First written for Midnight Sun Magazine.
The founding meeting of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), in 1990, featured a sharp debate between two opposing concepts of a poor people’s movement. A significant portion of those in attendance believed poverty could best be tackled with convincing arguments and moral appeals to those in power. The contending perspective, thankfully that of the majority, held that governments would address poverty only to the extent that they faced a powerful challenge. Accordingly, this side argued for an organization that would build a base in poor communities and take up militant forms of collective action.
I was first elected as an organizer with OCAP in 1990 and stayed in that role for some 28 years. Though the conclusions I put forward here are my own and I’m not trying to speak for the organization or its members, I believe there are lessons to be drawn from OCAP’s decades in struggle – and that the model of resistance OCAP created has much to offer those organizing today, in this greatly changed period that the pandemic has ushered in.
Disruptive militancy in difficult times
The challenge facing the newly formed OCAP was to create a counterpower for those on the receiving end of the war on the poor. To do so, we acted in the way that activist sociologists Piven and Cloward described in their book Poor People’s Movements: using disruptive actions against the institutions oppressing the poor, so as to create levels of crisis that could force concessions from them.
OCAP adopted the slogan “fight to win” to distance itself from approaches that were based only on moral pressure or ritualized protest. This bold perspective, however, was advanced in a decidedly challenging context. Throughout the entire period in which OCAP has operated, major victories for working-class movements have not been plentiful. The organization has looked for winning forms of struggle during decades when trade unions and social movements have been largely forced onto the defensive.
Neoliberalism, the dominant political and economic program during those decades, emerged at the end of the postwar boom years as an attempt to restore falling rates of profit by intensifying the exploitation of the working class. This global initiative included an assault on unions and the gutting of social infrastructures. Income support systems, like unemployment insurance and social assistance, were seriously degraded, to create a climate of desperation that would generate a low-wage precarious workforce. This regressive and destructive agenda was already well underway by the time OCAP was formed, and would accelerate considerably in the years that followed. Our militant perspective proved effective within definite limits, but our struggles unfolded in a broader context in which the societal balance of forces had shifted dramatically against working-class and poor people.
Still, the class struggle continues even during an unfavourable period, expressed through both regular skirmishes and periodic larger conflicts with those in power. OCAP took up such struggles in a number of key ways. First of all, in order to build a base among people impacted by poverty, we understood we would have to prove that collective action could make a practical difference in their lives. Just like working-class and poor people’s organizations of the 1930s, we mobilized to challenge individual, day-to-day injustices with what we came to refer to as ‘“direct action casework.” The majority of these actions were “mass delegations” directed at social benefits offices that were denying assistance to those in need. Frequently, actions of this kind were bolstered by union activists in “flying squads,” with members of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) playing a particularly active role. Bureaucracies have a natural antipathy towards disruptive tactics, and these “mass delegations” soon proved to be an enormously effective means of obtaining redress and demonstrating the power of united action. The kind of movement we sought to create, however, would have to employ disruptive tactics on a broader scale than simply challenging individual abuses.
A history of occupations and confrontations
The gutting of social provision during the neoliberal period has been accompanied by intensified levels of state repression, to assert control over the poor. Early in OCAP’s existence, the Toronto Police Chief announced that his force would begin a major crackdown on those asking for spare change on the streets. He made it clear that big merchants were demanding the sweeping away of “beggars.” OCAP responded with a mass panhandle that saw hundreds of people march through the downtown malls with tins and cups, asking shoppers for money. The police crackdown was averted because we showed that we could generate a bigger problem for the retail companies – a greater disruption – than the one they had been complaining about.
During OCAP’s first five years, the NDP formed the provincial government in Ontario. That party’s abandonment of progressive campaign pledges, in the face of pressure from business interests, is well established. Towards the end of the NDP’s time in office, its Minister of Community and Social Services announced the hiring of hundreds of investigators to crack down on “welfare fraud.” Even worse, he planned a provincial speaking tour to whip up public support for this vile measure. In response, OCAP held a supper outside his kickoff meeting in Toronto. With a turnout that greatly outnumbered the minister’s supporters inside, we invaded the event, took over the stage, and conducted our own meeting about resisting the crackdown. The minister fled and cancelled his provincial tour.
After taking power in Ontario in 1995, the Mike Harris Tories played a role comparable to that of Ronald Reagan’s government in the US and Margaret Thatcher’s in the UK. By 1999, the Tories’ austerity measures, including brutal welfare cuts, had caused an explosion of homelessness and a rash of street deaths. With Toronto’s homeless shelters overflowing, OCAP took over Allan Gardens, in the city’s Downtown East, and operated a Safe Park that provided a place of shelter for homeless people. Over 1000 community members attended the opening event. With Harris and Toronto’s mayor calling for us to be driven out, we held the park for three days and nights. A massive police raid was unleashed to disperse the Safe Park, but our occupation significantly advanced the building of resistance to the Tory agenda.
The following year, with the homeless disaster still intensifying, we assembled 1500 supporters, over half of them homeless people, to march on the Ontario Legislature. We had a series of demands to present, and our mass delegation called for its representatives to be allowed to address the assembled provincial parliament. When riot cops with horses tried to drive the crowd from the grounds of the Legislature, a fierce confrontation ensued. It became known as the Queen’s Park Riot. Many were arrested during the action and more were picked up in the days that followed. However, the police attack, the legal persecution, and the slander campaign in the media all failed to crush us. On the contrary, the Queen’s Park Riot was one of the key events of the fight against the Harris Tories. It won OCAP much wider support.
When the Liberals returned to power in 2003, they stealthily consolidated and deepened the austerity of their Tory predecessors, taking advantage of reduced levels of political confrontation on the part of trade unions and social movements. Where the Harris government had cut social assistance rates by 21.6 percent and then frozen them for the rest of their time in office, the Liberals provided increases below the rate of inflation – a policy that continued to drive people deeper into poverty. Seeking new tactics for these changing times, OCAP came across an obscure social assistance benefit called the Special Diet. The benefit provided up to $250 a month per person if a medical provider deemed it necessary. Between 2005 and 2010, we ran a systematic campaign to get this benefit to huge numbers of people in poverty.
OCAP organized “hunger clinics,” where medical providers filled in forms for people wanting to access the Special Diet. Social assistance offices predictably rejected these forms on various shabby pretexts. If people wanted to get the benefit, they were going to have to fight for it. Hundreds of actions were organized to confront bureaucrats and officials, and win the provision of the Special Diet. Toronto’s Somali community was the leading force in many of these actions. Again and again, we broke down the resistance of the system’s gatekeepers. The Ontario Auditor General estimated that the Special Diet benefit went from paying a mere $6 million a year to providing $200 million. Though the Liberals later changed the rules to restrict access to the Special Diet, it continues to this day to provide far more than it did before OCAP took up this fight.
These examples of OCAP’s struggles demonstrate the organization’s characteristic approach, rooted in calculated disruptive tactics. But how well did we apply this method, and with what results?
Though some might say that OCAP has been able to punch above its weight, a small poor people’s organization could never have reversed, or even halted, an austerity agenda in an unfavourable period of largely defensive struggles. Nonetheless, we’ve won important victories. Our challenges to income support bureaucracies and public housing authorities have ensured that thousands of people obtained resources that would otherwise have been withheld. The Special Diet campaign alone directed nearly a billion dollars to those in urgent need. Squatting actions led to the creation of housing in buildings that had been left empty. Toronto’s shelter system is wretchedly inadequate, but hundreds of bed spaces are available that the authorities would not have opened up but for relentless community pressure that OCAP has played a leading role in building.
One measure of OCAP’s success is the extent to which our resistance may have limited the ability of those in power to proceed with their agenda of social cutbacks. For example, OCAP’s huge 2012 campaign against the Ontario government’s cut to the Community Start Up Benefit, a program assisting with housing costs, led to $54 million being put back into it. In 1995, we were not able to prevent the Harris Tories from reducing social assistance levels by 21.6 percent, but we put up a serious fight that helped raise the level of anti-Tory mobilization. We know that some members of the government favoured eliminating benefits outright for single employable people – following the example of several US jurisdictions – but they didn’t proceed with such a measure. It is likely that, in this and other areas, our resistance limited the scale of the attack.
OCAP’s record of fighting back was influential across Ontario and beyond. There are organizations of the poor in various countries that acknowledge that the example we set helped to orientate their struggles. In the decisive Mike Harris years, the trade union movement didn’t rush out of the gate to challenge the Tory agenda; community organizations, OCAP prominent among them, were quicker to the fight. These first challenges to Tory austerity were vital in building momentum towards the citywide strikes and mass protests that became known as the Ontario Days of Action.
The question of greatest importance, however, is OCAP’s contribution to building a mass movement among poor people. Clearly the creation of such a movement still lies ahead of us. Tens of thousands of poor and homeless people have been part of OCAP actions over the years, but we have never mobilized on a scale that would compare to the enormous protests of the unemployed during the 1930s.
OCAP’s structure has always been democratic and participatory, with regular membership meetings open to all who wish to participate in our work and set the course for the organization. However, the level of involvement by poor communities has never been high enough to create a movement truly rooted in them. While major actions have continued to bring out significant numbers from those communities, sustained involvement of such communities’ members in OCAP’s day-to-day work and decision-making has been much harder to achieve. For a period, an OCAP Women of Etobicoke office functioned, run by women from the Somali community. Dozens of Indigenous people have taken part in struggles against the brutal impact of homelessness. Yet OCAP’s active membership, as opposed to its supportive periphery, has not adequately reflected the deeply racialized reality of poverty in Toronto. I mentioned earlier that half of those who marched on the Ontario Legislature on the day of the Queen’s Park Riot were themselves homeless, and that counts for a lot. It speaks to OCAP’s serious, sustained effort to build trust and respect among homeless communities, involving constant outreach and countless interventions at shelters and in the streets. But it is still short of the dynamic self-organized model that must be created.
These problems are not attributable primarily to OCAP’s organizational choices and structure. OCAP has made its share of mistakes, to be sure. The organization has worked to improve how it intervenes and builds its base in poor communities, adopting tactics that have included information tables outside benefits offices, town hall meetings, and community meals. Still, the main difficulties OCAP has faced can be traced to the political problems that the neoliberal period has generated or intensified.
The last several decades have not offered an abundance of evidence that collective action is the way forward. Trade unions, the most powerful form of working-class organization, have lost ground, and the defeats they have suffered have tended to demobilize their members and reinforce conservative, bureaucratic leaderships. A healthy union movement can support resistance among the poorest part of the working class; with some precious exceptions, in recent decades this kind of support has simply not been there. At the same time, while many vital grassroots initiatives have kept resistance alive, our strong and vibrant community-based movements lack the scale that is needed today. A critical mass of effective resistance has not yet been reached. This has impacted peoples’ thinking, fostered a sense of defeat and powerlessness that has made social mobilization very challenging. One woman on disability benefits put it rather starkly: “I respect how you fight back,” she told me, “but, let’s face it, governments are going to do what they are going to do and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Yet perhaps there are some lessons learned while swimming against the stream that may prove useful when the tide turns.
The pandemic era
The pandemic takes us from an extended period of relative stability, albeit on capitalism’s terms, into one of multifaceted crisis. As the virus has moved along the lines of class and racial inequality laid down for it by the neoliberal order, governments have been forced to implement partial economic shutdowns. Even in a rich country like Canada, this has led to considerable hardship, with the threat of eviction hanging over a mass of tenants and the crisis of homelessness greatly intensified.
Even if the worst of the pandemic is behind us, which is far from certain, we will emerge from this global health crisis with what the IMF calls “economic scarring.” We may expect an effort by employers and governments to restore profitability by ensuring, through intensified exploitation and reduced living standards, that working-class people pay for the crisis. One ominous indication of this impending drive to restore “business as usual” is the brutal police operations to drive out homeless people seeking to survive by camping in public parks.
Above all else, we must appreciate that a rapidly intensifying climate disaster hangs over the other elements of today’s social crisis. Recent weeks have seen heatwaves, drought, and wildfires bring death and dislocation to Western Canada and the US, and flooding has occurred in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and China. Capitalism’s failure to develop a sustainable relationship with nature is causing terrible destruction, distributed along the lines of social inequality the system generates. It is clear that the frequency and intensity of the ravages of climate change are going to increase considerably and will add a devastating new element to the war on the poor.
If the period ahead is marked by increased levels of social conflict, mass social mobilization in response will be a real prospect. Disruptive collective action, fighting to win, may unfold on a different scale. Ever since the end of World War Two, trade unions in Canada have operated within a legal, state-regulated framework that has limited their capacity to mobilize and struggle. Despite the assault on organized workers that has been such a key element of the neoliberal decades, the rules and standards of this relative class compromise have remained largely intact. In the post-pandemic period, with a greatly intensified employer offensive, a rejuvenated militant trade union model will be essential.
If they are to become the organizations of effective class struggle they urgently need to be, unions must break out of the constraints of compartmentalized, state-approved activity. For unions, fighting to win would mean the rank-and-file driving a renewed ability to strike on a wider front, beyond skirmishes over individual collective agreements. It would mean a massive effort to include low-wage and precarious workers, and to mobilize seriously in solidarity with communities under attack. It would also mean looking for methods of struggle against capital and state that are as disruptive and threatening as the sit-downs of the prewar years. The neoliberal era’s global supply chain has its choke points, sites of vulnerability that an unfettered trade union power could inflict hammer blows on. The blockades and other actions that took place across Canada in early 2020 to support Wet’suwet’en land defenders, a movement led by Indigenous peoples, gave a sense of what is possible with such forms of resistance. When such powerful tactics are set in motion, however, labour relations boards throw up their hands in horror and courts issue injunctions, orders to cease and desist. The niceties of regulated, respectable class conflict will have to be left behind.
Such disruptive methods will become ever more necessary as the impacts of climate change intensify and communities face extreme weather, destruction, and displacement. Capitalist states will be only too ready to abandon poor and racialized working-class people to such horrors and tell them “fatalities are a part of life.” The resources, the supports, all the measures needed in a time of worsening climate crisis will have to be won by ongoing mass action that is built and sustained through dynamic, participatory forms of organization. It won’t be enough to secure token representation on government advisory bodies. It will be necessary to confront power structures and develop a powerful solidarity for survival.
The spirit of fighting to win can also be expressed through the demands that movements make. The huge mobilization for Black lives that followed the police murder of George Floyd advanced the struggle for police abolition. The flow of people across borders, which will greatly increase under the impact of the climate crisis, requires bold demands to open those borders, rather than appeals for a few minor concessions. As the full horror of Canada’s genocidal residential “school” system emerges, the present-day colonial reality must be confronted and the Trudeau brand of “reconciliation” decisively rejected. This is a period when the stultifying mechanisms of compromise and containment must be overcome, and a movement built that expresses that defiance in action.
OCAP has long taken the view that because it is an organization that fights poverty, it must also be anti-capitalist. The organization has been guided by a sense that we should demand and struggle for what we need to survive, rather than reconciling ourselves to an oppressive, exploitative system that can’t meet those needs. If such a system is unable to provide what’s necessary, it deserves only to perish.
This is a perspective that can be fully developed only in a period of working-class offensive. The pandemic may have opened up such a situation – in which disruptive collective action, creating crises for those in power, might have far more decisive consequences. In such a moment, OCAP’s experience over three decades holds valuable lessons. It offers an important model of organization and struggle for the years that lie ahead.