When Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan declared October 22 that his Liberal provincial government faces a $24.7 billion deficit this year, it was a signal that a major assault on public service wages and programmes for the poor is in the works.
This is the major challenge facing delegates at the biennial convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour, November 23-27 at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto. Firebrand CUPE Ontario leader Sid Ryan is set to replace retiring OFL President Wayne Samuelson. Many labour activists wonder whether this will mark a shift towards mass action to challenge labour concessions, disappearing pensions and benefits, and rising unemployment (expected to stay above 9 per cent, officially, in Ontario for the next three years).
A Workers' Agenda is urgently needed to oppose the coming attacks on the Ontario public service, and to support the strike of the Vale Inco workers, now in its fourth month at Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ontario and in Labrador. Required is a programme to reject further labour concessions in the auto sector, to nationalize industry instead of dishing up corporate bail-outs, and to demand steeply progressive taxation of big business and the rich.
A good place to start would be a commitment to mobilize labour's strength in numbers along side the 115,000 member Ontario Public Service Employees' Union as it takes on the Liberal McGuinty government's likely targetting of wages, jobs and vital public services.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas issued a statement on October 23. Here are some excerpts:
“Finance Minister Dwight Duncan promised a “sweeping review” of government spending. Premier Dalton McGuinty would not rule out unpaid days off for the million Ontarians who earn their bread in the provincial public sector. And the spectre of privatization now looms over every public service worker.
“The Liberals’ plan is to make us pay.
“Dwight Duncan won’t have much luck looking for waste in public services (except, of course, for the hundreds of millions he’s throwing away on private consultants). We already had a “sweeping review” from 1995 to 2003. It was called the Common Sense Revolution (of Tory Premier Mike Harris), and public services still haven’t recovered from the brutal trauma of those years.
“As far as unpaid days off, a lot of us remember (then-NDP Premier) Bob Rae’s “Social Contract” all too well. But much has changed since the Rae days.
“For one thing, the Social Contract would be struck down by the courts today. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that (British Columbia) Premier Gordon Campbell was wrong to tear up the collective agreements of health workers in that province. Since then, collective bargaining has been recognized as a protected right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“McGuinty can’t legislate his way out of this. If he wants to use public employees to buy Ontario out of the recession, his two main options are: a) privatization; and b) mass layoffs.
“Privatization is a stupid idea. It cuts services, it destroys jobs, and it usually comes with major cost overruns. And from a budget standpoint, selling off assets like the (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) LCBO – which right-wingers are already barking for – would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
“As for more layoffs, they can only weaken local economies, destroy the services people need, and generate headlines the Liberals really don’t want to see.
“So what’s their plan? My guess is, they think that just the threat of layoffs and privatization will force public employees to agree to the wage cuts or “Dalton Days” he wants.
“How is it fair that a part-time secretary at a community college, who makes maybe $27,000 a year, should be the one paying off the deficit when the Bay Street banker is not?
“Which is more important, providing professional help to a child with a mental illness, or giving income tax breaks to profitable corporations and obscene bonuses to their CEOS?
“Public services aren’t just for public employees. They exist because we all need them. And that’s why saving them is not the responsibility of public employees alone.
“We chose careers in public service not to get rich, but because we care – for people, for families, for communities. It’s time our commitment got the respect it deserves.
“We are already planning a bold strategy to fight the coming attack. It will take courage, commitment, brains, resources, and leadership.
“Working together as we have done so many times before, I know we will do whatever it takes”, Smokey Thomas concluded.
Will the Ontario Federation of Labour “do whatever it takes”? Will OPSEU undertake mass job action, and invite all workers and allies to join the struggle?
Therein hangs a tale. --Barry Weisleder