The Politics of Protest

When Conservative Premier Mike Harris was elected in 1995, trade unions and their supporters chanted "Hey Mike, Hey Mike, What do you think of a General Strike?" Harris wryly commented that there was no need for a general strike. He knew what the unions could do, but more importantly he knew what they would do. Nothing. ‘The Days of Action' proved to be ‘the days of inaction' From defeating the Tories with a general strike to defeating them at the ballot box, the unions did neither.

After the Tories easily won re-election in 1999, the unions didn't even maintain the pretense of militant action - in fact it was only the ‘resolutionary' left who deluded themselves with calls on the bureaucrats to "organize a general strike."

One of the more interesting thorns in the government side has been the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. (See Red & Black Notes # 9 Anti-Poverty in Toronto) Although OCAP has often relied on the unions to provide its financing and for support, the group has always made clear it had its own tactics and concept of how actions should proceed.

Yet, what was once a gap has now become an abyss. Following the June 15, 2000 "Riot" at the Ontario legislature where riot police attacked homeless protesters and anti-poverty activists, many unions, even the supposedly radical Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) moved to distance themselves. Following an "eviction" the following summer at then Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's office, the CAW broke with OCAP and forbade its supposedly independent flying squads from participating in any OCAP actions.

Over the weekend of March 23, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party met in Toronto to elect a new leader to replace Harris. On Saturday, not one but two separate demonstrations were organized to protest. The respectable labour movement, perhaps reflecting the ideology of the President and Secretary of Metro Toronto Labour Council (ex-Communist Party and current communist party members respectively) organized a "people's rally." The Ontario Common Front, in which the dominant force is OCAP, organized a march from a downtown park which had been the site of OCAP's "Safe Park" two years earlier.

Escorted by a heavy and aggressive police presence, the OCF rally arrived at the site of the People's rally at 1:45, fifteen minutes before the scheduled end of the People's rally. The square was empty. The "people" had come and gone.

An account in the newsletter of the Toronto high school teachers' union recounted the near frenzy with which the organizers of the people's rally rushed to finish their events before the OCF parade got there. Was their belief that the new premier, Ernie Eves would represent a return to standard operating procedures, rather than the ‘aberration' of Harris, who brushed aside all opposition?

As it happens, Eves was the finance minister during Harris' so- called Common Sense Revolution and the architect of much of the restructuring. The Labour movement and its ideological hangers on in the social democratic parties, as well as the somewhat smaller Leninist fringe groups, are the last representatives of Keynesianism. There will be no return to Keynes.

Of late OCAP has been under attack. Several of their leaders have been arrested, they were recently evicted from their long time headquarters and their relationship with the unions is stretched toward breaking. The last point could be a positive development. While OCAP have generally realized, unlike much of the left, the labour bureaucrats could not be trusted to do anything, they have also seemed the problem as one of bad leadership rather than what unions do.

As the split between OCAP and the ‘labour' movement deepens, perhaps OCAP will deepen its critique.


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