Doug Ford is enjoying a massive boost in the polls thanks to COVID-19, sparking speculation that he may call a snap election as early as spring 2021. Earlier this fall, the PCs fast-tracked the re-nomination of all their MPPs, and the NDP is now moving to follow suit, unwilling to trust Ford’s promise not to call an early election. With a possible trip to the polls around the corner, now is an opportune time to reflect on lessons from the previous vote and to begin charting socialist strategy for the next one.
For me, the story of the 2018 election is inseparable from the CUPE 3903 strike of that year. This confluence solidified in me the conviction that the labour movement needs a labour party in government, and that socialists ignore the need to form government at our own peril.
CUPE 3903 vs. Doug Ford
It was late May 2018, and my comrades and I in CUPE 3903—representing TAs, GAs, and contract faculty at York University—were withering on the vine of the longest post-secondary strike in Canadian history. Bargaining had long since gone south, as the employer simply refused to come to the table for months on end.
We had folded our seven picket lines, which had blocked all entrances to the university in the early days of the strike, into just one, at the main entrance. Attendance on the lines had shrunk so much that we had no choice but to combine in this way—a 143-day strike can have that effect on morale.
For those who still showed up to the line, there was little point in actually picketing. We weren’t blocking access to the workplace, as there were six other entrances that drivers could use, so what was the point of walking in circles?
Many of us took to sitting on the grass for much of our shift or engaging in a variety of morale-boosting acts of self-care. Some members started a garden whose mulch pattern resembled the anarcho-communist flag, dubbed the Big Gay Garden, and cultivated what has been called the “implicit militancy of gardening.” Others brought guitars and served up veggie dogs from a charcoal barbecue they brought from home.
Despite these acts of resiliency, we were hanging on by a thread. Months of picketing and escalating direct actions had all failed to force the employer back to the table.
Meanwhile, the province was in the midst of an increasingly tight election, with the NDP surging in the polls, nipping at the heels of Doug Ford’s Conservatives, while the incumbent Liberals were in a distant third. In a very real sense, the fate of our strike would hang entirely on the results of the election.
As we languished on the picket line in the unusually warm spring weather, it was understood that the employer was waiting for the election results to make their next move.
We knew that if Ford was elected, one of his first moves would be to come to the boss’s rescue and legislate CUPE 3903 back to work. But we also knew that the NDP had our backs. Jagmeet Singh himself had made a solidarity visit to our lines. We knew that the ONDP, if elected, would not legislate us back to work, and that the employer would be forced to bargain with us.
Knowing this, I started talking with a few comrades, and convinced a few to skip out on the four-hour picket shift and instead go over to the nearest NDP campaign office, that of now-MPP Tom Rakocevic, and pitch in. Some later joined me for volunteer shifts in my home riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s, canvassing for now-MPP Jill Andrew. These would be my first two NDP election campaigns.
That a bunch of socialists from one of the province’s most militant unions felt it was important to fight for an NDP victory reflected the urgency and opportunities of the conjuncture. There was a pragmatic sense among us that, although we had a number of strong disagreements with the party, our struggle was now dependent on the NDP forming government.
Ford’s Trump-lite brand of right-wing populism threatened a major setback, not just for our union, but for the political landscape of the entire province. On the other hand, because the incumbent Liberals were polling in third, the NDP had a real shot of winning as the strategic anti-PC vote, all while running on a relatively progressive platform, with promises for $12/day daycare, the construction of 65,000 affordable homes, universal dental care and pharmacare, the conversion of student loans to grants, and a faculty renewal strategy that would convert many contract faculty to full-time tenure-track professors, which happened to be one of our strike’s core demands.
What Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin call a “marked turn on the left from protest to politics,” embodied by the movements around Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, should also be noted. The role of these campaigns in legitimizing electoral politics as a site of socialist struggle should not be underestimated.
That the province might avoid the right-wing populist turn sweeping jurisdictions across the world, and instead move in a social democratic direction, had many (myself included) feeling cautiously optimistic. Even Naomi Klein came off the electoral sidelines and offered a rare endorsement of the ONDP.
Alas, it was all too little too late. Though it would be the ONDP’s best election since forming government in 1990, it still came as a major disappointment, given how close the polls had put the two leading parties, and how much was riding on the outcome of the election. The popular vote was 2,326,632 for the Conservatives, 1,929,649 for the NDP, 1,124,218 for the Liberals, and 264,487 for the Greens. The seat count was 76, 40, seven, and one, respectively.
As part of the PC’s first piece of legislation, the Urgent Priorities Act, which was introduced on July 16 and received royal assent on July 25, CUPE 3903 was legislated back to work and forced into binding arbitration. We were exhausted and demoralized, though we wouldn’t go back to work without paying a visit to Queen’s Park and letting Ford know how we felt about him.
The lessons of 2018
To this day, I consider that election a missed opportunity, and I wonder how our strike would have turned out had the NDP prevailed. While many leftists seemed to come out of the woodwork and pitch in on that election, I can’t help but feel that we showed up too late. Why did so many of us, myself included, leave it to a last-minute bandwagon to get on board?
Had we been long-term members and volunteers, not just in the month before the election, but in the years leading up to it, would that extra leg work have paid off and made the difference? Maybe it’s just the Leafs fan in me, but since the election I’ve come to the conclusion that the appropriate strategy is to stick with the team, through good times and bad. I’ve been an NDP member and activist ever since.
I know the NDP is far from perfect, but so are unions. When a union boss gets in the way of the rank-and-file, what do we socialists do? Withdraw from participating in the union? Of course not. If anything, we double down, slowly building rank-and-file confidence until they are strong enough to challenge the executive’s power.
In CUPE 3903, we have some pretty vicious divisions and struggles between factions, but I wouldn’t give up on my union if the opposing faction took control of the executive. Instead, I would continue the struggle until my side prevailed. Why shouldn’t the same logic apply to a labour party like the NDP?
While the NDP is clearly not socialist, there are many socialists within it organizing to move the party in that direction. Courage is leading the charge to make the NDP “more democratic, more open to social movement activists, and more courageous in pushing for transformative, progressive politics.” They played a role in organizing the grassroots ouster of Tom Mulcair from the leadership, and they continue to push the party to the left in a number of ways.
Many leftists believe that social movement organizing is more important than electoral politics, and they choose to spend their time accordingly. I completely support that, but I wonder where the harm is in also taking out an NDP membership and squeezing in some party work once in a while.
The same principle holds true for folks who spend most of their activist energy on electoral politics: why not join the occasional rally, donate to important groups (BLMTO, OCAP, you name it), and volunteer once in a while?
Ultimately, our party will be stronger with these connections to movements, and our movements will be stronger with linkages to the party.
Socialist organizers are happy to sell the benefit of paying union dues. We argue that labour unions are an excellent way to defend oneself from the boss, and we point to statistics that show unionized workers earn better wages and benefits. Why, then, are we so tentative about promoting Canada’s labour party?
Like a union, the party requires dues (in the form of membership fees). And, like a union, the party serves a largely defensive role, in this case not against one boss, but against the bosses as a class and as organized into parties.
Neither a labour union nor a labour government will bring about socialism by simply existing, but both are indisputably necessary pieces of infrastructure on the road to socialism.
Why the NDP?
Still, the question remains: why the NDP, and not a new party?
In 2014 Sam Gindin and Michael Hurley argued for the need to abandon the NDP in favour of forming a new socialist party, though this was before Sanders and Corbyn showed what can be done within hollowed out and neoliberalized ‘left’ parties (and it was before Courage came on the scene). Given the new socialist momentum within the NDP, one wonders if Gindin and Hurley’s position has changed. Either way, I do not see any organizing going on to replace the NDP, but I do see a lot of organizing happening to push the NDP in a firmly socialist direction. Rather than further subdivide our efforts, it makes sense to pile on with Courage and join socialists where they actually are organizing.
More recently, there has been some momentum around socialist Dmitri Lascaris’s surprisingly close second-place finish in the Green Party leadership race, with some calling on him to form a sort of shadow party that, for now, would not run against the Greens or NDP, but would serve to embolden the socialist elements within each, as they could point to a more legitimate threat of leaving for a truly left party. While this idea has some promise, there is, to my knowledge, no organizing going on to actually make it happen, and it would not require leaving the NDP even if there was.
Thus, for the foreseeable future, with the sole exception of Québec solidaire, the NDP remains the logical party for the Canadian left.
If there is a snap election in Ontario, it will be an uphill battle to overcome the boost Ford has received from COVID-19. But if he waits, one has to imagine his popularity will start sliding again as the pandemic comes under control, and he resumes the neoliberal hacking and slashing that, before the pandemic, had him polling lower than even the leaderless Liberals.
Despite overtaking the NDP in Toronto, the Liberals still trail the NDP provincially. If this holds, the NDP will once again be able to credibly argue that they are the anti-PC strategic vote, giving us an opportunity to repeat and, hopefully, improve upon 2018.
It seems to me that our best chance of avoiding the disappointment of that year is to join the NDP now and team up with other socialists within the party struggling to push it to the left.
Jacob McLean is a PhD candidate in environmental and urban change at York University, a member of CUPE 3903, Vice-President of the Toronto-St. Paul’s ONDP, and a member of Courage.