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Ontario’s Days of Action Offer a Lesson for Canadian Workers Today

In 1990s Ontario, austerity measures provoked a long series of strikes and demonstrations known as the Days of Action. The high points of that mobilization can serve as a model for struggles to come as we face post-pandemic cutbacks.

Protests in Ontario against cuts to social assistance, 1995. (Boris Spremo / Toronto Star)

“High taxes and spending are killing Ontario jobs,” claims the narrator of a 1995 Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PC) election ad. Then-leader Mike Harris enters the frame: “Had enough? I have.”

Harris and the Conservatives swept the 1995 Ontario election with a massive majority, turfing out the incumbent social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP, whose seat count in parliament shrunk from seventy-four to seventeen, was in a state of disarray.

The party’s record in government had been poor, having taken office after promising a broad social-democratic program called the “Agenda for People.” Popular promises like public auto insurance and disrupting the US-Canada free trade deal were made by a party that never expected to win the 1990 provincial election.

Following NDP leader Bob Rae’s electoral victory, a brutal recession hit Canada as new federal austerity measures were rolled out. To fight a growing budget deficit, Ontario’s NDP fully embraced austerity. The most damning example was the “Social Contract,” a program that imposed mandatory unpaid time off (known as the “Rae Days”) for public sector workers.

For most of the Left in Ontario, the experience of the NDP government was confusing and demoralizing. At the time, some believed the so-called party of labor was “giving away a miracle.”

The result was a deep schism within the party and labor movement. On one side were the NDP-aligned private sector “pink paper” unions (or “pinks”), such as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and United Steelworkers (USW). On the other side of the conflict stood a loose coalition of public sector unions like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), as well as a sympathetic private sector union, Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

With few legislative successes to its credit, hobbled by a divided base and concerted business attacks, the NDP collapsed in the 1995 election.

The Common Sense Revolution

As Ontario reeled from the brutal recession, the PCs made huge electoral gains running on a simple, but severe, right-populist program called the Common Sense Revolution (CSR). From introduction to appendix, the CSR policy book is a nimble twenty-one pages, divided into pandering and easily understood sections like “Lowering Your Taxes” and “Doing Better for Less.” Some of the stated goals included cutting provincial income tax by 30 percent and reducing “non-priority” government spending by 20 percent.

Taken as a whole, CSR policies laid out the framework for what would become one of the most fundamental state restructuring projects in Canadian history, baking a neoliberal program into the core of provincial governance.

As was to be expected, the results were disastrous. Over the next four years, the PCs deployed every weapon in the neoliberal chest — deregulation, privatization, tax cuts, austerity, public sector layoffs, union-busting, and more — not simply to “shrink” government, but to create the optimal conditions for private profiteering.

Empowered by their majority, and facing weak opposition from a demoralized NDP, the PCs rammed the Common Sense Revolution through the legislature.

Resistance Mounts

But outside the halls of power, resistance began to coalesce. Three weeks into the PC term, the slashing had already started. The government took a cleaver to social assistance, pay and employment equity, social security, transit, and public day care. These cuts prompted various groups — day-care workers, the quickly formed feminist “Embarrass Harris” coalition, and anti-poverty advocates — to protest the government’s austerity agenda at the legislature and in the streets.

These protests set the stage for the most significant of all the responses to the CSR: the Days of Action (DOA). The DOA — which lasted from 1995 through to 1998 — consisted of eleven regional and citywide strikes across the province that brought labor and social movements together into a united front. In chronological order, they took place in London, Hamilton, Waterloo Region, Peterborough, Toronto, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, North Bay, Windsor, St Catharines, and Kingston.

These historic, dynamic strikes engaged hundreds of thousands who participated by walking off their jobs, marching, chanting, picketing at each other’s workplaces, and more. Participants differed sharply over the strategies and ultimate goals of the DOA — were they simply demonstrations of force, or precursors to a general strike? — but they were all united by vehement anti-Harris sentiment.

As the government’s attack ramped up, the tactics deployed by Days of Action organizers became the chief opposition to the Harris PCs throughout the second half of the 1990s.

Mike Harris in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

The labor movement at-large was initially cautious and did not immediately take to the streets with their coalition counterparts. Harris was clearly no friend to workers, but unions had not yet suffered a direct attack from his government.

Internally, they were still frozen by confusion stemming from the Rae era. Some were even critical of “Embarrass Harris” and other proto-DOA mobilizations for being too quick to protest, in spite of the blatant attacks on working people already in motion.

But this reluctance began to diminish in September 1995, as Paul Kellogg notes. The real turning point for labor was the government’s introduction of Bill 7. The law included a repeal of the NDP’s Bill 40 — legislation that made scabbing illegal — while making union decertification and service privatization easier.

It was a direct attack on labor. As Kellogg observes, it was the new government’s bill and the threat it posed to the “authority and influence” of trade union officials “that brought the anger from the streets to the union offices.”

The November Convention

Unions were quick to respond to Bill 7: many locals adopted resolutions supporting a general strike. The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), which, at the time commanded a membership of around 650,000 workers, making it the largest workers’ organization in the province, held its convention in November 1995.

Although Harris was an important focus, union leaders were largely concerned with the “NDP question.” The desire for direct action to oppose Harris, however, bubbled up among the rank-and-file.

Here, the split between the two sides — the “pink paper” unions and the public sector coalition — became clear. Doug Nesbitt, a historian of the Days of Action, argues that the allegiance of the pinks to the party was unsurprising, given the historical integration of the USW and NDP and the “rock solid” loyalty of the former to the latter. Many steelworker union officials had even served in the Rae government as cabinet ministers, advisors, and researchers.

A hotly debated resolution titled “Fight Back” was tabled, which called for the formal adoption of the Days of Action strategy. The strategy was tantamount to a call for rolling strikes, which, technically, were illegal because they contravened bargaining schedules.

Although the proposal was seen as a concession to the public sector bloc, it nonetheless enjoyed popular support — many believed the strikes would build regional capacity for a province-wide general strike that might take the government down. The resolution was not, however, popular enough for such support to be unanimous. To appease the pinks, another resolution was circulated in the convention hall, which restated unconditional union support for the NDP.

Both resolutions were adopted in a shaky compromise. Fight Back set in motion the plan for the first DOA to take place in London, Ontario on December 11. A planning committee was established, selecting co-chairs from both private and public sector unions.

Days of Action

The action in London was a knockout success. Tens of thousands of workers, from multiple sectors — manufacturing, health care, postal work, and more — walked off the job onto cold December picket lines, cross-picketing each other’s workplaces. Participants were bussed in from all around the province and the strike culminated in a march to London’s Western Fair District where union leaders gave speeches. There, speakers pledged to “knock the government off the rails.”

The next action took place in February, two months later, in Hamilton. As with the demonstrations in London, the two-day action (a strike on the Friday, a march on the Saturday) in the heart of the Canadian steel industry was highly successful.

However, the factional divides papered over by the two OFL resolutions were starting to become troublesome. The USW threatened to withdraw their support but were brought back into the fold after getting an assurance that labor at-large would rebuild its support for the NDP.

Estimates suggest there were approximately twenty-five thousand workers out on strike on the Friday and nearly a hundred thousand at the march on the Saturday — one of the largest actions in Ontario’s history. Hamilton’s actions showcased the deeply diverse nature of the movement. The strike and march brought together labor activists, social movements, and various church and community groups.

The pinks, however, remained estranged from the broader movement. In the Days of Action that followed, their participation would only become patchier. And in some cases, they did not participate at all.

Both of the actions in the Waterloo Region and Peterborough, following the actions in Hamilton, were relatively modest. Strikes occurred, but the mobilizations more closely resembled “days of protest” than all-out community shutdowns.

The Toronto DOA, in October 1996, kicked everything back into high gear. Following Hamilton’s two-day model, the strike brought Toronto to a standstill by shutting down City Hall, social services, power stations, and most importantly, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). As a result, hundreds of thousands of Torontonians did not go to work that day. Commenters described Toronto as a ghost town, an image that was punctuated by picket lines all over the city.

The Metro Days of Action, October 26, 1996. (Andrew Stawicki / Toronto Star)

The demonstration the next day brought out a gargantuan estimated crowd of 250,000 from Toronto’s 1996 population of roughly 2.5 million. Students, feminists, labor activists, community organizers, and concerned citizens of all kinds showed up to participate in what became a mélange of protest, music, theatre, speeches, and marches, reminiscent of the Vietnam War era. It was one of the largest demonstrations in Canadian history.

Although the movement’s ideological cohesion was weak, a desire to oppose the Harris government managed to glue it together. And in that sense, it was a triumphant show of strength. The energy, optimism, and diversity of the day are captured in Jonathan Culp’s Action, a powerful document which shows that something was really happening in the streets.

Things Fall Apart

But as activists and union members came off the high of the Toronto action, trouble awaited. Barely two weeks after the strike, some of the pink unions — the USW and the Power Workers among them — publicly announced their abandonment of the Days of Action. Making a case for their exit, the pinks cited DOA’s cost, questioned its effectiveness, and criticized the entire DOA strategy for “inconveniencing the public.”

The pinks also bemoaned the lack of energy allocated to electoral work for the NDP and pressed for a shift in focus toward “workplace issues.” Their commitment had been shaky at best, but their formal withdrawal was still significant and damaging.

The remaining Days of Action — running through 1996 and most of 1997 — faced logistical challenges and limited success, with the exception of the actions in Windsor, where a highly successful shutdown of various industries included a blockade of the US border.

However, OPSEU wound down their involvement, weakening DOA’s momentum. Following a combative 1996 strike against layoffs and cutbacks, the union had seen its membership flattened by employer attacks and internal issues. “In essence,” as Nesbitt puts it, “OPSEU broke and joined the pinks,” by throwing their support to the pink candidate in the upcoming OFL leadership election of 1997.

The election hastened the DOA’s end. Newly elected Wayne Samuelson, a labor activist and supporter of the DOA, had deep roots in the pink unions who had mobilized for his campaign. The convention decision finally advocating for a general strike came to nothing under Samuelson’s leadership.

The DOA of 1998 in St Catharines and Kingston, though successful in shutting down a few industries, lacked the energy and widespread support of previous actions. By the summer of 1998, calls for a general strike had surfaced again, but the pinks this time flatly refused to take part. The proposal was quietly tossed aside. The Days of Action were over.

By the end of his term in 1999, Harris had managed to successfully restructure Ontario. Taxes, public services, and regulations were slashed; workers were demoralized and demonized. Although some particularly egregious pieces of legislation were abandoned — including some of the worst clauses in Bill 136 — the Harris project had largely been implemented according to plan.

During the 1999 election campaign, the labor movement split their energies: some campaigned for the NDP, others advocated nonpartisan strategic voting (a plan which typically signals support for Canada’s centrist Liberal party). The PCs secured a second majority and continued their attacks on working people.

Solidarity and Independence

What can be said about Days of Action twenty-five years after the fact? To what extent were they successful?

Although the series of actions stopped short of escalating into a province-wide general strike — and failed to topple the government — the Days of Action were still a significant episode. They contributed to shaping a “culture of resistance.” And this oppositional culture caused the government to walk back legislation and soften some of its attacks on labor.

But questions remain, particularly about deficiencies in organization, strategy, and capacity. And an answer to these questions can be found in the shape of Ontario’s NDP — the provincial arm of Canada’s ostensibly labor-friendly party. The shaky development and factionalism of DOA reflected the broader divisions and demoralization sowed by the Rae government’s turn to austerity. Many unions diverged in their political assessment about how best to move forward.

The pink private sector unions who had suffered from deindustrialization and intensified employer attacks had little sympathy for the gripes of public sector workers. They attached great importance to returning the NDP to its former position of electoral strength. In practice, that meant de-escalating the Days of Action tactics and redirecting resources toward building a pro-NDP campaign.

The public sector unions and CAW, meanwhile, harbored a deep antipathy toward the NDP. They felt that the Rae Days were a stab in the back to the very people responsible for the NDP’s electoral success. The Rae Days had moved the province toward austerity. Harris merely intensified this trend. How could anyone simply line up behind the party again?

The Rae government created a deeply antagonistic factionalism amongst Ontario’s workers. Its track record shattered confidence and solidarity, and when the time came to unite in opposition to Harris’s broad-based attacks, the labor movement found itself on an awkward footing.

Its components briefly papered over this internal conflict to show up in the streets, but they were still hopelessly mired in debates over the right attitude to the NDP. As Nesbitt puts it: “The united action against Harris was sabotaged by the split within labor over the NDP’s moves toward austerity.”

The Days of Action, then, offer a simple lesson for the future. Canadian labor cannot wait for the NDP — it must force the party’s hand. Solidarity and bridge-building across the labor movement will be central to the fight for a better society in Canada regardless of who holds power in parliament. Even — perhaps especially — if the party in office is the NDP.