The General Strike in Ontario

Notes from the General Strike in Ontario in the mid-1990s, prepared by Dan La Botz, and posted on the Labor Notes website

The following is a detailed outline of “how to” considerations and lessons from the mass actions that occurred in Ontario, Canada in the mid-1990’s.

ORGANIZING A GENERAL STRIKE

The organization of the Days of Action shut down one city after another in Ontario in 1996, 1997, and 1998. What does it take to organize such a massive movement? Clearly, a citywide general strike requires hundreds of people prepared to take responsibility for organizing thousands of others to carry out the strike and the related marches and demonstrations. Almost nothing in such an undertaking can be left to chance. The list below barely begins to convey the many varied elements involved in such a strike:

    • A sense of crisis and urgency: The Days of Action were precipitated by a political crisis, a frontal attack on unions and the poor by a Conservative government. It was important that unions and many social movements and community organizations perceived that they were under an unusually fierce attack that required an extraordinary response.

    • The support of official labor bodies: The Ontario Federation of Labour, representing most of the province's unions, passed a resolution to support the Days of Action. While some unions gave only nominal support, the resolution was important in authorizing the strike, making it "official."

    • The endorsement and support of local labor leaders and rank-and-file members: The strike could only be successful with their commitment to making it happen.

    • A core of dedicated activists: These people brought the message to co-workers, within and across unions and, if necessary, past leaders who were opposed or ambivalent.

    • An alliance between labor, social movements, and community groups: These alliances gave the movement a greater social base and greater mobilizing power. As one official said, "We were joined at the hip," throughout the Days of Action.

    • The creation of a "general staff" for organizing and running the strike: The general staff must be large enough to reflect the leadership of the organizations involved, and small enough to effectively engage in rapid discussion and decisionmaking when necessary. The general staff has to be responsible to the unions that have authorized the strike, to the rank and file involved, and also to the communities that will be affected. The general staff must plan and oversee the strike, handle negotiations with authorities, and respond to emergencies.

    • A detailed plan: The plan of action should include: a) a list of all the workplaces to be closed; b) a list, for each location, of all entrances and exits to be covered; c) a general map of all the facilities to be closed, and specific maps for each location; d) a timeline for the closing of workplaces, with plans to mobilize pickets for each hour and each day; e) listings of picket captains and their contact information.

    • The assignment and training of picket captains and pickets: Picket captains need to be trusted, reliable, capable people who will take responsibility for closing down locations, dealing with authorities at the local level, maintaining discipline of the picketers, and enforcing the strike on those who attempt to violate it. Picket captains need to understand the strike's "rules of engagement." The strike may be peaceful, involve the use of civil disobedience, involve the use of force, or involve seizure of property. In the case of the Days of Action, the rules were to maintain peaceful picket lines and enforce the strike. But in other situations, different rules may apply.

    • The training of pickets: Picketers need to know exactly what they are supposed to do, where and for how long, and to whom they are to turn over responsibility when their shift ends. Typically, strike rules include: assigned hours of duty, assigned equipment (bullhorns, picket signs, armbands, ropes or tape to indicate off-limits areas), rules of behavior (no drinking, no drugs, no swearing or abusive language), rules of engagement with those who attempt to violate the picket line (shouted slogans, locked arms, physical isolation and removal, use of limited force, etc.).

    • Media team: Media spokespeople have a sensitive job, since their statements establish in the mind of the public—including the employers and the government--the reason for the strike, its character, its objectives, and its methods.

    • Internal communications team: In the lead-up to the strike and on the days of the strike, the team needs to constantly produce information for strike captains, picketers, union and community organization members, and the general public, possibly in several languages.

    • Emergency medical services: In any large gathering of people, there will almost always be health problems, and doctors, nurses, and other health professionals should be organized into teams identifiable to the public and the police, and linked to picket captains.

    • Transportation or logistics team: In a strike like the Toronto Day of Action that brought thousands of other Ontario residents into the city, a committee must arrange transportation, overnight shelter, and food (whether through prepared meals or simply directing people to restaurants).

    • Liaison with employers: The general staff needs to negotiate with employers over maintenance of essential services, such as emergency rooms, ongoing patient care, and hazardous operations such as chemical and nuclear plants. Leaders should also try to negotiate no-retribution agreements.

    • Liaison with police: The general staff needs to inform the police of plans, to avoid unnecessary conflict and confrontation. Strike leaders may also want to meet with leaders of the police union. The general staff should be able to communicate instantly with police commanders during the strike, to deal with emergencies and, if possible, ward off repression.

    • Strike day operations team: This team oversees picket captains, picket lines, and related activities to make sure that they happen as planned, and to deal with contingencies and emergencies.

    • March or rally team: The march route needs to be carefully examined and worked out in detail with the police and other authorities. Entertainment needs to be organized, and making the speakers list will likely be a politically sensitive task.

    • Negotiation committee: If the strike has a particular political objective, and will continue until there is some sort of resolution of the issue, a negotiation team will have to deal with the relevant authorities. It should be made up of the central leaders of the bodies that authorized the strike. The negotiators will coordinate with the general staff and the media and communications teams to keep the picket captains and picketers informed of developments.