Rob Ford vs City of Toronto unions: “A historic test” for labour

By David Camfield

Over 20 000 Toronto municipal workers in CUPE Locals 79 and 416 are heading towards a confrontation with Mayor Rob Ford and the right-wingers who dominate Toronto City Council. It’s quite possible that Ford will lock out the workers in early 2012 in order to try to force them to give up the parts of their collective agreements that protect the jobs of workers who have ten years or more of service with the City — and the public services all CUPE 79 and 416 members deliver — against privatization. Ford is hoping that by taking on the unions he’ll deliver for his business supporters and regain some of the voter support he’s lost since he won office in 2010.

A video from the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly about the situation is absolutely right: this is “a historic test for the Canadian labour movement” (though its comparison with Ronald Reagan’s 1981 smashing of the US air traffic controllers union, PATCO, which involved the firing of almost the entire membership of the striking union, is probably a bit exaggerated).

The situation is very serious. There’s no hiding the fact that CUPE 79 and 416 are not heading into this confrontation in good form. Their 2009 strike “was a political failure when it came to mobilizing sustained action and education, garnering public support as well as linking the defence of unionized jobs with fighting for workers in non-unionized jobs, the underemployed and the unemployed,” as two members argued (see also the analysis of the 2009 strike, unions and the working class in Toronto in this article).

If Ford wins what he’s after through a lockout (or a strike), it will encourage other public sector bosses to follow his lead. The video is right that “If we lose here… we’ll pay the price for years to come. If we win here, we can begin to turn the tide.” “Occupy Toronto pointed us in the right direction,” it argues, “We need direct action.”

The video calls on the top national officials of CUPE “to coordinate the working class as a whole” in this struggle. This is a problem. Even if they were to take over the leadership of the fight, it’s extremely unlikely that CUPE National’s top officials would adopt the kind of strategy that offers the best chance of winning. What’s called for is a strategy that tries to turn a lockout of CUPE 79 and 416 into a political battle uniting City workers and everyone in Toronto who doesn’t support Ford’s agenda of cuts and bigotry against Ford’s attack on the unions — and which uses mass direct action to force him to back down. There’s nothing in the track record of CUPE National’s top brass that suggests they’re willing to fight to win in this situation.

Instead of looking to CUPE National, members of CUPE 79 and 416 should organize to push within the unions for a winning strategy. Members of other unions, anti-cuts groups and other community groups who recognize what’s at stake should work to persuade as many people as possible that everyone who’s against Ford should be getting ready to mobilize in solidarity with the City’s unionized workers. The stakes are high.

David Camfield is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine, and the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.