Ontario Conservative Party leader Doug Ford at an election rally. Ontario Conservative Party leader Doug Ford at an election rally. Photo: Twitter/fordnation

The Tory victory shows a missed opportunity for Ontario’s labour party, but the left must organise now and fight en masse against Doug Ford’s ugly party of the bosses, write activists Doug Nesbitt, Gerard Di Trolio and David Bush (‘Fight for $15’ campaign)

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (CP) won a majority government in Canada’s largest province on Thursday. The win means that Doug Ford, the former city councillor and brother to the former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, is now the Premier. Ford, who only recently was elected party leader after Patrick Brown was forced to resign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, represents a populist brand of the Tories.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s labour party, became the official opposition achieving its highest vote share and seats in Queen’s Park (the provincial legislative body) since 1990. The result shows an increasing polarization politically in the province that is very much in line with trends across the country and world.

Beyond the finger-pointing and some excitement around the NDP’s second-place finish, we now have the difficult task of defending social programs, jobs, the environment, and recent labour law reforms against the Tory majority.

Waiting four years for the next election is simply not an option. We have to find a way to build a movement: an opposition outside of Queen’s Park that can wield the collective power of workers against this ugly party of the bosses. It means hitting the streets, but also diligent organizing, education and agitation in workplaces, neighbourhoods and on campuses.

How did the Tories win?

So what explains Ford’s victory? Ford and the Tories ran a campaign with no program and instead made vague promises that were aimed to keep their base motivated and win new supporters who are not necessarily keen on cuts to public services and jobs. So when the PCs were campaigning, they led with issues like tax cuts, reduction in hydro (what we call electricity) and gas prices, buck a beer, and stopping Liberal corruption and waste through “efficiencies”.

The ghost of both Mike Harris and Tim Hudak haunted the PC campaign, forcing Ford to say things like no jobs would be lost under his watch. Recall Hudak did the opposite in 2014, claiming he would fire 100,000 workers and then magically create a million more jobs. Hudak blew a huge lead and got only 31 percent of the popular vote.

Even at 40 percent, Ford’s popular vote is 5 to 10 points below where the PCs were polling under disgraced leader Patrick Brown. Brown’s strategy of hugging the centre garnered the PCs wide support as they focused on hydro rates, and avoided talk of gutting public sector jobs, strangling social programs, and privatization.

For two solid years, the Tories were able to maintain this sizeable lead and consolidate a base of support as a government-in-waiting with no significant and sustained challenges from the other parties until a few months ago. The Tories built a real base in communities in the 905 and outer 416 in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) using Brown’s “big tent” strategy.  The numbers bear this out. Voter turnout went up nearly a million votes, and the Tories captured about 700,000 of those votes, while the combined NDP-Liberal-Green vote was the same as 2014.

The Ford brand does have its own pull in the GTA suburbs and other parts of the province where communities voting for Ford have felt shut out of political and economic power. Many of these communities live in poorly-serviced areas where unions and the left are weak. When Ford said he was standing up for the little guy by offering tax cuts, firing hydro executives, and ending Liberal corruption, this spoke to people.  The PC vote went up across the board, really only suffering defeats in dense urban cores, like 416, Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Windsor, even Kingston.

Ford’s base, and indeed the Tory base, always includes a layer of people motivated by bigotry and scapegoating. This was evident with the Toronto Sun and Ontario Proud propaganda operations during the election. But the Ford base also includes a layer of racialized voters who feel totally alienated from the political system. The PC machine has clearly built their networks of candidates and activists in racialized communities in places like Scarborough, Brampton, Mississauga and Markham.

However hard it is to accept, Ford’s victory is not exceptional. He has fallen quite short of Harris’s back-to-back 45 percent popular vote – and Harris ran on a radical right-wing program. But there is no question Ford captured a sizeable number of voters, including the few hundred thousand voters who did not vote last time. But the contradictory nature of the Tory voter base is as much a weakness as it is a strength, especially in racialized and working-class communities.

Collapse of the Liberals

The Liberal dynasty is dead. They’ve lost party status at Queen’s Park and are completely discredited. Good riddance. Some talking heads in the media have already tried to suggest the Liberals tacked too far to the left. This is nonsense. The Liberals never reversed the damage done by the Harris Tories. They simply maintained the new status quo, introducing some positive but insufficient reforms when pushed, while completing the Harris agenda in slow motion.

The Liberals have been plagued by years of corrupt dealings, Bay Street favours like the hydro privatization, and aggressive attacks on unions (Bill 115, TTC no-strike law) and labour rights (fighting against farm worker union rights). Hospitals were decimated by years of funding freezes causing massive layoffs, contracting out of non-medical services, and the closure of numerous ERs and other critical hospital wings. And the social safety net – social assistance, WSIB (workers’ insurance), affordable housing, and other income supports – was never repaired by the Liberals after the brutal Tory cuts of the late 90s.

Fifteen years ago, the Liberals didn’t have to worry about the NDP which was still crawling out from under the disastrous legacy of the 1990-95 NDP government. However, since the economic crisis a decade ago, the Liberals have regularly tacked left to hold back the NDP. The NDP’s unwillingness to adopt an unapologetic left program, or any left-wing program at all as in the 2014 NDP election campaign, made it easy for the Liberals to do this. It was precisely when Wynne completed Harris’s dream of privatizing Hydro One – a profoundly right-wing policy – that the Liberals were finished.

Labour leaders lose the plot

Ontario’s senior labour leadership failed spectacularly this election. Public statements in support of the NDP dribbled in over the past couple weeks, even the last few days of the election. Many union activists were already light years ahead of their leaders in supporting Fight for $15 and Fairness, important strikes at CAMI and among college faculty, and building networks to fight the Tories in the election. But the massive financial and human resources that unions could have put into organizing, educating and agitating, were largely absent.

For all the hoopla over the OFL (Ontario Federation of Labour)’s realignment with the NDP at last November’s convention, this amounted too little too late on the ground. There were only three OFL town halls leading up to the election, and no campaign, no strategy, no slogans, no serious education program, no attempt to drive the wedge of class politics into the Tory base. This was the opposite of the 2014 Stop Hudak mass meetings and education work that helped wreck Tory support in union ranks and beyond. This was far more effective than what came out of the OFL convention.

Further failures to coordinate and join forces in united campaigns was evident in the crucial issue of Hydro. While the Tories railed against hydro rates and captured popular anger against the Liberals, CUPE (community union) and OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) ran parallel anti-privatization campaigns. OFL did nothing. This reflects the crisis inside labour, where affiliates focused their energy and resources on a destructive civil war. Resources and time for effective organizing and campaigning were squandered.

This certainly had no good effect on the NDP which has always required a kick in the right direction. While Brown consolidated an expanded base of support over hydro, the NDP voiced opposition on hydro privatization but its town halls around the province were often poorly attended and had insufficient union muscle building them.

Missed opportunities

Many of the NDP election promises made this year were only made in the past few months, giving millions of people little time to grapple with them amidst all the right-wing media hysteria and lies about costs, or tax hikes, or racist nonsense about refugees flooding hospitals. It is not enough to simply have ideas in a platform, there has to be a strategy to build the support for those ideas on the ground outside of a campaign period. The absence of a longer-term strategy by the NDP meant little was done to build local NDP organization beyond its urban and northern strongholds and into the suburban and rural ridings where the Tories built their majority.

It was in fact unclear even last year what sort of NDP campaign would be run. Would they hug the centre, make another right turn like 2014, or try to outflank the Liberals on the left? For example, the NDP’s conduct during the Bill 148 hearings ($15 minimum wage and labour law reforms) was frustrating and unhelpful. NDP MPPs at the hearings were more vocal about small business tax cuts than their Liberal or Tory counterparts. When Bill 148 and $15 was finally passed, the NDP complained about “their” ideas being stolen when the demands actually originated from the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.

In short, the province’s labour leadership and NDP brain trust spent years watching the Liberals hurtle towards certain doom, yet allowed the Tories to go unchallenged in seizing popular anger. For a moment it looked like Ford might blow the election, but that was only a couple months in the making. The failures of the labour leadership and NDP have taken much longer to come to fruition.

For many many voters, the result was a referendum on the Liberals and trusting Ford, not about issues being pushed by labour and the NDP.

Focus on politics, not the Ford Show

Doug Ford and the Tories are forming government while they’re plagued with disgusting scandals and accusations of bigotry, bribery, intimidation and fraud. Their mandate to govern, which we should not accept, is thanks to our gerrymandered electoral system. Roughly 60 percent of voters cast a ballot in opposition to Ford. Only 23 percent of eligible voters backed the Tories.

If we look south, we can see that too many Americans are hung up on getting Trump out of office instead of fighting the Republican agenda that is being pushed while Trump captures headlines. We can’t make this mistake with Ford. Like his brother before him, Doug Ford will be in the headlines as the buffoonish asshole he is. We can’t get sucked into the drama, which in many ways only bolsters his image as an outsider. We need to be building opposition based on what the Tories are pushing through Queen’s Park: minimum wage rollbacks, shredding our inadequate social safety net, smashing up labour laws, destroying environmental policies, income tax breaks that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.

Building mass action through basic organizing

The Ford Tories will face plenty of legal and legislative challenges. The courts, however, won’t defeat the Tory legislative agenda. Nor will the NDP opposition at Queen’s Park. Even filibusters can be waited out – Harris did this many times and won. Waiting four years for another election is not an option. Under the Harper majority there was a lot of waiting around for the 2015 election, and not nearly enough effort from organized labour to build a fightback campaign while he was in power.

If we’re serious about building an opposition rooted our collective power, we have to fight the government by building towards mass action and the goal of creating a serious political crisis for the government. This was basic idea at the core of the fight against Harris, but escalation beyond city-wide general strikes and mass marches – the Days of Action – was off the table for labour leaders. Harris called their bluff. We need to learn from this experience in our new fight against the Ford Tories.

It starts with the basics. Flyering, petitioning, lunch hour and after work meetings, are all essential to building up an opposition. Our organizing work always needs a hook, or what organizers call an “ask”: something to pull people into like a picket line, a march, or rally. If someone is extra keen, ask them to stick around and help with flyering or petitioning, or give them a petition to get signed and check in with them later.

While we need to win people in person, social media is also a powerful tool as West Virginia teachers proved. Ideas can be sharpened, arguments distributed, and important information spread to many people through Facebook groups. When the enemy makes a new counter-argument, or a new event arises, it is great to have social media spread the best practice that people have tested on the ground. Social media and face-to-face organizing can reinforce each other.

Our local unions and labour councils are sitting on a lot of resources that can tap into tens of thousands of union members. Even non-union members fighting Ford will be welcomed at labour councils. There’s a real potential, like we saw in the Tim Hortons protests earlier this year, of our labour councils turning into real centres of opposition on the streets against the bosses and their friends in government.

Getting a movement off the ground doesn’t just mean diligent organizing, but strategy, too. We are going to need to tap into our unions and this means putting demands on the leadership. Resources need to be directed into booking off members into workplace education campaigns, developing new materials for distribution and door-knocking with community activists. If you’re on the shopfloor, start the conversations, build a committee of supporters who want to fight Ford and can circulate petitions and have an ask ready to bring people out to actions. Build a base in the workplace and union so you can be effective in pressuring the local, regional and senior leadership to act, and free up more resources for organizing against the Ford Tories.

Fight for $15 and Fairness

One bright spot in the election campaign was the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which kept its campaign going and actually grew through the election period. It focused on its demands and helped push back against the Tories. Back in March, Ford said he would freeze the minimum wage at $14 and give a small tax cut for low-wage workers during the PC leadership contest. During the actual campaign, Ford did not talk about this minimum wage freeze at all. Not in the debates or in the PC “platform”, and local candidates also downplayed the issue.

Where the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign was well organized it actually contributed indirectly to NDP victories. NDP candidates who were strong supporters of the issue, such as Bhutulia Karpoche, Joel Harden, and Jill Andrew, won unexpected victories or increased their vote share dramatically.

There is little doubt that the new Ford government will take aim the labour law reforms the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign won. Just like Harris did in 1995, Ford’s election night speech proudly declared “Ontario is open for business.” The $15 minimum wage and the fair scheduling rules set to come into effect January will likely be axed. Other provisions of Bill 148 like equal pay for equal work, the Holiday pay rules (which the Liberals already basically killed) and sector specific protections against contract flipping and the expansion of card check could also be lost.

It is important that labour and the left fight all of these attacks, not just on narrow technical terms, but by constantly painting these issues along the broadest class lines, as an attack by Ford on the “little guy”. This is why pouring more of our time and resources into the campaigns like Fight for $15 and Fairness will be important.

What next?

A Ford victory is set to embolden every bully boss and bigot in the province if the Ford administration can attack workers and the poor with little to no opposition or a fight back limited to a small number of activists this will only empower them go further in their attacks. We can’t substitute small numbers for a larger working-class effort to stop Ford. This means we need campaigns that can speak to people on issues and build their confidence and capacity.

Our efforts have to be focused on driving a wedge between Ford’s Tories and their rhetoric of supporting the “little guy”. This requires us to go broader and deeper in our organizing. Ford’s government will have to deliver on its promises of tax cuts, hydro and gas cost reduction, and will inevitably have to push sweeping austerity at some point – something he did not run on. There is no doubt we will suffer defeats as a result, but there is also real opportunities to deepen our networks, draw new workers into struggle and put Ford on his back foot because of it. With this in mind our first task in Ontario is to build for the Decent Work rally on June 16.