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‘This isn’t just a union fight. It’s a working-class fight’: Ontario Federation of Labour

Posted: February 20, 2020

(February 19, 2020)

By: Zaid Noorsumar, rabble

In June 2018, Doug Ford’s Conservatives won a majority government by convincing enough Ontarians that it would bring “efficiencies” to a state often considered wasteful in popular imagination, even as the province has been operating in austerity-mode for decades.

Nearly 20 months since that election, Ontarians are reeling from draconian cuts to public services and privatization schemes that are widening inequality and hurting working-class people across the province.

The veneer of the Conservative campaign slogan, For the People, has lost its sheen. And yet, the reckless cuts continue.

Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, draws out the contradictions of the Ford government.

“We represent over a million workers through the Ontario Federation of Labour but Doug Ford won’t meet with us,” says Coates, who last November, became the first woman to head the OFL.

“He will openly meet with business organizations like the chamber of commerce but not with labour. Which people is he really for?”

On February 22, as the Tories hold their policy conference at a convention centre in Niagara Falls, Coates and her cohorts plan to show street power outside in a rally called People vs. Conservative Cuts.

In a conversation with, Coates spoke about the rally as part of the provincial labour federation’s broader strategy to fight the Ford government. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. OFL is holding a rally on February 22. What is the event about?

Patty Coates: The Conservatives are holding their policy conference where they vote on the policies that drive the government forward. We’ll be there to let the Conservatives know that their policies are hurting families, they are hurting working people, they are hurting the most vulnerable and they are harming communities.

What are you hoping to achieve in terms of attendance?

We will have thousands of people there just to let the Conservatives know that Ontarians are against their cuts. They will be able to hear us from inside. We’ll be sending the message that Ontarians are not happy with their policies.

Who is going to be at the rally? 

This rally isn’t just about unions and their members that have been negatively impacted by Conservative policies, it’s about our communities. We’re reaching out to our community allies and coalition partners including the Ontario Health Coalition, Fight for $15 and Fairness, parents of children with autism, environmental groups, anti-poverty groups and others.

This isn’t just a rally for union members. This is a rally for everyone, every person in Ontario who has an interest and desire to see their communities thrive, and who are feeling the pinch from the cuts of the Conservative government.

We know the legislation by this government affects the most vulnerable. One of the first cuts that Ford made was to social assistance; he didn’t increase the minimum wage [as promised by the previous government]; there were cuts to Legal Aid; and they got rid of cap-and-trade and environmental protections. Ontarians across the board are concerned with the direction this government is moving, and we suspect they will take this opportunity to tell the government to change course.

This government seems to be largely immune to one-off rallies, as they keep moving forward with their agenda. Is there a plan to build momentum from this rally and keep on building pressure on the government?

Absolutely, and this rally is just one of the many things that we’re doing. [We are continuing] with our Power of Many campaign, which is bringing together unionized and non-unionized workers, students, environmental groups and our coalition partners in various communities across Ontario.

We are building capacity [to fight this government] because over 70 per cent of Ontarians don’t like what’s happening. Throughout the past year, we have had information pickets, door canvassing and other actions depending on the community.

Our community partners make those decisions about what they do [locally]. Some have done lobbying with their MPPs, if they’re able to even get in the door — often the doors of Conservative MPPs are closed.

We have developed rapid response teams that do various actions based on their interests and capacity. And it’s not just labour [but broader societal issues that we are taking on]. For example, there was a young student who would protest every Friday in a corner of downtown North Bay. So we helped her mobilize, so she [could connect with others] who were taking action.

We are doing an activation meeting in Thunder Bay in February, [after organizing such meetings] in Ottawa, London, Hamilton, North Bay, Sudbury and Peel region. We are working with labour councils, their members and activists across the province to bring people together.

This isn’t just a union fight. It’s a working-class fight, it’s a middle-class fight for our families and communities.

On your website, you have a countdown to the next election with the hope that Ontarians will elect a progressive government. Is that the ultimate goal of this campaign?

That’s right. It’s informing people how government policies and legislation are affecting their communities. It’s about building understanding of the type of government that we really need here in Ontario — one that is truly “for the people.”

Because Ford says he’s “for the people” but he doesn’t listen to us.

I think most people can get behind the idea of defeating Doug Ford in 2022. However, the election is still two and a half years away. What hope do people have in the short or medium term [in terms of support from OFL]?

Our mantra right now is, “We rise, we organize and we resist.” We know we have to rise up and we have to speak out against policies and legislation that are hurting those most vulnerable, working families and our communities.

We have to organize — get into our communities and let them know the economic effects of these policies and legislation.

And then we have to resist, which is what the education unions are doing right now. They’re fighting just to maintain our education system. They are fighting back against class size increases, they are fighting back against mandatory e-learning, they are fighting against cuts to funding [that will impact] frontline staff such as educational assistants, social workers and so on.

We also need to have information town calls with regard to privatization and what that means to Ontario and public services. So that’s kind of the goal leading up to [the election]. Without information, it’s hard to make an informed decision when you go to the polls.

We need to fight back and ensure that this government feels the heat, [which is happening] with certain MPPs in their communities. There’s a reason why some of them have their doors locked.

Based on a recent poll, people are rejecting Ford and looking at the Liberals as the alternative. How should we assess the 15 years of the Liberal government [from 2003-2018]?

That’s a very interesting question that I struggle with. Because when I looked at what happens with our elections, they vote in the Liberals, thinking that they’re going to get change. And then when they’ve had enough, they vote in the Conservatives. [In both cases] they get the same old, same old. And it’s a continuous pattern.

And yet we have such a viable party in the NDP. Polls across Canada show people’s values align more closely with the NDP’s in terms of [views on] public services, environmental policies and so on. So I think it’s mind-boggling when we have an incredibly viable party that I think would govern best for Ontario.

When people advocate for progressive policies like free transit, free tuition or more investment in mental health, one of the common refrains we hear in response is, “How are we going to pay for it?” That suggests that we have imaginative limitations around what’s possible due to normalization of fiscal conservatism. How do we achieve a transformation in mass consciousness?

It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the residents of the province of Ontario are taken care of and that no one is left behind; that we are not balancing our books on the backs of those that are marginalized. And there are viable ways to pay for it.

It’s also an investment. For example, for every dollar you spend on education, you get back $1.30. I think we need to be informing the public about what taxes do. This is something that I grapple with, when people talk about “spending tax dollars wisely.” Well what does that really mean?

You don’t want educators and teachers to be paid a decent wage for going through university and teachers college and educating our children? You can’t go into those professions without an education. So it’s about informing people about where tax dollars go, what it means to keep things public.

And when they are privatized or when we have P3s [public-private partnerships], we know they go over-budget, it costs more and we are not necessarily getting the [same] quality of services.

You mentioned the NDP as the most progressive or best option. However, many people on the left have reservations about the NDP for multiple reasons. For example, in the 1990s, the NDP government in Ontario introduced the Social Contract, which split the labour movement. This month, the RCMP has raided the land defender camps in Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C, which is governed by the NDP.  Plus the NDP has also legislated strikers back to work on multiple occasions in different provinces. With that history in mind, how do you contextualize your support for the NDP?

Ontario must look at the next election. I look at the policies that the NDP has on their books. I think sometimes other parties try to appease everyone and the Ontario NDP sticks with its core values as a party and follows through on them. And that’s what bothers me about the Liberals. They campaign from the left, and they govern more centre-to-right. I think that also confuses people.

I think the NDP in Ontario is moving in the right path. They have gone around Ontario, talking and listening to people. They have had conversations with labour as well. The NDP is a working-class party and that’s what we need to remember going forward.

Note: The Ontario Federation of Labour released a statement supporting the Wet’suwet’en nation on February 13, after this interview took place. 

Zaid Noorsumar is a journalist who has written for the CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and He was rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2019.

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