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From the archive: The OFL must give a lead

Image of the Toronto Days of Action button from October 1995
Carolyn Egan

April 28, 2019

This column, published in the October 4, 1995 issue of Socialist Worker, was written in the leadup to the Ontario Federation of Labour convention which voted to launch the Days of Action. These one-day, one-city general strikes against then-Premier Mike Harris' devastating cuts to social programs had the potential to defeat the cuts. Despite massive support for all-out action among union members, and the success of the Days of Action, the top leadership of the unions pulled back from launching a province wide general strike and Mike Harris was re-elected. But this was not inevitable. Understanding how rank and file pressure has pushed union leaders to act in the past can help activists today as we struggle against the brutal cuts of Doug Ford's government in Ontario.


On September 27th [1995], rank and file trade unionists led the charge on the doors of the Ontario provincial legislature.

Steelworkers from local 1005 in Hamilton, building trade workers, public sector workers from the provincial government and postal workers all expressed their fury with the Tory agenda.

They understood clearly that the Harris government has declared class war in Ontario, and is attacking every gain that working people have fought for in this province.

The trade union leaders who have been saying over and over again that the memberhsip won’t fight, that we have to confine ourselves to education, lobbying and press conferences, had to stand up and listen to the rank and file.

Workers streamed out of the hospitals on University Avenue, they came by the thousands out of government offices at Queen’s Park, clerical and administrative workers crossed the road from the University of Toronto.

Those workers who rallied on the opening day of the legislature were telling their leaders that the truce with the ruling class must end, and that they are prepared to fight!

The Labour Council of Metro Toronto bucked the trend so common today in other labour bodies.

Because of the urging of rank and file delegates, at its last meeting it unanimously decided that it would organize with other sectors to make Harris and his Tories understand that they were in for a fight.

The Labour Council called on trade unionists in the Toronto area to come out and stand up for their rights, and the rights of every oppressed and exploited person in this province.

The result of this call put a lie to earlier pronouncements by union leaders who declared that demonstrations were premature and wouldn’t work.

Until when were they suggesting we wait – when the hospitals were closed, welfare was decimated, employment equity gone, and labour legislation repealed? When workers were defeated and demoralized?

This demonstration of more than ten thousand workers, welfare recipients, housing activists, and others gave people confidence across this province and across the country that we could fight back.

Alberta trade unionists called in saying how thrilled they were when they saw the huge demonstration on TV, and they are going to take up the fight against Klein.

Everyone who attended left with a feeling that the battle has just begun.

The Canadian Labour Congress and the Ontario Federation of Labour have to take up this challenge. There has been no leadership from provincial and national labour bodies as the employers’ offensive has gotten heavier and heavier.

Workers are demanding that their unions fight on behalf of their interests. And as we saw on the 27th workers are beginning to move without the sanction of the major federations.

The week before there were three spontaneous walkouts by postal workers in Toronto alone and more in other areas.

There is a province wide drywallers strike in Ontario, and in Barrie fifteen drywallers were arrested after destroying the work done by a non-union company.

There was a mass picket the following day supporting them. There is an anger in the working class and it is beginning to be channelled against the employer, and as the demonstration of ten thousand showed against the broader Tory attacks as well.

This must continue. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union is planning two more demonstrations and these must be supported by other unions.

The Ontario Federation of Labour convention is scheduled for the end of November, a perfect time for another mass rally. Government attacks must be met with militancy and solidarity.

All public sector contracts end in March 1996, there could be a general strike of public sector workers that would be supported by masses of people across this province who oppose the Tory attacks.

We must keep the momentum going with large and small actions in every community, let Harris know that he is in for the fight of his life!

That messge will not be lost on his clones – Klein, McKenna and Chrétien.

– from Socialist Worker #224, October 4, 1995

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