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Four labour lessons from the Harris years

Doug Nesbitt

June 7, 2018

The prospect of a Tory majority is looming. The last time the Tories took power under Harris, we responded with nearly three years of intense protests, including city-wide general strikes, a province-wide walkout by childcare workers, and a two-week illegal teachers strike.

The Tories promised a better Ontario with the Common Sense Revolution, but the reality was ugly. Education was crippled by deep cuts, and healthcare decimated by hospital closures, bed closures, and the opening up of a low-wage for-profit long-term care and homecare sector. Privatization of the 407, road cleaning, service centres, saw services decline and user fees rise. Water safety privatization led to the Walkerton disaster killing 6 and making over 2,000 ill. The social safety net was shredded with a 22 percent welfare cut while income tax cuts overwhelmingly went to the top ten percent income earners. The minimum wage was frozen during the entire period of Tory rule, from 1995 to 2003, while employment standards were dramatically rolled back.

Protests and strikes did beat up the “Common Sense Revolution” agenda, and for most of their first term, the Tories were actually second in the polls. Measures like mandatory workfare were stopped, hospital cuts were blunted, some regressive laws defeated (like Bill 136), but on the whole we lost. The province-wide general strike, mandated by three separate OFL conventions, never came. Union leaders wound down union protest activity in 1998. The Tories regained confidence and strength and won re-election a year later.

What are the hard lessons we can learn from those years?

1. Protest early and protest often

As soon as Harris was elected in June 1995, Ontario members of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women were encouraged by their Albertan counterparts to start protesting immediately and frequently. Albertans had already undergone two years of Ralph Klein’s government and Harris was seen as a copycat. The Ontario NAC activists, who had roots in unions and community organizations, formed the Embarrass Harris coalition. They held the first major protest on June 26, only 18 days after the election. Two thousand people rallied and kicked off a summer of growing protests.

Other organizations like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty also organized regular protests. OCAP led a march of hundreds from one of Ontario’s poorest neighbourhoods, Regent Park, through Rosedale, one of Canada’s richest. In late July, Toronto’s childcare workers also held a very successful illegal walkout against the prospect of major childcare cuts. Joining them were many parents, children, and even childcare operators.

By September 27, Embarrass Harris had won the support of labour councils and union locals and 10,000 people rallied at the opening of the legislature. It was the birth of a mass movement. Protests spread across the province and Tory MPPs were chased wherever they went. With the Tory agenda now attacking labour rights, the protest movement led directly to the first Day of Action in London, Ontario on December 11 1995. In -25 degree weather, 30,000 people went on strike, idling most manufacturing and government services, and 15,000 marched. Even bigger protests and strikes were on the horizon.

Nothing was automatic about these early protests. Many union leaders counselled against protests being “too early”, and believed they could sit down with Harris and talk him out of his agenda. But organizers knew better and forged ahead. The early protests were important for showing thousands of people across the province that, like them, there was someone else prepared to fight. It channeled anger and fear, pulling new people into activity. As the Common Sense Revolution unfolded and reality set in, protest organizers inside the unions were able to win their unions and local labour councils to action. The small cog turned a bigger cog, and that cog turned an even larger one.

There is already an opportunity to begin this process. The Fight for $15 and Fairness and Ontario Federation of Labour have already called a rally on June 16 at the Ministry of Labour for decent work. Be there.

2. Political strikes can be built

Nobody anticipated political strikes when Harris was elected. Cities big and small, including London, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Metro Toronto, Peterborough, Windsor, and North Bay, all had Days of Action with strikes across the municipal and provincial public sector, private sector manufacturing, and Canada Post. Childcare workers also held a Toronto-wide one-day strike in July 1995, and a province-wide one-day strike in November 1995. Teachers also went on a two-week political strike in October-November 1997. There were also rotating 10-minute illegal walkouts against hospital closures and cuts by healthcare workers in March and April of 1997.

Each political strike was built using similar methods. First, there was serious membership education through both face-to-face shopfloor organizing, informal meetings outside of work, and mass membership meetings. Unions printed up materials and trained up organizers to do this, but success still needed the initiative and activity of local and shopfloor leaders. A big obstacle was overcoming the worrying number of union members who voted for Harris. This meant real political conversations with people about the issues that hit them the most. It meant showing how the rich would benefit most from tax cuts, and that privatization would drive down wages, raise user fees, and weaken quality of services.

Second, members were balloted for strike action. This happened in mass meetings, at conventions, or by ballot. When stronger unions took the lead in balloting, they also built confidence among workers in other unions.

Each political strike was different, but an excellent tactic used in the Days of Action was cross-picketing so workers wouldn’t be around their own management and risk being caught. For example, during the London Day of Action, CAMI autoworkers in Ingersoll picketed the Ford Talbotville assembly near St. Thomas, and vice versa. Management threats of discipline were ignored with many workers taking a loss of one day’s pay. In fact, discipline was very rare during the Days of Action.

It is not 1995. Doug Ford doesn’t have as much support among union workers as Harris did, but because of Harris, union strength isn’t what it was. In 1995, strikes were more common and there was a living tradition of militancy. But times are changing and anger against Ford is running high. The American teacher strikes in Republican Red States show that diligent organization and education can overcome these obstacles of lack of experience, and a flat-footed union leadership.

3. Province-wide communication is essential

Protests and especially strikes were most successful when organization was tight and communications effective. In the lead up to OPSEU’s five-week strike in early 1996 against mass layoffs and weakened pension rights, government lies and propaganda were regularly countered through OPSEU Fax, a punchy union bulletin distributed through the government’s 3,500 fax machines. The teachers were also able to build confidence for a political strike through a new publication, the OTF Communique. Canadian Autoworkers also published a weekly online report CAW Contact that covered all union matters and promoted the fight against Harris.

Communications are needed to deliver factual information, and especially arguments and counter-arguments about ongoing debates with the government, employers and the media. In the fight against Harris, unions were effective at using internal communications when it came to their membership. But there was nothing of the kind for the wider movement.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the protest movement against Harris, but the movement had no effective means of communication. There was no “Days of Action bulletin”, and there was no attempt to hold an assembly with delegates from around the province to exchange best practices, forge new strategies, and build a more coherent, focused, and effective movement.

Today’s social media makes communication much easier than in 1995. The experience of the Fight for $15 and Fairness confirms this. Activists around the province stay in touch through social media, teleconference calls, and annual assemblies in Toronto. Reports are used to generalize what works and what doesn’t, how recruitment is going, how to get into the media, and how to have meetings and actions that pull people out. Local activity is balanced out with province-wide priorities. It is a good example to draw upon for any future workers’ movement that spills beyond the ranks of unions themselves.

4. Don’t leave everything to union leaders

The truth is union leaders were reluctant to fight Harris in 1995 and only really kicked into action after labour laws were rolled back. Throughout the fightback against Harris, bitter fighting between union leaders continually undermined the movement. The leadership of some unions refused to participate in the Days of Action strikes, and even openly opposed them. They believed the goal was electing the NDP in the next election, not protesting and striking the Harris Tories. Casting a ballot in protest is a weak strategy when workers can shut down businesses and create a crisis for a slash-and-burn corporate government.

The Days of Action were always meant to escalate into a province-wide general strike. Despite three OFL convention mandates for the general strike (November 1995, emergency convention July 1997, November 1997), union leaders refused to take a lead. OFL convention delegates called for a date but were ignored. Other opportunities were passed up, including sympathy strikes when OPSEU was out from February-March 1996 and when the teachers struck illegally for two weeks in October-November 1997. Demands for the Days of Action to become larger regional strikes were also rebuffed. Instead, the Days of Action became predictable, routinized affairs and most employers soon learned how to absorb a lost day of work.

But even union leaders declaring strikes made fatal decisions. In late October 1997, 126,000 teachers in five unions struck illegally against the education-wrecking Bill 160. The government miscalculated and public support swung behind the teachers. A judge even threw out a government injunction to end the strike. But three out of five teacher union leaderships threw in the towel and within days the strike was over. Even though teachers were balloted for a strike, they were not balloted for ending the strike. Many teachers were enraged and called on union leaders to resign. Some locals rebelled and demanded a vote. Tragically, the two-week strike did nothing to stop Bill 160. In fact, the Tories made the legislation even worse once the strike was over.

Last but not least, the Days of Action were called off at an OFL meeting in July 1998, where union leaders decided a general strike would never happen. As soon as the union-led protests were over, Tory popularity began to climb and they were re-elected. The protests and strikes had created a permanent political crisis for Harris, provided a focus for hundreds of thousands, and kept the important issues on the media agenda. This was all lost when the protests were shelved.

And today?

Vicious infighting and palace intrigue is typical in the upper ranks of the organized labour. From Unifor’s raiding, to the NDP affiliation fight, to recent refusals to pay OFL dues because of Sid Ryan’s OFL presidency, the labour leadership in this province does not seem up to the task of waging a united fight against a Ford government.This is why labour activists inside and outside the unions can’t wait for or rely upon union leaders to initiate a protest movement if we’re facing off against the Ford Tories. We have to learn from the people who called and organized the protests in the summer of 1995. This means fighting inside our unions and labour councils for more material and financial resources for shopfloor and community organizing, more workers on book-off to do organizing, and building a base of support that can build the pressure we need to push the entire labour bureaucracy into action.

If the union leaders are with us and represent us, we should work with them, but as soon as they decide on a different path, whether unilaterally or stage-managed vote, we should carve out an independent path that builds workers power on the shopfloor and in the streets to oppose Ford’s agenda.

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