No one could dispute that the Unemployed Movements
of the 1930's offer, as yet, the greatest example of how those whom this
society has thrown on the scrap heap can create crises in the political
institutions that would abandon them to hunger and misery.
The wall street crash and the depression that unfolded in its wake saw an explosion of unemployment. This occurred, moreover, in the context of a society that had in place none of the elements of the social safety net we have been accustomed to in the postwar years. The resistance of the unemployed became a major factor in the political and social like of the decade. Beyond this, the movements of the jobless fuelled the organizing of workers in industrial trade unions in the late thirties and forties and created the political impetus for the welfare state of later decades.
Before looking at organizing in the thirties, it would be useful to take stock of how societies up to that time had dealt with unemployment and the unemployed. As I suggested, much of the sharpness of the unemployed struggles in the depression years flowed from the fact that mass unemployment occurred in a situation where only the most limited systems for providing for the unemployed were in place. Without going into massive detail, I will outline why this was so.
The problem of unemployment goes back to the earliest years of the capitalist system. As soon as the earlier feudal system began to break up and the mass of small holding peasants began to be driven from the land, a new class of wage earner emerged. The newly dispossessed peasantry, however, were thrown into the job market at a greater rate than they could be absorbed into employment. A new category of person emerged in the form of the 'Vagabond.' In England, from the fifteenth century on, the vagabond problem took up the attention of the authorities. Denied any employment or means of support, the unemployed began to band together to take what they needed to survive. The governing powers realized that this mass of people must be contained and set in motion measures of brutal repression against vagabonds. It was declared illegal to be without work and flogging, branding, and hanging were used to discourage idleness. As is the case today, the punishment of the unemployed proceeded whether or not there were any jobs for them to take.
The authorities, however, had to come to the reluctant conclusion that simple terror was of limited use against masses of people with no alternatives available to them. They were forced to acknowledge that some form of assistance to the unemployed was called for. They were determined, however, to make sure that measures of relief would not discourage people from taking any work that was available. On this basis, the poor laws were brought in. Under this system, fist brought in in 1601, unemployed people could obtain sustenance but, in order to do so, they would have to accept life in the workhouse. This dreadful institution was designed to be as degrading and wretched as possible. Meagre relief would be granted but only in return for forced labor in a soul destroying semi-prison.
For roughly two and a half centuries after the adoption of the poor laws, the unemployed fought a desperate battle against them. Workhouses were often burned to the ground and cases are documented of workhouse masters being lynched by angry crowds. Always the demand put forward in these fights was for 'Outdoor relief,' that is to say the granting of assistance without the need to go into the work house. The resistance of the unemployed was fierce enough to win this concession on a very wide basis. In this way, many avoided the full horrors of the poor laws.
As the industrial revolution gained momentum, however, the need grew to drive people into the factories of the period, with their appalling conditions. Only the most hideous alternative could be allowed for those who lacked work. If outright starvation was a risky proposition that might spark full-scale rebellion, the employers and governments were still determined to toughen up the poor laws to the fullest degree possible. Accordingly, a poor law reform commission was pulled together in 1834 that recommended that the workhouse be made utterly compulsory for the unemployed and their families. They came up with a notion that they called 'Less eligibility' that stated two things. First of all, relief scales must be set so that they provided less than the lowest paying form of work. Secondly, the conditions of relief had to be so 'Repulsive' that noone would ask for help unless their only alternative was death by hunger. This theory of 'Less eligibility' has cast it's shadow over welfare programs down to the present day.
A version of the poor law was imported into Canada in the 1830's and it dominated the sparse systems of assisting the unemployed over the hundred years leading up to the wall street crash in 1929. With even less government support that in Britain, a patchwork of hard hearted relief offices and private charities were all that a huge mass of newly unemployed could look to as the impact of the depression shook the country. Masses of single men were denied any form of help whatsoever and took to the roads in a scramble to survive through odd jobs and begging. A desperate crisis had emerged.
One thing that must be understood from the outset about the 30s is that governments in Canada's and in other countries were quite prepared to let the unemployed starve as long as they starved in silence. Trade unions in that period were organized on a much smaller scale and were, for the most part, limited to conservative craft unions for the skilled worker. The task of resisting literal starvation came down to building movements within the ranks of the unemployed that could fight back with enough militancy to force concessions from the authorities.
As I stated at the outset, the movements of the depression did, in fact, have the most powerful impact. This was true both in the sense of the changes they won at the time and the social and political legacy they left that helped shape working class organizations and governmental responses in the decades that followed. In a very real sense, we stand on the shoulders of the unemployed organizing of the 1930's.
As important as the gains and achievements of the 1930's organizations are, we should still be careful to avoid a couple of traps that are easy to fall into. Firstly, we should avoid the danger of thinking that the organizing approaches of that period can simply be reproduced in the 1990's without taking into account the many changes in todays social and political situation. Where the fight of the 1930's lay in seeking to establish some kind of basic social provision, in the 90's we contest the destruction of the social safety net that was created in the postwar era. Moreover, we can't fail to notice that unemployed organizing today takes place in a society that has seen the emergence of mass industrial trade unions and diverse and important social movements. The issue of mobilizing the unemployed and poor as part of a broader movement of resistance is much more complex than in the 1930's.
The second pitfall around the organizations of the depression is a tendency to see only their powerful and militant side and to pass over their weaknesses uncritically. In today's situation, unemployed or anti-poverty organizing has failed to grow to the point of a mass movement largely because no force has come forward with the orientation or commitment to put resources and organizers into the work. The labor movement has not shown any serious interest in any serious initiatives around the unemployed and noone could even imagine such a thing coming from the present day NIP. In the 1930's, while some work was done by the CCF, it was overwhelmingly the communist party that insured that unemployed resistance emerged on a vast scale. a major portion of their Worker's Unity League was devoted to unemployment struggles. Their local organizers were courageous and effective and they had a huge and vital impact. Still, the political failings of the party and the fact that they were captive to the twists and turns of the policies coming out of Moscow, meant that the full potential was never lived up to.
In the early 1930's, the CUP internationally was wedded to Stalin's 'Third period' under which the immanence of revolution was proclaimed and his parties in different countries were instructed to refuse to work with any other tendancy in the Worker's movement. This meant that CUP led unemployed organisations would bring around them sizable bodies of the most radical and militant workers but would shun the kind of cooperation with broader organizations that could have massively increased the scale of resistance. In Toronto, thousands of brave men and women held CUP led free speech rallies at Queen's park, where the were savagely attacked by mounted police. When other working class bodies spoke out against this state violence, however, the CUP denounced them as agents of capitalism. The leader of the unemployed movement in Scotland in the 1930's, Harry McShane, acknowledged in later years that, without this insane policy hampering them, they could have built a movement many times larger.
In the second half of the 1930's, the Moscow line went from bad to worse. After 1935, no longer was the issue to denounce everyone else as a counter revolutionary but, in fact, to go to the opposite extreme. The policy of the 'Popular front' now meant that every kind of compromise had to be adopted to work with conservative tendencies in the worker's movement and even with liberal elements among the employers representatives. At the start of the depression in US, valuable work was done by the militant unemployed leagues. However limited by the above mentioned sectarianism, these bodies built up real resistance and were especially effective on the ground blocking evictions and forcing relief offices to provide assistance to those who would other wise have starved. Once the new Moscow policy took effect, the Leagues were disbanded and the CUP organizers put their efforts into the building of the workers alliance, a much milder body that placed much less emphasis on direct action. Lobbies of congress features in the new groups methods and invasions of relief offices gave way to bureaucratic 'grievance procedures' worked out with municipal authorities. True, the organizations of the 1930's still fought militancy battles after the new line was adopted but things were generally toned down in the second part of the decade. To the extent that CUP led unemployed organizing still took militant forms, this was largely due to the resistance of the membership and some key leaders in accepting the new approach. The British unemployed leader and the major figure in this country, Arthur Evans, were both seen as hotheads by their party leadership's. When the great 'On to Ottawa' trek got underway in 1935, it is a matter of historical record that Evans kept it going only by ignoring telegrams from CUP headquarters ordering him to call itoff. He later described the party leaders as 'Swivel chair generals.'
I raise these points, not to engage in some obscure assault on a particular political tendency but to try to show something of the orientation that lay behind both the gains and the limitations of the 1930's movements. I stress, however, that the record of accomplishment that they left was vital and outlived the decade in which they operated.
In looking at the 1930's, it is also necessary to understand the extreme intransigence and great brutality of the authorities that the unemployed went up against. The organizers of the period faced a level of repression that has been unknown in the postwar years. Throughout North America, local police forces formed 'Red squads' that focused, in large measure, on dealing out harassment and violence to those who struggled to win the basic necessities of life for those denied work. One veteran of the struggles in Toronto told me of a march he attended where the police trapped several hundred people in a blind alley and then attacked them on horseback with sword batons. He recalls seeing a baby's pram flying up in the air as the horses made contact with the trapped crowd.
Repression, both as attacks on unemployed organizations and gatherings and as the targeting of activists and leaders, was an ever present reality in the 1930's. In the US, President Hoover's name was a watchword for callousness and intolerance. The Ford hunger march of 1932 saw the shooting down of unemployed workers who sought relief and this is only the best known of such attacks. In the same year in Britain, mounted police attempted to violently disperse a crowd of 100,000 hunger marchers and supporters in London's Trafalgar square and precipitated a pitched battle. Unemployed organizations in Canada had to confront the notorious section 98 of the criminal code that gave the state the power to ban any organization it disliked and make membership in it a retroactive offense. Under this law, anyone who rented meeting space to a banned organization faced a five year jail term. The Tory Prime Minister of the day, R.B. Bennett behaved so brutally, in fact, that he became popularly known as 'Iron heel' Bennett.
Many of the leaders of the 30's movements did a lot of time behind bars. In Canada, Arthur Evans served several terms and many other leaders and rank and file activists had this in common with him. At a rally in London, England, the national Unemployed Movement's Wal Hannington, appealed to the police to display less brutality to the unemployed and to remember their own working class origins. ( I fear he was wasting his breath but he can't be blamed for trying.) For these remarks, he was tried for 'Creating disaffection within His Majesty's police forces' and was given a year's hard labor. The Unemployed leader in the then Dominion of Newfoundland, Pierce Power, was hounded by the police to the point where he snapped and attacked a cop with a razor. This incident led to his being jailed for many years and removed from the picture.
Despite all the attacks and the extreme determination of governments to dig in their heels and not grant concessions, the 1930's movements were still able to organize on a massive scale and a relentless basis. The huge British hunger marches and the Canadian On to Ottawa treks have passed into history but it is much less well understood that the resistance movements that the unemployed created in the Depression were active on a daily basis. The organizing and pressure on intransigent politicians and bureaucratic structures was never relaxed. In ten thousand ways over an endless range of grievances, men and women gathered to fight back. In what is now the City of Toronto, the CCF led East York worker's association, took up the fight against confiscation of household items for non payment of debt. They had a wagon system in place under which local lookouts would worn the wagon team of the approach of the bailiff. They would then go to the home of the threatened family and remove and hide their belongings. After the bailiff had left empty-handed, they would simply move the household goods back in. Examples like this surface here and there but it cannot be doubted that, if the full record were to be uncovered, the scale of daily resistance would be mind-boggling.
One academic study that has survived from New York city shows how the unemployed on the lower east side continued to bring angry delegations to the local relief office on behalf of families denied assistance. It also reveals how effective this tactic was in reversing unfavorable decisions. In London, Ontario, two underpasses that still take southbound traffic under the cities major train lines were built as a make-work project in the 1930's. Less known is the fact that the project was a concession granted after unemployed riots broke out. Another former organizer of the movement in Toronto told me that the committee he worked with could, by means of a neighborhood alert system, turn out a four figure crowd in less than an hour to block the eviction of any family from their home.
The movements were also noted for their imaginative tactics. In Britain, the unemployed announced their intention to march one year in the November 11 Remembrance day parade. They formed in ranks behind a bagpiper and then took off the war medals so many of them had. In their place, they wore pawn tickets and pinned the medals to a huge banner that read "To our fallen comrades who died in vain." Naturally, it created a national sensation and the police could only stand by and watch.
Often the struggles of the 1930's took the form of sustained and huge campaigns. The British movement agitated to improve provision for the unemployed by a systematic drive to disrupt the commercial life of major cities. They blocked traffic at peak times, invaded the pitch at sporting events and once even showed up at a prestigious dog show to demand that they get the same care and attention as the animals. This initiative became known as the black coffin campaign because a mock funeral was a common aspect of their actions. In the campaign against hunger in the mining communities of South Wales, the same organization was able to hold massive local rallies on particular days. On one such day of action, half a million marched through the region.
The successful fight to reverse a change to the British un employment insurance system that was known as the 'Not genuinely seeking work' clause was conducted on a sustained and massive scale that culminated in mass rallies in major cities and a six figure gathering in London. They battled for higher relief scales city council by city council and won some spectacular victories. In conservative Southend on Sea, they actually barricaded the council members in their chambers overnight until they agreed to pay more to the unemployed.
Canada's great example of both momentous action and a powerful campaign is the 1935 trek. It came out of the sustained effort to challenge the confinement of single unemployed men in remote work camps. The ultimate form of workhouse was being challenged. The worker's unity league formed a relief camp worker's union to fight for the abolition of the camps and their replacement with a UI system. The RCWU also, in the shorter term, agitated around the appalling conditions in the camps which, by 1935, were operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense.
The trek came out of the BC wide strike by relief camp workers that had seen huge efforts to sustain the destitute men who had marched into Vancouver after striking. Snake marches, 'Tag days,' and even the occupation of the city museum had been used as a means of obtaining resources to sustain the men. The idea of riding the freight trains en masse to Ottawa came up at one of their planning meetings but, once more than 1500 men climbed onto the roofs of the trains and set out, it created a national sensation and a political crisis for the federal government.
While the Trek was violently dispersed in Regina, it achieved many of its political goals. Bennett was determined to prevent it from reaching Ottawa at all costs. He knew thousands were waiting to join the event along the way and would have culminated in a massive gathering on Parliament Hill that would have sparked resistance right across the country. However, his brutal acts were not sustainable. After the attack in Regina, other unemployed workers marched to Ottawa from Toronto and, with the momentum of the trek not subsiding, Bennett was compelled to call an election which he lost to Mackenzie King's Liberals. The new government would close the work camps and bring in UI.The movement had already forced governments at all levels to provide relief on a scale they would never have willingly considered. There is no doubt that many of the immediate postwar concessions reflected a desire to avoid the kind of social strife that had been unleashed in the 1930's. Under the harshest of conditions, the unemployed had organized to secure the basic necessitates and break the will of political decision makers who would have cheerfully permitted them to starve to death.
The American writers, Piven and Cloward, have argued that the poor can have influence mainly by means of creating crises by disrupting institutions. Certainly, that is the lesson of the 1930's. It remains just as true today and something we need to keep in mind when governments have become far more skillful at designing inviting but futile structures that are there to lure us into the political trap of 'Consultation.' This notion of 'Stakeholders' meeting around a table to come up with compromises all can live with has, in fact, a remarkable resilience. Long after governments have abandoned the policy of brokering measured concessions and having replaced it with the 'Slash and burn' methods demanded by the globalised marketplace, people who should know better still go through the motions of 'Round table discussions.' This approach may let a few movement representatives stay in nice hotels and get on first name terms with deputy ministers but it is worse than useless when it comes to fighting social cutbacks.
The key to effective resistance in the late 1990's, in fact, lies in realizing that the other side has unilaterally revoked the whole unspoken postwar compromise between capital and the working class. A mounting drive to increase the rate of exploitation, weaken unions, push up unemployment levels and slash social provision is well underway. In the last few years, in fact, this attack has gone from a relatively gradual erosion of past gains to a frenzied campaign to turn back the clock for working people. With a Liberal government in Ottawa well to the right of its Tory predecessors and the most reactionary regime since the Depression sitting in Queen's Park, we need to take stock of the situation. Either we find the means to fight back effectively or we'll have to submit to the destruction of all we have fought for. Nowhere is this truer than around the programs that have provided for the unemployed and reduced the scale of poverty.
The challenges that movements in general and unemployed in particular face are to rethink the concept of resistance, to learn some lessons and then put them into effect. It is critical that we pass beyond the old idea of limited protest and start to grapple with what we must do to win victories or even stave off attacks. As governments have dug in their heels and stopped making concessions to aggrieved constituencies, there has developed a notion that protest is about expressing indignation simply to make yourself feel better. Under this kind of approach, no one even discusses winning (except to lamely hope that 'The government is listening.') The great lesson of the unemployment struggles of the 1930's is that people fought to win. They went up against brutal political and bureaucratic structures and wore down their resistance. They exposed their callousness and poured shame on them but, more than that, they disrupted the institutions that stood against them to the point where attacks were stopped and concessions forced through. That is what we must relearn today. Whatever the differences in the two periods, the unemployed in the depression found a means to win that we can learn so much from.
In the work of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), we have sought to apply some of the 1930's lessons to the present situation. Of course, we haven't the outside support or the teams of skilled organizers that were available to the movements of the 1930's. We are not yet anything like a mass movement. We have a base of a few hundred people, centered mainly in central Toronto. Still, if we can't yet create full blown political crises for governments, we have become a thorn in their flesh. We do also think that the work we are engaged in offers some pointers for other organizations of the unemployed and the poor, and, perhaps, to activists working in other areas of struggle. Fighting back in the context of Harris' Ontario, especially for an organization like ours that is not yet as powerful as it needs to be, requires that consideration be given to the aims and intentions of the struggles you are going to engage in. While we denounce and protest the battery of reactionary measures coming out of Queen's Park, we must acknowledge that we don't presently have the strength to mobilize on a scale that might block passage of government legislation. With this in mind, we seek the means to win concrete victories on the ground and undermine implementation of the Tory agenda. For example, rather than rally at the legislature to issue a futile call against the government's decision to implement work fare, we have to put our efforts into taking on agencies that try to set up work fare sites. In this way, we have had an enormous influence. City of Toronto officials have admitted that our work has created a 'Climate of Intimidation' that has deterred agencies from accepting work fare placements on a large scale. The point is that we are fighting to win and not bothering with the politics of empty gestures.
At every point OCAP is looking for the best way available to engage the enemies of the unemployed, to cause them pain, to hurt their cash flow or disrupt their workings and, in this way, force concessions out of them. We actually demonstrate to people effected by poverty and social cutbacks that we can make a difference in their lives and that we can resist in a way that hurts those who attack them. In this way it is possible to inspire them and offer some hope that mobilization is not simply a waste of time.
Making a difference means actually defending people under attack. If someone comes to you because they are being denied welfare or their heat is being shut off, you have to be able to intervene. On this basis, we have developed a method that we call Direct action casework. On a daily basis, OCAP takes on welfare offices, housing authorities, immigration offices, etc, to defend their victims from attack. However, in performing this work, we dont generally use official appeal methods. We invade welfare offices to reverse harsh and unjust decisions, ( Of which there is no lack.) We have picketed the home of a welfare manager whose antics threatened a family with eviction. On one occasion, we found out where a senior welfare bureaucrat was eating and took a delegation in to invade her business lunch in order to save someone from loss of income. Recently, a refugee came to us whose family is in danger back in Afghanistan. He could not sponsor them to join him because CSIS had been carrying out a Security check on him that had gone on for four years. We found out where the CSIS office was in Toronto and marched on it. The shadowy spy agency valued their anonymity too much to stand firm and they wrapped up their investigations on the man without delay.
By defending individuals and their families in this way, we create a general sense of being effective that has continued to draw people to us. It is also true that, as the scale of this work expands, we will be able to hamper the degree to which the agenda of abandoning people is implemented. By hounding welfare offices over their habit of improperly denying assistance, for example, it becomes possible to influence the rate at which income support is withdrawn and the extent to which unemployment becomes a question of destitution.
OCAP has also looked for the means to inflict economic pain on those who profit from the Harris agenda. One of our best known actions involved the disruption of a Loblaws store to protest welfare cutbacks. The ministry of Community and Social services had made the astounding statement that the 21.6% cut to welfare payments was not of great importance because people could negotiate cheaper prices for food with store owners. We exposed the absurdity of this and hit at a corporate beneficiary of Torypolicies by taking seventy people into a grocery store to bargain for cheaper food as the minister suggested. One by one we lined up at the checkouts and attempted to negotiate deals on our groceries. Political and economic pain were inflicted by this action. Again, when a major restaurant owner in Toronto went to the City and persuaded them to close a shelter for homeless people that, he alleged, was hurting his business, we systematically picketed the place until he sent a letter to the city asking them to reopen it.
The most glaring impact of social cutbacks in Toronto has been the explosion of homelessness and the creation of a whole population of people living on the edge of eviction. On this front, we have been especially active. With waiting lists for social housing reckoned at seven to nine years and the rate of emergency shelter use shooting upward, OCAP has challenged the fact that the city permits hundreds of residential buildings to stand empty for speculative purposes. Demanding a Use it or Lose it bylaw, we have occupied empty buildings and defended squatters facing removal by the authorities. We have also fought to defend homeless people who are forced to sleep in public parks from removal by the police. On one particular night, we held a park for the homeless through to the morning even though we were actually outnumbered by riot police.
Toronto is the only city in North America where an attempt to pass a bylaw to ban squeegeeing and panhandling has been stopped. We have worked on mass panhandling [begging] and squeegeeing actions to show that we can create for them a much bigger problem than the one they are trying to remove. When police launched a frenzied action last summer against street youth who squeegee, we worked with two other organizations on a thousand strong march to one of the off ending police stations. Despite the best efforts of a number of reactionary city councillors and a huge campaign in the media, the anti-panhandling bylaw they sought was not passed. We have demonstrated that we can make those who would accept poverty but attack the poor pay a political price for what they do.
In recent weeks, following the passing of a resolution by Toronto council that admits that homelessness is at the level of a national disaster, we have taken strong action to open desperately needed shelters for the homeless. Following our takeover of an empty hospital that reactionary ratepayers groups were trying to prevent being made available to the homeless, a firm commitment to open the facility was secured. Reluctant to appear ready to negotiate with us, the City refused our second demand that interim space be opened until the hospital site could be made ready. They brought in the emergency task force of the Toronto Police and arrested those occupying the hospital but, a few days later bowed to pressure and opened a hundred and fifty bed facility. Sensing a chance to take the fight against homelessness very much farther, we are preparing to bring a mass delegation of the homeless to Ottaw a prior to the next federal budget to demand a meeting with the Prime Minister. We calculate that some substantial concessions in the area of social housing may be possible, if the Chretien government is vigorously pressed on the scandal of destitution in Canadas largest city.
For an unemployed organization that wants to effect political decisions, it is vital to step outside of the rules and channels that the other side has established. If a government is trying to put together legislation on a given issue, they will want to know what Business would like them to do. Rate payers and Taxpayers will be on the list of those whose views they will at least want to consider. The unemployed, poor and homeless, however, are going to be out of luck. Any attempt too bring them into the consultative process will only be for the purpose of pacifying them long enough to impose a defeat on them. The poor have nothing to bring to the table that the rest of them want or need. It so away from the table that they can go somewhere. In fact, it is by shutting down the table that they can start to be listened to. This came out very clearly in a recent fight we were involved in around a housing bylaw they wanted to pass on the poor Toronto neighborhood of Parkdale.
The city decided to pass a measure that would have placed a three unit cap on any housing built in South Park dale. The apartments that poor people live in would, as they crumbled, be replaced with fashionable single family dwellings. This was a blatant attempt at Social cleansing and a major piece of the plan to drive the poor out of inner Toronto as has happened in New Yor k city. OCAP joined with several other organizations in Parkdale to form a common front to defend poor neighborhoods and geared up to fight the bylaw. The City made the mistake of calling a public meeting to sell their plan to the people of Parkdale. Of course, they expected that only business owners and yuppies would come out and the poor would not be heard from. The common front, however, mobilized a large crowd that were able to attend and actually made up the vast majority of the audience. Flanked by city bureaucrats the local politicians came in ready to conduct their meeting and, even though its composition was not what they had hoped for, they got ready to proceed. We, however, stopped them in their tracks by taking over the meeting, with overwhelming support, and conducting it as a community forum on how to stop the bylaw.
This action, which emboldened people to a huge degree, served to convince the politicians that their plans would be seriously resisted. The bylaw has been put on hold while it is dragged through the Mediation process. However , one of the local Council members recently admitted to the Toronto Star that the three unit cap is effectively dead.
The political agenda that we confront today has as its goal the driving of working people back to precisely the same position they were in where the unemployed movements of the 1930s arose to fight back. While they have a long way to go in this regard, there is no doubt that our attacks are gathering force. Organizing, as we do, a section of the working class that has relatively little power and, being ready to push things further than most, it has been striking to see the extent to which they are ready to try and deal with us as a Police problem. Heavy handed mobilization for our actions and harassment of our activists has become almost a routine state of affairs for us . Since Harris took office, eighty-five charges have been laid against our members at OCAP events. The range of these charges is quite astounding. They include; Entering Where Entry Prohibited and Failure to Leave When Directed under the Trespass to Property act. Then, under the criminal Code, we have C onspiracy to Commit Theft, Counseling to Commit an Indictable Offense, Forcible Entry, Mischief, Intimidation, Assault, Assault Police, Assault causin g Bodily Harm, Obstruct Police and Unlawful Assembly. We lack only a charge of Treason to complete the set! Despite this impressive array of charges, we must note that they have yet to obtain so much as one conviction against us in court.
Beyond the paper trail of actual charges, we must note that the Intelligence officers within the Toronto Police have become permanent shadows for us and report after report comes back to us of their efforts to slander us among other social movements as a violent and dangerous group of people. Undercover officers at our action and even meetings are commonplace. At one recent march, they even had bomb squad officers follow the route to make sure we hadn t planted explosives along the way! The whole thing would be laughable if it were not so ominous.
We protect ourselves from these state attacks, in large measure, by ensuring that we have support in the broader working class movement. We fully realize that the struggles of the unemployed, poor and homeless, as vital as they are, are only a part of a bigger fight that must be spearheaded by organized workers. We engage in vital work to defend a section of the working class from sinking into destitution and despair but the real power that can be unleashed lies in the ability of the employed workers to shut down production and the flow of goods and services. We are proud of our record but keep in mind that, during the first day of the OFL days of action in London, the auto companies alone are said to have lost three hundred million in lost production! Thats the power of the working class. Thats a force that can bring governments to their knees and transform society. The unemployed can be a most vital ally in this fight and can even function as a catalyst for the broader movement at certain times. If the unemployed fight alone, however, they will be fighting a desperate battle.
The whole problem at the moment is precisely that the main strength of the working class, its labor movement, is a chained giant. Not that skirmishes and big fights are not breaking out. Its rather that the great majority of union organizations have not recognized the end of the post war compromise and decided to act accordingly. What good is limiting union action to defending individual collective agreements, when mass unemployment and social cutbacks are so weakening the working class as a whole that an army of desperate people are being created that will be used to underbid unionized workers in contract disputes? What good is focusing solely on electoral politics when global capital has all parliamentary parties ready to give it what it wants? The OFL days of action, however unready the organizers were to accept the logic that lay within them, pointed to the course that working class resistance must take. The time has come to break out of the straight jacket of Labor relations practices that were built up during the postwar years and rediscover the strike weapon as it can and must be used.
A regime like that of the Harris Tories continues to exist and do its damage only to the extent that we fail to use our power to shut it down. Had the days of action been designed and implemented as a means of unleashing an escalating campaign of social and industrial mobilization that had as its objective the defeat of Harris, we would not now be saddled with the probability of a second Tory government. They wouldnt have even gotten through their first one. Nor would unions and social movements be humiliating themselves with sparsely attended and futile Goodbye parties for the Tories. And the matter goes beyond simply Harris. Capital is ready and determined to take everything from us. Its no good hoping for a humane turn after the next election. Either we find the means to really resist and not just talk about it or were done for. To do that, we've got to be ready to do whats necessary and that means basing ourselves on our needs, and not the profits of Business, and being ready to shut down our workplaces and massively mobilize whole communities behind our political goals. It means uniting all workers, employed and unemployed, unleashing the vast power that they have and fighting back like we mean to win.
John Clarke, 2-12-98
Appendix: AGM report 1998- OCAPs major campaigns.
We were successful in terms of blocking legislation banning squeegeeing and panhandling, proposed at the municipal level in the form of a bylaw and provincially as amendments to the provincial offenses act. The Queen and Spadina corner developed into the heart of the war being waged. One confrontation worth mentioning was with the Letteri cafe and its night manager for her de rogatory, spiteful comments about the Condition of her Corner to the Star. Prior to our visit, the cafe took great pride in calling the cops on an almost nightly basis, often leading to large numbers of arrests. I am not aware of a single phone call since. Important to note also that our conduct during this action was serious and focused.
What continued, for the most part unchecked, was the daily abuse waged by the police in the form of harassment, criminal charges and tickets. For the month of August we filed, on average, more than one ticket a day. This is significant because it showed an organization on the street far beyond what the cops probably imagined. There is hardly a ticket being written that isnt coming to our drop off locations. The tickets this summer were also one of the leading factors in setting up Legal aid and directly cutting across a major tactic employed by the police.
For next year, I think the task facing us has to be to address the violence people experience on the corners and parks at the hands of the cops.
Homelessness and housing continues to be a major focus of our coalition. A number of different battles were fought this year.
Salvation Army and Bobby Sniderman- For one and a half months daily pickets were sustained against the Senator restaurant, owner of which, aside from being a personally disagreeable man, is also the widely acknowledged organizer of the Yonge/Dundas Business and residents association and a key player in the Yonge/Dundas redevelopment. Although we did not force the reopening of the shelter last summer, the fact that it is open this winter at all, and that its expropriation date is considerably later than all the other buildings around, (April instead of January,) is attributable to the fight we put up last spring.
Metropolitan United church- Its funny to declare victory in the midst of people sleeping in a park, but aside from the obvious shortfall of having to fight for that at all, the church and cops were forced back from threats of arrest and clearing the park to negotiation of storage space for belongings and lifting of bars on area hostels. Through our presence in the park and commitment to defend the people living in it maintained probably one of the most visible presences of the housing crisis just two blocks from Yonge street. This marks the first time a trained Mediator was brought in to come to resolution on the matter- ie avoidance of us leafletting the congregation at all cost. Of course, these discussions also took place with the end of summer and without a doubt well be dealing with round two next spring.
Disaster Declaration- The disaster declaration and the distaste relief committee was a prime example of what can be won running two campaigns simultan eously. The distaste relief committee has layer a solid foundation on which to act. As has been said many times, this has been the significance of the declaration for OCAP. It gives us a strategic advantage we didnt have a yea r ago. Certainly this was the case with Doctors hospital, but should be used even more at the federal level in Ottawa.
National Child Benefit- The national child benefits looking to be something we can make a good fight out of. I believe our focus should run simultaneously at the city and federal levels. Having established ourselves as a real threat to the workings and initiatives of Toronto city council, we should make good on our promise to keenly follow what they do with their portion of the benefit and force it onto peoples paychecks. Also, Targeting Liberal M.P.s beyond Bill Graham would be important. Finally the issue should be as sured a prominent place on our trip to Ottawa.
Our posters say, Theres no defense for stealing from children. Given the truth of that statement, our opponents will have no recourse but to concede to our demands.
Work fare- The commissioner of Community and Social Services, Shirley Hoy (The person whose job it is to see that Toronto meets its work fare targets as set by the province) declared that the reason work fare had failed at the agency level in Toronto was because OCAP had them all too scared to sign on. That statement should be tempered by the recognition that a vast number of agencies refused to sign on, themselves sickened by the prospect of having a hand in forced labor. Our focus on the YMCA, an organization with a multi-million dollar operating budget and a firm commitment to and interest in slave labor will be a good test of our strength.
Legal Aid- Although still in its infancy legal aid is already an important part of our work. An attempt by the state to proceed in a course of harassment by using tickets, we have met head on and gained from. OCAP has organiz ed and advanced itself to deal with this harassment. The fact that these tickets were issued on such a rampant basis, and the fact that we are now able to deal with them, provides us with yet another avenue for organizing on the streets.
We must, however, be careful not to assume the role of a legal clinic. Our orientation must be to exploit individual situations of injustice (With t he individuals full understanding and consent) for larger political gains.
Parkdale- The demonstration of Anger and force at the Masaryk-Cowan meeting put fear into the city government. Being directly involved in the defense o f a neighborhood outside the one OCAP primarily operated out of was a major step to broaden our base and credibility throughout the city.
NIP and CUP are my spell-checker playing tricks on me.
NDP= New Democratic Party, the main 'Left' party we have in this country. They are in power in two provinces and were in power in Ontario before Harris, and they are the same kind of trip as your Tony Blair.
CUP=CP or Communist Party.
CCF= Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the NDP that began in Alberta during the 1930's and which grew out of the radical faction > of the 'Progressive' movement on the Prairies in the 1920's.
RCWU= Relief Camp Worker's Union.
Subject: Un bonjour de J.Drury
Date: Wed, 20 Jan 1999 11:31:37 GMT
From: J.Drury@sussex.ac.uk (John Drury)