By Christine McLaughlin
This past weekend I gathered with thousands of protestors at Queen’s Park who were demonstrating against pending public service cuts and wage freezes in Ontario. Spun in some quarters as a protest by organized labour, the crowd contained a multitude of groups. Many in the crowd wore “We Are Ontario” stickers, a coalition of ninety groups aiming to present a “common front” against austerity measures in the province. This is not the first attempt in Canada to unify workers and public service advocates under a unified banner. Past attempts offer important lessons for current efforts to build similar movements.
The nascent “We Are Ontario” movement held its first general assembly 20 April 2012, the day before the rally and march at Queen’s Park. All were welcome – I was able to walk in off the street and register. The meeting brought together activists to discuss the formation and future of the movement; focus groups explored strategy and ideas for local and provincial action. The draft mission statement of the group is: “to bring together groups, organizations, and individuals across Ontario that are working to expose growing inequality and propose workable solutions to fix it; to support local campaigns with provincial coordination and resources; to garner media attention in local communities through highlighting the negative fall-out of the cuts, and always providing an alternative; to move the Ontario government to adopt policies and legislation that create greater economic and social justice for everyone.
Following an introduction and group discussions at the Assembly, an organizational structure was proposed, leading to some debate. Presented as an “equal partnership” between labour and the community, it was suggested that the steering committee be made up of 3 co-chairs from the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and 3 co-chairs from community organizations. In addition, the steering committee would be comprised of 6 representatives from community organizations with a provincial presence and 6 representatives of labour organizations, along with one First Nations representative and five representatives from equity-seeking groups. This proposed structure aims to provide an equal balance of power between labour and community groups.
This begs the question of when labour and community became two separate and distinct groups. Are not most of us both workers and members of several communities? Can we not embrace several identities simultaneously? Can I not be a worker, trade unionist, member of a political party, a woman, equity-seeking, a student, an activist working with several groups in my community, to name just a few?
This divide between labour and community is concerning on another level. Historically, playing on such divides has been a key method in defeating such movements. Bryan Palmer’s “The Rise and Fall of British Columbia’s Solidarity” provides a fitting analogy. History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, but avoiding its mistakes can certainly be a progressive step forward.
The Solidarity Crisis in BC began in 1983 when the Social Credit government struck against public sector unionism, cutting public services in the process (despite minimal savings and an actual government spending increase of 12%). Resistance to this culminated in the Solidarity Coalition; structurally, two distinct steering committees and assemblies divided community and labour, with organized labour forming the more powerful Operation Solidarity. Given its greater economic resources, Operation Solidarity held much more power in the movement.
After building up a mass movement around 26 pieces of legislation affecting workers, the dispossessed, the disabled, tenants, and so on, a gentleman’s agreement on two bills that largely affected unionized workers between the premier and labour leadership facilitated the collapse of a mass movement. As attacks on labour and workers rights continued in the wake of this agreement, the wedge between “community” and “labour” proved too wide to cross.
Splitting labour and community in half made it easier to play one side against the other. This offered the opportunity to destroy a mass movement showing signs of real political power.
The language of the Occupy movement and the 99% has been employed in “We Are Ontario” circles. But the Occupy movement practiced organic, grassroots democracy wherein an established leadership was difficult to locate, and anyone was welcome to participate on equal footing. With a top-down, artificial, structural 50/50 divide between community and labour, can it really be said that “We Are Ontario”? Will these divisions leave the movement vulnerable to collapse? The future remains to be seen, but avoiding a repeat of past mistakes may well be a progressive step forward.