Chairman's Desk

Olivia Chow’s greatest vulnerability? Her friends

Imagine the confusion.

Toronto’s most labour friendly mayor in recent memory and still — a major strike that would have paralyzed this city. Or, as Mayor Chow put it, wrought “huge, huge economic damage.”

Sometimes in politics, success rides not on the platforms you pronounce or the policies you deliver, but on the bullets you dodge. And a TTC strike would be about as destructive a bullet for Mayor Chow to duck as can be conceived. Because while the political confusion and upheaval that would have followed is challenging to predict, the wrath of Torontonians would not be.

Already faced with a congestion nightmare, a housing crisis and high crime rates, the inability to commute to work or an urgent doctor’s appointment would have amounted to an unbearable degree of frustration. Make no mistake, that frustration would have turned to outright anger and Mayor Chow would have borne the brunt.

To deepen the political trap, provincial sources made it crystal clear they would have only drafted back-to-work legislation at the request of the Mayor.

But Olivia Chow never let it get that far — stepping right over this trap. As she acknowledged in the days that followed the last-minute agreement, she wisely set aside enough money in her budget to account for this negotiation. And behind the scenes, she undoubtedly used her political capital with the union in a way that John Tory never could.

This win, therefore, is as good an opportunity as any to consider what lies ahead and what avoiding this catastrophe reveals about her future.

Let’s start with the pure political numbers.

At the outset of her tenure, Her Worship’s popularity was nothing short of stratospheric, fluctuating between 71 per cent and 75 per cent approval. Since the budget this February, those numbers have predictably returned to earth. But while the honeymoon may be over, her approximately 50 per cent approval today is still impressive — especially considering how negatively Toronto residents continue to view the state of the city.

To be clear, I believe she’s earned that approval. Far from the harbinger of doom her opponents promised she would be, the Mayor has proven to be an effective leader. So, credit where credit’s due: she has expanded affordable housing, improved public transit, taken steps to enhance community safety and services and advanced various climate action initiatives.

More importantly, overall, there still persists a strong sense that she is a breath of fresh air, an antidote to the status quo and someone with the ambition and determination to actually turn this City around.

But politics is an unfair sport and if she is not vigilant, that sense will disappear overnight. And it’s now, when the Mayor is in a position of relative strength, that she must assess her greatest vulnerability.

Matt Elliot hit the nail on the head when he identified that to be exactly 30,735 — the number of City workers belonging to CUPE Local 79 and CUPE 416 whose contracts expire at year’s end. These are workers who feel they got a raw deal last time out and who make our city “go”: they clean the parks, run essential programs, process permits, collect the garbage (need I say more?).

But the reason those 30,000 plus workers walking off the job presents such an existential challenge for Chow is not just the obvious furor and chaos that would reign as a result, but rather because it is a direct assault on the pro-union, labour-friendly Chow brand.

Put another way, her greatest vulnerability lies not with her enemies but rather with friends. In politics, as in life, friends have expectations and sometimes, regrettably, they’ll try and take advantage of you. And given the impossible fiscal situation Chow has inherited, she has zero wiggle room.

In other words, the math simply does not work.

But Mayor Chow’s path to re-election in 2026 will only remain open and clear if she can maintain her core base of support. This danger is the same one that faced Bob Rae provincially in 1995, when he lost his core base and subsequently his government after a crushing electoral defeat.

And it is only by finding a way to make the math work — to keep her friends friendly — that Chow will avoid a fracturing of her strong left-wing coalition and the ire of Torontonians whose eyes are watering from the smell of rotting garbage.

After all, that smell has a way of lingering and translating to dire political consequences. Just open the history books to 2009 and ask former mayor David Miller about that.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on June 16, 2024.

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