Looking back on the year, it is remarkable how quickly the conditions of social struggle change.
The year started off with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and the rightwing freedom convoy and ended with Ontario’s education workers forcing Ontario’s Conservatives to beat a hasty retreat.
Convoy to the right
Much more transmissible and vaccine evasive, the new Omicron variant caused renewed closures of schools, an increase in hospitalizations and a halting of the economic recovery. Workers had to navigate this new variant without access to previous supports.
The new COVID wave crashed over a working class that was exhausted and atomized. The debates over how to handle COVID, through vaccine mandates and lockdowns were coming to a head. The left was divided over the question of mandates and lockdowns, with a majority supporting draconian measures, rather than pushing demands that allowed greater access to benefits and rights, such as paid sick days, that could put workers in position to prioritize safety. The top down approach of mandates and lockdowns opened the door for the far-right to paint themselves as the sole champions of freedom and liberties.
Ultimately, this culminated in the rightwing’s “Freedom convoy” in January and February. The convoy was led by far-right elements, and ignored the real issues threatening trucking workers–such as wage theft, the exploitation of migrant workers, and health and safety concerns. Instead the convoy pushed the entire political terrain to the right: it not only picked up support from prominent right-wing politicians like Pierre Poilievere,it also shifted public opinion on vaccine mandates and restrictions. As the convoy protests escalated, even closing several border crossings, the federal government took a drastic step, invoking the Emergencies Act to crack down on the protests. While some on the left supported this, others looked to draw people into actions aimed at building the confidence of people willing to take on the rightwing.
The eventual government crackdown on the convoy protests was quickly followed by provincial governments and the federal government dropping vaccine passport and mandate requirements. The rightwing was in the drivers’ seat. In March, the federal Liberals and the NDP struck a confidence and supply motion to keep the Liberals in power until 2025. The deal, which committed the parties to introduce a piecemeal dentalcare program and pharmacare program and some other minor reforms, was designed simply to provide the NDP and Liberals with a level of stability. The NDP left many important and achievable demands on the sidelines. More importantly, the deal came at the price of allowing the Conservatives to be the main opposition voice going forward.
War, inflation and revolt
The early part of the year was also dominated by the rising cost of living crisis. Inflation, which had been low or moderate for the last 30 years, saw a dramatic escalation at the end of 2021 and through 2022. Capitalism’s supply chain crisis in the wake of the pandemic and the rampant pandemic profiteering had created inflationary conditions. The labour market started to recover to its pre-pandemic levels, but workers started to feel the pinch of high energy and food prices. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March only accelerated the cost of living crisis.
The Russian war on Ukraine has developed into a brutal war of attrition. Governments in the U.S., UK, Canada and Western Europe are only too happy to fight to the last Ukrainian, pouring billions of dollars of arms into the region. The war in the Ukraine has not only created an energy crisis in Europe, it has highlighted the deep political and economic instability that exists in the world today. Great power conflicts between the United States, Russia and China are an ever present threat and shape regional conflicts.
The fight for Palestinian liberation in 2022, which saw worldwide protests in 2021, struggled through one of the deadliest years of Israeli repression. In Iran, the largest sustained protest movement since 1979 challenged systemic oppression and the Iranian ruling class. Workers and students from across the country are taking action and there is ever indication that it will only continue.
The economic crisis and political instability in the wake of the pandemic stem from the contradictions of how capitalism has addressed the crisis. To conquer high inflation – which was the product of supply chain problems, war, climate events and the whipsaw of the global recovery – the ruling class have chosen to depress economic activity by raising the cost of borrowing. The cheap money spigot from central banks that capitalism has relied on since the 2008 crash was turned off. Interest rates were raised in the hopes economic activity would slow down, workers would lose their jobs and depress prices. This is a strategy aimed at making workers pay for the cost of living crisis, despite the fact that the growth of workers’ wages are lagging well behind inflation rates.
The cost of living crisis has hit workers hard in Canada and it has hit workers in poorer nations even harder. The way in which the international finance system operates punishes poorer nations the most when the cost of borrowing goes up. Countries such as Argentina, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Lebanon, and Pakistan are struggling through debt crises. In these conditions it was not a surprise to see a wave of popular protest in countries like Sri Lanka, Haiti, Argentina and Iran.
In richer nations, or nations that are temporarily benefiting from higher resource prices, the class divisions have grown more stark. In Europe, workers are struggling through high energy prices and inflation is running rampant.
While in China, the red hot housing market, which produced a glut of homes, declined in 2022, wiping out $1.3 trillion in wealth and countless jobs in the sector. The collapse in the property sector sparked wide scale mortgage boycott and protests. Omicron also hit China hard, straining China’s zero-Covid policy. Stringent and extensive lockdowns were imposed to deal with the frequent outbreaks of the Omicron variant. These were not only deeply unpopular, sparking a wave of protests in the fall (the catalyst being an apartment fire), but they also were hitting the Chinese economy. In response the Chinese government did a dramatic U-Turn dropping its zero-Covid policy. The abruptness of this policy change, and the underlying conditions in China – a relative low vaccine uptake – could see COVID run wild with deadly consequences.
From apathy to action
Social movement struggles from the previous two years were on the wane. Public services were strained, workers were confronting an economic recovery that was halting and a cost of living crisis that was getting worse. The rightwing, not the left, was shaping the political response. It was no wonder that elections in Ontario and Quebec saw rightwing victories. In Quebec voter turnout was the second lowest in the province’s history, while Ontario’s election saw an historic low 43 percent voter turnout. These elections weren’t endorsements of the right, rather the rightwing was able to capitalize on the demoralization and isolation felt by most workers. Elections and provincial parliament are far removed from people’s everyday experiences. It was unsurprising that many voters checked out of elections in which the rightwing had been long predicted to win.
But apathy with official party politics did not mean apathy over economic struggle. The pinch of rising prices has pushed workers into action, both in the private and public sector. The total number of person days lost to strikes or lockouts was the highest number in 12 years. Most of this activity occurred in the private sector. Big strikes in the private sector, like the Ontario carpenters strike involving 15,000 workers in May, were animated by rank and file anger over wages in relation to inflation. While the total number of strikes and the numbers participating in strikes is nowhere near pre-2008 levels, there was a noticeable uptick in industrial action especially in the private sector. While fewer public sector unions went on strike, the big Ontario education workers strike showed the power and potential of working class militancy like no other action this year.
Education workers strike back
Between 2011 and 2021, education workers in Ontario – basically workers who aren’t teachers or principals in schools – experienced an effective wage cut of over 11 percent. Their average annual wage is $39,000. More than half of Ontario’s education workers are forced to work a second job (or more) to make ends meet and over 25 percent regularly use a food bank.
With a worsening cost-of-living crisis underway, the 55,000 education workers in Ontario represented by CUPE put forward a demand for higher wages and better working conditions as a bargaining approach — a strategy that deeply resonated with other workers. The union was asking for a $3.25 per-hour increase to catch up with inflation and close the gap between the highest and lowest paid. After months of intensive and systematic organizing and tens of thousands of member-to-member conversations, members gave a resounding mandate by voting over 96.5 percent to strike, with a turnout of 82.6 percent.
The workers were not alone. The Justice for Workers campaign led a solidarity campaign to “Paint the Province Purple” weeks before a potential strike – tapping into networks built around the May 1 day of action earlier in the year. The campaign focused on decorating local schools purple in solidarity, postering, signing people up at schools and communities to pledge to support the workers. It made solidarity visible, easy, and everywhere and created a network of activists who were ready to mobilize if and when a strike occurred.
When the government introduced Bill 28, a draconian piece of legislation which took away workers’ right to strike and imposed a contract, education workers and their supporters were ready to fight. A week of escalating protests culminated in an “illegal” strike by CUPE education workers, who were joined in a wildcat strike by OPSEU education workers. The labour movement was on the move, with labour leaders set to call an unlimited general strike. The government was forced to back down and repeal Bill 28. Workers didn’t get everything they could have, but it was a huge victory that showed the power and transformative potential of mass action. Remember, just five months earlier the Conservatives were elected in the lowest voter turnout election in Ontario’s history.
Remembering the lessons of 2022
Workers are still facing a cost of living crisis and our public services are still in dire straits. The education workers’ fight contains many important lessons about how we not only have to organize in our workplace, but how we have to organize as a class. This is why the Justice for Workers campaign is so vital: it unites union and non-union workers and pushes to raise the floor of workplace standards through on the ground organizing. This was the year that workers through campaigning won 10 paid sick days at the federal level. Likewise, one of the most inspiring and effective campaigns this year has been the Status for All campaign. Through mass activity, the Migrant Rights Network, a network of migrant rights organizations across the country, is pushing the government to regularize 1.2 million migrants. This would be an historic win for the entire working class. Through regularization of their status, migrants would be able to access healthcare and more easily stand up for their rights in the workplace.
The global geopolitical and economic situation remains deeply unstable. Workers are still facing massive challenges as governments at all levels aim to address inflation by increasing unemployment. Public services right across the country are in crisis. Where gains have been made, such as in childcare, there is a real danger that they will be systematically undermined. Whatever willingness governments had to spend their way out of the crisis in 2020 has evaporated. There is the danger that in these conditions the newly elected Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre will take the lead in shaping an alternative. But there are also openings for the left. In Quebec, the big public sector unions are gearing up for bargaining. The Ontario education workers fight not only has inspired other workers in Ontario – spurred on by the court ruling against the wage suppression in Bill 124 – but has inspired workers across Canada.
The year ahead will see a stark choice about who pays for the current crisis and opportunities for our side to shape the response. The lessons of 2022 is that change can be imposed from above or can be inspired from below. Do we face pandemics through imposing state restrictions or expanding workers rights? Do we deal with repressive regimes through NATO bombs from above like in conflict with Russia over Ukraine, or through a revolution from below like in Iran? Do we challenge Doug Ford by waiting until the next election, or by organizing in our workplaces and communities?
The socialist left remains very weak. Our ability to offer an alternative in the present crisis is limited. But that doesn’t mean that socialists are powerless to influence the direction of struggle. Working within campaigns and movements, organized socialists with a politics that aims to widen those struggles to challenge oppression and the bosses – can be effective and important catalysts in initiating and building those struggles. Perhaps more importantly they can be a mechanism to link struggles, transmit their lessons and be a place where organizers collectively build their politics. The left cannot afford to remain mired in a crisis and response dynamic. We need to build movements and build our organized capacity in the here and now. Socialists must organize together in a way that both levels up our political understanding of the world and our capacity to fight effectively based on those ideas. Putting socialist ideas in action is our best bet as we navigate a world in crisis in 2023.
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