor, an economic wreck. It is the largest city in Canada and when CUPE shut it down, the social power of the working class was shown for all to see. Without garbage pickup, clean water, safe roads, public health services and much more, Toronto cannot run. Instead of crossing each other’s picket lines in the mutual scabbing deals that undercut past strikes, outside workers in CUPE 416 and inside workers in 79 struck together. IBEW electricians employed by contractors working on city projects honoured the picket lines.

Miller made elimination of the sick plan the central issue, bragging that his predecessors “never had the guts to try and deal with this sick bank.” The plan allows full-time workers 18 fully paid sick days per year, and unused days are banked for future use or to be cashed in—to a maximum of six months—as a form of superannuation on retirement. The city’s “offer” was a naked cash grab which amounted to stealing workers’ banked time.

If the city had succeeded in its sweeping assault on seniority and other union rights, that would have been a body blow to the union. In the end, by standing firm on the picket lines for nearly six weeks, the unions succeeded in beating back most of the city’s attacks. The bosses’ media howled in fury that Miller ended up giving away the store by keeping the sick plan intact for existing workers.

CUPE 416 president Mark Ferguson was hailed as a hero at the ratification vote by jubilant workers, but the outcome was far from an unalloyed victory. The new contract includes an inferior sick plan for new hires, a two-tier arrangement that sets the stage for dividing the workforce, pitting younger workers against older. Miller gloated that the deal would save the city “millions and millions and tens of millions of dollars.” It must be recognized that this concession will open the door to further incursions against this workforce and others. We are opposed to all such two- or multi-tier schemes. The unions should fight for equal pay for equal work and equal benefits, including full pay for all sick time, for all workers.

Undermining Workers Struggles

The city strike showed graphically that looking to NDP social democrats or other “friend of labour” politicians as allies is a dead end for workers. The NDP is what we Marxists call a bourgeois workers party. Linked to the unions via the labour bureaucracy, it has a thoroughly pro-capitalist program of maintaining the present system. In power, the NDP has always administered capitalism with a vengeance. The war on the city unions by the present NDP-dominated city council is but the latest in a long history of such attacks. In Ontario under Bob Rae in the 1990s, the NDP imposed across-the-board pay cuts on government workers; in B.C., they sent the army and police against Native protesters. Out of power, the NDP seeks to direct social anger into the safe channels of parliamentarism.

In the 2003 and 2006 mayoral elections, the CUPE union tops corralled these powerful civic unions behind David Miller, then an NDP member. The pro-NDP reformist left happily joined the “it’s Miller time” bandwagon. The International Socialists (I.S.) were among the most enthusiastic, urging in 2003, “It is vital that Miller’s campaign be backed” because he was “completely opposed to privatization.”

But Miller was and is Bay Street’s man. From the moment he stepped into the mayor’s chair, he has necessarily run this city for the capitalist class. In 2006 when transit workers staged a wildcat strike, Miller joined the anti-union hysteria, demanding massive fines from the union. Two years later when they struck again, the city demanded that the province enact strikebreaking legislation—for which the provincial NDP caucus voted unanimously.

Under Miller, the cops have carried out massive “anti-gang” raids in black and Asian neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch, where unemployment and poverty are rampant. “Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy” cops act as an occupying force, hassling and detaining black youth at will, part of the bogus “war on crime” which has given the police licence to kill, beat and brutalize young black men. And for this they are handsomely rewarded: the police budget has swollen to a massive $855 million—25 percent of the city’s budget!

Obscenely, the union misleaders of CUPE 416 and 79 embraced the cops as allies, welcoming a police association spokesman onto a June 24 strike rally platform. Meanwhile, the cops were enforcing the city’s edicts, including, outrageously, arresting the chairman of the Emergency Medical Services unit of Local 416, Glenn Fontaine, who still faces trumped-up charges and remains suspended from work. When the CUPE tops cited wage increases given to “other unionized City workers,” they included the cops. Echoing this, the I.S. pleaded that the largely female workers of Local 79 “deserve the same respect as the primarily male cops” (Socialist Worker, 8 July). For their part, the Fightback group kept a stony silence about the cops, an issue of vital importance to the working class.

Consistent with their reformist views of the state, both groups hold that cops are part of the working class. Last year, Fightback’s British co-thinkers backed cops demanding better pay, headlining “Bolshevik Bobbies” (, 29 January 2008). On the contrary, the cops are a core part of the capitalist state, and along with the army, courts and prisons serve to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Racist, corrupt, violent to the core, professional strikebreakers, the police are the sworn enemy of the working people, a truth which Fightback and the I.S. hide because they believe that this state can be pressured to serve the interests of working people and the oppressed.

For a Class-Struggle Leadership!

The city strike was a test for the labour movement, and while the unions largely beat back the city’s offensive, the broader interests of labour were sacrificed by a pro-NDP leadership that is ultimately loyal to the capitalist system. To seize the strike as an opportunity to push back the ruling class’s across-the-board attacks required a fighting, class-struggle leadership rooted in the understanding that the interests of labour and capital are counterposed and irreconcilable.

A class-struggle leadership would have rallied all workers and the oppressed, explaining that an attack on these unions was an attack on all and on the services upon which millions rely. Against the city’s attempt to mobilize the poor and unemployed against the strike, such a leadership would have raised demands for jobs, free quality health care and 24-hour child care for all and for greatly increased unemployment benefits for everyone who cannot find work. A struggle to organize the unorganized would revive a union movement that gets smaller and weaker every year, while a massive program of public works at union wages would go far in providing desperately needed housing and repairing the city’s rotting infrastructure. Such demands are inseparable from the struggle to overthrow this bankrupt and decaying system of exploitation.

It was the social democrat Miller, not some reactionary Tory, who launched the assault on the unions. Yet the CUPE tops alibied Miller and even now push the line that things would have been much worse with a right-wing mayor. In May, a 1,600-strong Stewards’ Assembly organized by the Toronto Labour Council—ostensibly devoted to resisting “the pressure to accept concessions on wages, benefits and pensions”—featured Miller as a “surprise guest” along with other social-democratic luminaries such as NDP leader Jack Layton.

The quest for “unity” with the capitalists—and their social-democratic frontmen—can only bring defeat to the struggles of labour and the oppressed. Last December, Layton’s federal NDP joined with the Liberal Party in a short-lived coalition that was heavily backed by the labour tops. We denounced this coalition, declaring that it was “an enemy of the interests of the working class.” Meanwhile Layton called on workers to have the “courage” to “take a pay cut so your friends at the plant can keep their job” (Toronto Star, 23 January).

Those Who Labour Must Rule!

The NDP-loyal left answers David Miller’s perfidy as they answer every betrayal of social democracy: by pressuring the NDP and its brethren in the trade-union bureaucracy to become reliable champions of workers struggles. Fightback calls on the NDP class traitors and union tops to “launch a campaign right now to raise class consciousness”! Meanwhile in B.C. this group is campaigning to “Take Back the Party” in a move to bolster the NDP’s fortunes after its defeat in the May provincial election.

The I.S. compares Miller’s attacks to Bob Rae’s brutal anti-working-class austerity, asking “What lessons must we draw from this seeming repetition of history?” In fact their call, “Time to challenge Miller from the left,” is precisely a program to repeat the cycle of betrayal at the hands of yet another, supposedly “left-wing,” NDP politician. The I.S. laments that Miller withdrew from the NDP, “choosing the mayor’s office over the workers’ movement.” The idea that Miller’s anti-labour attacks were some kind of misguided “choice” reflects their reformist framework. Far from a potential instrument for socialism, the NDP is an obstacle to workers struggles.

More broadly, the mayor is the central administrator of the capitalist state at the municipal level, and no different than any other executive office, be it president or prime minister. Revolutionaries would not hold such positions—to do so means taking responsibility for running the capitalist state and all its oppressive machinery. Similarly, to run for such offices is to deepen illusions, peddled by the I.S. et al., that the state can be reformed.

The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste is fighting to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party—and that party must be built in struggle against the social-democratic NDP and union tops. As long as capitalism exists, the working class will be exploited. As Marx explained in Value, Price and Profit (1865), in their defensive struggles working people:

“ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady…. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”

The only way to smash the assault on the working class, the only way to combat racist police violence and bigotry against minorities, is to rip the productive forces from the hands of the capitalist class through socialist revolution and put them in the hands of those whose labour makes society run.


Spartacist Canada No. 162

SC 162

Fall 2009


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Toronto City Workers Beat Back Anti-Union Offensive

NDP, Union Tops: Obstacles to Class Struggle