Jim Stanford: A Conservative victory in Ontario will continue the work of the Harris government, a major setback for labour
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. On October 6, Ontario (in Canada, for our American viewers who might not know) is going to elect a new provincial government. Three parties are in the lead. At top of the polls is the Conservative Party. And again for our American viewers, Conservative Party in Ontario is something akin to the Republican Party as it might show up at the state level, even the national level, both ideologically and programmatically. The Liberal Party, which is currently in power, is running second in the polls. And the Liberal party is sort of like the Democratic Party, maybe a little left of where President Obama is right now. And the New Democratic Party is running third, a few points behind the Liberals. And the New Democratic Party, maybe you could say, is sort of something like what the Progressive Caucus might be in the Democratic Party, although some people might say the Progressive Caucus in the Democratic Party might be a little bit to the left of the NDP in Ontario these days. Anyway, the unions are responding to all of this in different ways. Some of the unions in Ontario are saying defeat the Conservatives at all costs, and others are saying elect the NDP. And the NDP, again, for those who don’t know, is a social democratic party–used to call itself socialist, but it doesn’t anymore. So now joining us to talk about all of this is Jim Stanford. Jim is a economist at the Canadian Auto Workers union. Thanks for joining us again, Jim.
JIM STANFORD, ECONOMIST, CANADIAN AUTO WORKERS: Thank you, Paul. Glad to be here.
JAY: So did I get the lie of the land more or less right?
STANFORD: I think you’ve summed it up well, yeah. I think your American viewers have just taken a master’s degree in Ontario politics, and I think you were right on the money there.
JAY: Okay. Good. And for Americans who aren’t interested, the rest of this interview’s more for the Ontarians anyway, so–but you’ll find it interesting. Alright. So in the United States, the unions are also a little bit divided, but to a large extent the unions have come out and are supporting Obama, certainly at the national leadership, in spite–and it’s another conversation–in spite of the fact, I think, they’ve gotten very little out of the Obama administration. But the idea is that the Republicans are such a more terrible alternative, the union leaders are saying, well, we’ll bite our tongue about what we don’t like about Obama administration, and we will go out and campaign. Are we getting a bit of a mirror of this in Ontario?
STANFORD: Well, there is a range of responses, as you mentioned, a range of strategies from the union movement in Ontario. Part of it I think reflects different strategic judgments on, you know, what are the major opportunities and what are the major threats for workers in this election. My view and our union’s view, shared by many unions, is that a victory by the Conservatives, who are led by what in Canadian politics is quite a hard-right leader, Mr. Tim Hudak, would be an enormous setback for workers in Ontario. And so our main goal is trying to make sure he doesn’t win. That leaves the terrain open between the Liberals and the NDP to see who does win.
JAY: Okay. Now, some of this logic comes from previous experience. And for–again, for Americans, but even for a lot of younger Ontarians, it comes from experience with the Harris Conservative government. So why don’t you just kind of give your take on what the significance of the Harris government was?
STANFORD: Tim Hudak, the current Conservative leader, was in fact a minister in a previous Conservative government that ruled–
JAY: And what were the years of Harris?
STANFORD: –from 1995 through 2003. And Hudak was a junior cabinet minister in that government. And Mike Harris brought in what he called the Common Sense Revolution, which was a very radical right program to kind of remake Ontario. Started with big tax cuts, major attacks on unions, changes in labor law to make it much harder for unions to have any effect on the labor market, tax cuts for corporations, a very much sort of market-dominated approach to our society, big cutbacks in spending on our public education and public health care programs in Ontario. It kind of culminated, the defining moment, in 2001, when, in part because of cutbacks of environmental inspectors, we had a huge scandal where a town ended up with poisoned water and six people died from drinking the water. And that kind of–.
JAY: This is Walkerton.
STANFORD: Walkerton. It kind of symbolized what it all meant, you know, several years of attacking government instead of using government to try and strengthen our society and our economy and our environment. And that’s where we were at. We couldn’t even drink the damn water anymore. So Harris and his ilk was voted out of office in 2003, replaced by the Liberals, who have been kind of a center-left government, as you indicated. Now Mr. Hudak is trying to ride a kind of a populist, in a way a kind of Tea Party type of rhetoric about how high taxes are and blame government, hand things over to the private sector. He’s trying to ride back into office. And if you analyze his platform, it would very much be a sequel, if you like, to the Common Sense Revolution that Ontarians ultimately rejected.
JAY: Now, the Liberal Party years, after their–as I said, the Liberal Party are still in power, and after Harris–what’s your assessment of those years?
STANFORD: Well, they’ve had eight years, in a way, to undo some of the damage that was done by Harris. Now, the Liberal Party is a, you know, more or less centrist type of government. They try and straddle both sides, if you like. They’re very close with business, and they’re pro-business in their general direction. On the other hand, they’ve made some important commitments to social programs. Some of the good things that have happened under the Liberals: the minimum wage in Ontario has increased 50 percent. That’s been very important. We’ve had very big increases in spending on health care and education, bigger than any other province in Canada, bigger than NDP provinces, for example. We’ve also had some really important environmental laws. We’ve phased out the use of coal in electricity generation in Ontario, which is very important. And now they brought in a new green energy strategy, where they’re going to have an aggressive expansion of wind and solar energy. And very importantly, that’s tied to some domestic content rules on the energy system, on the electricity system, so that the suppliers have to build windmills and solar panels in Ontario so we get some of the jobs that come with it. So those are some of the positive measures. Their record is far from perfect, of course. They’ve had big corporate tax cuts that we opposed and other measures. But it would be absolutely wrong to say there’s no difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The government in the last few years has been markedly better than it was.
JAY: One of the things Harris did was he revised some of the labor laws that had been passed by a previous NDP government.
STANFORD: That was his first act, actually, in power, Mike Harris, was his Bill 7 in 1995, which was a real attack on labor laws and unions.
JAY: Because the NDP government–and it was kind of a rare voting split that allowed a NDP government to be elected. But they did pass some anti-scab legislation, they did make some changes on labor law that one had not seen before. And Harris undid all of that. Now the Liberals come in. Do they ever undo any of the Harris changes? Or do they essentially leave the Harris anti-labor (as labour people call it) reforms in place?
STANFORD: They kind of split the difference–and again, that’s a very Liberal approach to things, I guess. Some of what Harris did was undoing what the NDP had done, but he went further. He undid things that had been in place in Ontario since the 1940s. For example, we had a former system called card-based certification, where the members of a workplace could vote to join a union simply by getting a majority, a clear majority to sign union cards. Harris did away with that and required these so-called workplace votes, where in practice the employer has a real chance to delay and harass and intimidate workers and prevent unionization. So Harris didn’t just undo what the NDP did; he went further. The Liberals have undone some of the things. I mentioned the minimum wage increases. That’s been very important. They have brought back card-based certification, but only in the construction industry. We’d prefer to see it more widely throughout the economy. The other thing they’ve done is put some rules in place on agency employers and contract employers to give those precarious workers more rights than they had before. So, not enough. We definitely need more.
JAY: Because the anti-scab law is still in place, I mean, Harris allowing the use of scabs and strikes. Like, for example, at the Vale Inco strike, one of the determining factors were the workers more or less had to kind of compromise in a way they had not wanted to after almost a year of strike was because Vale started to get the mine back in operation.
STANFORD: Well, certainly in Canada there’s only two provinces that have anti-scab law, BC and Quebec. So if you have that in place, it’s definitely a boost for the union–it allows you to run a stronger strike. And the Liberal government here has not reintroduced the anti-scab laws, and I wouldn’t expect them to. We will end up–if the Liberals win again, we’ll be pushing hard for some incremental improvements in contract labor law.
JAY: Why do you say, “I wouldn’t expect them to”?
STANFORD: The opposition from the business community (and as I mentioned, the Liberal government’s very close with them on the scab law, and even on card certification) is very, very strong. We will absolutely keep fighting to raise those issues. Where we might have a chance would be around some incremental improvements on labor laws, such as arbitration of long strikes. That actually would have made more of a difference than anything else in the Inco Vale strike. In a place like Manitoba, if a strike goes on for more than 90 days, either party can refer it to an arbitrator for a binding settlement. And that’s a way of preventing the company from starving you out, in essence. So, you know, we’ll have to see the lay of the land after the election. If the Tories win, then we’ll be in full defensive mode to hang on to what we can. If the Liberals win, particularly if it’s a minority government situation where they’ll need the NDP to stay in power, then we could have the opportunity to make more progress on labor law.
JAY: Now, the Ontario ombudsman said that what happened in the G-20, with the arrest of over 1,000 people, was one of the greatest violations of civil rights in the history of Canada, and pointed particularly to this thing called the Ontario Public Works Protection Act, this thing they had dusted off from 1939 and police used for thousands of what the ombudsman said [were] illegal detentions. Every time they stop somebody and ask them to be searched and show identification was essentially illegal. Now, this was passed by the Ontario Liberal government. So are you raising this issue? Because if you’re giving support to the Liberals, you’re not talking about the G-20. In fact, I don’t hear anybody talking about the G-20 in this election, which I find a little alarming when the ombudsman says, you know, you had essentially the beginnings of a police state–and he used this kind of language–and this was the Liberal Party.
STANFORD: Well, I haven’t said anything about supporting the Liberals, Paul. We aren’t supporting the Liberals. We haven’t supported anyone in this election. Our union’s approach has been to stop Hudak, opposing the Conservatives and highlighting the dangers of their platform. And we were 100 percent on board with the ombudsman and with all the protests about what happened at the G-20. None of the levels of government were blameless. The federal government and the municipal government, in terms of the actions of the police, and the provincial government as well, deserve absolute full blame for what happened. It was a travesty, and we’ve got to make sure it never happens again.
JAY: Now, is CAW making any issue out of the G-20 during the elections?
STANFORD: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s in the top list of issues, for sure.
JAY: ‘Cause I’m finding some resistance on people on the left, because they so want to defeat Hudak and the Conservatives, they don’t want to raise the issue of the G-20, ’cause it winds up being critical of the Liberals. On the other hand, then this issue kind of goes away in the election campaign.
STANFORD: Right. You know, there’s other issues that are just like that, you know, taxation, for example, corporate tax cuts. We’re fighting to make sure businesses pay their share. Health spending in the future, even though Hudak is the biggest danger, all of the parties have got a profile for health spending that would require tremendous restraint on health spending. So that’s where you have to go out and fight on the issue more than the party logo. And I’m very sympathetic to the idea that if we fight on the issue and win the battle of ideas over all of those things–human rights, social spending, fair taxation, protecting the environment–then we push all of the parties to try and shift their opinions and their platforms accordingly. So from the labor movement’s point of view, this is where it’s more than just an issue of sort of judging the strategic balance of forces in any particular election. This is where the labor movement has to, in my view, be very careful not to associate itself with any political party. I mean, we used to do that with the NDP, and we got screwed, frankly, because when the NDP came in, they took us for granted, and they were often very regressive. It’s more important for the labor movement to have an independent platform, to engage in politics in defense of their members and all working people, rather than checking off any political party as being our political voice.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk a bit more about the unions, the NDP, and an independent voice for working people.
STANFORD: Very good.
JAY: Please join us for part two of our interview with Jim Stanford on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.