Fighting Mayor Ford’s Austerity Regime (Part I)

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 towards 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 neo-liberal 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 neo-liberalism 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 neo-liberalism 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 neo-liberalism 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 neo-liberal 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 neo-liberal 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 neo-liberalism 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 neo-liberalism. It is in many ways these reasonable neo-liberals 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.

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 justify to the many factors involved) was widespread public resignation to neo-liberalism. The previous David Miller administration combined neo-liberal 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 neo-liberal 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 here).

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 day care 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.

The second part of this article looks at the need for a new Left that can fight to win against Rob Ford’s agenda and how the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly can contribute to building it. It will be published tomorrow.

Alan Sears is an Editorial Associate of New Socialist Webzine and a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Greater Toronto Workers’Assembly.  He is an activist who teaches Sociology at Ryerson University.