Review in Journal of Urban and Regional Research

Megacity Malaise
Neoliberalism, Public Services and Labour in Toronto

By Carlo Fanelli  

Over recent decades, a considerable body of work has studied the struggles of urban centres to wrest greater powers and revenue sources from senior levels of government within the context of globalization and the neoliberalization of the state. The issue is increasingly pronounced in Canada’s federal system, where municipalities are described legally as ‘creatures of the province’. Carlo Fanelli’s book on Toronto politics, urban finance and municipal workers centres on a critique of the contemporary neoliberal fiscal division of power and responsibility between levels of government. He refutes ‘Toronto’s fiscal crisis’, arguing that ‘The inability of Ontario municipalities to meet their revenue requirements stems not only from constitutional realities better suited to the nineteenth century than the urban realities of today, but especially from the neoliberal policies of tax cutting that have reduced fiscal capacities’ (p. 3). In studying the evolution of Toronto’s governance, Fanelli emphasizes the difficulties faced by a growing metropolis with circumscribed powers. He then situates it within a context where municipal authorities commonly respond by privatizing services and outsourcing the workers who provide them. Fanelli’s original contribution is to argue that public sector workers and their unions have the potential to lead a movement for an alternative vision of city governance that prioritizes the meeting of human needs. Concentrating on the mid-1990s onwards, he begins with a period where cuts to urban funding transfers by Canada’s ruling Liberals coincided with further cuts and the downloading by Conservatives in Ontario of responsibility for social services to municipalities. Meanwhile both governments reduced their fiscal capacity through tax cuts. Fanelli acknowledges this is not a strictly linear process, as later provincial governments have reassumed some services, though this has been limited since the 2008–09 recession. However, what were once stable sources of funding from government authorities with far wider taxation powers have become increasingly contingent. Meanwhile, the capacity of Canada’s municipal governments to broaden their sources of revenue has remained constrained, creating a shortfall at the level where most public services are provided. He emphasizes that the undermining of public services and fiscal retrenchment in Toronto have occurred within a context of increasing inequality of income and wealth, and race- and gender-based labour market segregation, citing its spatial expression in David Hulchanski’s ‘three cities’ (depicting the polarization of wealth since the 1970s between central regions of the city and the poorer inner suburbs). Studying the response of Toronto’s civic employees to demands for conces- sions from the city authorities, Fanelli highlights bell-weather contract negotiations in 2009, which (as a former municipal worker himself ) he experienced firsthand. The ensuing 39-day work stoppage over the summer, protesting (among other issues) against contracting out and reduced job security, was derisively termed the ‘garbage strike’ (although in reality the 30,000-plus participants worked in a variety of roles ranging from child care to urban planning). Hard-right politician Rob Ford tapped into resentment over its disruptiveness and perceptions of ‘over-privileged government workers’ to help fuel his mayoral victory the following year. Fanelli, who stewarded a picket line, contends that his union’s failure to reach out to the public and build alliances was partially responsible for the political shift rightwards. Given his argument that civic workers’ unions have the potential to challenge fiscal austerity by becoming more participatory and forging stronger alliances with the community, it would have been interesting to see greater analysis from labour activists of the challenges faced by Toronto’s public sector unions and further insight into the strategies of its leadership. This book draws throughout on a broad reading of intergovernmental finance in Ontario and its fiscal challenges for the provision of municipal services. The author brings together many critical scholars on urban politics in Toronto and Canada; grounded in this context, the book presents a multifaceted analysis of neoliberalization and the city. Fanelli is highly critical of existing ‘progressive’ municipal electoral politics, citing the push for concessions during the tenure of Mayor David Miller that led to the 2009 strike. He does not significantly explore political strategies of building within state institutions. The book does examine possibilities for building a ground- up alternative to neoliberal urbanism, in which a more participatory and democratic labour movement would have a leading role. While many writers wait until the conclusion to begin theorizing on alternative visions, Fanelli dedicates more than a full chapter to this issue. He draws inspiration from the experience of the Quebec university student strike of spring 2012 (which won a tuition freeze) and its alliances with public sector unions. In Toronto, he notes the success of the librarians’ union in defeating budget cuts, mobilizing public support as the caretakers of a valued civic institution. He calls for unionized workers to make common cause with the broader community, particularly those who use their services. Fanelli’s democratic socialist perspective is a much-needed alternative to far commoner technocratic prescriptions in which the dominance of market interests are taken for granted.

— Paul Bocking, York University

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