Showdown in Ontario: Build the General Strike!

By Palmer, Bryan | Canadian Dimension, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Showdown in Ontario: Build the General Strike!


Palmer, Bryan, Canadian Dimension


Hamilton, 24 February 1996. They came. More came. They kept coming. The buses that brought some Of them -1500 in all - were backed up to the city limits. By 1:00PM there were well over 100,000 of them crammed into a cul-de-sac-likepark on the Bay, cold, standing in mud puddles, lined-up by the hundreds to use the portable 'johnny-on-the-spot' facilities, waving union placards, and wanting to get on with it.

They were Ontario government employees, teachers from the province's five educational federations, auto workers, posties, steelworkers, students, anti-poverty activists and a range of other supporters, peoples of all colours and characters. For many this must have been their first political demonstration. They had picked the right time to march. It was the largest labour-led protest rally in the history of Ontario.

This massive action followed on the heels of a December 11 localized general strike in southwestern Ontario's staid commercial centre, London. For weeks before this event, in which 15,000 participated, the media whipped up fears of violence and stereotypical trauma of intimidating union bosses and their threatening blue-collar army. The new year opened in Ontario with a huge rally of teachers. And a day before the Hamilton demonstration 35,000 workers had closed Steeltown down in another show of workers' power.

Within 48 hours, more than 55,000 Ontario government employees, members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), would be on strike, their months-long attempt to negotiate a collective agreement with the provincial state stopped in its tracks by the government's intransigence. The union made few demands. All that it wanted was for layoffs to follow procedures established by other Canadian governments and secure certain rights to privatized jobs and already established paid-up pension plans. Ontario's Newt Gingrich-like premier, Mike Harris, wouldn't even sit down at the bargaining table for a full two weeks. He insisted that the Tory agenda of dismantling health, welfare, and educational entitlements and gutting the public sector through layoffs and privatization proceed unimpeded.

The state has declared war on OPSEU, whose members walked picket lines in the dead of winter so that all of us may live better, decent lives. This is having a material effect. As the second week of the strike unfolded, Ontario's Education Minister John Snobelen announced his proposed 'toolkit' for teachers. It contained devastating cuts, totalling $400 million, to the school system of Canada's most affluent province. The news was certainly bad, but it was not as destructive as had been promised. The Tories backed away from their commitment to eliminate preparation time over the course of the classroom day, sidestepping important issues of forced early retirement and the hiring of non-teachers to do work in libraries and guidance programs. The thinking among some educators is that they have OPSEU's militancy to thank for these small concessions.

What's happening in Ontario?

On one level, nothing is new. Mike Harris's Tories, driven by deficit dementia, are following a course of action not qualitatively different than the federal Liberals and other provinces, whatever party happens to be in office. Ontario's far-right attack on jobs and justice differs only in degree from the conventional political economy wisdoms of our times. Its massive cuts to welfare and proposed implementation of workfare, its closing of hospitals and adoption of user fees, its surgical assault on the educational system, and attack-s on equity legislation, public day care, trade union protections, and the public sector are in line with other government actions across the country. But they go farther and deeper than anything tried elsewhere.

It is the velocity of the Conservative assault in Ontario that is so striking. And it has forced the labour movement into action. Just what kind of action is needed has become the key question of the hour in a revitalized workers movement. …

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