February 3, 2012

Ford suffers first big set back

Protests against right-wing Mayor
Rob Ford are making gains

By Liz Rowley

     The hard‑right administration of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was dealt a big setback on January 17. After months of protests by community groups and labour, the city's 2012 austerity budget was amended to add $19 million to rescue three homeless shelters, three child care centres, school nutrition programs, HIV/AIDS programs, city-owned homes for the aged, swimming and wading pools, recreation centres, libraries, and other essential services slated for closure, contracting out, or deep reductions and big new user fees.

     Dubbed by some as a war on children's services, Ford's budget attacked everything from housing to transit to health and social services, from the arts and libraries to public assets like theatres and zoos, affecting almost everyone in this city of 2.7 million. The public rose up in horror, from the trade unions to wealthy arts patrons and supporters of the library system.

     Committees were formed, including the "Stop the Cuts Coalition", with its 27 neighbourhood affiliates, the "One Toronto" coalition of arts and cultural communities, and the individuals and organizations which came together to save libraries, swimming pools, school breakfast and nutrition programs, the children's zoo, social housing, and child care centres (Toronto has a waiting list of over 20,000 for subsidized child care spaces). There was wide opposition to cuts to snow clearing, especially in the suburbs and in higher income areas.

     A truly mass movement sprung up almost overnight, starting in July after the KPMG audit and proposed cuts. By September the polls showed support evaporating for Ford and for Councillors backing his austerity measures.

     A campaign of petitions, demonstrations, meetings, blogs, emails, and phone calls to Councillors identified with the budget started to get results in early December. Some of Ford's close supporters began to distance themselves from the parts of the budget dealing with libraries, child care and transit. The message was clear: vote for cuts and your political career is over.

     Ford and most of his Council allies represent areas where services were traditionally poorer and the political representation more conservative than in the downtown core of the old City of Toronto. Ford played on the unevenness of services in the new amalgamated city, talking about "the privileged fat cats in the downtown" versus "the hard working taxpayers in the suburbs paying the freight."

     But Ford's budget cuts had a big impact on the suburbs, where homeowners and small businesses hadn't bet on reduced services, only reduced taxes. The proposal to cut 62 bus routes and increase transit fares by 10 cents would have hurt most in these areas. More limited access to childcare centres and spaces, and other services in the suburbs, highlighted the inequity of existing services, and helped forge broad city‑wide opposition to the budget.

     But Mayor Ford, his brother Councillor Doug Ford, his Budget Chief Mike Del Grande, and the Executive Committee of hand‑picked right‑wing Councillors, didn't or couldn't see that their base was narrowing, and opposition was growing all around them.

     They responded with ham fisted attacks on their opponents, starting with Margaret Atwood, who called on her twitter following to stop the attack on libraries. Doug Ford's remarks about Atwood exposed him as boorish and threatening, not the cultivated image of hard‑working boys from the burbs taking on the downtown elites.

     The huge turn‑outs to time‑limited public hearings on the budget were slagged as "communists" and "full‑time agitators", dismissed as "the same 500 people" by the Mayor and Budget Chief.

Ford's image was further eroded by his encounters with the CBC's "Marge Delahunty", by his wife's frequent 911 calls charging domestic assault, and by his sister and her boyfriend, who face charges of attempted murder and breaking into the Mayor's house.

     As January 17 neared, a centre‑right group of Liberals and some Tories joined with progressive Councillors to put together a "lifeboat" of important services. The vote to allow the "lifeboat" motion was the first signal that the Ford juggernaut could be stopped. When the main motion to use $15 million from the 2011 revenue surplus of $154 million passed by a vote of 23 to 21, it was greeted by a roar of support inside the packed City Hall chambers. It was a roar heard across the city.

     In response, the Mayor declared he'd won the budget fight, while del Grande called it a defeat, and said he was resigning. In fact, it was a partial but very significant victory for the coalitions and the people, and for democracy. Partial, because of the deep cuts and job and service losses that were passed. Significant, because this fight showed many people they could fight and win, despite another three years with Ford and Co. at the helm.

     Outside, Nathan Phillips Square was filled with protesters, facing 100 riot cops behind two lines of barriers. As demonstrators tried to get into City Hall, others tried to get out and join the protest. Five were arrested, and several were pepper sprayed. A woman was punched in the face, and according to witnesses, at least one of those arrested was pulled over the barriers by cops, a mini-G20 redux.

     The fight is not over by a long shot. Many important services, assets including public housing, theatres and real estate, the Toronto zoo, and thousands of city jobs, have not yet been saved. New user fees, and other cuts and reductions will soon be felt, including ironically a 2.5% property tax hike supported by the Fords. Round two will start shortly.

     As PV goes to press, the City has received its no‑Board report, allowing it to lock out 30,000 city workers before the next issue of this paper reaches subscribers.

     The Ford administration is demanding massive concessions, including around job security, which Ford and Co. have dubbed "jobs for life." The broad coalition that came together to derail the budget cuts must understand that city services and city workers go together, and that 15,000 city workers are part‑time, with few or no benefits, and earning a little above the minimum wage.

     The only fat cats in this fight are on the throne in City Hall, and behind the scenes on Bay Street, which financed the Fords to break the unions and break up public services, in Toronto and across Canada.

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