By Carolyn Egan
On the morning of January 17 over a hundred Steelworkers gathered at a union hall in Toronto preparing to make their way to City Council chambers. They came from workplaces across the city to voice their objections to a budget that would make drastic changes to municipal services that had been built over decades.
For more than a year people have been organizing against the austerity agenda of Mayor Rob Ford and his neoliberal allies on city council. Today was the day that councillors would vote on a slash-and-burn budget presented by the executive committee.
During the past months people have waited through the night to put forward their views against the cuts, community meetings have taken place in every ward, mass demonstrations of thousands besieged city hall. Trade unionists went door-to-door talking to their neighbours about what the cuts would mean to jobs and services.
Hundreds of thousands of emails have been received in council offices. Community councils have heard angry citizens speaking up for public services. The city has been ablaze with organizing efforts to turn back the tide of the austerity agenda that is being forced down people’s throats around the globe.
The working class and the poor have been the victims of attacks on pensions, public services, public housing, education, and unions and have been fighting back in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Britain. Workers in China and India have taken to the streets. The Arab Spring has shown the power of ordinary people, who with tremendous courage have used their collective power to topple despots.
Mayor Rob Ford won the election over a year ago promising to cut the gravy at City Hall but without affecting services. It turned out to be impossible and with the help of KPMG, Ford came forward with a long list of service “efficiencies”. Well it didn’t wash with the voters and a recent poll showed that a majority in every ward was opposed to his wish list of cutbacks.
His heavy handed bullying of individual councillors was beginning to backfire. As the Steelworkers packed City Hall chambers with community members from ACORN, Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Riders, Mothers for Childcare, Toronto Community Housing activists, and members of Stop the Cuts, it was becoming clear that the vote would be very tight.
Councillors who had backed the mayor in the past were standing up and saying that their constituents were calling in by the hundreds demanding that they maintain library hours, community programs, childcare subsidies and so many other services that were on the chopping block.
As the day progressed the tension was mounting. Thousands began to gather in City Hall square for a planned rally by Respect Toronto, a coalition of labour and community groups, and Stop the Cuts. An omnibus motion was put forward by a middle ground councillor to significantly role back the attacks by millions of dollars and after long debate and attempts at stalling by the mayor’s allies, it won by two votes to the cheers of the hundreds occupying the chambers.
Everything wasn’t won, but it was a huge setback to the Ford agenda. It showed that people can fight City Hall and that the tens of thousands of community and union activists who have been working night and day were able to mobilize the support necessary to win.
There are still many fights ahead of us and the anticipated lock out of city workers is the next struggle. The recent success has given confidence that we can push back and win, and now we have to rally support behind the city workers.