Academic journal article Capital & Class

Fighting to Win: The Ontario Coalition against Poverty. (Behind the News)

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Fighting to Win: The Ontario Coalition against Poverty. (Behind the News)

Article excerpt

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is a direct action anti-poverty organization which, since 1989, has fought governments of all stripes in Ontario, left (so-called), right and centre to defend the needs of poor people and to work for a future where people are able to live decently. In doing so OCAP has become the focal point of resistance to neo-liberal capitalism in Canada's largest province.

Unlike much of the Left and labour in Ontario OCAP had no illusions about the ruling social democrats during their reign (1991-1995). OCAP confronted the New Democratic Party (NDP) throughout their years in office as the party moved more and more to the right.

Most of OCAP's battles, however, have been fought against the virulent neo-liberal Progressive Conservative (Tory) party and their harsh policies. The 1995 provincial elections saw the backstabbing NDP replaced by a regime led by former golf and skiing instructor Mike Harris. The Tories campaigned on a vicious anti-poor platform which demonized welfare recipients and poor people as drains on social services which the Conservatives were keen to dismantle. Upon election, Harris declared Ontario 'open for business' and rigorously began a sustained attack on union gains, public services and social programs.

The Tories won their first election largely on the basis of a moral panic which they directed against poor people in Ontario blaming them for everything from government debt to moral decay (see Swanson, 2001). Upon election, one of the Tories' first acts was an immediate cut of 21.6% from social assistance benefits for welfare recipients. Eventually the Tories ended welfare altogether keeping an election promise to implement a workfare regime. To make matters worse the Tories cancelled funding for 17,000 units of affordable housing. Later acts included the perversely misnamed 'Tenant Protection Act' which did away with rent controls in Ontario.

Maintaining their commitment to making Ontario attractive to corporate investors the Tories have also attacked organized labour. Among many anti-labour acts the Tories repealed NDP legislation which had made it illegal for struck companies to hire scabs. Other pieces of legislation have taken away all penalties against bosses who interfere with organizing drives and force workers to wait one year between drives.

Now into their second-term in office, the government recently passed legislation attacking the few employment standards which remain in Ontario. The new laws, reminiscent of the 'Master and Servant Act' of the 1940s, allow for a 60 hour workweek and the end of weeklong vacation periods. It is now mandatory for all unionized workplaces to post union de-certification procedures. Incredibly, employers can now opt out of such policies as the minimum wage by arguing that their 'global competitiveness' is threatened.

Unfortunately, the response of the labour movement to these ongoing attacks has been to retreat further into hopes that the NDP will win the next election and make all the bad stuff go away. That was the position which allowed the Tories to claim a second term in office in 1999 and it remains the only vision for much of labour in Ontario. As OCAP organizer Sue Collis (2001: 4) notes, the labour movement, throughout the Tory reign has 'failed to stand and fight when called upon to do so, even in its own defense.'

Days of Action

The status of large-scale resistance to Tory neoliberalism hasn't always been so bleak. Only months after the Tories' first election victory, unions, social justice organizations and community groups launched a series of one-day, city-by-city mass strikes called the 'Days of Action.' In each city substantial portions of the workforce struck. The Toronto Days of Action shut down the city and the second day culminated in the largest demonstration in Canadian history as nearly 300,000 people took part. While results varied from city to city, the Days of Action cost the Tories' corporate backers hundreds of millions of dollars. …

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