As governments across the world shift the emphasis, with varying degrees of recklessness, from reluctant efforts to contain the coronavirus over to reopening their economies, the temporary and inadequate measures of social protection they have adopted are being cast aside. In Canada, the Trudeau Liberals signal the end of the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) that had at least blunted the impact of the economic dislocation. At the same time, the partial suspension of evictions that provincial governments had put in place are coming to an end. In Ontario, the Landlord and Tenant Board will begin processing a backlog of thousands of eviction applications this week. Municipal governments have been thrown into financial crisis during the lockdown period and, without massive bailouts by the higher levels of government, they are poised to implement brutal cuts to public services. With continuing mass unemployment weakening the ability of workers to resist, we may expect employers, will the full support of governments, to seek to recoup the loss of profits caused by the downturn by way of a full blown attack on workers’ rights and a brutal drive to intensify the rate of exploitation. We face a social and economic crisis and a class war onslaught such as has not taken place since the 1930s.
Given the enormity of the attacks we face, it occurred to me that I should take a look at the website of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to see what plans the main central body of the trade unions in this country was developing for a serious fightback in this dire situation. The results were even more dismal than I imagined. The site proclaims that it is ‘supporting workers in a time of crisis’ and promises you information on ‘actions you can take right now.’ However, these consist of a series of rather less than militant options, that include ‘sign petition,’ ‘call your member of parliament,’ ‘call the banks' (to tell them to stop being so mean and nasty), ‘share on social media’ and ‘send a letter now.’
Since the CLC appears to have dozed off, I decided to check in and see what the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) had to say about the crisis. I must say that the OFL site does at least give you a sense that things are happening. ‘Defund the Police’ is prominently displayed, the Fight for $15 and Fairness is promoted and an information sharing system is in place so that local union struggles can be better known and supported. However, a plan of action for mass union and community action in the face of the attack is not to be found and there is no sense that one is being developed. Since I live in Toronto and it is the largest city in the country, I thought I would round off my search by checking in on the Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC). This site has some use as a source of information but it is immediately clear that nothing beyond a lobbying effort is in the works. None of these central bodies provide a hint of a class struggle approach or offer any sense that their affiliated unions are giving a lead in this regard.
I am far from suggesting that this abrogation of leadership renders everything hopeless. We have just seen the struggle for Black Lives and the resulting demand to Defund the Police resonate powerfully across Canada, with huge social mobilizations taking place, even in the midst of the pandemic. Tenants who face the eviction crisis have carried out powerful actions and have developed strong and cohesive forms of organization, with deep roots in their communities. In Toronto, the abandonment of homeless people, during the pandemic crisis has been challenged with important results. All across Ontario, workers have been carrying out a wave of work refusals to challenge the threat to health and safety that profit hungry employers pose as the virus spreads. However, while demands must be put before leaderships, it is clear that the momentum that is developing is coming from the grass roots and this needs to continue and very seriously increase in scale and intensity.
The Capacity to Resist
The attacks that are now coming down on us will be felt very broadly across a wide swathe of society. However, to a very large degree, the specific impacts and opportunities to resist will be localized. The assault on workers’ rights will play out in individual workplaces, social cutbacks will mean the loss of neighbourhood services. The climate of increased racism that this crisis is generating will play out in particular communities. Certainly, the wave of evictions that is looming over us will have to be resisted by building the capacity of tenants and allies to block individual efforts to put people out of their housing.
Large scale demonstrations that bring people together from over a wide area to press key movement demands are of enormous importance. However, the myriad of intensified attacks that we are going to face in the period ahead requires a capacity for social mobilization that can draw from a local base and that is capable of rapid deployment. Families facing eviction or people being denied vital social benefits will require immediate solidarity action to be taken in their defence and the basis for doing this on short notice will have to be at hand.
In the harsh conditions that working class people had to face in the 1930s, such a capacity for resistance, rooted in local communities, was put in place. There were major marches and protests but there was also a ubiquitous day to day fightback that saw people rally to defend their neighbours when their housing and survival was threatened. One account of anti-eviction struggles in New York City, during this period, gives a sense of the sharpness and scale of these struggles. Through unemployed councils, that organized people where they lived, an incredible capacity for social resistance was generated. Certainly, there were very definite problems with the political orientation in the unemployed movement but the creation of a locally rooted ability and readiness to fight back made a difference and is a model we should look to with considerable interest.
As the attacks we face in the months ahead start to increase, it will be important to rapidly demonstrate to people in desperate situations that resisting is a much better option than despair. In order to do that, an organized ability to act in their defence will be imperative. We already have some of the foundations in place for such a response. There are community based organizations that have a history of social action. Tenants are already organizing in anticipation of an effort to resist the wave of evictions we face. Many union, community and political activists are rooted in the issues of their neighbourhoods and have networks of potential allies. People are organized around local community centres or schools. Many unionized workplaces are anchored in the lives of the communities they are part of. What is required is an effort to bring these kinds of potential sources of resistance together and to form local assemblies or committees that can develop forms of basic organization, plans of action and a capacity to act in the face of attack.
As the focus on lockdown shifts to reopening economies and generating profits, an assault on workers and communities will rapidly take shape that will create great suffering and an enormous sense of anger and desperation. Most certainly, there will be a need for a united movement that advances fighting demands and radical, transformative political alternatives but, without a localized capacity to resist, people under attack will see no reason to be part of it. There is a present lack of an organized readiness to resist on anything approaching an adequate scale and there is no time to lose when it comes to laying the groundwork for such a response. A period of class war and a struggle for survival in the face of it that has no precedent since the depths of the Great Depression is posed and the basic, simple organization forms needed for it must be put in place in the very communities where the fight will be taken up.