Lessons from Ontario’s city-wide, political strikes of the late 1990s

Posted March 5, 2011


by Dan La Botz

[In 1995-1998, unions in Ontario embarked on a series of eleven one-day
citywide strikes against the policies of the Conservative provincial government.
This article, published originally in The Troublemakers Handbook details the labor-community coalitions they put together;
the cross-picketing they did of each other’s workplaces; and a deal of
practical advice for mounting huge strikes and demonstrations.]

Unlike most strikes, political strikes are aimed not at management but
at the government. A political strike is an attempt to force the government
to change some policy, or even part of a broader attempt to change the
government itself. In the United States, political strikes have been rare,
usually against one city government. For example, after police attacked
workers during a post-World War II organizing drive among retail clerks
in Oakland, 142 AFL unions and 100,000 workers declared a "work holiday,"
walked off their jobs, and shut the city down. After a compromise settlement,
the unions ran a political campaign and in the next election won office
for four out of five of their city council candidates.

Sometimes the scope is wider than a single city. In the 1960s, West Virginia
coal miners struck to pressure the government to pass legislation dealing
with black lung. From the 1950s through the 1970s, public employees and
teachers in many states called illegal strikes to win collective bargaining
laws for public employees. The United Farm Workers used strikes to pressure
the state of California to pass a collective bargaining law for agricultural

In countries with more militant labor traditions, political strikes have
occurred more often. During the 1970s and 1980s, Brazilian workers used
political strikes to help overthrow a military dictatorship. South African
workers used political strikes to fight the apartheid government. During
the 1990s and early 2000s, Latin American unions in over a dozen countries
engaged in national general strikes against privatization, free trade
agreements, and the effects of globalization.

Political strikes are often met with government repression. When Polish
workers’ national strikes threatened to overthrow the Communist government
there in 1980, the Polish military suppressed the movement. Political
strikes can clearly be powerful weapons, but when they become national
movements in which workers challenge the government, the stakes are high
on both sides.


Between late 1995 and 1998, Ontario unions called eleven "Days
of Action" that were, in effect, political strikes against the provincial
Conservative government of Mike Harris. The Days of Action were a series
of rolling, one-day general strikes in different towns and cites, involving
not only unions but also many social movements and community organizations.

Eventually Ontario’s unions called hundreds of thousands of workers into
the streets, shutting down many private businesses and public agencies,
while also holding mass demonstrations and rallies throughout the province.
While they did not succeed in bringing down the Conservative government,
the strikes did challenge the Conservatives’ anti-worker onslaught, and
they helped develop a new group of labor and community activists.


The Days of Action were the unions’ response to a government
assault on workers and the poor. Mike Harris was elected on June 8, 1995
on a platform he called "the Common Sense Revolution," inspired
by Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies. As the Canadian Broadcasting
Company reported, Harris "…cut taxes, reduced the size of government
in the province, cracked down on welfare, encouraged work-for-welfare
programs, merged school boards…." He became notorious for his
tough talk and attacks on the poor; for example, his government eliminated
a $37-a-month benefit for pregnant welfare recipients, "with Harris
explaining he wanted to make sure ‘those dollars don’t go to beer.’"1

Rick Witherspoon, now a Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) official, was president
of the London and District Labour Council at the time. "Harris first
attacked the poor by rolling back social assistance," says Witherspoon.
"Then he turned his attention to workers and put in place some of
the most regressive labor legislation we had seen in decades. He repealed
anti-scab legislation, froze the minimum wage, amended health and safety
legislation, and made it harder for injured workers to get workers’ compensation.
Then he turned his sights on public sector workers by challenging their
ability to bargain collective agreements. It was very clear that his agenda
was to support big business and attack the rights of workers."

René Fortin, assistant to the regional director of the Canadian
Union of Public Employees (CUPE), remembers "Bill 136, which removed
anti-scab laws that had been introduced by the New Democratic Party [the
labor-backed party]. They were proposing a whole slew of issues dealing
with employment standards, things like the legal hours of work per week.

"They were making proposals about privatization. They were talking
about removing the right to strike in some areas. Or in areas where we
did not have the right to strike (such as hospitals) but had arbitration,
they were talking about getting rid of mutually agreed-upon arbitrators
and having government-appointed arbitrators."


The Canadian labor movement was not united as it began to develop
a response to the Harris government. When the previous, labor-backed New
Democratic Party (NDP) government had cut budgets for social programs
and attacked the bargaining rights of provincial public sector workers,
unions were divided on how to respond. The public employee unions–including
CUPE, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), Canadian Union of Postal
Workers (CUPW), and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF)–had
wanted to fight back, and, along with the CAW, Hotel Employees (HERE),
and UNITE, they began to question their relationship with the NDP.

However, most of the industrial unions wanted to maintain unquestioning
support for the party. At a meeting of union leaders, a group of unions
(principally the United Food and Commercial Workers, Communications, Energy
and Paperworkers, Service Employees, Machinists, National Union of Public
and General Employees, Steelworkers, and Teamsters) issued a statement–printed
on pink paper–that called for renewed support to the NDP. The so-called
"pink paper unions" also made a veiled critique of the role
of the public sector unions, and threatened to split the Ontario Federation
of Labor. The "pink paper" divisions still existed when Harris
came to power.

Nevertheless, Canadian unions found enough unity to launch the Days of
Action, but with different emphases. For example, while the general slogan
of the province-wide Toronto Days of Action was "Organize, Educate,
and Resist," the slogan of the Canadian section of the Steelworkers
was "Organize, Educate, Legislate" (though in the city of Toronto,
the Steelworkers aligned themselves with the more militant public employee

We look here at the Days of Action in two Ontario cities: first, the
conservative, medium-sized city of London; second, Toronto, Canada’s largest
and most diverse city.


Despite the differences among Ontario’s unions, all had a strong
reaction against the Harris government. Virtually all began to lobby against
the Harris government’s program and to educate their members about it.
They lobbied municipal councils and got many of them to pass resolutions
opposing the federal government’s budget cuts, which would have a disastrous
effect on many city services and programs.

CUPE’s leadership called for meetings with local union leaders to discuss
the political situation and to raise the idea of a general strike. "At
that time, CUPE represented about 200,000 members in Ontario, organized
in 800 locals with 2,000 collective bargaining agreements," explains
René Fortin. "We held a series of consultations with the local
leadership, which culminated in massive conferences throughout Ontario
in which direction was given by the local leadership. In every community
or concentration of membership, we called leadership meetings and then
membership meetings. We went around obtaining strike votes aimed at a
general strike for the withdrawal of all public services in the provinces.

‘We had to do that," Fortin continues, "because we have local
autonomy. We’re not centralized by any sense of the imagination, and in
terms of going on strike, those decisions are made by vote.

"We reached out to other labor groups, both those in the Canadian
Labour Congress and those outside the CLC. We also attempted to bring
into the fold the industrial unions, which were hesitant. CAW was up front
with us, but the Steelworkers and other industrial unions were reticent,
and we were trying to win them over."


Union officials and activists realized that the first group they
had to reach was their own membership. Herman Rosenfeld, a national representative
in the CAW Education Department, says, "A lot of auto workers and
other workers had voted for Harris. Even many public sector workers had
voted for him. One of the key thrusts was to change people’s opinion.
We had to convince people that they should oppose Harris, strike their
employers, and participate in the Days of Action."

So the CAW and a number of other unions mobilized to talk to the members.
Rosenfeld remembers, "We took a group of political activists from
the unions–some lower-level elected officials and other rank and filers–and
paid them to work as organizers. We set up meetings in union halls, or
informally in bars and donut shops. We produced leaflets and materials
specifically targeted to the workers in the workplaces in the community,
zeroing in on issues that we knew would touch a chord with them. They
were handed out in union meetings, informal meetings, and inside workplaces.
We encouraged activists and local union officials inside workplaces to
talk to co-workers, and suggested tactics for them to do this. This was
a planned component of building the Days of Action in each of the target
cities. While most of the meetings were with small numbers of people,
they eventually involved thousands of workers.

"Many of the workers had supported Harris because he talked about
cutting taxes. We challenged them on this issue. We argued that most of
the tax cuts would go to his rich friends. We pointed out that he was
cutting the number of health and safety inspectors in the workplace, and
cutting workers’ compensation. We told them, ultimately you will pay for
this in terms of your own health.

"We pointed out that the cuts to social assistance were so vicious–along
with the end of funding to social housing–that people were being forced
into hostels and motels. The government was threatening to bring in workfare,
which would force social service recipients–workers who had exhausted
their unemployment insurance benefits–to work for their benefits. The
government had threatened to use them as low-wage replacements for jobs
being cut from government agencies, and even as potential scabs.

"London was the model, but we did this in several cities. We had
a pretty intense period of talking to people about these things. Where
we did this we had the best results.

"We didn’t know if we could pull this off, but we did, and it worked
brilliantly. Not everyone was convinced, but we convinced many. Other
workers often supported it even if they were not convinced, because they
were loyal to the union."

The goal was to mobilize members against their employers, to pressure
Harris to withdraw his policies. The challenge of bringing down the Conservative
government and forcing a parliamentary election for a new provincial premier
and cabinet would be a long shot–and could occur only if the strategy
of one-day general strikes could breach the divide between unions. Certainly,
the most militant groups of worker activists sought to build towards a
more massive movement to get rid of Harris’s government, but that presupposed
a number of other things happening. The goals from the point of view of
the overall union movement were to change workers’ and community members’
opinions, to mobilize them against employers and the government, and to
pressure the government to withdraw its policies.


However, union leaders were clear from the beginning that a general
strike could not be organized by the union movement alone. It would also
need allies among the social movements and community organizations. "Because
the legislation also meant cutbacks in services, it was a frontal attack
on the working poor, and those on welfare," Fortin explains. The
next step was bringing the unions and community groups together.

"We called for meetings with community groups in each area. We were
reaching out to church groups, anti-poverty groups, organizations dealing
with social services and their recipients."

The next step was to set up coalitions in every city and town. "The
Ontario Federation of Labor was coordinating the Days of Action and they
began to focus on different towns," says Fortin. "In each town
where the Days of Action were to take place, there was a community co-chair
and a labor co-chair. That was the structure, and there had to be complete
buy-in from all parties in terms of roles and direction."

Working with the community groups wasn’t always easy for union activists.
"Those that hadn’t worked previously with community groups found
it difficult to work with them because of the organizational approach,"
says Fortin. "The labor movement style is, ‘let’s have a vote and
deal with it, let’s have a vote and go.’ The community groups had a different
style based on consensus; they don’t always take votes. They say, ‘this
is the approach we would like to take.’ Our members wanted to say, ‘let’s
cut the debate and take a vote,’ so the debates took longer. We had to
find a common solution, and then take a vote.

"Another issue is that there was a degree of suspicion as to the
motives of the union," Fortin adds. "The typical question was,
‘Where are you going to be after this?’ For years, community groups had
come to the labor movement and sometimes they had had a solid reception
and in other cases not. For some union members it was just bizarre dealing
with other organizations that weren’t part of the union movement. Certainly
there were hiccups on occasion, but we dealt with them."

The process—labor leadership meetings, rank-and-file member meetings,
meetings between union activists and community activists—was repeated
in one town after another. Out of these came the common understanding
that made possible cooperation in common actions.


The Ontario Federation of Labor decided that the first Day of
Action should occur in the conservative city of London. Rick Witherspoon
explains, "To take this challenge to the streets, they didn’t really
want to go to a town like Windsor or Oshawa, which are real union towns.
The union leadership felt that if they focused on a conservative (small
‘c’) town, the impact would be greater.

"Nothing like this had ever happened on this scale in Ontario. It
was a formidable task to ramp it up. As it did throughout Ontario, the
labour council decided to create two co-chairs, one from the private sector
unions and one from the public sector." Witherspoon was president
of a CAW Ford local and represented the private sector.

"We believed that if we wanted to challenge the business community
that supported the administration’s agenda, then we had to get to their
wallets. Shutting down as many businesses as possible would get their
attention," says Witherspoon.

"To solicit support, we held membership meetings for almost every
union affiliated with the labour council in London. We also involved many
of our London community partners, social action groups, church groups.
It became very clear this wasn’t just about the labor movement; it was
about the kinds of communities we wanted to live in and the impact the
conservative agenda was having on our communities."

Because the government viewed the Days of Action as illegal, and because
workers would shut down their workplaces, union officials were initially
worried about repercussions. In both the public and private sectors, contracts
contained no-strike clauses. "Partly for this reason, we didn’t call
it a strike, we called it a Day of Action," says Witherspoon. "Many
employers threatened their workers that they could face discipline up
to and including dismissal." But the unions decided to go ahead.

In London, the unions took their fight into the public arena. Although
they didn’t always win, it was a useful educational and organizing process.
"When we approached the London City Council and asked them to adopt
a resolution supporting the Day of Action, they rejected it," Witherspoon
says. "The Council said that that they expected all municipal employees
to report for work. We brought many employees to the city council meeting,
and it was an interesting debate. It was interesting partly because the
Day of Action was planned for December 11, 1995, and a council meeting
was scheduled for that day. In their wisdom, the council changed their
next meeting date to avoid being confronted by picketers."

At the same time, Witherspoon says it was clear to the organizers that
"there was good support both within the unions and the community,
and the Day of Action started to take on a life of its own." Unions
from other parts of the province pledged to supply support–workers to
make phone calls and work on schedules for picketing. The unions recruited
marshals and organized buses to bring people to London.

"To protect workers who would not be reporting to work but to keep
them involved in the action," says Witherspoon, "we developed
a strategy called ‘cross-picketing.’ Rather than put a Ford worker at
risk picketing his own plant, we would have workers from other plants
picket the Ford plant and have Ford workers picket other plants."
Thus, any worker who did try to go to work on the Day of Action would
be confronted with a picket line, but management would not see its own
employees in front of the plant. Social movements were equally crucial,
as they appealed to their members and the wider communities to help cross-picket
various workplaces.


When organizers met with the London police, for the most part
they were cooperative. "However," Witherspoon remembers, "one
day when we met with the police, it had been announced that for all demonstrators
in the march the CAW would supply balaclavas, which are knitted masks,
usually used by skiers, that cover the lower part of the face. This was
a problem from the police point of view because people couldn’t be identified,
and they went a little ballistic in the meeting. We assured them they
were just toques (simple knitted caps) and not balaclavas. In fact, they
were balaclavas, though we didn’t know that at the time. Still, it was
good to have the balaclavas, because December 11 was one of the coldest
days on record that winter."

In meetings, the organizers explained what would happen, emphasizing
that they were planning a peaceful day of picketing and a rally. "We
impressed on everybody that this was intended to be peaceful, and that’s
how we were able to sell it to the police. We created hundreds of marshals,
and got the police to agree that before they reacted to a situation they
would ask a marshal to handle the problem.

"On the Day of Action, two parades started in different locations,
one in the center and one in the east end. The police closed off all the
streets, and the two parades converged in the downtown area for the rally,"
says Witherspoon.


"On December 11, we began picketing at midnight to make
sure that people who would have gone in for the midnight shift would face
pickets, so they could either go home or join the protest," Witherspoon
remembers. "There were also pickets at all locations at 6:30 in the
morning and then again in the afternoon. "There was picketing at
hundreds of locations: at manufacturing plants, office buildings, municipal
offices, and the airport. The locations that we focused on were shut down.
At the Ford and GM plants, which together employed between 7,000 and 8,000
people, there was no production for 24 hours. The Labatt’s brewery shut
down and didn’t make any beer that day. The Kellogg plant didn’t make
any cereal. The buses in the city didn’t move that day. Before the day
many of the schools and government offices had agreed to close down, knowing
that it wasn’t going to be business as usual."

Although they shut down the city, the unions made sure that essential
services were provided. "We didn’t put people’s health at risk,"
says Witherspoon. The teachers’ unions put on educational events for the
students and parents, and parents and children supported the picketing
at the schools.

The London Day of Action proved a tremendous success. "We probably
had 20,000 people on the streets in London that day, the largest demonstration
and rally that had ever taken place in that community," says Witherspoon.
"We succeeded in closing down the workplaces we had targeted. We
had more media than this city had ever seen for any event. It was truly
national coverage, even international. There were letters of support from
people from Canada and the United States, as well as outside North America."

Witherspoon doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the most important part
of the Days of Action: "That we took the opportunity to educate our
leadership, our members, and the community about the reasons for this
action. If we had not taken time to educate everybody, it would not have
been as successful as it was.

"What led to our success was the fact that we involved as many unions
as we could and included our community partners, so it wasn’t just the
labor movement challenging the government. It was the community challenging
the government. The coalitions formed then still exist today. There was
a new respect among groups in the community. People who didn’t understand
each other before now had a better understanding. We learned that being
inclusive was one of the keys to success. When we put together committees,
we made sure they were as inclusive as possible, that people really did
have a sense of ownership in the actions we were taking."


The city of Hamilton followed with the next Day of Action in
February 1996, with the participation of 120,000 people. In April 1996,
about 30,000 participated in the three neighboring cities of Cambridge,
Kitchener, and Waterloo. In June 1996, in a somewhat smaller city, Peterborough,
some 10,000 participated. In Toronto, in October 1996, the Day of Action
mobilized what is said to have been the biggest demonstration in Ontario’s
history, with at least 250,000 people.


Organizing a general strike in Toronto was an enormous undertaking.
In 1996 Toronto had a population of about 2.5 million in the municipality
and 4.2 million in the total metropolitan area. While Ottawa is Canada’s
political capital, Toronto is the country’s corporate and financial capital,
filled with corporate headquarters.

We look at the Days of Action in Toronto from two perspectives. Helen
Kennedy was involved in organizing a labor-community coalition in a local
community, while René Fortin had responsibility in the organization
of the citywide strike. As these accounts make clear, things can look
quite different from different locations in the same movement.


Helen Kennedy works in a subsidized-housing community center
for the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department, where she is a coordinator
of the At Risk Rescue program. She works with poor families, and particularly
with youth of color from the Caribbean and East Africa. She belongs to
CUPE Local 79, which represents Toronto city workers, serves on the executive
of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and is also secretary of
CUPE’s Toronto District Council.

"During the Toronto Day of Action," says Kennedy, "I was
very involved in my own district, North York. Just after Mike Harris was
elected, we created a grassroots organization that brought together both
community and labor organizations, the North York Fight Back coalition.
We didn’t have funding from anybody. We went to community organization
meetings where we explained what was happening to the budget and funding
for social programs. And we organized our own information meetings where
we explained the 22 percent cut to welfare. We grew to become a much larger
organization reaching across the whole community.

"The big difference between what we did and what René Fortin
did was that they had tons of money, and they had 75 activists that were
paid for organizing. In North York we weren’t getting paid, and the people
from the unions who were involved were known as community activists.

"The day of the work stoppage, we connected with the larger groups
and arranged cross-picketing. We had busloads of community people coming
in to picket as well. One of my most favorite memories was seeing two
busloads of seniors from the Lawrence Heights community. It was amazing
to see all these community members coming in to join the picket lines.

"There were a lot of teachers involved as well–from primary and
secondary–and students, and we ended up having 5,000 people out in the
Valley of North York, a suburb of the north end of Toronto, which was
the largest rally in North York’s history."


Helen Kennedy offers these suggestions for building a labor-community

Go slow: Understand that it takes a lot of
time to build coalitions; it cannot be done too quickly. Don’t
go faster than the group is going. It has always been one of my
personal problems, I know where I want to go and I want people
to go with me. The group has to move all at the same time.
Stick to the common goal: One of the problems
is that you get sidetracked into other issues, which may be very
key issues, but that could put you in danger of not bringing the
coalition forward. You have to decide what issues can be dealt
with in terms of a consensus. A coalition does not have to take
a position on every issue.
Reflect the diversity of your community: We
did a lot of work in the poorer neighborhoods to get the people
that were most affected by the cuts. In a city like Toronto with
large immigrant populations, you have many different languages
such as Farsi, Tigrina, Amharic, Chinese, Vietnamese. You have
to be able to communicate with people. Providing meals may be
important, or providing childcare. We also worked to bring in
women through the North York Women’s Center.
Create balance in the coalition: There are
totally different ways of organizing. How you organize in the
union may not be how you organize in the community. When you get
both groups together there has to be balance. It’s not just having
co-chairs that’s important, it’s having co-power. Labor came in
with the financial power, they had all the money, and they had
the staff, organizers.


"In Toronto we put together a group of rank and filers on a coordinating
committee," says Fortin, "and I was the staff person in charge
of coordination. We had about a dozen members from all sectors and it
was a diverse group in every way."

CUPE’s plan was to shut down about 100 different institutions and facilities,
everything but hospitals, for which special arrangements were made. Before
the Days of Action began, Fortin and other union leaders met with management
to negotiate no-reprisal agreements to protect striking workers.

Fortin remembers, "We said to them, ‘We’re shutting down your place.’
They said, ‘That’s illegal.’ We said, ‘Well, we feel it’s legal.’

"We negotiated ‘no reprisal, no disciplinary action’ agreements
with most of the employers." Those agreements were possible because
the funding cuts were affecting the agency managers too.

Organizing any strike, but particularly a general strike of an entire
metropolitan area, requires detailed planning of every aspect of the event.

"We had our map," says Fortin, "and we had located all
the facilities, but we had to make sure there were people able to be on
all those picket lines for the day. We had to insure that–where there
were multiple entrances–they had all entrances covered. We wanted to
make sure nobody would go in to work. So we had to have training for picket
captains, and a communication system to communicate directly about hot

"We developed a protocol for picket captains, so that people would
know their rights, and to insure the people on the line were orderly.
You have to understand that we had people who were quite aggressive, and
that not everybody was sympathetic to us. So we had to have contacts for
the picket captains, for when problems occurred. We had to have people
with experience in the neighborhood to assist them," says Fortin.

In addition to meeting with the employers, the union leaders also met
with the police in advance of the demonstrations. "We had a series
of meetings with the police, giving them a heads-up as to our intentions.
We established members to be in charge of contacts with the police."


"This was a hand-in-hand situation with the community groups,"
says Fortin. "We had co-chairs, and we were joined at the hip. So
all of our actions were joint actions. The community groups appreciated
the unions’ organization, and they had a sense of empowerment collectively.
Community groups don’t have a centralized organization like the labor
movement does, and they don’t have the funds, and they appreciated the
power, and economic base."

Communications with union members, the communities, the public, and the
press was an important job. "We had three staff people assigned to
press, communications, publications, translation of documents," says
Fortin. "Since the city is highly multicultural, we produced literature
in 18 different languages, which is only some of the 146 different languages
spoken in Toronto. We dealt with the major ones, French, Cantonese, and
sixteen others."

Press coverage came almost automatically because of the significance
of such a shutdown. "We were in the press everyday. The Day of Action
became the issue. We were in all forms of media."


The event had to be built in various ways. "We planned for
particular activities for the different sectors," says Fortin. "A
demonstration to protest the impact on education, another to protest the
impact on social services. So there was a special day for each group,
with massive demonstrations leading up to the Day of Action. So it was
not only a one-day event.

"At the same time that we were mobilizing Toronto, we were also
mobilizing the rest of the province for people to come to Toronto. So
we needed a whole transportation network to insure that others could get
to Toronto on that day, and mobilization in every other community.

"The respective unions also had their own events. CUPE has about
145,000 members in Toronto alone. We decided, ‘Here’s 100 or 111 places
we want to shut down.’ Then we began to plan for the day itself: what
do you do with thousands of people in a particular area? Community groups
and unions formed committees, such as an entertainment committee or a
transportation group.

"We had a plan to shut down major highways on that day, in and around
Toronto, a city of about two million. Our plan was to stretch cars across
the freeways and just drive at a slow rate, causing traffic congestion.
So we had people get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to set up those barriers.
But on that day, everybody decided to stay home, because the subway was
going to close down, and people presumed there would be major havoc on
the roads, so when we got there in the morning the highways were deserted.
Our cars traveling at a slow speed got pulled over by the police. Toronto
was a ghost town, nobody came that day.

"On October 25, Toronto’s Day of Action, we began to close things
down at 5 o’clock in the morning. We set up our picket lines. Our people
shut down the landfill sites, social services, City Hall, the Hydroelectric
Commission (power facilities), and school boards. We didn’t picket the
schools, but rather the administration, though there was no school on
that day. Effectively everything was shut tight. There was some administration
staff that got in, but as far as business as usual—nothing."

Did the strike remain peaceful? "There were minor incidents,"
says Fortin. "Minor violence on the subway spots. At landfill sites.
Some of our people were becoming quite aggressive. Such minor events were
to be expected, but there was nothing of a major consequence. Was there
intimidation? Sure. When you see a policeman on a mounted horse, that
itself was intimidating. But there were no police incidents.

"We made it clear our intention was not to rip down buildings, we
wanted to express our opinion. We had marshals for the parades, and all
those advance things. We were prepared for anything.

"So on that day, all these buses came rolling into Toronto to get
ready for the parade at exhibition grounds on the lakeshore, which was
the congregating point. Then we marched up to the legislature. Along the
route we had entertainment and speakers. At the parade people had their
colors representing their unions and community groups. Community groups
put on theatrical skits. We went along this massive five-kilometer route.
Tens of thousands of people, with a sea of flags. It’s great fun to be
in that type of a crowd. Top-name artists playing, speakers from the labor
and community groups and opposition political parties.

"We calculated 250,000 people at the parade on the Day of Action.
It reminded me of the ’60s. It was great. And it was the result of all
the legwork, the union and community meetings, and the acquiescence in
terms of employer retribution."

"Toronto is mostly a financial and service place, and most of the
strikers were public sector workers," says Herman Rosenfeld. "Many
activists were recruited to picket transit maintenance yards and entrances,
and the financial district. There was little work on the inside in these
workplaces. There weren’t huge numbers of private sector workplaces left
to close down."


The organization of the Days of Action shut down one city after
another in Ontario in 1996, 1997, and 1998. What does it take to organize
such a massive movement?

Clearly, a citywide general strike requires hundreds of people prepared
to take responsibility for organizing thousands of others to carry out
the strike and the related marches and demonstrations. Almost nothing
in such an undertaking can be left to chance. The list below barely begins
to convey the many varied elements involved in such a strike:

  • A sense of crisis and urgency: The Days
    of Action were precipitated by a political crisis, a frontal attack
    on unions and the poor by a Conservative government. It was important
    that unions and many social movements and community organizations perceived
    that they were under an unusually fierce attack that required an extraordinary
  • The support of official labor bodies: The Ontario
    Federation of Labour, representing most of the province’s unions, passed
    a resolution to support the Days of Action. While some unions gave only
    nominal support, the resolution was important in authorizing the strike,
    making it "official."
  • The endorsement and support of local labor leaders and rank-and-file
    : The strike could only be successful with their commitment
    to making it happen.
  • A core of dedicated activists: These people brought
    the message to co-workers, within and across unions and, if necessary,
    past leaders who were opposed or ambivalent.
  • An alliance between labor, social movements, and community
    : These alliances gave the movement a greater social
    base and greater mobilizing power. As one official said, "We were
    joined at the hip," throughout the Days of Action.
  • The creation of a "general staff" for organizing
    and running the strike
    : The general staff must be large enough
    to reflect the leadership of the organizations involved, and small enough
    to effectively engage in rapid discussion and decision-making when necessary.
    The general staff has to be responsible to the unions that have authorized
    the strike, to the rank and file involved, and also to the communities
    that will be affected. The general staff must plan and oversee the strike,
    handle negotiations with authorities, and respond to emergencies.
  • A detailed plan: The plan of action should include:
    a) a list of all the workplaces to be closed; b) a list, for each location,
    of all entrances and exits to be covered; c) a general map of all the
    facilities to be closed, and specific maps for each location; d) a timeline
    for the closing of workplaces, with plans to mobilize pickets for each
    hour and each day; e) listings of picket captains and their contact
  • The assignment and training of picket captains and pickets:
    Picket captains need to be trusted, reliable, capable people who will
    take responsibility for closing down locations, dealing with authorities
    at the local level, maintaining discipline of the picketers, and enforcing
    the strike on those who attempt to violate it. Picket captains need
    to understand the strike’s "rules of engagement." The strike
    may be peaceful, involve the use of civil disobedience, involve the
    use of force, or involve seizure of property. In the case of the Days
    of Action, the rules were to maintain peaceful picket lines and enforce
    the strike. But in other situations, different rules may apply.
  • The training of pickets: Picketers need to know exactly
    what they are supposed to do, where and for how long, and to whom they
    are to turn over responsibility when their shift ends. Typically, strike
    rules include: assigned hours of duty, assigned equipment (bullhorns,
    picket signs, armbands, ropes or tape to indicate off-limits areas),
    rules of behavior (no drinking, no drugs, no swearing or abusive language),
    rules of engagement with those who attempt to violate the picket line
    (shouted slogans, locked arms, physical isolation and removal, use of
    limited force, etc.).
  • Media team: Media spokespeople have a sensitive job,
    since their statements establish in the mind of the public—including
    the employers and the government–the reason for the strike, its character,
    its objectives, and its methods.
  • Internal communications team: In the lead-up to the
    strike and on the days of the strike, the team needs to constantly produce
    information for strike captains, picketers, union and community organization
    members, and the general public, possibly in several languages.
  • Emergency medical services: In any large gathering
    of people, there will almost always be health problems, and doctors,
    nurses, and other health professionals strike should be organized into
    teams identifiable to the public and the police, and linked to picket
  • Transportation or logistics team: In a strike like
    the Toronto Day of Action that brought thousands of other Ontario residents
    into the city, a committee must arrange transportation, overnight shelter,
    and food (whether through prepared meals or simply directing people
    to restaurants).
  • Liaison with employers: The general staff needs to
    negotiate with employers over maintenance of essential services, such
    as emergency rooms, ongoing patient care, and hazardous operations such
    as chemical and nuclear plants. Leaders should also try to negotiate
    no-retribution agreements.
  • Liaison with police: The general staff needs to inform
    the police of plans, to avoid unnecessary conflict and confrontation.
    Strike leaders may also want to meet with leaders of the police union.
    The general staff should be able to communicate instantly with police
    commanders during the strike, to deal with emergencies and, if possible,
    ward off repression.
  • Strike day operations team: This team oversees picket
    captains, picket lines, and related activities to make sure that they
    happen as planned, and to deal with contingencies and emergencies.
  • March or rally team: The march route needs to be
    carefully examined and worked out in detail with the police and other
    authorities. Entertainment needs to be organized, and making the speakers
    list will likely be a politically sensitive task.
  • Negotiation committee: If the strike has a particular
    political objective, and will continue until there is some sort of resolution
    of the issue, a negotiation team will have to deal with the relevant
    authorities. It should made up of the central leaders of the bodies
    that authorized the strike. The negotiators will coordinate with the
    general staff and the media and communications teams to keep the picket
    captains and picketers informed of developments.

1. Martin O’Malley, "Common Sense
Mike steps aside," CBC News Online, March 21. (Back
to article)


2 responses to “Lessons from Ontario’s city-wide, political strikes of the late 1990s”

  1. Doug Avatar

    Another missed opportunity was connecting the Days of Action with other massive strike actions that took place during this period.

    It’s worth noting that the Hamilton Days of Action happened on a Friday and Saturday, with tens of thousands of OPSEU provincial government workers going on strike on Monday. There was a missed opportunity to call for people to get back on picket lines on Monday to show support for OPSEU. OPSEU fought Harris to a standstill but after the end of the strike, thousands were laid off.

    The teachers also launched an incredible two-week illegal strike in October 1997 but not a single union backed them – even though Sid Ryan of CUPE-Ontario and Buzz Hargrove of CAW said they would walk if the teachers did. This strike in particular had huge public support with Harris completely miscalculating that the public would turn on the teachers. At least two of the five teachers unions broke ranks and settled, ending the strike.

    The point is not that a revolution was on the table or anything like that, but that it was clear, especially after the Toronto general strike, that only a province-wide strike was capable of stopping the Harris attacks.

  2. Sebastian Lamb Avatar
    Sebastian Lamb

    One detail that should be clarified is that most of the Days of Action involved actions on two days: a day of political strikes and other actions (on a Friday) and a day for a big march and rally (on a Saturday).

    After the Toronto Days of Action (DoA), escalation to a province wide general strike was the logical next step. At that point the “Pink Paper” wing of the labour officialdom came out in open opposition to further DoA (in the next city picked for DoA, Sudbury, the Pink-dominated labour council refused its support, so the DoA had to be organized without its resources or those of the provincial federation of labour).

    Instead of escalating, after Toronto the fightback movement began to decline. While further city-wide DoA were held, it became increasingly unclear what their purpose was and the numbers mobilized fell.
    This limitation of the DoA strategy needs to be noted.

    As Dan notes, “the most militant groups of worker activists sought to build towards a more massive movement to get rid of Harris’s government.” Indeed, there were rank and file activists (many of whom were community activists, not union activists) who wanted to build escalating mass direct action, with the goal of a general strike. This was a different strategy than that of the “Pink Paper” officials (who wanted all energy to go into electing the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the next election). It was also different from the strategy of the top leaders of most public sector unions and the Canadian Auto Workers (who saw the DoA protests as a way of bolstering morale, solidarity and anti-Tory commitment until the next election). Unfortunately, the more militant activists were too few and too poorly organized to have an impact on how the movement unfolded.

    Dan says the DoA “helped develop a new group of labor and community activists.” They did undoubtedly have a positive impact that way. However, the way the DoA were organized was very focused on the days themselves and didn’t consciously build grassroots organizations in which people not already active in a union or community organization could continue to be involved.

    Also, it should be noted that there was no significant broad left-wing political organization that could attract working-class people radicalized by the anti-Tory fightback and not interested in the NDP (whose capitulation to capital and attacks on public sector unions, people on welfare and students while in provincial office from 1990 to 1995 had helped pave the way for the Tories to win in 95). So the radical left wasn’t strengthened much.

    The DoA showed that political strike action and large-scale extra-parliamentary protest was possible. Unfortunately, they didn’t escalate to a level of struggle that was capable of defeating specific government measures (thereby encouraging further mobilization) let alone forcing the government from office.