as far as taking the boot to organized labour in this province, outgoing premier Mike Harris’s final kick at the public service was even more callous than when the union went out on strike in 96.Not only did the emboldened Tories come to the table with a meagre wage increase, but they also threatened to wrest away control of the multi-billion-dollar employee pension fund. And to add insult to injury, when the 45,000 Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) members attempted to picket outside their workplaces, they were stifled by court injunctions.
Arguably, the Tories could have kept on kicking if incoming preem Ernie Eves hadn’t had a by-election to win and if the Tories hadn’t also been running in a much tighter race for Harris’s replacement up in Nippissing.
But however the public service employees may have won this battle, it became clear over the past two months that this is hardly the same labour movement that took the fight to the Tories six years ago.
Despite an attempt to tie their fight to the “Walkertonization” of Ontario, OPSEU failed to strike a chord with the public or to animate the broader social justice community. In 96, the public service strike was punctuated by mass mobilizations in which organized labour took the lead in bringing together different communities against the Harris cuts. Eleven Days of Action shook the province — on one day, over 100,000 peaceful demonstrators marched on Queen’s Park.
But now instead of building coalitions, big labour in Ontario has circled the wagons. Last month about 10,000 unionists demonstrated at Queen’s Park — blocking traffic at University and College — an action that seems almost quaint compared to the giant mobilizations of the past and the tactical savvy of the anti-globalization movement.
Certainly, some social activists and union leaders, including CUPE’s Sid Ryan and CAW chief Buzz Hargrove, did make an appearance in support of the strike. “In the early days there was a certain amount of disbelief that the strike was going on at all, but as it came to be a bit more of a heavier event the support from the rest of the labour movement was very, very good,” says OPSEU spokesperson Randy Robinson.
But that solidarity seemed a bit pro forma and failed to communicate with a public who had every interest in OPSEU’s success.
“I wasn’t really being called upon for actions other than to show up at a demonstration, or I’ve been a couple of times at Queen’s Park, where four or five labour leaders got together to go to the premier’s office to demand that he get involved in this,” says Ryan. “Really and truly, what needs to be done in those situations is a mass mobilization of unionized workers in the province.”
But that seems unlikely under the current labour leadership in Ontario. Those who predicted back in 97 that Steelworker Wayne Samuelson’s victory for the presidency of the Ontario Federation of Labour over more militant CAW-er Paul Forder would halt labour’s momentum have proved prophetic. It was after that transition that the OFL quietly decided to deep-six its plans for a province-wide general strike and focus instead on supporting the NDP in the 99 election.
Buzz Hargrove’s assistant, Peggy Nash, calls it “a missed opportunity” that labour did not to build on the Days of Action. “We could have consolidated the pressure at that point,” she says.
Since then, the movement has sent out mixed signals about how it intends to bolster its ranks and build coalitions. It dipped its foot in the anti-globalization fight, sending legions of members to protest in Quebec City at the Summit of the Americas. At the same time, though, labour leaders in Ontario have gone out of their way to distance themselves from more militant direct action. The CAW has cut its funding for OCAP (the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), and CUPE will debate its support at its conference later this month.
Forder says labour has to learn to accept social activists as equal partners in the fight and not expect that they can simply dictate the terms of any association. “There doesn’t seem to be the overriding leadership to bring about some broader thinking and acceptability of those who have different views,” he says.
Despite all the criticism levelled at labour’s strategy, Samuelson, who did help organize rallies and toured picket lines, says the beleaguered union still managed to pull out a win.
“The government was pretty effective in its strategies, and, frankly, I think the fact that OPSEU members stuck together and stayed strong resulted in their getting the settlement they did get.”
But can an isolated and fractious labour movement stay strong for long?