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Ford removed, the fight against austerity continues

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Today Torontonians celebrate Rob Ford’s imminent removal from office, after he was found guilty of conflict of interest. This is the result of pressure from below and splits from above, and should give confidence to the fight against austerity.

The technical reason Ford has been removed from office (if his appeal fails) is conflict of interest, and there’s a detailed timeline of the legal proceedings. But like the removal of Richard Nixon in the context of the anti-war movement, what’s more important about the removal of Ford is the anti-austerity movement.

Ford was elected just two years ago in a landslide victory that caught many off guard. Toronto had organized two massive anti-austerity movements—the 2009 city workers strike and the 2010 G20 protests—and yet Ford came to office attacking these movements, leading many to assume that Toronto had shifted to the right or that people were simply stupid.

Austerity and right-wing populism

But Ford’s victory was not a rebuke to those movements, but a result of them having no electoral expression. When the economic crisis began, “left-wing” mayor David Miller’s attack blamed city workers and provoked a strike in the summer of 2009, which opened the gate to Rob Ford’s backlash—just like Obama’s participation in the austerity agenda opened the terrain for the tea party movement. Ironically city workers received less support from council than they did in their strike against Mayor Mel Lastman, allowing Ford to lead an unopposed charge against workers.

While other candidates spoke about continuing the same policies, Ford was the only one who spoke to people’s anger at the crisis—though channeled in the wrong direction. Ford filled the electoral void with a right-wing populist campaign that abstractly spoke to people’s anxieties about the economic crisis (“respect” and “ending the gravy”), and promised not to cut any public services.

Ford was massively popular when he was first elected, for contradictory reasons, and would never have been removed from office without grassroots activism that exposed his agenda, mobilized support against it, and provoked splits on council.

Timeline of resistance

As I wrote in April, 2011:

“On his inauguration on a cold December day, 150 people protested. On his first council meeting, a temper tantrum about ‘left-wing pinkos by his invited guest Don Cherry sparked protest by councillors, while thousands of people across the city got ‘left-wing pinko’ buttons that they continue to wear with pride. In March organizers of International Women's Day confronted Rob Ford about his cuts to public services, and that weekend thousands marched for public services and jobs…On April 9 unions joined with student and community groups to bring 10,000 people into the streets of Toronto, transforming Ford's motto ‘respect for taxpayers’ into ‘respect for communities, public services and good jobs.’”

This mass demonstration so soon into Ford’s term exposed Ford’s hallow rhetoric and showed the desire to protect jobs and services—which continued through the summer. As I wrote in September of 2011:

“Instead of dividing the city, Ford's boycott of Pride in June backfired and isolated him. In July a petition by Toronto Public Library Workers Union became a lightning rod when Margaret Atwood called on her supporters to sign. On July 28, the first marathon deputations spoke overwhelmingly against cuts revealing that the so-called ‘Ford Nation’ of citizens demanding austerity was non-existent. Instead August revealed a "Jack Nation" as thousands of Torontonians covered City Hall in a rainbow of progressive messages to honour the life of Jack Layton and pledge to continue the fight for a better world. In September, hundreds gathered at local organizing meetings—the Stop the Cuts meeting in the west, and a town hall meeting in the east—to discuss the cuts and organize against them. Left councillors have reflected the growing anti-austerity sentiment—like Adam Vaughn’s critique of KPMG—while Ford's inner circle has started to crack, from Karen Stintz opposing library cuts to Jay Robinson opposing arts cuts.”

Ford’s falling popularity, as a result of grassroots organizing, also had provincial repercussions—derailing Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s election campaign. Ford scrambled to reassert his agenda but the resistance continued. As I wrote in January of this year,

“In September a poll found a majority of Torontonians in all wards were against the cuts and that Ford's popularity was plummeting. Ford announced a delay of some cuts, hoping the opposition would dissipate, but on September 26 a second labour/community rally organized by Respect Toronto brought thousands more to protest outside City Hall. In October and November, Occupy Toronto organized a series of marches to City Hall—hearing from library workers, social housing advocates and others against the Ford agenda—and on December 3 hundreds of labour and community activists held a mass meeting in Scarborough to protect jobs and services. This year of organizing by labour and community groups won a majority on council to revoke millions of cuts, as a third mass protest occurred outside City Hall.”

All this grassroots, rank-and-file organizing pushed council to pass an amended budget—a slap in the face to Ford—followed by further rebukes on everything from transit, to public housing, to plastic bags. Many of these came from people on the centre or right of council, showing increasing splits and power struggles that isolated Ford and facilitated legal proceedings against him.

Ford tried to revive his agenda by going after city workers. Despite the bitter experience of the 2009 strike, city workers from CUPE 416 and 79 gave a strong strike mandate, but received no lead from the leadership. Library workers, on the other hand, had built a strong campaign connecting the fight for jobs with the fight for services—and when they went on strike they received widespread support and pushed back against the cuts—showing how rank-and-file organizing, connecting jobs with services, is key to fighting austerity.  

The struggle continues

Ford has vowed to appeal, and to run the next election if necessary. But if he is removed there’s no way the right-wing will back him next election. The arrogance that led to his conflict of interest speaks to the general overconfidence with which he has been ruling, one that misread his initial victory and triggered such broad opposition. The right-wing will try to reorganize around someone who can do a smoother jobs of promoting attacks on jobs and services.

Ford’s inner circle and right-wing allies are deserting him, but not his agenda. Karen Stintz, TTC chair, was a firm supporter of revoking transit workers’ right to strike; Doug Holyday, who will take over Ford’s position, has already been speaking on behalf of the increasinly-muzzled mayor and will try to revive his agenda.

The splits at the top that isolated Ford to the point of being vulnerable to a legal challenge have not ended the austerity drive against jobs and services that the rest of the right-wing on council shares. But Ford’s imminent departure from office does show that the austerity agenda is vulnerable to pressure from below, and should give confidence to rank-and-file movements to keep organizing and fighting back.

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