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"We the People"
Don't Think as One

Union tactics for revolt run the gamut from A to B

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

Can people stand one more postmortem on the Days of Action? If it helps any, I promise this will not be another starry-eyed, self-congratulatory, oh-golly-gee-whiz-wasn't-that-empowering-I-just-know-the-government's-going-to-fall-any-day-now love-in. But anyone who reads this column regularly could have guessed that.

From the beginning, I had mixed feelings about the whole event. Sure, I liked the idea of a great big Embarrass Harris theme party. And I was impressed by the diverse array of people that were coming together to make it happen. But somehow, something appeared to be lacking. At first, I couldn't figure out what it was. As the day grew nearer, I realized it wasn't just one thing, but a whole lot of things: good planning, a clear focus on the correct target, and any trace of creativity whatsoever.

Now, I know that the media image of it being a completely labour-based event was false. But there's no denying that the labour movement was one of the major forces behind it, and let's face it: unions, generally speaking, are not exactly a hotbed of originality or innovation in politics. Their range of possible actions tends to run the gamut, as Dorothy Parker once wrote of Katherine Hepburn's acting, from A to B, A in this case being "stop working," and B being "picket things."

Granted, these tactics are appropriate in many instances, and have often been successful. But does that mean they should be the be-all and end-all of political activism? Hardly. For one thing, strikes, general or specific, only work when they are supported by a large majority of the affected population. In the case of labour disputes, you can't even have a strike unless the majority of union members vote in favour of it. In fact, unless the vote passes by a large majority, you're not in a good position.

But when the membership is the entire population of Ontario, things are a little different. All the "we the people" rhetoric in the world will not change the fact that "the people" do not speak with one unified voice, and it is damn hard to get a majority of them to agree on anything. In fact, the last time we have a confirmed record of the majority of Ontarians agreeing on anything was when they voted for Harris in the first place -- and even then, it was only a majority of the registered voters.

Just what is it with this determination to speak for everyone whether they want to be spoken for or not? It sometimes seems to me that the Left is suffering from some kind of bizarre identity crisis -- it wants to be at the same time both a movement in opposition to the status quo, and a viewpoint held by everyone.

Perhaps what we're seeing is a blend of a very real political discontent with some residual sheeplike conformity -- we may hate the system, but we don't want to be different, so let's convince ourselves that everyone else hates the system too. Or perhaps it's a lack of confidence -- it's unsettling to realize that one holds views that are markedly different from those of the general population. It makes one think that maybe, just maybe, we have it all wrong -- or that even if we're right, we may never be able to do anything about it. Anyway you slice it, it's a fear of difference that's at the core.

The number of people opposed to the Harris regime may be growing, but it's nowhere near the kind of mass movement needed to make even a one day general strike effective. The majority of people did not participate in the effort to "shut down the city," or even support it. In fact, it's probably a safe bet that the majority of people were really pissed off about it, and the people who were the most pissed off were the people who potentially could have been the strongest supporters -- your basic working poor, the people without cars or cushy jobs with employers who were willing to pay them for a missed day of work. Harris and his cronies barely noticed it, but a lot of people in minimum wage, dead end jobs are probably visiting the food bank because of it.

If the organizers hadn't been convinced that they already spoke for everyone and therefore didn't need to reach anyone, they might have tried to create something new and different, something that would appeal to people and inspire them, instead of just confusing and alienating them. Something that would specifically target Mikey and the Bay Street boys rather than just screwing over the average working class people they claim to represent. But that would require being able to think beyond just work stoppages and picket signs.

I'm not anti-union by any means -- in fact, I'm a member of one of the unions that organized the whole thing, and by the time this column sees print, I will probably be on strike with the rest of the TAs at York. But I don't think that tactics that work in one situation are necessarily applicable to all situations. The left's biggest challenge right now isn't a right-wing backlash or a Tory government, it's a crisis of imagination. And until that's addressed, the majority that everyone seems to want to speak for isn't going to be listening.


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