Ontario general strike wave builds - Len Wallace

An article by Len Wallace about a possible general strike in Ontario. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996).

Despite wind chill temperatures of minus 30 Celsius, some 15,000 workers rallied in the streets of London, Ontario on December 11 last year in the first attempt at a city-wide general strike. The strike was called for by the Ontario Federation of Labour as a weapon against the increasingly reactionary policies of the Progressive Conservative provincial government.

Business in the city of London was brought down to a trickle as protesters marched in two rallies that converged at the city's fairgrounds. City bus services were cancelled as transit workers did not report for duty. Picket lines went up the evening before at a GM diesel plant, Ford plant in Talbotville and CAMI car assembly plant in Ingersoll and kept 9,000 workers off the job. Production was also shut down at other plants including the Canada Post sorting plant. Federal, provincial and municipal government offices functioned only with skeleton crews.

At the Fairground rally workers were encouraged to extend their protests across the province by leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, brought greetings of solidarity from striking workers in France. Politically charged music was provided the entire day by musicians volunteering for the event.

The next city targeted for strike action was Hamilton - steel centre of the province. It is taking place over a two-day period, Feb. 23 - 24, at the same time the Progressive Conservatives are holding their convention.

Debate has been heavy within the Ontario Federation of Labour leadership over the strikes. The Steelworkers are reluctant to place so much emphasis on industrial action and indicated that they would not shut down Hamilton's steel mills. They have continued to push the legislative road to organized labour's predicament through support for the New Democratic Party.

The Canadian Auto Workers and some public service unions have argued, however, that reliance on the NDP is a dead end at this crucial stage and that nothing is left but opposition at the job level. A compromise was finally reached with the USWA agreeing to join the strike and giving prominent New Democrats a major role.

Meanwhile, local labour assemblies are taking matters into their own hands as the government begins to ram through Bill 26, the newest piece of legislation designated as "the bully bill."

This new bill forces massive changes to 44 existing provincial statutes. Under the guise of supposedly paring down big government, the bill will transfer and extend significant power to municipalities, allowing them the right to hire and fire teachers, cut funding to conservation authorities and social agencies, contract our firefighting to private enterprise, impose user fees, all with little or no public input.

While former governments at least made a pretense of being democratic in allowing public input, this bill will be rammed through the legislature by a majority Conservative caucus after only two weeks of public discussion. Local labour councils and community organizations have been staging protests at all cities where hearings are held. As part of that protest, 40,000 teachers from across the province staged a demonstration at the doors of the Ontario legislature in Toronto to voice their opposition to the bill.

More and more sectors of society actively oppose the government's actions. The course of events is changing the political landscape of the province. Public sector workers have been forced into an activist role. (This month, thousands of Ontario Public Service Employees Union members may be forced into a strike.) Teachers have entered the fray. Medical professions have spoken out and even small business organizations are nervous and shake with growing threats of radical strike actions from labour's ranks.

While the New Democrats desperately paint themselves as the "see, you shoulda voted for us even though we screwed you" good guys and Liberals sniff at the edges of the workers movement trying to pass themselves off as the friends of labour, the public is disillusioned with politicians of every stripe.

The strike in Hamilton will be different from the one in London, revealing very different approaches to where the movement should proceed. In the process, however, more workers have become radicalized and are calling for strike action in more cities and across the entire province.

-- Len Wallace, X304149

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)