When the class line is drawn, which side will you fall on?



The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (www.ocap.ca) is a grassroots anti-poverty organization based mainly in the city of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. It combines ‘direct action casework’, daily collective struggles on behalf of individual constituents for tenant rights, to stop evictions, to stop deportations, to win welfare access, with larger political campaigns to press demands for policy changes. OCAP has recently been working heavily on immigrant and refugee rights, bringing attention to detention centres and deportations; on a province-wide campaign to restore welfare to a subsistence level; and on a solidarity campaign with the immigrant workforce of the Metropolitan Hotel, workers who have found themselves struggling not only against the abusive management of this ‘five star sweatshop’ in Toronto, but also against the bureaucracy of their own union, which has sided with management against the interests of the workers.

As an organization whose constituency is the poor and whose actions serve that constituency, OCAP has met with repression from the authorities and, unfortunately, a surprising lack of solidarity from other social movement sectors, even while they have had tremendous support and solidarity from many others. John Clarke, an OCAP organizer, was interviewed in Toronto on some of these issues.

JP: How did the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty start?

JC: OCAP’s roots are in the late 1980s, when Ontario was ruled by the Liberal government of premier David Peterson. This was a time when neoliberalism was getting going, with Thatcher, Reagan, and Mulroney in power. Peterson’s government was the last government in Ontario that was willing make concessions on social issues. That’s not to say that Peterson’s government made a whole load of concessions.

But at the time, the welfare rolls were expanding enormously despite it being a time of economic buoyancy in the province. I was working in the London (Ontario) Union of Unemployed Workers. Along with the Toronto Union of Unemployed Workers, we brought a campaign demanding a 25% welfare increase. The slogan was: “Just to eat and pay the rent, we need 25%.” We used some of the tactics that OCAP is notorious for: we would confront politicians at meetings and banquets, try to disrupt business as usual. We organized three major marches, coming from different parts of Southern Ontario (Hamilton and London), to the Provincial Legislature in Queen’s Park. It had an impact. Shortly afterwards, there was a governmental committee, the ‘Thomson Committee’, that published a report on welfare in Ontario and proposed a series of reforms to the system.

After that, we – mainly the London Union of Unemployed Workers again – proposed another major march on the legislature. It seems surprising now, but we had a lot of support from organizations, unions, even the New Democratic Party (Canada’s social democratic party). The march happened in Spring 1990. It, too, was a success, leading to welfare rate increases of 9% — and to the formation of OCAP. OCAP was formed informally that spring, formally in November of 1990.

Our next campaign was against David Peterson’s re-election, with the slogan: “Down with the poverty premier!” Again, we used the same tactics: showing up at meetings and press conferences and banquets. Peterson was defeated, and the New Democratic Party came to power under premier Bob Rae in 1990.

JP: Relating to the NDP, a left party, must have been a challenge. How did OCAP relate to the NDP in power?

JC: It was a difficult time for us, for various reasons. First, because our resource base in the unions and NDP and so on, was now in the government. And second, because of this debate: how do you challenge a left government? It’s quite clear that if you are challenging a left government you are challenging the whole system, because there is no electoral alternative to point to. And it was at this time, under the NDP, that we realized that OCAP was going to be based in Toronto, and not the province-wide network we had dreamed of. The union support we had hoped for wasn’t forthcoming. We became a city-based organization, and have stayed that way since.

JP: The NDP was followed by the brutal Conservative regime of Mike Harris. How did that change OCAP?

JC: It was a major transformation in the scale and intensity of the problems we faced and in the repression against poor people generally. For all the problems we had had with Peterson or Rae, we had met with Peterson. We had met with Rae. We had been mobilizing to try to win gains, and now we were mobilizing to try to hamper and slow down the implementation of this brutal agenda. There was no movement broad, strong, or supported enough to stop the agenda.

So we had to adapt. We built a practice based on first, trying to demonstrate to the broader movement that it is possible to move beyond moral pressure on a government and embrace significant resistance. And also, on our daily work of intervening to stop deportations, to win wage benefits and welfare benefits for individuals in our case work. At any given time we are working on dozens of such situations, and we are successful because we work on them with collective actions: delegations to welfare offices, pickets at the houses of some of these despicable individuals, and so on. And we have a high success rate. The going rate for success in immigration appeals, for example, is 4-5%. But when OCAP is involved, we do the legal work but we also do the collective action, the mobilizing and our success rate is about 70%. We win 95% of our welfare cases.

JP: You talked about how your support was institutionally based. But some of those institutions have abandoned OCAP, citing OCAP’s uncompromising tactics as the reason, leaving OCAP even more vulnerable to repression in an even more repressive context, and also leaving OCAP without resources. Can you talk about some of that history?

JC: Initially, most of our support came from trade unions. In those early years, we were operating with a budget of about $40-50,000, most of which came from the unions. Today we operate at around $80,000, but even less of that comes from unions. There are a few notable and very honourable exceptions: the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Toronto local of the Postal Workers Union, have been significant. CUPE 3903, a small local, has actually provided more support than any other labour entity – greater, for example, than the giant Canadian Auto Worker’s union and the Ontario Federation of Labour combined.

We actually just hit a wall, financially. We were unable to pay our rent and phone bill. We made an appeal, and it was successful: we raised $12,000 in a couple of weeks. Of that, we got $150 from the labour movement. A little more from organizations. The rest was from individuals. One of these was a busboy in a restaurant, who came to our office and gave us his life savings of $3000. People on welfare have donated. I have literally had homeless people on the street give us money, which I have tried to refuse.

This is stark. The reason is that fundamentally, the labour bureaucracy is increasingly not interested in helping a militant poor people’s organization. They see our work as volatile, and contrary to their interest (as a bureaucracy), and as a result they are less and less interested in financially supporting our work.

JP: Do you think that OCAP’s problems with the union bureaucracy fit into a wider analysis of the organizing context?

JC: Yes. Neoliberalism has ended the de facto ‘settlement’ and the post-war boom that offered working people increasing living standards in exchange for labour ‘peace’. That settlement is more dead than ever, and it is a time of retrogression and repression. The most powerful state in the world is acting like an empire, openly. Trying to reverse this tide will be a lengthy process. But the institutions created during the period of compromise are faced with a new choice. They can transform their practice from one of collaboration and negotiation to one of fundamental resistance. Or they can simply join the other side. Unfortunately, historically, labour has opted to go to the other side, to the side of elites, every time. In Germany, labour marched with the Nazis, for example, and were in concentration camps the next day.

So there is this crisis brought on by the labour bureaucracy, which is the barrier to building a movement. But there is also a crisis on the rest of the left. I am fifty years old, and I have never seen a left more bereft of analysis of the labour movement than I see today. On the one hand, there are the young activists who think that the whole thing is irrelevant, and it is hard to blame them. On the other hand, there are the old, I guess you could call them left has-beens. They can’t break with the bureaucracy, so they become its apologists.

I am not saying that OCAP is perfect. We have certainly made our share of mistakes. But in our defence we have been forced into a role that is not at all proportional to what we are. We are a small organization representing the poorest part of the working class, and we have been forced to try to create a fundamental resistance to the whole agenda of neoliberalism, something that the unions have far more power to do.

JP: If you despair of trying to reach the union bureaucracy, what would you say to those young activists who think it is all irrelevant? I can certainly understand a young person who might think that: they see fewer possibilities of getting a job that will enable them to pay the rent, cuts to social services, and the unionized sector of the workforce shrinking. Probably most youth with work experience don’t have experience with a union, because so much of the young workforce isn’t unionized.

JC: The contempt that younger activists have for the bureaucracy is healthy. But what is missed when you dismiss it all is an understanding of the power of the working class. Now OCAP has a reputation for militant protests. But notwithstanding the leadership, the Days of Action, led by the unions, in 1995, against the Conservative agenda of Mike Harris – the first day in London Ontario cost the auto industry $300 million dollars. If working people were to move, they would have a power far beyond anything the most amazing street protests could do.

JP: Do you think that’s still true? So much of North America has been deindustrialized, with the population forced into contingent work, prison labour, unemployment. Hasn’t the effect of this been to diminish options for working class action?

JC: It is still true. It’s true that basic industry has shrunk, but that doesn’t diminish the potential power of working people. The power to shut down the flow of goods and services and transportation is still fundamental. There might be fewer people in the steel industry and more people in services, but even if you’re shutting down the hospitality industry, you’re still hitting elites and disrupting the flow of profits.

JP: Speaking of the hospitality industry, OCAP is working with the Metropolitan Hotels Workers Committee. What is happening?

JC: What is happening with the Metro Hotels Workers could – I emphasize the could – become a model for rank and file resistance, to management and to the union bureaucracy, that could be replicated. One irony here is that the hotel worker’s union, HERE Local 75, actually has a leadership with a reputation for militant politics. The leadership of that local was won by people with a perspective of building a hotel worker’s movement. But it took over the local in a situation where a hard-nosed, exploitive employer is gauging a weak immigrant workforce.

In a situation like that, you can’t screw around. Militant rhetoric won’t cut it. You have to mobilize that constituency or you’ll find out that after the rhetoric very little has changed. The union leadership found its only way forward was to deny, stifle, and dream of their college days.

JP: Because they went to college.

JC: Because they went to college, unlike their constituents. The union’s office is full of interns from universities who don’t even speak the languages of the largely immigrant workforce.

JP: Even though it’s far easier to teach a worker who speaks Punjabi how to work in an office than it is to teach an anglophone college student how to speak Punjabi…

JC: So the real membership of the union is beginning to stir. The grievances were very serious. A recent article in Toronto’s alternative weekly, ‘Eye Magazine’, tells just one of the stories of the workers:

“Mahmood, who is Muslim, claims he spent about five minutes of his break praying in the staff area, out of hotel guests’ sight. He says hotel security hassled him and chased him out. On several occasions, he alleges they searched his mini-bar trolley. Mahmood blames the current climate: “After 9/11, I don’t know why they targeted me,” he says. He says his boss ignored his complaints, and that security made his life so difficult he felt forced to resign.

“Before resigning himself in unrelated circumstances, a management-level Metropolitan employee emailed the major hotels in the city, including the Four Seasons, the Crown Plaza and the Hyatt, warning them about Mahmood. “You do not want this guy working at your hotel,” he wrote. “We final [sic] put the pressure on him and he has resigned.””

With dozens of stories like that, and a situation where, quoting the article again:

“Workers… never see union reps, even when they phone repeatedly. Workers’ grievances are not filed… nor followed up on. They have collected hundreds of signatures on petitions to remove abusive managers, …which… have been ignored”, it’s not surprising that the workers were forced to organize to confront management and their own union. OCAP has helped – but we are not the ‘outside agitators’ that we are being painted to be. We facilitated and helped the workers build a resistance to mobilize and fight their employers and confront their bureaucracy with demands.

The Metro Hotels Workers have adopted the slogan of the Clyde workers in Scotland in 1915: ‘We will support the [union]officials just so long as they represent the workers but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them’. That’s at the top of their website. The British example after World War I is probably the best example of rank and file opposition within a union. The auto workers in Detroit in the 1970s is another example. And as in these cases, predictably, the workers have been denounced as ‘anti-union’.

This is a case where the lines really are being drawn, and people are being pushed by events to one side or another. I think it’s fair to say that OCAP is on the side of resistance. But people who you would expect to fall on the side of resistance have, unfortunately, moved to passivity or worse.

JP: On this question of people being forced into resistance: on both coasts of Canada there have been massive public sector strikes. In British Columbia, the health care sector workers went out on strike to try to stop privatizations and wage rollbacks. In Newfoundland, too, the premier is trying to ‘structurally adjust’ what is already the poorest province in the country. The provincial premiers are trying to do there (and in Quebec as well) what has been done already in Alberta and Ontario, and there has been opposition from the unions. Do you think the unions in these provinces have learned anything from what happened to us?

JC: It’s not a question of learning. The lesson has been clear for a very long time. The problem is that the union bureaucracy is congenitally incapable of resistance. It is a privileged layer that can only operate in conditions of stalemate in the class struggle. A decisive victory by working people eliminates the need for them, because the energized roots don’t need them. Similarly, in a smashing victory for reaction, the unions are the first to go. So the bureaucrats can only juggle for a stalemate. If there isn’t a stalemate and they have to choose, they choose the side they feel an affinity with: the corporates and the managers, the fascists and the generals, the people they are used to meeting with across the table as opposed to the people they are supposed to represent. We have to find models to defeat that bureaucracy, and that means opposition outside and within the unions. Down the road, it means looking for organizational forms that are more dynamic and democratic than the way unions are currently structured, forms that are less tied to the state.

JP: Years ago I was flipping through the OCAP Calendar and came across a quote from Piven and Cloward’s “Poor People’s Movements”. That book describes a dichotomy between organizing vs. disruption, and argues in favor of disruption. The argument is that organizations inevitably become the kind of bureaucracy you have been criticizing, instruments for capitulation and betrayal of their roots. Instead of trying to build these, organizers should instead try to disrupt the system as much as possible when conditions are favourable, to try to win improved conditions. In the context of welfare, they argued that the task was not to build a union but to get as many people on the rolls as possible, creating a constituency it would be hard to dislodge. What do you think of this argument? Do you think it is still appropriate in a more harsh neoliberal context from the one they wrote in?

JC: Piven and Cloward did a very strong analysis of the welfare system as a means of keeping people at a subsistence level in such a way as to depress wages to the maximum possible. They presented the idea that the poor can win through disruption. But I think they are unduly dismissive of long-term organizing and overstate the power of spontaneity. They refer to the 1930s upsurge, but would that have been possible without the long work of the Communist Party? It seems unlikely. Likewise, the welfare rights movement they were working with grew out of the long-term organizing of the Black Civil Rights movement in the south. They believe that organizers can do things during upsurges, but can’t do too much in between. But even between upsurges organizing is necessary, if only to try to slow down regression.

JP: Is that what we are doing? Trying to slow down regression?

JC: At the moment, we are mobilizing as much as possible against the neoliberal agenda, against the imperial agenda, and we are trying to create a pole of attraction for a mass movement that will eventually be able to do more than hamper that agenda.

JP: In the US, activists are facing a dilemma. Bush is horrible and has to go. But Kerry not only won’t repair the damage Bush has done, he has promised to send more troops to Iraq, and has made it clear that he will continue the agenda. OCAP faced a microcosm of this in the 2003 provincial elections: the brutal Conservatives were defeated, but even though the Liberals won, somehow it’s like the Conservatives never left.

JC: I recently heard the President of the Labour Council speak. He said that the Days of Action, the 1995 mobilizations against the Conservative government, were so powerful that they convinced the ruling class to back progressive change at the ballot box, bringing the Liberals to power.

JP: He was arguing that the Days of Action in 1995 influenced elections 8 years later, while failing to influence the elections in 1999?

JC: The reality is that the shelf-life of Reagan, Thatcher, and Harris isn’t infinite. Every once in a while you need a tactical shift, to finesse things a bit. Bring in a Clinton, or a Kerry, or whatever. It was obvious from the beginning that the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty would not only not restore the damage, but that they would continue the regression. The worst part is that these ‘movement leaders’ would at least say that Harris was a bastard. Now they are reluctant to even express ‘disappointment’, while the attack continues under the Liberals.

JP: It seems like OCAP’s work, of daily case work offering something substantial to your constituency while simultaneously campaigning and organizing for major changes is such a good model. Why don’t you think it is more widely adopted? There are 45 million people in the US without health insurance, and ‘direct action casework’ at HMO offices, insurers’ offices, and so on would probably have significant success in winning health benefits, just as a single example. Why don’t you think it is more widely done?

JC: If you look historically, at the models we have: there were committees in the 1930s that would field delegations to relief offices, that had the power to mobilize to stop evictions. But where did this come from? It was organized through the communist party. There were plenty of problems with the communist party, and I don’t want to ignore that, but the fact is that they had thousands of militants who were coordinated and disciplined. There are movements like that in places like Brazil and Argentina as well. But we don’t have that. Your local union flying squad or your local NDP banch can’t do focused, sustained, militant resistance. It’s not in their frame of reference, and if it was, it would be shut down.

I admire the hotel workers committee a great deal, but you can see the disadvantage that a lack of organizing experience puts people at. It doesn’t make things impossible. The energy is there, but without that experience and continuity, it is very difficult. And that continuity has been interrupted, by repression and co-optation, so that people are always having to start over.

JP: Does the recent successful fundraising appeal mean OCAP is out of the woods financially?

JC: What we really need, to try to do organizing and long-term movement building, is stable funding. We don’t want to sustain ourselves through emergency and crisis appeals. We have tried to set up a ‘Sustainer Program’, where people can donate regularly. This would help immensely, as it would enable us to set a budget and do long-term planning. See OCAP’s website for details (www.ocap.ca)

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.