The Ontario Common Front: Promise and Problems Building Broad-Based Resistance in Ontario

By Jeff Shantz

The Ontario Common Front was initiated more than a year ago with a proposal by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty to develop a serious, broad-based resistance to the policies of the provincial Tory government. The OCF eventually brought together over 80 community groups, unions, students, First Nations and artists in a coalition unseen in Ontario since the Days of Action during the Tories’ first term from 1995-1999. Recognizing the failings of symbolic protests, the OCF organized a campaign throughout Ontario to create a real threat to Tory rule through economic disruption that would make it too costly for the Tories to continue their agenda. The corporate backers of the neoliberal regime would be targeted with the intention of raising the costs of supporting the Conservatives.

The fall campaign kicked off on Oct. 16, 2001, with more than 3,000 people in snake marches disrupting the heart of Toronto’s financial district for much of the morning. Participants managed to confound hundreds of riot police charged with ensuring that the marches never left the convergence point. Toronto’s Chief of Police, who had promised that protesters would never reach the financial district, reportedly screamed at other command officers “there’s nothing we can do to stop this from happening.” The marches, which managed to shut down several buildings that house corporate Tory backers, were a testament to the creativity and discipline of demonstrators. The action was supported by a vehicle caravan on the province’s main highway that tied up commercial traffic leading to Toronto for several hours and created real problems for just-in-time production at several plants located outside the city. Just-in-time production, in which plants have few supplies on site and rely on regular timely shipments, leaves contemporary industrial plants especially susceptible to the caravan tactic.

These actions were reflective of the OCF emphasis on actions that bring a real cost to the government and its corporate sponsors rather than the tired routines of symbolic protests, banner waving and grievance filings that try to shame shameless people who care nothing about the needs of our class. The OCF put forward attempts to disrupt business as usual and attach a cost to harmful corporate policies both as a means to stop implementation of those policies and as a way to draw people into the movement who are tired of pointless and ineffective protests. Workers and poor people have neither time nor energy to waste on efforts that do no have at least some real results. The O16 actions provided a glimpse of the type of efforts that might threaten the neoliberal forces in Ontario. Several smaller actions followed the “Toronto model” in cities throughout the province, including Hamilton, Sudbury, Guelph and Ottawa.

The campaign did not live up to its heady goals, largely as a result of the massive retreat, or active interference, of much of the organized labour bureaucracy, and in part because of the changed political climate after Sept. 11. But the OCF did spark a renewal of serious resistance to neoliberal capitalism in Ontario, especially in areas outside of Toronto.

THE BANKRUPTCY OF MAINSTREAM LABOUR

The major shortcoming of the OCF was the near absence of organized labour. This resulted largely from the decision of the Canadian Auto Workers leadership to withdraw support from the campaign in June following a mock eviction of the Finance Minister from his constituency office by OCAP, students, members of CAW and Canadian Union of Public Employees flying squads, (rapid response rank-and-file groups) and several Wobblies. The National President of the CAW, Buzz Hargrove, was so upset by the action he agreed to meet with the Labour Minister to discuss union support of OCAP. In an act of high treason, Hargrove sat down to establish union policy with the man who, months before, introduced legislation gutting the Employment Standards Act and extending the workweek from 44 to 62 hours.

Hargrove not only cut OCAP’s largest source of funding, he also clamped down on the CAW growing flying squads. Previously rank-and-file groupings, Hargrove brought all flying squads under control of the National by requiring approval of the National or of local presidents prior to any action. Hargrove tried to prohibit use of CAW shirts, hats and banners at actions not sanctioned by the National. CAW leadership cynically used the excuse of the eviction to camp down on a rank-and-file movement that it saw as a possible threat to its authority. The strangling of the flying squads by the bureaucrats may be one of the sharpest blows rank-and-file activists have suffered recently and will deeply hurt fightback efforts in Ontario.

The unprincipled behaviour of CAW leadership effectively derailed actions in major industrial centres like Windsor, where activists had initially planned to blockade the Ambassador Bridge, the main U.S.-Canada node in the NAFTA superhighway. Stopping traffic on the bridge for even a short period of time would have hit the bosses with millions of dollars in damages because of their reliance on just-in-time production in factories on both sides of the border. This possibility was not lost on Hargrove, who apparently let it slip in a moment of rage during a meeting with representatives of OCAP Allies when he screamed at them: “Do you know what this campaign could lead to? In Windsor they’re talking about shutting down production at our plants.” Hargrove, true to his position, did everything in his power to ensure the bosses that their plants would not be affected.

There were other, less dramatic, instances that showed the futility of trying to appeal to union leaders or focusing mobilization efforts on the bureaucracies. A prime example involved the efforts of CUPE 3903, perhaps the most militant, activist and democratic union local in Canada, to gain the CUPE Ontario Division’s commitment to the campaign. The 3903 delegates to the Ontario Convention worked hard to win a vote on a resolution committing CUPE Ontario to a general strike of at least one day before the end of 2001. After the convention, Ontario Division President Sid Ryan promised that, in addition, there would be at least five workplace actions against the Tories’ proposed cuts to health and safety legislation. By New Years’ Day 2002, unfortunately, there had been not a single workplace action and the absence of any “at least one-day general” strike was yet another embarrassing reminder of promises unkept.

THE TORY CONVENTION, 2002: DIVISIONS BETWEEN THE OCF AND LABOUR ON DISPLAY

Recent demonstrations during the ruling provincial party’s leadership convention show how serious the divisions in Ontario have become. On March 23, the OCF organized a noisy march on the Convention Centre to coincide with the election of the new leader of Ontario’s ruling neoliberal Tory Party. Mainstream labour, notably the Ontario Federation of Labour, held a separate action, a seven-minute silent vigil to mark seven years of Tory rule. It seemed an appropriate gesture to many for whom it also marked seven years of mainstream labour silence in the face of vicious Tory attacks.

Even though the OCF had worked to get the OFL to agree, at its annual convention, to organize an action in the first place, the OFL opted not to participate in a joint demonstration. Despite knowing the OCF’s plans weeks in advance the OFL decided to begin their rally at the same time but in a different location.

Even worse, communications between OFL marshals and police suggested that the OFL had arranged to have the cops keep the OCF march from joining up with the OFL rally. As the Common Front march approached the park where the OFL was gathered police intervened to block their progress. When a few people from the Common Front tried to report the cop violence against the OCF march they were denied access to the microphone by marshals. With the OCF march struggling to move past cop lines, and calling out to labour with chants of “Solidarity” behind the banner “An Injury to One is An Injury to All,” the OFL scurried to collect their gear and scramble away.

The unprincipled actions of the OFL during the Tory convention have convinced some grassroots activists of the need to make end runs around the OFL officialdom and develop real connections with rank-and-file workers, the same workers upset over the events of March 23. Certainly this is a healthy development, one which anti-capitalist activists must take seriously. This means meeting with rank-and-file workers and having serious discussions about what sort of assistance we in anti-capitalist movements can offer in their struggles against conservative leadership, policies and structures in their own unions.

Too often the measure of labour involvement in coalitions in Ontario has been the amount of money given to a campaign, the forcefulness of rhetoric from high profile leaders, or the winning of a motion at this or that convention. The only way that any sort of credible resistance movement is going to be forged in Ontario is through a redoubling of efforts to make connections between grassroots community groups and rank-and-file workers, the same workers who, in the Canadian Auto Workers for example, openly condemned their leadership for not going to the fence in Quebec City against the FTAA and who demanded direct action training after Quebec. Indeed direct action workshops are something we can and should offer. We should also be ready to provide picket support, help building flying squads and involve ourselves in the creation of joint union-community anti-racism and anti-poverty working groups.

These rank-and-file committees have provided great impetus to the promising alternative unions in Europe and may be a necessary component in any renewal of labour militancy in Ontario. Clearly energy spent trying to gain leadership consent or pass resolutions at conventions is better spent in other directions. Those efforts need to be put into renewing and broadening connections between rank-and-file members. This will offer an opportunity to speak directly with workers about the Common Front and specific campaigns or demands so that they do not have to rely on leadership interpretations of events. From both sides reliance or dependence on bureaucrats is broken.

Broadening involvement in the OCF is crucial. The only way to do it that encourages grassroots participation, autonomy and self-determination is through direct engagement beyond any of the hierarchies and authorities that seek to regulate our actions.

RETURN TO THE ROOTS

Perhaps the most significant lesson of the OCF is the great need for local community work similar to what OCAP has been doing in Toronto neighbourhoods. With the end of the fall campaign OCAP has re-dedicated itself to doing that work with renewed vigour. In the face of racist clamouring for war and tighter borders by Western imperial powers, OCAP is stepping up its efforts to support immigrants and refugees against racial and class discrimination and for a decent and just life.

The Common Front campaign made it very clear that in many communities considerable groundwork still needs to be done just to stop or push back the everyday impacts of government policies. In order to build stronger movements and more militant struggles, people first have to experience some victories, no matter how small they seem. In this context no victory is a small one. One of the most encouraging developments of the OCF has been the creation of fightback coalitions and OCAP-style direct action casework groups in a number of communities, most notably in London, Peterborough and Ottawa. These groups already provide new resources for poor people. At some point they may form a necessary pole of attraction for activists seeking move beyond the staged reformism of the unions.

One of the strengths of the OCF has been its federal structure, where each local group has autonomy to work on the projects relevant in its area. At the same time any local group can call on the OCF as a whole to support local or broader actions. This structure has worked especially well in places where militant organizations were largely absent prior to the OCF. The situation has been more difficult in Toronto where the Common Front coalition has had a difficult time developing ongoing projects, rather than simply mobilizing people for mass actions.

Part of the difficulty relates to the Common Front’s failure to identify and develop distinct work to complement but extend what is already being done by OCAP in the city. In my view, the many unionists in the OCF Toronto should focus on connecting with rank-and-file workers and building militant rank-and-file organizations such as flying squads or neighbourhood committees. This would serve both to bring rank-and-file workers together in solidarity work and to make connections with rank-and-file workers in a way that OCAP has not been able to.

The OCF also needs to develop a more explicitly militant political perspective. Right now there is a tension between demands on the state for reforms and the development of our own practices of self-management. Nevertheless, the OCF is a positive step for Canadian radicalism.

Jeff Shantz is an anarchist who has been active with OCAP for several years. He co-hosts OCAP Radio on community station CHRY 105.5 FM in Toronto.

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