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Strike action is the key, not convention politics

OCTOBER 21, 1997 – The one-day general strike in Windsor was incredibly successful.

Not since the Toronto shutdown in October 1996 and the Hamilton shutdown in February 1996, has there been such an impressive display of working class power in the province. But it was successful in spite of very little enthusiasm from top labour leaders.

The number of buses mobilized to bring supporters in were numbered in dozens, not the hundreds which descended on Toronto and Hamilton.[1]

And most significantly, at this writing, there are no further public plans for days of action, let alone a province-wide general strike.

Instead, top union officials are consumed in a nasty faction fight over who will replace Gord Wilson as president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL).

Ostensibly, there are three positions, right-wing, left-wing and centre.

The right-wing position is clear. It is represented by the union leaders who want to downplay industrial action, and put all their eggs in re-electing the NDP. For a few weeks, their candidate of choice was Dave Christopherson. But Christopherson had two strikes against him. First, he is not currently a member of a union. Second, under the Rae government, he sat in the cabinet which imposed the Social Contract. Christopherson is no longer in the running.[2]

The right-wing has also courted Harry Hynd, director of District 6 of the United Steelworkers. But Hynd’s Steelworkers were central players among the so-called “pink paper unions” who, scandalously, came out against further general strike action immediately after the Toronto general strike. Hynd has declined to run. So, the right-wing currently has no standard-bearer.

The left-wing is backing Paul Forder. He was the OFL official responsible for organizing the days of action protests. He has the backing of Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW). He is seen by many as representing a fighting union movement as opposed to one that kowtows to the NDP.

And clearly, if there were a head to head confrontation between someone like Forder and a Christopherson or a Hynd, Forder would have to be backed.

But is he really on the left? Forder, 49, last held a job on the shop floor three decades ago, when he was 20. He was full-timer for the auto workers until 1975, and since then has worked full-time for the OFL.[3]

He is, then, 29 years removed from the day to day harassments and hassles that rank and file workers face. He is a full-timers’ full-timer, distant and removed from the reality of life on the shop floor.

The “centre” is represented by current OFL president Wilson. He has not put forward a candidate. But he has come out against Forder. “I don’t believe his candidacy will unite the labour movement. There’s very clearly a number of major unions that object to his candidacy”[4] Wilson was quoted as saying at the Windsor day of action.

It is this dispute over the succession to Wilson that is obsessing top OFL officials. It is a complete distraction. They should be obsessed with building on the success of shutting down Windsor.

The Hamilton general strike coincided with the launching of the massive OPSEU strike. A province-wide general strike call would have been met with genuine enthusiasm. None was forthcoming.

The Toronto general strike showed that the heart of Ontario could be brought to a stop. Again, a province-wide strike call was possible. Again, no call went out.

And at Windsor, again, there were thousands expecting that the next call would be for province-wide action in solidarity with the teachers.

Heads of unions should be obsessed about building on this momentum, not on jockeying for influence in the “post-Wilson” era.

If the call comes out for province-wide strike action, there will be a real response. Thousands are waiting for a chance to finish off the Tories.

But if union heads continue to delay and focus on internal politics rather than battling the Tories, there is a risk of demoralization setting in.

The only antidote is for militants at the local level not to wait for the call for the top, but to take independent action to build solidarity for the Teachers, and to pressure union heads to engage in the fight against the Tories rather than the internal bickering around union elections.

© 1997 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Heather Greenwood, “Protest Shuts down Windsor,” Toronto Star, October 18, 1997.

[2] Lee Prokaska, “Ontario Labour to Pick a Leader,” The Hamilton Spectator, September 4, 1997.

[3] Richard Mackie, “Ontario Labour Movement Racked by Internal Strife,” The Globe and Mail, October 20, 1997.

[4] Ibid.

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