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When one looks at the way conservative politics has played out in Ontario over the past 30 years, a pattern emerges. From Brian Mulroney to Mike Harris to Stephen Harper — even to Harris protégé Rob Ford — and, if he gets his way in Ontario’s upcoming provincial election, the pattern will continue under Tim Hudak. 

The pattern? A systematic sabotaging of Ontario. 

Why would any political leader want to sabotage, in any way, a major economic engine of the country? For the bigger picture: union busting.

Create a crisis, find a scapegoat, bankrupt the system, force change. 

Ontario isn’t, and wasn’t, just a major economic engine, Ontario was and is, a major seat of union support and collective influence. Various movements on the far right, backed by powerful financial interests, have diligently sought ways to eradicate unions or at least cripple them to the point of complete impotence.

After all, unions are a major obstacle on the road to a powerless public. Add in job insecurity on top of no union backing and you have a public with even less power. Union busting is also a key component in an overall agenda of weakening social controls and eliminating the notion of a society run in the collective public interest. 

Another important objective in cutting unions off at the knees is that you eliminate a major source of funding for the opposition. That leaves the right with full power. That leaves resources in the hands of wealthy multinationals. That leaves workers at the mercy of those in charge. Decent conditions for workers will then be at the discretion of the economic oligarchs to grant, not for citizens to demand.

Topple Ontario’s unions and others will follow country-wide.

Mulroney’s notorious government

In the 1980s, a shift in the way the federal government engaged with Ontario began to occur under the PC government of Brian Mulroney. A man and a government whose questionable ties to big business were amongst the most obvious, and later would become the most notorious, in Canadian history to that point. 

In 1987 the governments of Mulroney and Ronald Reagan forged the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The weakening of unions that would result from the impact of the agreement was a significant bonus to the major players who pushed hard for the deal. The FTA brought free trade of goods but, of course, there was no free trade of labour. Tellingly, labour wasn’t even at the table when the deal was being brokered. 

After the deal was signed into law in 1988, as predicted, within the first three years alone Ontario-based companies — particularly in the unionized manufacturing sector — began declaring bankruptcy (at levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s), downsizing or moving operations to the U.S and Mexico.

In the process, they left Ontario in the lurch for hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes owed and threw thousands of people out of work. The deindustrialization of Ontario was a body-blow that reverberates still. 

Opponents of the FTA warned that the deal would eliminate good paying jobs and turn Canada into hewers of wood and drawers of water. It would be nice to report that the overall picture improved, yet Canada’s exports to the U.S. today are right back to the level they were pre-deal in the mid-1980s, at 19 per cent GDP.

But what has changed is that in the mid-1980s those exports were largely of more employment-generating manufactured goods. Today those exports are primarily raw resource products and Canada’s share of imports into the U.S. has in fact dropped from 19 per cent before the deal to only 14 per cent today.

Harris’ ‘Common Sense Revolution’

In 1990, two years after the deal was signed into law, Canada was in the grips of a recession that hit Ontario hard, directly attributable to the policies of the Mulroney government. Perhaps in reaction to this, Ontario elected its first NDP government under Bob Rae.* 

The Rae government lasted only a single term, defeated soundly by the Mike Harris Progressive Conservatives who won with a majority in June 1995.

Upon his victory, Harris received a congratulatory call from then Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. This gesture seemed telling. Since when did a powerful U.S. House Speaker even pay attention, much less care, that there had been a Canadian provincial election?

It raised questions about how much Republican help Harris had received prior to his win…and why such ‘help’ was given. Indeed, Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” including many of its talking points, was eerily close to Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” 

Both skillfully exploited the growing economic anxieties of the public, diverting blame away from the architects of an increasingly neo-liberalist agenda — one that was systematically gutting the middle class and transferring more wealth to the wealthy — and instead aimed that unrest at the victims of this agenda.

Painting unions as enemies of the middle class was part of its genius. Harris and his people stayed on message with Republicans repeating the same scripts over and over. Using specific language when talking about opponents, with terms like “big union bosses,” perpetuating in the public’s mind the false equivalency that “big unions” were somehow on par with “big business.” 

Except in this script, “big business” was made up of hard-working “job creators” whereas those lazy union thugs were taking your hard earned money. Diverting attention away from a tax burden that was being shifted to the middle class while large profitable corporations were paying less and less.

With his comfortable majority, the Harris ‘revolution’ was about to be set in motion.

In putting together his cabinet, Harris appointed high school dropout ‪John Snobelen‬ to be Minister of Education and Training. If nothing else, this was immediately symbolic of just how little the Harris government actually valued public education.

Harris’ ultimate goal was to bust one of Ontario’s most influential union groups: the teacher’s union, made up of five union collectives at the time (under the umbrella of The Ontario Teacher’s Federation). The cunning Machiavellian legal changes Harris made in order to wage war with the unions of teachers was unprecedented. The Reaganesque logic was that breaking the union of teachers would be the first pillar. Others would follow.

Shortly after becoming minister, Snobelen was secretly videotaped addressing top level civil servants in a closed door meeting on how the Harris government planned to implement their agenda, and specifically their changes to education. 

The plan was explained using a simple list: 
1. Create a crisis 
2. Find a scapegoat 
3. Bankrupt the system 
4. Force change

By bankrupting education, gutting it until it slowly and subtly fell apart, it would increase demand for a private, more Americanized education system. Ultimately, one where teachers in a private system would have either a crippled union, or no union at all. (Snobelen’s anti-union rants continue to the present. Including writing an astonishingly skewed piece filled with misinformation and factual errors for the Toronto Sun.)

This game plan of the Harris Conservatives would be played out repeatedly while attacking the public sector. It is almost impossible to describe to someone who didn’t live through his years in power, the level of pathology and destructiveness the Harris government exhibited towards public institutions that benefited the majority of citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.

Far from being a ghost of the past, the Mike Harris years are the gift that keeps on giving

Hudak’s ’employment’ plan

Tim Hudak was part of the Harris government and very much a true believer in the Harris agenda. Now as head of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives (why they keep the term ‘progressive’ in the name is anyone’s guess), Hudak is proposing to go even further than Harris. 

Hudak’s plan to fire 100,000 public sector workers, plus 9,000 education support staff, will be the first order of business in a Hudak government. 

What could possibly be the rationale in putting one in six public sector employees on the unemployment line?

Any credible analysis of the Hudak plan leads to the conclusion that a made-in-Ontario recession would result. The multiplier effect on the economy of 109,000 middle class jobs being removed from both the economy and the tax base would clearly cause major economic disruption to Ontario — to say nothing of the services this move would invariably slash. 

But the objective of this move is not jobs, as Hudak claims (firing tens of thousands will create jobs!), nor is it to achieve a “leaner government” (which is right-wing code-speak for slashing services, privatization and cutting corporate taxes), but rather the objective is decimating the Ontario Public Service Employee’s Union (OPSEU) and bankrupting Ontario’s ability to provide services that benefit the public and thus make the case for cutting those services.

Membership in private sector unions has sharply declined over the past two decades. So now the attacks are being concentrated on public sector unions. Hudak wants to finish what Harris started. Clearly willing to cause harm to the many for the benefit of the few. 

The fact that Hudak hired a Tea Party economist, who has worked for the Koch brothers, to add ‘legitimacy’ to his now discredited ‘million jobs plan,’ should be a sign of no small significance.

Another aspect of Hudak’s Tea Party-esque plan seems especially insidious: looking to bust unions while simultaneously claiming he is against ‘corporate welfare.’ Even though his plan is to slash services to the many to pay for more corporate tax cuts — a move that time and again has shown to not result in job creation, but has instead shown to result in less money circulating in the economy.

The Harper influence

All of this dovetails nicely with Canada’s most skillful of elected union saboteurs, Stephen Harper.

One would need an entire book to outline the many ways in which Harper seeks to undermine unions. Not by Harris type ‘revolution,’ but more slyly. Death by a thousand cuts is how Harper operates. Like flesh-eating ants taking small chunks out of every angle, the sting might seem bearable at first. It’s not until irreparable damage is done does the pain become deadly. 

Harper’s attacks on unions are Canada-wide, but as Ontario has already been hit with such force in its manufacturing base, Harper’s endgame to permanently cripple unions will have a particular impact. But, over and above the union sabotage, Harper’s policies hit Ontario in other ways. The reduction of transfer payments, the changes to EI, all harm Ontario’s economy in ways that may not be so immediate or obvious. These elements undermine Ontario’s provincial government and weaken the ability to deliver public services.

Monied interests have been enormously effective in convincing the masses that voting against their own best interests is the smart way to go. Portraying unions as the enemy of the average ‘tax payer’ (as if members of unions aren’t also tax payers), is crucial in co-opting ordinary people. Crucial in getting ordinary people to give up their own voice and fight amongst themselves for the scraps, before they truly take notice of the rigged game whose ultimate goal is unbridled power of the few with no checks or balances.

To say goodbye to much needed services in the name of austerity when the real objective is to funnel even more wealth to the top. To have ordinary citizens, in essence, subsidizing the wealthiest people and companies on the planet.

Whatever faults unions have — and no is claiming they are without fault — those faults certainly pale in comparison to the havoc increasingly wreaked by global economic neoliberalism. To the hoarded trillions in ‘dead money’ in the hands of smaller and smaller numbers of people. To dangerous income inequality.

Unions were created in order to demand some form of equality. Some form of fairness and livable conditions for the work force. Unions are the last thread of collective power for average people. A greatly weakened force that is dwindling fast. 

Heather Morgan is a writer and musician living in Toronto. She tweets @HeatherMoandCo

*Since the limited scope of this article is Conservative politics and policies in Ontario since the 1980s, I do not delve into the NDP and Liberal governments in Ontario. Particularly the former McGuinty Liberals. While current Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne may play to progressives, McGuinty certainly earned the moniker “blue lite.” 

Photo: flickr/Loozrboy