Building movement against Pallister PC agenda

Matthew Brett

The Progressive Conservatives return to the Legislative Assembly this Monday when leader Brian Pallister is sure to continue his agenda of budget cuts and privatization. There is a pressing need to build movements and campaigns that can effectively challenge the PCs.

A small step is to join an information rally at 12 p.m. this Monday on the legislative building steps prior to the Throne Speech. Event page HERE. The Throne Speech is when the government announces its plans for the upcoming term.

Beyond this rally, we need to build a broad coalition willing to draw a line in the sand against the PCs. In order to truly counter the PC’s attacks we must work together across movements and organizations.

We can learn from recent examples in Quebec and Ontario but the key is to organize from the ground up. There’s an increasing sense of urgency and it’s time to organize.

The First Seven Months in Opposition

Early opposition to the PC agenda has come from unions, grassroots initiatives and from within the Legislative Assembly. But mobilization against the PC agenda has been fairly muted. The reality is life will get harder unless we take more concerted action together.

One of the most inspired actions thus-far was the Unifor-led disruption of a Legislative session while Bill 7 was being introduced. Bill 7 is legislation that will make it harder for workers to join a union. More than 60 union activists and supporters chanted in the gallery as the PCs introduced Bill 7.

Unifor union members protest Bill 7 in the Legislature.
Unifor union members protest Bill 7 in the Legislature.

This Unifor-led action was the only visible action against Bill 7, with energy shifting to lining up speakers against Bill 7 at committee hearings and town halls.

Union activists, community members and NDP critics spoke vocally against Bill 7 and NDP labour critic Tom Lindsey was a strong voice against the Bill. Yet while Bill 7 had all the makings of a perfect storm, “the battle never materialized,” wrote Free Press columnist Dan Lett. Bill 7 was adopted on November 10.

“The labour movement in Manitoba has decided to keep its powder dry in the belief there will be other more important issues to fight going forward,” Lett wrote.

Prior to Bill 7 organizing, there was a two week strike by the MacDonald Youth Services MGEU Local 221 over wages. A return to work agreement was reached and parties went back to the bargaining table.

Most recently, the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba (CFS-MB) held a strong rally calling for free post-secondary education in the face of Pallister’s threats of a tuition fee hike. Building on that momentum will be critical as Manitoba’s student movement can wage an effective campaign against the hike.

This will require building a broad student movement that is not afraid of actions like mass walkouts and occupations. A student strike is still a tactic worth considering if the movement develops a broad and consistent level of mobilization against the fee hikes. The current UMFA strike gives a good indication of how serious the tuition fight will have to be for any measure of success.

By allowing universities and colleges to deregulate their tuition fees, the Pallister government can feign responsibility and hand political pressure off to university administrators. The student fight will have to be waged against Pallister and at the university level.

Lastly, the major labour unions have focused on publicity campaigns aimed at highlighting the value of public services and the danger of budget cuts and privatization. The research-based website Value Manitoba is a welcome addition to the mix, placing a focus on explaining and documenting what is happening.

Taken together, we have pockets of opposition to the PC agenda that have not been able to effectively stop or alter anything that the PCs have implemented thus far. Working together and developing new strategies and tactics will be critical to our success. The hard truth is that Pallister is winning.

What union and grassroots activists do next is very important in this respect.

The Road Ahead

The PC’s “value for money review” will be completed before long and we can be certain that its recommendations will include cuts to community groups and public services.

Coupled with this is the KPMG study of Manitoba’s healthcare system, which will invariably open the door to cuts, privatization and corporate management schemes. KPMG was hired in the 1990s to do the same thing under Filmon – which resulted in serious cuts and job losses in health care. The PCs are also making clear public overtures about private childcare and long-term care.

This Monday’s Throne Speech will retain the PC’s focus on the economy and key themes of “enterprise,” “job creation,” “strong economic growth” and cleaning up the supposed fiscal mess left behind by the previous NDP government. Some goodies will be offered in the Throne Speech, but expect mostly coal.

We can also expect the PCs to implement their agenda more aggressively than they have done in recent months. This will likely entail regressive legislative reform, budget cuts and removal of so-called red tape.

Organizing Effective Opposition

Grassroots Indigenous organizing has been the most compelling and necessary activism in the city lately. This work needs to be actively supported by unions and other organizations.

Effective avenues for opposition within the Legislative Assembly are limited. The PCs have a majority of seats in the Assembly and can shuttle their agenda through with relative ease. The NDP can influence public opinion and possibly tinker at the edges of PC proposals with their limited opposition seats.

But the reality is that stopping PC policies will have to come from serious and broad public opposition.  Dynamic elements of labour, community and grassroots groups should be brought together in a coalition setting. Lines will need to be drawn in the sand and held.

Solidarity Winnipeg is not the space to build a coalition, but we are a small and active centre of opposition to the PC agenda. We want to work with union activists, students and grassroots organizations to build a broader coalition.

Compelling recent examples include the Coalition main rouge (red hand coalition) in Quebec, a coalition of 100 union, feminist and student groups that organize vocal mass rallies and creative direct actions against the provincial Liberals.

A photograph of red hand signs.
Coalition main rouge make their presence known at Revenue Quebec office. Union and student activists also creatively occupied KPGM offices dressed in beach costumes to highlight the use of tax havens while austerity was being implemented.

The Ontario Days of Action offer another compelling example of what we should strive toward. In the late 1990s unions and community groups in Ontario organized 11 city-wide mobilizations against the right-wing Tory government of Mike Harris which combined political strike action with marches and rallies.

A broad coalition like this moves slowly, so groups and unions will need to launch independent, targeted and strategic campaigns as well. Unions should not shy away from direct actions like Unifor’s Bill 7 action.

More importantly, effective union campaigns will have to be developed from the ground up, empowering union locals to hold vibrant membership meetings, make decisions and chart their own local course. Union headquarters can resource and amplify their locals while adopting a broader overarching campaign strategy.

Unions are democratic organizations and the best way to organize is collaboratively with fellow rank-and-file members. We would love to work with union activists who want to ratchet up organizing and action.

Resilient strike action with broad commitment will likely be critical to slowing and even stopping some PC advances, but this will require a strong and organized base. Base-building, resourcing and activist training at the local level should be implemented proactively in workplaces where a fight seems likely.

In all of this, there is no one-best-way to fight the PC agenda. The best movements I have been part of are messy, politically and tactically diverse, and waged on several fronts including the workplace, Legislative Assembly, streets, doorsteps, schools and even within our homes and among friends.

We should start now by creating spaces where we can sit together, listen, respect our differences, find our similarities and above all – organize. There is an increasing sense of urgency to our work ahead, so let’s dig in.


OPEN MEETING THIS SATURDAY: Anyone who broadly agrees with Solidarity Winnipeg’s provisional statement of purpose is invited to attend our meeting this Saturday, 1 p.m., at the Worker’s Organizing and Resource Centre. Event page HERE.

RALLY THIS MONDAY: Really hope to see all of you at our Information Rally on Monday afternoon. Event page HERE. Winnipeg Labour Council President Dave Sauer will be speaking along with Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Marianne Hladun and many others.

Matthew Brett is a member and organizer with Solidarity Winnipeg. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Solidarity Winnipeg’s position. Thank you to everyone who provided feedback on this piece.

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