Organized Labour and Local Politics: Ontario's 2006 Municipal Elections

Article excerpt

ON 13 NOVEMBER 2006, a record number of labour-endorsed candidates were elected to municipal councils and local school boards in Ontario's municipal elections. Although the labour movement's foray into municipal politics was not altogether new, (1) the 2006 elections in Ontario represented a strategic shift in the political priorities of organized labour. For years, unions in English Canada had placed the bulk of their political resources squarely behind the electoral efforts of the New Democratic Party (NDP) at both the federal and provincial levels. However, campaign finance reform at the federal level, combined with unprecedented municipal downloading, and neoliberal economic restructuring, have forced the labour movement to rethink its approach to electoral politics. In short, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Canada's largest labour central, has identified municipal politics as an area worthy of unprecedented attention and resources.

Although a focus on municipal politics may offer the labour movement new opportunities to promote its agenda more effectively, the structure and political culture of local government also present tremendous obstacles for advancing the goals of organized labour. This article begins with a description of recent changes in the relationship between municipalities and the provincial government with a view to explaining why local government has garnered greater attention and significance in recent years. Next, the article examines the reasons behind the CLC'S new focus on local politics and documents the labour central's involvement in the 2006 Ontario municipal elections. Lastly, the article explores the CLC'S new strategic approach, focusing on both the opportunities and obstacles facing the labour movement in local politics.

Local governments are increasingly shaped and influenced by the political and economic effects of neoliberal globalization. Neoliberalism is an ideological political project which promotes the use of right-wing economic policies to advance the goal of capital accumulation. At the municipal level, neoliberal policies tend to encourage competition by local government, resulting in an economic race to the bottom. This particular function of neoliberalism, which remains one of its most coercive characteristics, has created an elevated level of uncertainty in municipal government and, in turn, has promoted the adoption of right-wing economic policies in an effort to attract jobs and investment. (2) This short-term economic strategy, which relies heavily on an agenda of out-sourcing, deregulation, privatization, and tax reduction, is embedded within a larger neoliberal policy framework at both the national and subnational levels. Although local governments have long been constrained from acting independently by the nature of provincial authority over municipal affairs, the entrenchment of neoliberalism in Canada has imposed powerful new fiscal constraints upon municipalities that have led to massive budgetary shortfalls, particularly in social policy areas downloaded to local government. That said, municipalities are not merely passive victims of neoliberal restructuring at the subnational level. Rather, local government has become increasingly central to the political project of neoliberalism. (3) Indeed, municipal privatizations, which normally take the form of lease-back agreements or public-private partnerships in infrastructure building, are a good example of the neoliberal public policy experiments being carried out by local governments. As such, municipal governments have become agents of neoliberal globalization. The entrenchment of neoliberalism at the local level has not gone uncontested. Labour organizations, community groups, and social movements have been mobilizing against neoliberal public policy initiatives at the local level, but the results of these mobilizations have been uneven. Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell are pessimistic about the ability of social movements to successfully combat urban-based forms of neoliberal restructuring in isolation from the larger political structures that sustain them. …