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Can Mike Harris win?

MAY 10, 1999 – Suddenly, what seemed unthinkable 18 months ago, is looming as a real possibility. Mike Harris, reviled by thousands, might just get re-elected in the Ontario election.

Some polls have him trailing the Liberals. But the Toronto Star, based on a fairly large sample, put Harris at 51% just as the election was called, 12 points up on the Liberals, and far ahead of the NDP.[1]

Harris could still blow it. There is deep hatred towards him across the province. He will be dogged by activists at every stop. But what happens on June 4 if we wake up to find Harris entrenched for another four years?

If Harris does get re-elected, it will not be because he is loved. It will be because the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Executive Board – which was the main centre of leadership for the Days of Action movement – missed three opportunities to stop the Tory agenda.

The Days of Action was a mass movement on the streets and in the workplaces against the Tories from 1995 through 1997. For this entire period of time, the Tories were bottom feeding in the polls.

There was a clear focus – the Harris cuts were devastating social services. Most importantly, there was a clear alternative – a mass movement prepared to strike and demonstrate again and again and again, motivated by the simple goal of stopping the cuts.

Three times there was an opportunity to call a province-wide general strike.

First, in February 1996 when the Hamilton general strike coincided with the beginning of the OPSEU strike.

Second, in October 1996 when Toronto workers did what many said couldn’t be done – when one million struck and shut down the city.

Finally, in November of 1997. The movement had by this time become demoralized by the months of missed opportunities. But when 126,000 teachers struck illegally for two weeks, it rejuvenated the entire anti-Tory movement.

But no solidarity strikes were called to support the teachers. After 18 months of an incredibly high level of struggle, the anti-Tory movement finally fragmented.

It’s not that opposition to the cuts went away. It’s just that thousands of people decided that there was really no alternative to the Tories.

The response of the NDP compounded the problem. They are stuck at the bottom of the polls because of the disaffection of tens of thousands following Bob Rae’s one-term government.

But current ONDP leader Howard Hampton will not distance himself from Rae and his government’s policies such as the social contract and the introduction of welfare cops.

The lost opportunity of the Days of Action has left a bitter taste in many workers’ mouths.

But we should also remember how suddenly that movement was able to build and rebuild, whenever there was a focus in action.

The anger that built that movement is just below the surface.

Whatever happens June 3, it will be mass action based on that anger that can build an alternative to the cutbacks policies which have been the trademark of Tories, Liberals and the NDP when in office.

© 1999 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Joel Ruimy, “Tories Surge to Big Lead in First Poll,” Toronto Star, May 8, 1999, sec. News.

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