The attack on working people’s living standards deepens

The steep decline in working people’s standard of living continues in Ontario. With core inflation at 3.9% in 2023, prices on basic necessities such as food, fuel and rent are soaring, while wages fall behind. The price of a food basket rose 7.8% while food insecurity rose and food banks struggled to keep up with demand. Children make up 33% of food bank users while only representing 20% of the population and Seniors represent 8% with the rate of increase far outpacing other age groups. Meanwhile, Loblaw’s profits jumped to half a billion dollars last year.

The skyrocketing cost of housing is the largest factor in the decline of working class living standards. Bank of Canada interest rates at 5% are causing mortgage payments to increase by up to $1000 more per month. This has increased bank profits; RBC raised revenues of $56 billion and TD brought in $50 billion.

In Ontario, rents grew 4.9% annually to an average of $2,456, with one-bedroom rents up 5.1% to an average of $2,239 across the province. This is while rent control was set at 2.5% in 2023. That rents increased at twice the rate of the supposed cap shows the total inadequacy of the current rent control regime which has many loopholes. The sky’s the limit on any rental units first occupied after 2018, and the policy of vacancy decontrol on all units means that there is a growing incentive for landlords to evict tenants in order to get around the limited rent control that does apply.

The Ford government has promised tenants very little, and instead has focused on home ownership. The fact that home ownership has become a pipedream for the vast majority of the working class over the last twenty five years, especially in the GTA, is met with one answer: supply. What kind of supply, whether it is at all affordable or whether this new development is creating livable cities and environmental sustainability, is ignored. 

To the Ford Conservatives, largely financed by developers since they first took office in 2018, the supply of housing can only be determined by the development industry and they have thus focused on removing municipal and provincial regulations on the industry. As house prices finally decrease and sales reach new lows not seen for more than twenty years, the total inability of the private sector to provide adequate housing has been laid bare. 

The government is now entering its third year of a ten year plan to build 1.5 million new homes. The plan included targets of 150,000 per year with quotas assigned to municipalities. The last two years have failed to reach even 2/3rds of the target with construction expected to slow further this year. Only 19 of the 50 largest municipalities in Ontario hit the new home targets assigned for them. Failing to meet those targets means that the majority of these cities will not get access to the $1.2 billion fund to help cover costs of housing-related infrastructure.

The development industry has called for deregulation and the Ford government has delivered in many forms since his government took office, perhaps most infamously with the removal of land from Ontario’s Greenbelt. However, this has not led to an increase in building and it is clear that market demands such as the housing market, interest rates, labour and construction material costs are the determining factors in for-profit developers building an adequate supply. Worse still, developers are asking for zoning and planning approvals to push up the value of their land, without building housing, in order to flip the land as a form of speculation. This is the logic of the market.

Instead, Ontario needs to build non-market housing built through a public builder. Only then can housing be built according to need and the right to decent housing realized in the province. Focusing on Ontarians who are most in need of housing and ensuring mass construction takes place will have the greatest impact on bringing down rents. There is a 14 year, 80,000 households long wait-list for subsidized housing in the city of Toronto. Meanwhile, Mayor Olivia Chow’s plan only includes building 65,000 “affordable” units by 2031 with far less ear-marked as rent-geared-to-income (RGI) social housing. It has never been more obvious that we need an emergency social housing construction program across Ontario. This would include building 200,000 new, publicly owned, social housing units, along with upgrading and retrofitting existing units, as well as building 550,000 units of affordable housing, 15,000 units of transitional housing (to support people leaving situations of domestic violence, incarceration, homelessness or shelters) and maintain levels of affordable housing based on need.

The Bank of Canada continues to hold its interest rate at 5% to drive down wage gains driven by increasingly militant strike struggles. Wage settlements went up to 3.7% in 2023, however this is still below inflation and far below increased costs of basic necessities. In Ontario, the Ford government continues to do its best to restrain wages despite losing important legal battles overturning their 2019 wage restraint legislation; Bill 124. The legacy of Bill 124 continues to hurt the working class in Ontario, which robbed over one million public sector workers, disproportionately women, of their right to free collective bargaining as well as damaging Ontario’s public services. Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office estimates that the Bill robbed broader public sector workers of a collective $2.1 billion in wages. 

Although recent settlements have provided back-pay, it has been uneven and inadequate. For example, healthcare, which continues to struggle to maintain and build necessary staffing levels to overcome emergency room closures and record wait-times, saw hospital workers’ wages decrease from $1.41 less than the all-industry average in 2017 to $4.41 behind the all-industry average today. 

Ford’s wage cutting policies deliberately targeted women workers who make up a large majority in the Broader Public Sector. The gender wage gap in Ontario has been growing. In 2018, when Ford was elected, women earned 88 cents for every dollar made by men, compared to 2023’s 87.2 cents. The impacts of these attacks on women’s equality have an enormous cascading effect through to retirement. We continue to demand the government immediately raise wages across the public sector, especially in key public services which are in crisis due in part due to inadequate wages, including health, public education and child care.

Privatization: Ontario for sale

The Ford government is continuing to expand its privatisation agenda which includes building and expanding private health clinics and their provision of previously public hospital services, giving preference to private interests around development at Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, and contracting out ServiceOntario outlets to Staples.

Ontario’s post-secondary education (PSE) has been undergoing a transition from public to private institutions for at least three decades now, however the Ford government has caused a major crisis in the sector which could see a qualitative change occur. Almost half of Ontario universities are running deficits and early this year Queen’s University declared an emergency with their deficit and the need for profound cuts. 

In 2019, the Ford government cut a grant system which provided close to free education for low-income students, froze post-secondary funding, cut domestic tuition fees by 10% and launched a program to attract international students and their tuition fees which are three to ten times those of domestic students. At the same time, the Conservatives allowed public colleges to partner with private entities and set up “satellite campuses” in the GTA. These “partner schools” teach the same curriculum and can give out Ontario college degrees but they are often located in strip malls and are drastically inferior campuses.

While there has been an explosion of international students across Canada, Ford’s policies led Ontario to become the epicentre of the expansion of this exploitative system. Just 10 Ontario colleges account for nearly 30% of all study permits issued across the country in the last three years. Conestoga College in Kitchener Waterloo topped the list in 2023 with 30,395 study permit applications approved. 

Post-secondary institutions, employers and governments all benefited from low-wage, high-skilled labour and exorbitant tuition fee revenue, however housing and infrastructure were stretched. International students often became victims of the housing crisis. While they were certainly not the main and long term cause, they were blamed for the lack of housing supply. This led the federal government to impose a cap on study permit applications for the next two years. While the cap will do nothing to deal with the root cause of the problem in PSE, it will increase the anti-immigrant narrative and make post-secondary institutions’ deficits bigger. Ontario is now expected to see a 50% drop in international students, which will mean a likely loss of $1.5 billion in tuition fee revenue to PSE.

Supposedly to counteract the loss in revenue and alleviate the crisis, the Ford government announced an increase of $1.3 billion. However, that figure is 200 million short of the expected lost revenue and more than a billion short of the $2.5 billion recommended by the government’s own “expert Blue Ribbon panel” it assembled to look at the sector’s funding model last year. An increase of $2.5 billion would bring funding for Ontario’s PSE to the average all-Canada level. Worse still, the $1.3 billion is not an increase to per-student funding but only a temporary fund allocated on the basis of institutions demonstrating “efficiency” to the government. This means that the government plans to ensure universities and colleges continue to privatize campuses and curriculums, cut programs, and rollback workers wages.

Since our last meeting, the Ford government has moved to accelerate the privatization of the LCBO. In December 2023, the Ontario government announced that the Master Framework Agreement (MFA) with The Beer Store, which restricted the number of non-Beer Store retail stores permitted to sell beer, would not be renewed. Simultaneously, they announced that grocery stores, big box stores, and convenience stores would be permitted to sell beer, cider, wine, and premixed cocktails without restrictions starting in January 2026. The publicly owned LCBO will retain their monopoly on spirits/hard liquor.

While the MFA should not be renewed, the problem isn’t the lack of private stores, it’s the presence of them. Under the guise of choice and convenience, and using the relatively unpopular private ownership of The Beer Store as a scapegoat, the Province is undermining social responsibility, decent union jobs, and a significant source of public revenue—used to finance public services, such as public health programs which mitigate the negative effects of alcohol addiction. The government is doing this to benefit the retail monopolies, an industry the government has consistently supported with a variety of policies at the expense of the public.

The LCBO has over 8000 unionized employees in close to 700 stores across the province, represented by OPSEU, and delivered $3.72 billion in public revenue in 2023—$2.58 billion going to the province. Each employee generates an average of $1943.84 in sales per hour, or $975.85 in public revenue—$676.80 going to the province. 

The Beer Store has almost 7000 unionized employees in over 400 stores across the province, represented by UFCW Local 12R42 is privately owned by the 3 largest brewers. Intended to operate on a cost-recovery basis, they operate some of the most efficient and low-cost distribution infrastructure in Ontario, reaching all parts of the province. They also operate the Ontario Deposit Return Program, which diverts over 80% of all alcohol containers from landfills to be recycled.

Rather than dramatically expanding alcohol sales in private retail stores while cutting decent jobs and encouraging the decline of the LCBO’s public revenue stream & The Beer Store’s distribution and recycling system, the Communist party calls for expanding the publicly owned LCBO. This expansion should be achieved by absorbing “Convenience Outlets” in rural areas, wine kiosks and the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) as well as placing the Beer Store and privately owned cannabis retail under public ownership. The LCBO’s retail monopoly makes it possible to mitigate the harmful impacts of alcohol addiction by eliminating grocery stores to sell alcohol, ensuring that all people have the right to access groceries without having alcoholic products being promoted on the same shelves, and by increasing public revenue in order to fund public health care and addiction treatment.

Development for profit or people and the planet?

The Ford government, supported by the Federal government, is placing large bets on positioning Ontario as a start-to-finish location for the manufacture of electric vehicles (EV), from mining battery materials to final assembly. Even if these bets pan out, the development that Ford is pushing will come at the expense of workers, the environment and Indigenous sovereignty.

Ontario and the Federal government have pledged tens of billions of dollars to Stellantis and Volkswagen to build EV and EV battery plants in Windsor and St Thomas. The Volkswagen plant alone is going to cost the governments $14 billion in tax subsidies. This is twice the amount that Volkswagen has pledged to build the actual facility. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said that it will take 20 years for the federal and Ontario governments to break even on the pledge to give $28 billion in subsidies for the two plants.

This level of investment puts the policies of state monopoly capitalism on full display. It also demonstrates that sections of capital are moving towards supposedly “green” investment, however it shows the limits and the continued environmental devastation that will take place in the name of this transition. The Biden administration’s “Inflation Reduction Act” similarly provided billions to industry in order to transition to supposedly green technology. This has led to Canada offering the same massive handouts of public funds as multinational automakers shop for the best deal. This race to the bottom once again demonstrates the need to get out of free trade deals and develop Canada’s own publicly owned industry. This would necessarily include a democratically controlled and operated light vehicle industry by putting the largest auto corporations under public ownership, to produce electric cars, light industrial vehicles, and mass public transit. 

As long as Ontario has a relatively geographically dispersed population, personal cars will likely continue to be necessary for a large section of the population, however quality mass public transit is the truly sustainable form of transportation of the future. This necessarily includes the need to expand inter-city mass transit through the development of a high-speed rail system and the nationalization of unused greyhound bus infrastructure and the creation of a province-wide public inter-city bus system. The expansion of rail in particular, would provide at least as many jobs as the development of climate destroying pipelines which are currently being advanced by governments across the country. A development model based on the continued expansion of privately owned cars, even if they are electric, will continue to expand environmentally damaging extractive industries as well as the roads and infrastructure for massive amounts of traffic. Instead we can see that the Ford government is doubling down on cars with this year’s new “Get It Done Act” which guts environmental assessment regulations in order to force through new highways, such as the Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. A strong fightback of those concerned with its environmental impact is growing.  

Much of the mining for EV battery materials would take place on Indigenous lands in Northern Ontario, threatening their sovereignty. The large spike in mining claims on Indigenous lands in the North sidesteps the rights laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The First Nations Land Defence Alliance has been formed by five First Nations to fight Ontario’s facilitation of mining companies stealing Indigenous land.

Ford’s proposed development of Ontario is also being powered by an energy production and distribution system that hurts the environment and the working class consumer while benefiting Big Business. The Wynne Liberal government privatized Hydro One, causing rates to soar as profits were  syphoned off. While the Liberals then put some of the burden on business, the Ford government has transferred all of the burden on to the public by subsidizing rates by $6 billion a year.

In February, the Ford government reversed an Ontario Energy Board (OEB) decision to make developers pay natural gas connection costs upfront, instead of over a payment timeline. The OEB was hoping to incentivize developers to choose energy-efficient choices and more electric heating as natural gas is necessarily phased out. However, the Ford government overruled the decision through legislation, in order to protect their developer base’s profits. This is one of many examples of the Ford government refusing to advance energy efficiency in the province’s development plans.

The Ford government scrapped hundreds of wind and solar energy projects when it first was elected, at a cost of $230 million to break the contracts. Now, under major pressure to expand production Ontario is adding new gas-fired power plants, developing small modular reactors and greatly expanding nuclear power. While it is necessary to expand energy production, the Province must develop truly sustainable energy by building publicly owned and operated wind, solar and hydroelectric energy production, reverse the privatization of Hydro One, and expand energy efficiency and conservation policies.

The fightback

The most significant growth in popular movements since our last meeting on October 1st has been the massive surge in the Palestinian solidarity in response to Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed including more than 12,300 children. More than half of Gaza’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed, including more than 70% of homes. There are no longer any fully operational hospitals in Gaza and children in Northern Gaza have started dying of starvation and malnutrition due to the restrictions imposed on humanitarian aid by Israel.

The response to the genocide by people around the world and in Canada has been one of constant mobilization that has lasted for more than 150 days. This includes massive days of actions with hundreds of thousands on the streets across Canada simultaneously. It includes militant actions such as the picketing of arms manufacturers, disrupting appearances by federal politicians and the occupation of MP offices. This is clearly the largest upsurge of a peace and solidarity movement since 2003 and the anti-Iraq war movement. It is a time in history where it will be remembered which side political parties and people were on. We should be proud that our Party across Canada and in Ontario is contributing and, in some areas, helping to lead this movement. At the same time we need to continue to build on our involvement in order to build the broader movement and make sure we have a coordinated and organized approach across the province. The 75th anniversary of NATO on April 4th also presents an opportunity to link up the struggle for the liberation of Palestine with the anti-NATO movement. The Canadian Peace Congress and other peace movement organizations are organizing actions across the country.

The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) met in January in a large and spirited annual assembly. Many local coalitions had grown through the mock-referendum campaign last year which fought Ford’s privatization of hospital surgeries. The OHC, which we are a member of, adopted an ambitious plan of action which includes the distribution of more than 2 million leaflets this Spring and a mass rally at Queen’s Park on May 30th.

2023 saw more than 2.5 million workdays lost due to work stoppages across the country. This is the highest level since at least 2005. The major driver of this strike wave is clearly the inflationary attack on wages and the skyrocketing cost of living combined with blatant corporate profiteering. While inflation has come down from its 2022 peak, the cost of living crisis continues and we can safely say the strike wave is not over. For the first time in decades unions are fighting for COLA clauses and the average wage settlements have reached levels not seen in 30 years, however they are still below recent inflation levels.

Much of the labour movement leadership is not ready for the battles that are rising from the cost of living crisis. This can be seen by the number of high profile strikes that started with members voting down tentative agreements in 2023. While most affiliates and labour federations are still dominated by right-wing social democratic leadership, the time is now to bring together left caucuses at conventions and in between on the basis of building independent labour political action.

November’s OFL convention had mixed results. The newly-elected leadership is much the same as the previous one, despite two of the three table officers being newly elected. There was a commitment on paper to social unionism, but not a clear plan of action on how to build towards the mass action necessary to defeat the Ford government and the corporate agenda. However, there was a stronger Action Caucus than there had been for quite some time that managed to force an important debate on the need for the OFL and affiliates to commit serious resources to build towards mass action. 

A resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire was passed, although a small Zionist contingent succeeded in weakening some of the language in the preamble. It should also be noted that the Convention was marked by debate on the sidelines amongst NDPers about the recent expulsion of MPP Sarah Jama over her principled support for the Palestinian struggle. While it is clear that Marit Stiles and the Ontario NDP should be ashamed of their weak stance on Palestine, the labour movement should not be split over what are debates internal to the NDP. Instead labour should be united in solidarity with Palestine and against genocide.

There was almost no mention of the unions outside of the CLC at the OFL. The need to unify the whole labour movement on a class struggle basis, including Unifor, the Teamsters and other unions outside the CLC, needs to be put back onto the agenda. Informal unity can also be built on the ground with strike solidarity and local political action.

Since the Convention the OFL has not announced any major mobilizations, besides a rally in Niagara Falls outside a PC Policy Conference, which was significantly smaller than the rally outside a similar conference in 2019. As we approach the next Provincial Election in 2026, and the Ontario Liberals and NDP jockey for second place in the polls, the tendency towards dead-end electoralism will strengthen. Right-wing social democrats will try to turn the labour movement on itself to decide which reformist horse to back. It is our job to bring together left caucuses that combat this and fight the ideological and organizational battles necessary to build independent labour political action. With the promise of more important strikes around the corner there is reason to be hopeful that we can link up strike struggles with the broader political necessity of building labour action against the Ford government and the corporate agenda.