Organizing Against the Flow: Learning from the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly

Activists on Toronto’s anti-capitalist left came together in new ways to try to close this gap in response to the financial crisis of 2008 that signaled the start of the ongoing global slump. At the time, many activists felt we needed to prepare to work together more effectively, given that employers and state policy-makers were sure to respond to this economic downturn with brutal attacks on wages, working conditions and social programmes. Sadly, this prediction was accurate.

At the same time, many anticipated that the brutal attacks would unleash a new wave of mobilization that would move anti-capitalist organizing out of the margins. To date, such a sustained fightback has not emerged on a significant scale within the Canadian state, with the notable exception of the 2012 Quebec student strike. Unfortunately, the attacks by employers and state policy-makers have largely gone unanswered, except for small-scale actions.

New Radical Projects

Three projects appeared on the Toronto left around 2008-09, each a venue for anti-capitalists to attempt new forms of shared work. The Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP) worked with others to launch OCAP Allies, which ended up serving as a thrust towards organizing against 2010 G-20 summit in Toronto and then the Stop the Cuts coalition against municipal austerity in Toronto. The Popular Education and Action Project, initiated by five organizations, held a well-attended series of educational events focused on understanding the economic situation, before folding into the Workers’ Assembly. The Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (GTWA) was started by activists from the Socialist Project after a series of consultations with a range of people on the left.

The first assembly of the GTWA, on October 2-4 2009, brought together over 150 people, representing a large cross-section of the existing anti-capitalist left in Toronto. I remember a real sense of excitement in the room and a genuine commitment to work together in new ways despite sharp differences. The first Coordinating Committee included people from a wide range of political perspectives.    

The GTWA sustained a sense of momentum through the first few assemblies. GTWA committees organized successful coffee houses around educational themes, a conference on worker organizing and laid foundations for specific campaign work. Now, however, the momentum of that early period has gone. The GTWA has shrunk drastically, so that meetings are small and the range of participants has become much narrower.

I was a member of the Coordinating Committee for much of the life of the GTWA. I am writing this article because I think we need to learn the lessons of this valuable experiment as the anti-capitalist left gropes towards new forms of organizing appropriate to the current situation.

Launching in Difficult Times

The years since 2008 have been very hard on the radical left in areas where the level of struggle has remained low, such the Canadian state outside Quebec, the United States, Britain and much of Northern Europe. Anti-capitalist organizations are finding it hard to sustain themselves and reach outwards, even though every word they say about the system is blatantly confirmed on a daily basis. Both anti-capitalist organizations organized around a particular political tradition (such as the Socialist Workers Party in Britain) as well as broader efforts to work together in new ways (such as the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France) have been weakened. I think we need some sober reflection on the failure of anti-capitalist organizing to catch on in a moment when the monstrous character of capitalism is nakedly evident, but that is a topic for another time.

So the years since the founding of the GTWA have not been easy ones for anti-capitalists, whatever model they have driven. Those of us who participated in the GTWA got the opportunity to work together in new ways, and that was generally an uplifting feeling. However, there were problems evident from the outset that intensified along the way. I believe that new attempts at pluralist anti-capitalist organizing, whether in Toronto or elsewhere, can learn from these problems and seek to address them from the outset.

The Centrality of Anti-Oppression Politics

When we looked around the room at the early assemblies, and especially at those who lined up at the microphones to speak, there were a lot of older white guys (I’m one myself).. This problem of the composition of the GTWA has gotten worse over time, and some very active women members left the GTWA specifically because of equity issues.
Let’s be clear, this is not just a GTWA problem: it has hampered many anti-capitalist organizations. Equity has come to the fore as a defining problem in a range of organizations, whether around issues of sexual assault or more broadly around political priorities. Composition may be the most visible indicator of equity problems, but these issues go far beyond the question of who is in the room, who speaks and who is on the Coordinating Committee.

Anti-oppression politics need to be at the core of the common project in anti-capitalist organizing. The very definition of “class” at the heart of the GTWA project was often problematic in this regard. Key GTWA activists often stated that this was a “class project,” not a “social movements” one. I think anti-capitalists should reject that formulation once and for all, as it assumes we can (and should) somehow separate class exploitation from patriarchy, heterosexism, racism and colonialism.

We need to learn how to hard-wire equity politics and practices into the daily functioning of organizations. This means both designing inclusive and engaging activities and taking effective action when problems surface. Activists need to think in very practical terms about organizing meetings around the schedules of women and people of colour, creating email protocols to prohibit gendered bullying and structuring meetings to encourage the most participation of members likely to be marginalized in traditional forums.

Activists are going to hold a pluralist anti-capitalist organization to high standards around questions of equity, and rightly so. This is not easy ground. We are going to make lots of mistakes and we are going to have to work at this in an ongoing way to develop appropriate politics and procedures. However, the signal needs to be very clear from the outset that a transformative queer feminist anti-racist anti-colonial agenda is at the core of the anti-capitalist project.

An organization that is disproportionately composed of older white men can become more inclusive of people of colour and women, but only if it engages in a conscious transformative process. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women successfully embarked on such a process in the 1990s. It was painful and complex, but did create an organization in which women of colour played leading roles. This required work at all levels, and we need to learn from that and other models. 

Impatience for Structure

An important layer of members were was impatient to turn the GTWA into an organization with strict membership rules, dues and paid staff. This impatience came largely from a sense of urgency in the face of the brutality of employers and state policy-makers pursuing the austerity agenda. However, the impatience to become a structured organization foreclosed discussions and polarized members from the outset.

I think it would have been better to think of the GTWA as a process towards a goal that was not yet completely defined. I think we on the anti-capitalist left are partly responsible for our own marginalization, failing to seek out what is new in the current political situation. We have long habits of telling people what they need to know, rather than asking them to share their knowledge. We need to embark on a process of working out a new politics, drawing on the powerful resources of learning from the past, at the same time as we learn to work together in new ways.
I understand that the call to be open-ended in our process seems like a fudge, postponing the hard decisions we need to take to get out there and fight. The GTWA, and indeed the anti-capitalist left more broadly, is a bit like a car stuck on the ice whose driver tries to floor it to zoom forward. Unfortunately, the tire just spins faster, digging a rut while making the ice slicker. We desperately need to spend time asking what might help the tire gain purchase on this difficult terrain.

At the other end of the spectrum were those who put very little energy into developing a broad anti-capitalist space on the Toronto left. Certainly some of this resulted from perceived flaws in the GTWA process. But in some ways there has been a mirror image between those who were impatient for structure, and those who were impatient with the GTWA process. 

Space for Strategic Discussion

This brings me to the third problem, which is the lack of space for strategic discussion and development of a new ethos appropriate for such interchange. We cannot create a pluralist anti-capitalist organization simply by throwing the current left together in a room with a commitment to being nice and a notion about organizing together. Unfortunately we have old habits of talking past one another that mean debates are either polarizing or they are avoided.

We need to work towards new forms of discussion, in which people actually listen to one another and seek to learn, even while expressing profound disagreements. This means setting aside the winner-take-all style of interchange in which discussion is polarized and people line up in positions from the outset in order to win a vote.

Part of creating a different kind of organization is the development of a new ethos, one of listening and of open-endedness without surrendering principles. State policy-makers and employers have spent the last 30 years restructuring, shifting policies and undercutting workers’ migrants’ and poor peoples’ rights. The years of blistering attacks and the restructuring of work and life has undermined the infrastructure of dissent, the web of informal networks and formal institutions through which people enhance their capacities to communicate, analyze, retain collective memory and act in solidarity. This has changed the terrain of struggle in important ways, even if it is still capitalism. The working-class capacity to mobilize is not simply asleep waiting for an alarm to be sounded — it has withered and needs to be rebuilt. Further, the working class will not wake up like Rip Van Winkle still looking like it did 40 years ago.

We need to grope towards a politics appropriate for these times with some recognition that no one has the answer. If someone did, would we be so marginal and fragmented? We could learn a great deal by working systematically though a series of debates that emerged through the history of the GTWA. These included strong disagreements about:

  •      the role of trade unions today and the bureaucratic character of their leaderships
  •      the relationship between unionized and non-unionized workers
  •      the impact of migration and precariousness on worker organizing
  •      forms of solidarity and division between employed workers and those who are not  employed
  •      the impact of racism, sexism, heterosexism and colonialism on working-class organization
  •      the state and participation in elections, including assessments of the New Democratic   Party
  • protest organizing, including the value of direct action vs mass participation

These and other discussions need to be had out, in a climate of comradeship where sharp differences are expressed, but individuals are not personally attacked for their views. Everyone should be a bit transformed by such discussions, so that their understanding is deeper even if they continue to hold the same position.

GTWA Campaigns

Finally, the GTWA suffered from its orientation around two active organizing campaigns, one focussed on free and accessible transit and the other on worker organizing. There were two problems with this campaign focus, which was developed as a way to avoid being a talk shop by engaging in shared action. First, the Toronto anti-capitalist left has had no shortage of campaigns, and many activists are already up to their necks in organizing commitments. Once the GTWA prioritized two campaigns, it raised important questions about how those of us involved in other mobilizing activities should participate.

Further, there are real questions about the extent to which effective campaigns can and should be organized on an explicitly anti-capitalist basis. Most often, effective campaigns rally a broad range of people around demands that are both winnable and transformative. The GTWA did not take the time to discuss what “winnable and transformative” might mean in the current context, and how to relate activism in existing campaigns to anything new we launched together.

Learning from the GTWA Experience

The Toronto anti-capitalist left took a step forward with the launch of the GTWA. We participated in an honourable and flawed experiment from which we can learn a great deal. If we are genuinely to learn from this, we need to develop new skills in evaluating our collective actions and drawing lessons from experience. This is not easy, as we all tend to develop deep commitments to organizations we support, which can limit our ability to critically assess them. I think the next step forward for the Toronto anti-capitalist left will come from evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the GTWA and developing new ways of organizing that address the shortcomings we identify, including those I have discussed. While we are unlikely to see dramatic growth of the anti-capitalist left without new waves of struggle, we can prepare ourselves for the mobilizations to come by working together to enhance our capacities and to develop the practices and analyses required to build the next new left.      

Alan Sears is a member of Toronto New Socialists who has been actively involved in the GTWA.

As always, New Socialist Webzine welcomes constructive discussion and debate on articles we publish. Short comments (moderated) can be posted below an article. Longer responses can be submitted to website [at]