Workers’ Assemblies: A Way to Regroup the Left?


Herman Rosenfeld is a member of the Canadian Socialist Project and the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, a new initiative aiming to reinvigorate working class and radical politics in the city.  He spoke to Tom Denning about the methods and activities of GTWA and the challenges it faces.

Who initiated the GTWA, and with what purpose?  How does it work now, and what does it do?

The GTWA was initiated by the Labour Committee of a group called the Socialist Project, based in Toronto.  The idea of an Assembly was roughly based on some of the ideas floated — and experimented with — by Bill Fletcher Jr and others in the US.  Creating a new and different kind of working class organizational form was seen as a way to get beyond some of the limitations of trade unions, which have been so locked into defending their members’ particular concerns: contributing to the need for a fightback in the face of the crisis; helping to bring together the socialist and anti-capitalist left; and working to create a new political space, to the left of social democracy.

Some of the underlying themes, then, were things like bringing together different segments of the working class — divided by the pressures of neoliberal policies and labour markets; bringing together socialists and anarchists, looking to create more of a common political project; creating a space to the left of the official labour unions (and the Toronto Labour Council is rather progressive and activist) and looking to contribute to the rather non-existent fight-back; the need to transform the trade union movement and collectively learn together as we go on.  In other words, it had a number of purposes, all working at the same time.

We went through a process of bringing this idea to a number of activists and people on the socialist, anti-capitalist and social movement left.  We organized a series of consultations toward this end.  The first brought together activists from an auto plant and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), to talk about the differences and similarities in their respective constituencies, the messages they bring to people and the responses and how they might build a more equal and solidaristic relationship between the two.  The second was on the differences between the kind of project we were proposing and the activist Toronto Labour Council.  Third, we did a session on the relationship of class to other forms of oppression and social determination.  It was less successful.

The Assembly has been in existence for about a year and eight months.  It has about 300 members on paper, but our actual Assemblies — held every three months or so — have about 100 people attending.  That more or less corresponds to the number of people actively engaged in our committees and campaigns.  The latter includes the Free and Accessible Transit Campaign; a Public Sector Defence and Anti-Austerity Campaign.  The transit campaign remains small, but it is building outward and raises a rather radical and challenging set of demands for making public transit a non-commodified service, freezing and lowering fares and making transit accessible to all in the city.

The Public Sector Defence Committee is the successor to what was our Labour Caucus, which did take on the task of building such a campaign.  We made a number of mistakes in this work, as a number of political differences and differences about the committee’s mandate made it necessary to start that work again from scratch.  We have some good relations with the unionists waging those struggles and we hope this will take off, in the direction of forums, community organizing, educational materials and collective actions.  (The political differences have to do with whether we see the Labour Committee work as being mainly with the trade unions and union members or with a wider scope of non-organized and marginalized segments of the working class.  We all agree that the Assembly as a whole has a key mandate in bringing the different components of the working class together.)

In a larger sense, there are a number of underlying contradictions inside the Assembly: is it mainly to serve as a kind of united front, bringing together the different components of the anti-capitalist movement in Toronto, co-ordinating support for their various projects and campaigns, or, on the other hand, is the Assembly a space to create a new and different political movement that aspires to fight for a larger class-wide project and a political presence in Toronto?  These differences were ostensibly solved in the first few months of the Assembly, but these different conceptions remain in different ways as we move forward.

They are not incompatible, but do reflect some of the different movements that are part of the Assembly (anarchist-influenced social movements, such as No One Is Illegal and some of the leading activists in OCAP; other anarchist groupings, more closely tied to a class vision of social change; the different socialist groups who come out of different ideological and political Marxist traditions, etc.).

Is there are a large radical community, or a relatively strong union movement?

There is a rather small radical community — made up of:

    • small socialist and anarchist groupings;


    • anarchist-influenced social movements that work with marginalized segments of the working class, such as non-status immigrants, social service recipients, etc.  They tend to have a tradition of radical tactics, but a programmatic opposition to political engagement of a more formal kind;


    • a broader social left, which is less radical;


  • a trade union movement that is dominated by social democratic politics.  It is not particularly militant and the level of organized resistance has remained small.  The Toronto city government is now ruled by a nasty bunch of neoliberal fanatics and some of the civic unions have begun to organize support for their resistance in communities.  There was an unsuccessful strike of civic workers two summers ago and the unions made every mistake in the book.  This time, some of them have looked to reach out to the left, the people who receive their services, private sector workers and their members.  This is important, but it remains within a social democratic discourse.

Have any recent struggles been particularly important?  (Some are mentioned here.)

The civic workers’ strike of a couple of summers ago was an important moment: the unions were politically isolated and took a terrible drubbing amongst the general public and the working class as a whole.  Some have learned from it and there seems to be a possibility of a larger resistance building.  Some private sector unions have been on important strikes, but have sustained important defeats, particularly over things like defined contribution pensions and two-tier wages and benefits.

There is an ongoing battle against demand for US Steel to take away important gains over what once was the most important steel complex in the country.  The local union is also fighting against a virtual lockout by the employer and has engaged the community in Hamilton, Ontario.  This week a national postal strike is about to begin [this section of the interview was conducted on June 1].  The union is noted as being intelligent, militant and a supporter of other struggles in the working class.

Could you say a little bit more about class composition in Toronto and how that affects the project?

The class composition of Toronto is quite mixed.  The principal economic drivers here are the financial sector (Toronto is the financial centre of Canada, but increasingly sharing it with the centre of oil and resources in this country, Calgary) real estate and public services.  The industrial base of this area, what used to be manufacturing, auto assembly and related industries have gone into a rapid and dramatic decline.  What industrial base we retain is highly uneven, with a number of small auto parts manufacturers, and other small miscellaneous manufacturers, along with some pharmaceuticals.  There is still an aircraft manufacturer (Bombardier) in the city.

Much of the working class is divided into highly segmented clumps of concentrated numbers: construction; upper end manufacturing; lower-end manufacturing; servicing the financial services cluster, as well as the retail centres and entertainment complexes.  Average wages have declined as the bourgeoisie has consistently restructured and outsourced work, looking for ways to eliminate or weaken unions and bring down their competitive cost structures.

Toronto is made up of a large contingent of immigrants from South Asia, East Asian, Latin America and Southern Europe.  Key elements of the local commercial capitalist class come from some of these communities, as the increasingly cheapened and precarious segmentation of the working class does as well.  The class structure of living patterns also reflects important changes, as the central core of the city has undergone gentrification, while the so-called “inner suburbs” (spaces that have been annexed to Greater Toronto, but had been middle-income suburbs before the neoliberal era), are now key concentrations of poor or lower income working class people from immigrant communities, some people of colour.

The Assembly aspires to be a Workers’ Assembly — and if we ever succeed in recruiting numbers of working class people in the city — we’ll have to build a base in these inner suburbs.  Right now, we are mostly based in the downtown core, and the principal demographic of GTWA members are students and professional activists.  (I say mostly, because there are a number of long-time working class activists, with a base in organized trade unions that are part of the Assembly project.)

The dependence of the Toronto economy on finance and real estate makes for a difficult relationship between the GTWA and the generally left-oriented Labour Central, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.  The latter often takes up important and creative political and organizational campaigns, but it is tied to centre-left political actors, tied to the social democratic NDP.  Its inability and unwillingness to argue for a fundamentally different economic strategy — one that challenges private capital accumulation as the engine of growth — makes it difficult for us to build inside the union movement.

There is a preponderance of political movements, influenced by forms of anarchism, which see their constituency as the poor, marginalized and status-challenged immigrant people.  They participate in the Assembly, but have very little commitment the creation of a larger political project, based on the working class as a whole.  Instead, they tend to argue that only the most marginalized and oppressed must be the centre of organizing and resistance, and see the Assembly as a space to organize, but not as their main project.

They tend to build their own projects outside of the Assembly (although not against it).  The predominance of this type of politics is facilitated by the weakness of the organized labour movement (and especially its refusal to radicalize its political analysis and strategy) and the weakness of militant and radical traditions amongst organized workers.  The deepening precariousness of the labour market — and its growing segmentation — means that these groups tend to have stronger specific weight in the movement.

You’ve mentioned a number of different political tendencies participating in the Assembly.  Could you give any examples of how they’ve learned from each other, or come to modify their positions — rather than just participating on the basis of fixed positions with a pre-existing overlap?

I would describe the political tendencies within the Assembly as follows:

A) The socialist left, which includes activists from the Socialist Project (SP), New Socialist (NS) Group, International Socialists, Communist Party of Canada, and a new breakaway from the left social democrats who work inside the NDP.  The SP was a loose network of people who come from different Marxist traditions (Trots; Maoists; independents) and saw ourselves as contributing to the creation of a larger movement, the rooting of socialist ideas within the working class and the eventual creation of a new generation socialist party.  It initiated the GTWA.

Second is NS, which was a breakaway from the IS, about 20 years ago.  They have more political cohesion than the SP and tend to work more closely with some of the anarchist-influenced movements that I mentioned above.  They tend to see the latter — made up of young, people of colour — as being the major place where to build resistance — and therefore require greater emphasis and support.  The SP tends to see the latter as both positive, but highly problematic in the way they see the state, and their obsession with the marginalized.  The NS has become more open to working with SP folks, but tend to shy away from making commitments to having the Assembly take on the forms of a more unified political movement, and to see it more as a combination of a space for activist groups on the left to work together and the centre of a looser political movement.  Actually developing day-to-day collective activities in organizing and summarizing experiences have made it easier to feel comfortable in the same organization, yet the initial orientations of both the SP and the NS seems not to have changed all that much.  They tend to differ over how to relate to the street anarchist projects outside of the Assembly (the NS work inside these projects, while the SP remains within the Assembly).  The personal interactions have certainly made a difference in our ability to work together.  For one, the idea that the NS sees the Assembly as a place where you might end up with a political approach, and a series of political caucuses that argue for their own perspectives, was something I learned from the NS comrades.

The IS people are closer to the SP than the NS, and tend to work inside the union movement, arguing for a Marxist perspective.  They have become more invested in the GTWA than at the beginning and participate in some of the leadership bodies and committees, as have the SP and NS.  They do not participate in the anarcho-oriented projects of the NOII, OCAP and others.

The Communist Party works respectfully inside the Assembly and maintains their general political line.  They commit to the building of the WA institutions although they are small and don’t have many people inside it.

We all tend to feel comfortable in outlining the necessity and general outline for fighting against the right-wing populist onslaught, and this is probably the base where we have made the most progress.  But differences remain, in areas such as how to engage in the public sector defence, how to relate to the trade union movement, how to relate to the NDP (not necessarily whether we see it as a legitimate, constructive space to engage in socialist politics, but how to relate to their newfound strength), whether we see the GTWA as an eventual political party or movement as opposed to a space for collective participation by groups and movements; eventual electoral activity — not in supporting the social democrats, but in building our own presence — and, how to work with and interpret the anarchist groups and movements.

B) The syndicalist anarchists, called Common Cause, as constructive members of the Assembly and during the current wave of strikes and state repression of them, they have taken initiative in helping to suggest and organize picket-line and community education and mobilization.  They tend to be very critical of building leadership institutions and eschew completely any efforts to engage in electoral political efforts (or even to create a platform of demands to raise during elections).  The mobilization around the recent postal strike has channelled a lot of their energies through the Public Sector Defence Committee of the Assembly.

C) The street anarchists see the Canadian state as an illegitimate space to engage with, since they see it as a settler colony.  They see the Assembly as a space to build support for their campaigns to defend non-status youth and workers and have no commitment to the project as a separate political space.  They haven’t changed their approach at all, really, and have become more alienated over time.  The anti-poverty activist organization OCAP is different in a number of ways and the organizers and activists are integrated with many of the Assembly people in other movements, having worked together over many decades.

They, too, tend to work with the anarchists (some of them share political approaches and their organizing core and supporters includes a number of people with a similar political orientation) and definitely see themselves as spokespeople for the marginalized.  There is some ambivalence about how they relate to the rest of the working class — with strong identification and support with more militant and activist unions, but a mixed approach to the rest of the organized and better-off strata of the class.  This reflects a lot of the contradictions which social movement activist groups face in their work and approach, in many ways analogous to the limitations of the official labour movement.  In the present context, the NS has been working more than other elements of the Assembly with them.

Overall, the SP and IS have moved the most, I think, although the general collective spirit of working together and listening to different points of view is what has changed the most, and this is true for all of the political groups and most individuals engaged in the Assembly.  In another sense, it is difficult to say that the members of the left groups have really changed their fundamental opinions all that much.  As an SP person, I know that I — and others who are more committed to the GTWA as a political project than the SP — tend to be more open and solicitous of the perspectives of individuals from independent orientations and the members of the other groups, but I still see them as mostly retaining the loyalty to their own, pre-Assembly perspectives.  Part of my experience has been to get a better sense of what they really are and how they might evolve over time.

In your New Politics article, you mentioned debates in the aftermath of the G20 meetings: “many of us made mistakes” in carrying out that debate, but these led to the development of “key methods of maintaining dialogue and debate”.  Could you share these methods?

A number of us from the SP saw the Black Bloc activities in the G-20 as being destructive, self-serving and against the longer term goals of developing the political consciousness of working class people.  I still feel that way — as do all of the SP and many in the Assembly.  But our collective engagement with the young anarchist movements that participated in the demonstration meant that we had to work with people who felt differently.  The way we self-righteously denounced the activities of the black bloc — using terms like “hooligans”, etc. and acting as if they were not political, but simply criminal — was counterproductive and ignored the sensibilities of many young activists who came from a very different place.  In the face of massive police repression that followed that experience, it almost sounded as if we condoned that repression (although we clearly did not).

We also argued that the Assembly shouldn’t place too much resources in the organizing for the G-20 demos and we were wrong about that as well.  Comrades from NS had a different method and, although they, too, were critical of those actions, argued that you had to engage with these folks in a way that showed them that you respected where they were coming from.

We established a series of spaces to debate that experience that forced us to recognize that we might end up disagreeing on fundamental issues for a long time, but we need to establish an environment of mutual respect and common purpose.  In that sense, denunciations that end up reinforcing the legitimacy of the cops are counterproductive.

How far has a layer of previously politically inactive people been drawn to participate in the project, and how far does it represent an organisation of pre-existing activists?

Many of the GTWA activists are people who have been activists for a long time.  On the other hand, we have plugged into a layer of young people — and others — who have been looking for a space to get involved in a different form of left or working class-oriented politics.  They have been drawn to some of our educational and organizational activities.  Some people on the left who tended to drop out over the years have come back to participate in the Assembly.  Some of the young people have been grad students who are looking for a larger political project to hook up with.

Tom Denning is a member of The Commune group.  He has written for Red Pepper, New Left Project, and Shift Magazine.  This interview was first co-published by The Commune and New Left Project under a Creative Commons license.


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