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Heads of Unions cancel general strike

AUGUST 3, 1998 – The summer of silence from the Ontario Federation of Labour was broken through an article in The Globe and Mail.[1]

The heads of Ontario unions have met, the bosses’ paper reported, and there will be no one-day province-wide strike this fall against the Harris Tories.

In a phone interview, Buzz Hargrove, head of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), said “my understanding is that there’s no one-day” general strike. Sid Ryan of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said, “apparently, the province-wide strike at this time has been cancelled.”

Wayne Samuelson, head of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), did not return calls to confirm or deny the Globe article.

The cancelling of the province-wide general strike is a terrible sell-out of the struggle against the Harris Tories.


The Days of Action campaign has been the centrepiece of the struggle against the Tories. The Toronto general strike of October 25, 1996 was the high point, with one million workers staying away from work. The next day, between 250,000 and 300,000 marched through the city. Workers’ power was in the air. The chant for a province-wide strike received widespread support.

Last summer, after the Tories had tabled draconian anti-labour legislation, union local after union local voted for illegal province-wide strike action. Just the threat of a province-wide strike forced the Tories to back down.

And last fall during the magnificent two-week teachers’ strike, thousands signed petitions demanding a province-wide general strike in support of the teachers. The heads of unions did nothing.

Samuelson has a lot to answer for. His candidacy for president of the OFL was backed by the “pink paper unions” – Steelworkers, CEP and others – who had tried to kill the Days of Action after the Toronto general strike.

But support for strike action was so strong, that Samuelson and the pink paper unions had to say that they supported a province-wide general strike.

Had he said anything else, he would never have been elected head of the OFL. But it is clear now, that it was just tough talk that he was unprepared to back up with action.

Ryan says that CUPE and CAW demanded that the pink paper unions allow cross-picketing – the picketing of workplaces by workers in other unions – or the general strike was off. According to Ryan:

“We wanted cross-picketing to be the centrepiece of any province-wide strike. … We would have liked to have gone into some of the steel plants to picket them, and some of the paper mills and so on. That way, we could all be assured that everybody was going to be closing their workplaces. A lot of the unions balked at the idea of having cross-picketing, which signalled to us that a lot of those workplaces wouldn’t be closed.”

This is fine, but no reason for letting the province-wide strike slip through our hands. If the other unions don’t want cross-picketing, so be it. Set a date.


If a date were to be set for a province-wide shut down, the effect in workplaces across the province would have been electric. All of the bickering at the top of the movement would have been pushed into the background.

The Harris cuts are making lives miserable across the province. Thousands would throw themselves into the battle to shut the province down against the hated Tories, if a general strike date were announced. The movement against the Tories would be rekindled.

The truth is, at the top of the union movement there has always been pessimism about the possibility of mass action against the Tories. In 1995 after the Tories were elected, poor people were demonstrating, community groups were demonstrating, but many key union leaders said these demonstrations were “premature.”

It wasn’t until 10,000 marched on Queen’s Park September 27, 1995 that they realized that workers were ready to respond to a call to action in their thousands.

Hargrove says that the Days of Action were “not a rank and file driven thing, this was a leadership driven debate at the OFL.” But until 10,000 marched on Queen’s Park, until 600 local leaders of CAW demanded a province-wide shut down, until OFL delegates met and voted overwhelmingly to begin the Days of Action – the “leadership driven debate” was going absolutely nowhere.

The sell-out is a terrible blow to the anti-Tory movement. But there has been enough pressure from below that the struggle is by no means over.

Thousands of petitions went into the OFL demanding that a date be set. Dozens of student groups wrote in supporting the call for a province-wide general strike.

And the Canadian Federation of Students, in solidarity with the proposed province-wide shut down, has called a week of protest ending October 16.

This pressure has forced the heads of unions to call one more Day of Action, October 16 in Ottawa, in solidarity with the students and designed to coincide with the Tory convention that weekend in Ottawa, leading Ryan to say: “I wouldn’t say that the Days of Action campaigns are being called off, because October 16 is part of the Days of Action.”

On our campuses, we need to work to make October 16 actions as big and militant as possible. In our workplaces, we need to build labour solidarity actions with the students.

And we need to make the Ottawa Day of Action a real general strike – shut down the city and demonstrate our opposition to the Tories. Build for a mass demonstration on the Saturday, October 17, where buses from across the province can bring people in to demonstrate against the Tories.

Solidarity with the students. All-out Oct. 16.[2]

© 1998 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Richard Mackie, “Pickets Put aside to Launch Campaign,” The Globe and Mail, July 28, 1998.

[2] Wayne Samuelson promised an “in your face” demonstration October 16 in Ottawa (Ibid.) But when the day came, the rally outside the Tory convention centre was so small as to receive ridicule in the press. “The party meeting at Ottawa’s downtown Congress Centre had been expected to draw mass protests. But fewer than 200 students showed up to half-heartedly wave placards outside” (Joel Ruimy, “Ontario PCs Talk Policy, Election,” Toronto Star, October 17, 1998.) This was, in fact, a little misleading. While the OFL did fail to mobilize for October 16, student organizations did not. Thousands marched out of their classes, and participated in actions all across the country, including a demonstration of 10,000 in Ottawa on October 17 (Julie Devaney, “Students Take Action against Education Cuts,” Socialist Worker (Toronto), no. 295 (October 28, 1998): 10.)

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