Volume 38, Number 6: November/December 2004

Cities and Strategies for Progressive Politics

Today over 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities. Toronto, Montréal, greater Vancouver and the Calgary-Edmonton corridor are huge concentrations of people and economic activity. Nearly all of the 300,000 new Canadians who arrive every year choose to live in these regions, dramatically changing the demographics and diversity of our urban centres. Yet Canada’s constitution, set in 1867, gives no role or power to cities, keeping them instead as chattels of provincial governments. While it may seem that the “cities agenda” is about accessing the finances to maintain a full range of services under public control, it is actually about staking out the ground for the kind of society we want. In order to do that, we need to be able to connect with far more people than the Left has done in many years. This stark fact helps to explain why the labour movement must be at the centre of a “new urban politics.”

City-Level Organizing in the 1970s… For left politics in Canada, the concept of organizing at the local or city level is nothing new. In the 1970s, there was tremendous engagement in municipal work, culminating in various progressive alliances in most major cities. As well as civic New Democrats, Vancouver had COPE; Winnipeg, LEC; Toronto, ReforMetro; Montréal, the MCM. In the city school boards, there was a crucial battle of ideas around the kind of education that working-class, immigrant and Aboriginal kids were going to receive.

For many, the attraction of municipal work was that the absence of formal party politics led to more fluid decision-making, with results often achieved by local organizing around an issue. Alliances included tenants and homeowners, elected officials and a broad spectrum of civic activists ranging from populist Tories to Communists. Many breakthroughs on issues of equity, the environment and social services occurred first at the city level.

All this momentum, of course took, place during a time of incredible political upsurge. Across the world, people were challenging the power structures of colonialism and U.S. foreign policy, while at home the interest in both Canadian and Québec nationalism was interwoven with socialist and New Left ideals. The women’s movement was growing into a powerful voice, and even conservative governments supported a role for the public sector in transportation, utilities, communication and energy.

…and Today Fast forward to 2004, and the picture is very different. The demise of the Soviet Bloc and its former allies has taken the brakes off global capitalism. The neo-con policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have become dominant in most jurisdictions, while transnational corporations scour the globe in search of public assets and services to be privatized. The business elite in Canada is unapologetic in its desire to integrate our economy and political decision making into the American state.

The Left in recent years has been unable to project real alternatives to the global corporate agenda – even during the most outrageous moments of the Air Canada crisis, no serious demand arose for bringing this company back under public ownership.

Understanding Canada’s Changing Population The Canadian working class is undergoing rapid changes as technology and outsourcing have wiped out hundreds of thousands of traditional blue-collar jobs. Mining, forest products and basic steel employ but a fraction their previous workforces, while textile, electrical and appliance manufacturing are virtually non-existent. Across the country, industrial and resource-based towns watch as their children leave for big cities. There they are joined by the vast majority of new immigrants, nearly all people of colour.

There is a great deal to learn in order for our unions and political organizations to reflect the changing Canadian population. How does our movement interact with workers of colour who hold a wide spectrum of views on trade unionism and left politics? How do we organize the millions of unorganized? How do we address the growing divide between those with decent jobs and others living on the margins. And most importantly, how do we set the stage for developing the “hegemony of ideas” that is necessary if working people are to define their own political agenda?

If we want to challenge the power of transnational capital we need to think globally but build our power locally. For unions, this means talking to their members based on where they live, as well as where they work. For political organizers, it means comprehending the values and priorities of people living in neighbourhoods ranging from the inner cities to the new suburbs.

Toronto as a Test Case Look at Toronto in this context. Its population has come from 170 different countries, and speaks 100 languages. Over half were born outside of Canada. Soon most Torontonians will be people of colour – a visible majority. The city itself is the sixth largest government in the country.

During the eight years of Conservative rule at Queen’s Park, Toronto was a centre of resistance against the neo-con policies of Mike Harris. The Metro Days of Action, the fight against the megacity, the powerful mobilization around education issues and the struggles around city and school budgets engaged thousands of residents. When the smoke had cleared at the end of Ernie Eves’ tenure, not a single Tory MPP was left in the city! In the municipal elections that followed in November, we elected a pro-labour mayor, many new progressive councillors and a majority of trustees at the public school board who were endorsed by our Campaign for Public Education. For the first time in many years there is a sense of optimism that we can start to rebuild the services and programs that are essential for social justice. But that won’t last unless we can knit together the many different threads of activism that exist in Canada’s largest urban centre.

Creating a New Urban Politics Power comes from a combination of vision, strategy and organizing. A clear vision of a new urban politics is essential for progressives in the 21st Century. And so is a new political practice – one that will be more about what we want to achieve, combined with a conscious pride in what working people have already accomplished. This new practice will attempt to weave together the fundamental aspirations of working families (broadly defined) around decent jobs, a healthy life and opportunities for the next generation. It will have workers of colour overwhelmingly participating and leading. It will set goals that enjoy support from the majority of working people and use organizing styles and celebration of victories to empower and encourage participation. And finally, it will challenge our current leadership to devote time and resources to different priorities.

A vital point is that in order to win we have to organize in the neighbourhood backyards of political decision makers. While the bulk of civic activists traditionally live in the older city, there are new possibilities in today’s suburbs. In many cases, union members living there are leaders in their own communities. But their knowledge and skill has yet to be integrated as a crucial part of the process of building power.

By weaving together two threads – labour and community organizing – we can start to create something that is both exciting and full of potential. The strength of thousands of working people is there to be tapped. What starts as a determination to take on issues in our communities can lead to challenging the legitimacy of provincial and federal politicians who act against the overall interests of their constituents. And that leads to the essential question of how to project real alternatives to the global corporate agenda.

John Cartwright is President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

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