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'Save Toronto': from what, and how?

Darren Edgar

November 18, 2013

A rally organized on November 13 under the banner “Save Toronto” saw over a thousand people outside City Hall, expressing their anger in speeches, placards and chalk messages demanding that beleaguered Toronto Mayor Rob Ford resign. But underneath the unity of the rally were contradictory views on basic questions: from what does Toronto need saving, and how can we build an alternative to Ford?

On the day of the rally, approximately 1200 people signed a petition demanding Ford resign from office and since then these have been presented to and unanimously approved by city council. But why?
Slutwalk founder Heather Jarvis identified the major damage Ford has done: “Mayor Rob Ford has built a legacy of harm, hatred, hypocrisy and stigma in this city, and it has very little to do with drugs… Let’s remember that he has done a lot more damage: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, anti-immigrant damage.”
But almost nobody else discussed any of Ford’s policies, and no placards or chalk signs opposed his cuts. The speakers did not include city workers, social housing advocates, transit users (who are campaigning against a looming fare hike), or others who have been directly targeted by Ford’s cuts to jobs and services, and there was no mention of the urgent need and recent mobilization to stop tar sands flowing through Toronto. Instead most of the slogans opposed Ford’s individual behaviour of lying, bullying and corruption, squandering the opportunity to elevate this fight from one of personalities to politics.
Others were more abstract, concerned with “defending the reputation” of the mayor’s office regardless of its policies, and some were downright reactionary—with moralistic slogans against a “fat, drunk, junkie mayor.” This reinforces oppression and the criminalization of addiction, and allows police chief Bill Blair to rebuild his popularity after the assassination of Sammy Yatim. As a consequence some have simply dismissed the anger at Ford as a right-wing conspiracy to remove him from office, ignoring the legitimate anger against Ford that—despite the confused messaging—can be channeled back to rebuild the mobilizations that weakened Ford during his first year in office.
'Ford Nation'
Some at the rally proudly identified themselves as “downtown liberals”—the type of people Mayor Ford and his City Councillor brother, Doug, vilify for supposedly being out of touch with the rest of us living in the GTA—and perpetuated the trap of pitting the mythic “Ford Nation” against those who live in the downtown core. Dismissing Ford voters as stupid takes a self-righteous, anti-working class tone that fails to recognize Torontonians’ lived experiences and how Ford came to power in the first place.
Working people in Toronto as elsewhere have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in real terms, they’ve seen their pensions gutted, they’ve seen their workload intensified as their coworkers have been laid off, heightening anxieties around job security. At the same time, public services like transit, healthcare and education continue to go underfunded; and benefits continue to erode for those who are thrown out of work, can’t find work, are incapable of working or are retired.
When former Mayor David Miller, who many saw as progressive, adopted an anti-worker position in various city worker strikes (garbage collection and TTC workers, for example), he perpetuated the myth that well-paid city workers and their good benefits were the reason for the city’s financial troubles. But this ignores the historically low corporate tax rates at every level of government, and the commonplace bailouts and cash giveaways for corporations. Miller bought into the ruling class ideology that argues corporations and the rich are “job creators” that benefit society, while workers—the people who actually create all the wealth in society—and the good pay and benefits they fought for and won (often as part of labour unions) are a burden on society. His heir apparent, former city councillor and aspiring mayor Joe Pantalone, planned toeing this line while other wannabe mayors such as George Smitherman promised even worse. This opened the door for a reactionary politician like Rob Ford to pose as the true champion of these values, making his ascension from fiscal conservative city councillor to mayor almost a given. It certainly made his pledge to “stop the gravy train” that much more palatable.
'Gravy train'
It’s in this context of attacks on the working class and a lack of alternatives posed that one can understand why people would vote for and continue to support Rob Ford. When nobody else is giving a political lead to counter this economic reality, people will take what they can get, even when it’s just cancelling the vehicle registration tax and promising “subways, subways, subways”. Ford campaigned on a platform of building subways, reducing taxes and “stopping the gravy train” at city hall (all in the name of “respecting the taxpayer”). While his true agenda was to enforce austerity—on behalf and with the support of the 1%—he also mobilized the vote of much of the 99% with his populist rhetoric.
Once in office it became clear what the abstract “gravy train” referred to: city workers and the services they provide. Are good wages and pensions for city workers wasteful? Obviously not. These people’s work contributes to making our community better through the services they provide and taxes they pay, just as it is with the rest of us; and the money they spend in their communities generates economic activity and jobs for the rest of us—again, just as ours does. Is privatizing public services or keeping corporate taxes low wasteful? Absolutely. Privatization gifts corporations with publicly owned infrastructure and services—always at well below their actual value—so that these corporations can rake in profits for their owners, whether individuals or stockholders, on the backs of poorly paid workers who receive fewer and worse benefits (if any) and have less job security, while the rest of us invariably suffer worse services. The fact that these same corporations are paying record-low taxes (if any at all) means they’re effectively being given a license to print money for the benefit of a few at the expense of the rest of us. Which of these is the real “gravy train”?
What’s the alternative?
It was these politics that mobilized people against Ford when he first came into office—undermining his agenda, provoking right-wing rifts and encouraging left councillors to speak out. Organized labour and community groups came together in their thousands for marches and rallies to oppose his agenda, and the library workers led a popularly-supported and successful strike.
The right-wing is trying to use Ford’s scandal to bury this memory and reduce opposition to Ford to his personal behaviour. Without a political alternative, the result will be the same: a continuation of the austerity agenda, just without the personal problems—under right-wing councillor Norm Kelly now, and with right-wing councillors like Denzil Minan-Wong and Karen Stintz waiting in the wings. This next phase could also be worse, if what dominates the opposition is stigmatizing Ford’s body, mental health and substance use, and if there are louder calls for an even harsher “law and order” agenda than what Blair has already provided.

But with many people justifiably furious over the lies and hypocrisy of this mayor and his administration, the time is ripe for posing a credible alternative to the austerity agenda he champions and there are already examples of this we can draw upon—not through minor motions in council but through mobilizations in our workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods. If we link opposition to Ford with opposition to his policies and pose real alternatives, we can not only challenge him but also the austerity agenda of the 1% he represents—exposing his real corporate base, winning over the section of ordinary people who initially voted for him, and building a movement for the 99%. United, we can not only force Rob Ford to resign but we can take control over our lives in ways we can only dream of now, but in order to do this we’ll need to kick out the entire ruling class and take democratic control over all facets of society. That is what real democracy looks like.

Join the discussion: come to the forum “Conservatives, Corruption and Capitalism,”Tuesday, November 26, 7pm at OISE (252 Bloor St West), Toronto

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