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Fear of striking

MARCH 27, 1994 – For a few days, everything seemed possible. On March 11, 1994, Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, in a letter to CUPE Ontario Executive Board members, laid out a plan of action that had the potential to galvanize the Ontario labour movement.

In the confidential letter, widely leaked to militants in the labour movement, Ryan spelled out exactly how serious the attacks on Ontario workers have been in the last two years.

“A recent survey of 30 percent of CUPE locals has indicated a staggering job loss of 11,274 positions since 1992. We have every reason to believe that the real job loss from the entire 800 CUPE locals is somewhere in the region of 20,000 jobs.”

And Ryan did not mince words as to who was to blame. “This job loss is the direct result of NDP cutbacks dating back to 1992.”

The cuts began when Ontario’s NDP Premier Bob Rae announced annual caps for three-years for spending on health education and social assistance. But that cap still involved annual increases, albeit meagre ones. He then changed his mind and said those increases would disappear. Instead of caps, there would be a three-year freeze. But the big blow came in 1993 when he moved from freeze to outright reductions.

“The Premier flip flopped yet again and announced cutbacks of $4 billion … through his Expenditure Control Program and the imposition of a so-called Social Contract, that saw the theft of $6 billion from the pay-cheques of public sector workers.”

Ryan argued that it was time for action, that it was time to “mount a public demonstration in support of our social safety net.”

“This demonstration would follow along the lines of the Day of Protest in October 1976, when Labour protested against Wage and Price Controls. It would mean that public sector workers would not show up for work…with the exception of those workers who provide an essential service.”

This plan was taken to a committee of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). The committee was formed at the OFL convention in November of 1993, specifically to elaborate plans to fight NDP attacks.

The committee reached a consensus, “that the OFL support a public sector Day of Protest and that funding be made available to accomplish this goal.”

Ryan was right, that public sector workers have taken a hammering. Ryan was right, that action was necessary to show the NDP that further cuts would not be tolerated.

A day of protest could provide a focus to rebuild the fighting strength of unions across the province. And if such a walkout was timed to coincide with an Ontario Hydro strike, a real blow against the cuts could have been struck.

Each workplace would need action committees to organize to pull out the rank and file. These action committees could be a focus for the militants, a centre to meet and strategize, and a focus for the anger that is everywhere in schools and hospitals across the province. The rumours of an active lead opened up enormous possibilities.

These possibilities lasted exactly two weeks. On March 24, the OFL executive board approved something called a “fight back” package. [1]

Step one is for a meeting with Bob Rae. But didn’t we have months of meeting with Bob Rae? These meetings were called the Social Contract “negotiations” of 1993.

Step two is for a public information campaign. And the day of action? Well that’s step three. There won’t be one. The OFL executive decided not to call one, because the NDP backed off from even deeper cuts in 1994, and because they had backed off, the rank and file would not support a call to action.

The reason the rank and file cannot be galvanized is because we have had three years of cuts and three years of indecision and inaction from union leaders. The day of action might have changed that. It would certainly have changed that had it been called one year ago, while a campaign against the Social Contract existed.

The time for action was June 3, 1993, the day public sector unions walked out of negotiations with the NDP at Toronto’s Royal York hotel, negotiations over the terms of the Social Contract. At the time, an OPSEU shop steward who was present put it this way.

“It was a moment in history. It was so emotional. We were singing ‘Solidarity forever” and “We shall overcome.” People were hugging each other – even old enemies. It was crucial that the rank and file was in the room, to put pressure on our leadership. I kept standing up to catch the president’s eye [then OPSEU president Fred Upshaw], to remind him that the rank and file were there. I thought all along that [they] shouldn’t have been at the table in the first place. They should have just freaked right off!”

That walkout was on a Thursday. On the Friday, there was a dramatic change of mood in workplaces across the province. Workers who had been demoralized the day before, were talking strike. They were waiting for a lead.

A day of action – a noon-hour walkout – coordinated workplace meetings at lunch time – any sign of an active lead would have met with a strong response on any day of the next week.

But nothing happened. The moment passed, and slowly, demoralization in the rank and file increased – the bitter legacy of an OFL Executive unwilling to act.

© 1994 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Leslie Papp, “OFL Executive Rejects ‘day of Protest’ Strike,” Toronto Star, March 25, 1994.

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