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The union the Tories could not break

APRIL 1, 1996 – A planned Toronto fund-raising party for the five-week old Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) strike last Saturday, turned into a celebration.

The 500 strikers and supporters who turned out at the Music Hall were there to celebrate the solidarity which had forced the Tories to back down. The tentative agreement, reached hours before, had been ratified by an overwhelming 95% of the OPSEU members who voted.[1] On the Monday, contingents of strikers formed up outside their workplaces, marching into work as a bloc with their heads held high.

This was not the outcome the Tories bargained for when this dispute erupted February 26. The Tories forced the strike. They wanted to break the union to send a message to employers across the province that Ontario was “open for business.”

The ground had been laid by legalizing the use of scabs, when the Tories killed Bill 40. The Tories’ intentions were further mapped out with the ramming through of Bill 26, which makes privatization of everything easier and less costly for the government.

In the days before the first strikers hit the bricks, there were broad hints coming from the Tories that they planned to make good on their legislative threats – use mass scabbing to break the strike, and so soften the ground for a massive program of privatization and union-busting.

But they didn’t count on the picket lines holding firm. The vast majority of OPSEU members refused to scab. Picket lines were solid on the first week of the strike.

And in every subsequent week they got stronger. Every day, in city after city, the strikers were joined by members of other unions – private and public sector – as the workers’ movement in Ontario made the OPSEU strike everyone’s strike. It became the focal point of politics for the entire province.

In the third week, the Tories upped the ante. When OPSEU members picketed the legislature on opening day, the Tories brought in the provincial police who viciously attacked a group of unarmed picketers, injuring four.[2]

But the attack only served to increase the resolve of the strikers. It was met by picket lines that week stronger than before the attack, and a demonstration a week later of 4,000 protesting police violence.[3]

The Tories had to back off their plans to use scabs. Even by their own count, fewer than 10% of the strikers crossed the picket line.[4] The real figure was certainly much lower.

The Tories had to backtrack over their use of brute force. A public inquiry into the actions of the police has been called after an outpouring of rage against the police brutality.

And in the contract settlement itself, the Tories were forced to make important concessions.

What was won[5]

The Tories had wanted to discipline workers, particularly in the prisons, for violating the “essential services agreement.” They were forced to accept an agreement that promised no reprisals. They had wanted to be able to “temporarily” lay off workers for two months pending resolution of final plans for privatization and job losses. They had to back down. They had to improve the seniority protection for OPSEU workers facing job losses through improved “bumping” provisions.

Bill 26 stripped unions of successor rights. In the event of privatization, employers are no longer obligated to respect the collective agreement of the employees. But in the deal worked out with OPSEU, the Tories were forced to make half a nod in the direction of successor rights. Their first offer gave no protection to OPSEU workers whose jobs were privatized. There was no guarantee they would be rehired. And if they were offered a job and refused (because of a pay cut, or worse conditions), they would forfeit their right to any severance pay from the government. Now, the new employer of a privatized government service will have to make a “reasonable effort” to hire the OPSEU members, on the basis of seniority. And all OPSEU members, even those who refuse new employment, are entitled to severance pay.

This is far less than real successor rights. But it is a foot in the door that a militant local can use as a lever to organize a defence of their members’ jobs.

And locals across the province must now prepare for just such a defence of jobs. The Tories did not budge an inch on their principal goal – to layoff between 13,000 and 27,000 OPSEU members in the coming months.

Why didn’t union leaders call an all-out strike?

The Tories are playing for keeps. They have had their noses bloodied by the remarkable solidarity and militancy of the OPSEU rank and file. But they still intend to lay off thousands. Why aren’t our leaders playing for keeps?

Imagine how much more could have been won. The strike should from the outset have drawn a line in the sand to fight for every job, not just better terms of layoff. The militancy and the anger were there. And that militancy would have been even higher, had people felt they were fighting for their very jobs.

The leadership should have pulled essential services. What a weakness it was to have thousands of OPSEU members forced to stay at their jobs.

And why didn’t Gord Wilson and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) call an all-out general strike until the Tories were defeated? Thousands signed a petition demanding that he do just that. But no general strike was called, and a magnificent opportunity was lost.

There will be more such opportunities in the coming weeks. As this is being written, hundreds of contracts of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – fully 90% of all CUPE contracts in the province – expire with the death of the Social Contract.[6] Members of the Power Workers’ Union (CUPE local 1000) have voted for strike action.[7] Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in Toronto have also given a strong strike mandate to their leaders.[8]

These, and all workers in the province have been made much more confident by the resistance shown by our sisters and brothers in OPSEU.

Let’s learn the lesson from their fight. Militancy, not talk, is what the Tories’ understand. The more all-out a strike is, the more effective it is. The time is now to strike together to stop all the Tory attacks.

© 1996 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Andrew Duffy, “OPSEU Workers Back on the Job,” Toronto Star, April 1, 1996.

[2] Martin Mittelstaedt and James Rusk, “Police, Pickets Clash in Ontario,” The Globe and Mail, March 19, 1996.

[3] James Rusk, “OPSEU Demands Runciman Resignation,” The Globe and Mail, March 26, 1996.

[4] “Confrontation Between Strikers and OPP Riot Squad,” Transcript (Toronto: CTV, March 19, 1996); Martin Mittelstaedt, “OPSEU Members Vote to End Strike,” The Globe and Mail, April 1, 1996.

[5] James Rusk, “Deal Ends Month-Old Walkout by OPSEU,” The Globe and Mail, March 30, 1996; John Ibbitson and Jim Poling, “Ontario PS Reach Deal to End Strike,” Ottawa Citizen, March 29, 1996.

[6] Lisa Wright, “‘Rae Days’ over – so What Now?,” Toronto Star, April 1, 1996.

[7] Mittelstaedt, “OPSEU Members Vote to End Strike.”

[8] Michael Grange, “Solidarity Surprises TTC as Workers Reject Pay Cut Request,” The Globe and Mail, March 16, 1996.

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