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The Liberal convention and the fight against austerity

Pam Johnson

February 8, 2013

Ontario Liberals met in January at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto to choose a new leader. Waves of angry public sector workers, including teachers, Ontario public service workers in OPSEU and education support workers in CUPE 4400 converged on the Gardens, confronting delegates and candidates about the Liberal attack on union rights.
On January 26, around 30,000 trade unionists and community activists marched through downtown Toronto and filled the street in front of the Gardens while delegates voted. This was the biggest demonstration in Ontario since the G20 protests in 2010.
The Rally for Rights and Democracy was organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour, with 125 buses coming from the across the province. The largest contingent was teachers, who came from small and large communities with the same message: rejecting the attack on public services and jobs and Bill 115, which imposed contracts on teachers and took away their right to strike. The Liberals, in an attempt to undermine the protest, cynically repealed Bill 115 three days before the convention. But no one was fooled; the damage had been done.
Sandra Pupatello, an early favourite, lost the leadership race to McGuinty cabinet star, Kathleen Wynne, who is now the first female Premier of Ontario and the first lesbian Premier of Canada.
Wynne is seen as a progressive candidate. She began her political career fighting education cuts during the Mike Harris era and has been associated with other progressive causes. But as a McGuinty cabinet minister she has been a staunch defender of the austerity agenda. One of her first statements was that she would not reopen contracts imposed on teachers. In her first public statement on organized labour, she said, “I think there’s not much patience for organized labour, period, public or private sector.”
There is not likely to be an election soon; however, Wynne looks poised to coalesce the anti-Conservative vote because of a political vacuum created by the absent NDP. Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak has been loudly calling for union busting and gutting public spending. Wynne’s victory is clearly the Liberals making a left tack in an attempt to find voters. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvath could not be bothered to show up at the January 26 protest, and the NDP’s response to austerity and attacks on union rights has been muted.
On the day following Wynne’s election, teachers’ union’s leadership gushed that they had a productive first meeting and looked forward to good relations. The teachers’ unions had donated to four of the leadership candidate campaigns. But the actions of the teachers’ union’s leadership does not square with the anger of the thousands of teachers who protested the Liberals’ actions. Huge anger at the Liberals was directed more at Bill 115 and the way it snatched away union rights than the actual terms of the contract. Teachers’ unions were not able to create a unified strategy; only the elementary teachers took serious action—striking before the bill’s imposition.
The electoral arena looks bleak for workers who want to fight the austerity agenda, and a weak NDP means workers may be pushed back toward the left-tacking Liberals to fight off the Tory attack. But Chicago teachers who fought off a Democratic Mayor and a vacillating labour leadership showed that rank-and-file resistance could lead the way in a real fight for union rights.

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