Countries around the world are seeking to reform their welfare states and deregulate their economies in the face of international competition. In most, success, where it has come, has been bought only at the cost of considerable social disruption.
—The Economist (May 4, 1996)
Driving into the city of Sarnia during the recent five-week strike of Ontario public servants, I saw first hand how this strike endangered the safety and lives of the public. While driving on a two-lane highway after dark, suddenly a substantial pile of snow, hardened by periods of melting and refreezing, loomed in front of me, blocking the right-hand lane. No warning lights, no markers. Fortunately, the left lane was clear.
Twenty-year old Chris Zehr was not so fortunate. On March 8, he died after his car slid into oncoming traffic on an icy road near Stratford. A spokesperson for the 67,000-member Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) was quick to assert that the accident had nothing to do with the strike. But others were not so sure. An investigating OPP officer, who found the road to be “extremely dangerous,” stated that his call for a salting crew was met with a lengthy delay. All OPSEU members called by Ministry supervisors to report for work either could not be reached or claimed to be unable to work. Ministry officials finally received permission from OPSEU to use a private contractor to salt the roads from a yard located 30 kilometres away.
While the effect of the strike in many areas was not nearly as obvious and dangerous as the winter driving conditions on the province’s highways, there were still many innocent bystanders who were hurt by the strike. Especially hard hit were 290 small and medium-sized slaughterhouses across the province employing some 3,000 workers. Meat inspectors also went out on strike, and animals may not be slaughtered without an inspector present.
There were also reports of jail guards who, despite the fact that they belong to a category of essential workers by law forbidden to strike, still refused to work, causing considerable disruption in the operation of a number of prisons.
The damaging effects of the five-week strike raise some troubling questions about the use of strikes in the public service. Furthermore, the strikers’ attitude toward the law and the government’s role as upholder of the law were clearly central issues in this strike. This was made especially obvious when strikers barred nonstriking workers and even Members of Parliament from entering Queen’s Park, the provincial parliament buildings in Toronto.
Early on there were sporadic incidences of strong-arm tactics by pickets, including verbal and physical abuse, against those who had chosen to remain at work. In Sudbury, pickets shouted insults as they marched outside the houses of colleagues who ignored the strike call. Striking OPSEU members in Toronto distributed a leaflet describing in blasphemous tones the creation of what they called a “scab.” An Ottawa bookstore sold T-shirts with the message that compared the Ontario government’s policies with those of the Nazis. This prompted a protest by the Canadian Jewish Congress: “It is obscene to compare Harris to a Nazi. When such absurd comparisons are made the evil of Nazism is belittled. Nazism is a depraved doctrine. The unseemliness of comparing it to a democratically elected leader in Canada is obvious to all” (Toronto Sun, March 6, 1996).
Meanwhile, much of the action was concentrated—where else?—at Queen’s Park. OPSEU pickets were reinforced by burly steelworkers, autoworkers, and other union activists. They demanded I.D. cards and delayed peoples’ entry into government buildings 15 minutes or more. The press gallery at Queen’s Park received a letter from the union giving it permission to cross the picket line. The media, so quick to harp at perceived and real injustices, meekly went along with a tactic that if tried by any other group would have been denounced with indignation.
The picket line tension came to a head on March 18, the opening day of the Ontario Legislature. The pickets were out in full force barring people, including MPPs, from entering government buildings. Here is a report on what happened to municipal affairs Minister A1 Leach when he attempted to enter the building, as reported in the Toronto Star, March 19:
Metro officers intervened again when Leach wandered into the crowd of demonstrators. He was surrounded, spat on and pelted with a balled-up paper cup and a half-eaten doughnut. A Metro police officer moved quickly to Leach’s side and was instantly joined by several colleagues.
“Are you crazy . . . walking into the middle of this?” one officer asked the Minister. The officers inched Leach toward the entrance of the Frost Building, but the crowd was too thick. Eventually, the Metro officers gave up and whisked Leach away in one of their vans.
The same report described how Tory and Liberal MPPs ran around Queen’s Park trying to find a door that they could enter. But every entrance was barred. Exasperated Liberal House leader Jim Bradley told the pickets: “I’m the leader of the Opposition. If you don’t let me in, who’s going to ask the questions?” He was no more successful than others, and ended up getting “an earful from the OPSEU members.”
Lorrie Goldstein, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, described what he saw at the legislative buildings:
Suddenly it becomes okay, as it did yesterday at the east doors of Queen’s Park, for big white guys to scream “scab” and “shame” literally into the faces of many slightly built and frightened women of every race, creed and color.. . .
While this was ostensibly an OPSEU picket line, OPSEU members were in the background, overshadowed by the pros from the Steelworkers, CUPW and CUPE among others. . . .
Queen’s Park staffers were only allowed in after they’d been duly lined up, taunted and humiliated by the pickets. (A member of the Ontario Government Protective Service later told me at least two entered the building near collapse.) And I found myself wondering whether some of those who marched on that picket line approved of this sort of thing. . . .
How do such progressive politicians see it when big, white, beefy men harass and intimidate slightly-built minority women, many of whom have nothing to do with this strike. Does the “union label” make it all okay? . ..
Later, riot police were accused by the NDP of overreacting in clearing a path for MPPs and others to get inside the Frost Building, while the Tories charged it was the strikers who had behaved like goons. But the bottom line is this: While one feels sympathy for government workers who may be facing unemployment when this strike is over, the fact is the Tories cannot be seen to be giving in to union intimidation. (March 19, 1996)
OPSEU spokespersons consistently underplayed the violent behaviour of pickets or excused it by saying that they had a right to be angry and to fight for their jobs in the face of the injustice imposed on them by the Harris government.
But the rough behaviour of the pickets was also intended to send a clear message to wavering union members—Don’t even think about crossing the picket line. Intimidation works.
Despite the nasty treatment of those who braved the picket lines, some 6,000 workers continued working. To prevent further breakdown in the ranks, OPSEU members distributed a flyer warning that anyone who crossed a picket line would be forced to pay “supplementary dues” of 30 per cent of their wages for the next five years. It urged strikebreakers to “join the picket line, say you are sorry and we will forgive and forget it happened.” Was this tactic effective? As one nonstriker reported: “I had three friends who were coming back with me (to work) Monday, but when they saw that they said ‘no way'” (Toronto Star, March 10, 1996).
The strike was settled on March 31 with 95 per cent voting in favour of the government offer. A careful comparison of the latest government offer before the strike with what was eventually accepted indicates only marginal differences. But OPSEU President Leah Casselman heralded this settlement as a victory for workers. She put the best possible face on the strike by emphasizing that it had taught the Harris government a lesson, and above all, that the workers had gained a new confidence in their ability to stand together as a union.
As strikes always do, this one left a lot of bitterness in its wake. Bitterness toward the government, but also to workers who had crossed the picket line. Members of one Toronto-area OPSEU local must appear before a disciplinary hearing to answer charges of strike breaking. If guilty, they face a fine of 100 per cent of the amount they earned while they were working during the strike. In contrast, the government agreed not to pursue any charges against jail guards who had acted in defiance of their legal obligations.
Amid the sound and fury surrounding this strike, it is difficult to make sense of the real issues. But at its heart, this strike was very much political in nature. The fight was an ideological one over the role of government.
This is not a new issue, nor is it confined to Ontario. In Alberta, Premier Klein also faced plenty of criticism for cutting public expenditures. And it’s happening in all western, developed countries. Think, for example, of the recent turmoil in France when that government attempted to rein in unsustainable public expenditures.
The truth is that we are witnessing a scaling down of the welfare state, which has run into the wall of limited resources—and that includes financial and nonfmancial resources. The dispute is now very much between those who deny that reality, because they persevere in their belief that the state is the central agency for managing all of society, and those who believe in a much more limited role for the state. The one side gives priority to the public, whereas the other stresses the primacy of the private.
What muddies the waters is that there is very little open and respectful debate. This is an age of instant solutions, a pragmatic mindset, a preoccupation with process, and a disdain for substance. It is much abetted by a media that relishes the immediate, the sensational, the catchy phrase.
Proponents of an interventionist role for the state invariably wrap themselves in the mantle of moral superiority. Their opponents are not merely mistaken or misguided, people with whom one can yet discuss in a civil and respectful manner. No, they are immoral and evil because they do not care about the plight of the poor and the vulnerable. With such people one does not discuss. They deserve to be denounced, and they are certainly unfit to govern. (Just read, for example, Toronto Star columnist Dalton Camp.)
Those who stress the primacy of the individual argue that they are no less concerned about the truly needy. In fact, they say that perpetuating our present course is a sure recipe for wrecking the economy and worsening the plight of everyone, especially the poor.
And so the arguments go, like two deaf people shouting at one another.
Law or intimidation?
No one should underestimate the profound worry and fear felt by Ontario public servants faced with the prospect of the dismissal of more than 13,000 in their ranks. But even OPSEU conceded the inevitability of large-scale layoffs. Their fight was about slowing down the pace of layoffs and increasing the size of the severance packages. We must recognize OPSEU’s right to promote the interest of its members but draw the line when it pursues that interest without any regard for the social, political, and economic realities.
It is difficult to see how OPSEU’s negotiation style could succeed. Instead of seeking viable and reasonable compromises, the union insisted on demonizing the government and claiming that it is unfit to govern. Ultimately, the overriding issue became the behaviour of the strikers, not the details of the collective agreement. These details were eventually settled with the support of an overwhelming majority of workers. But the strikers’ behaviour turned it into a choice between the rule of law versus rule by intimidation.
Given the current climate of fractious public debate, we should not be too surprised about this sort of lawless behaviour. Will we see more of it? Probably. Once an opponent is demonized, it becomes a fight between good (us) and evil (them). It’s easy to lose restraint when on a crusade.
By taking the moral high ground, while resorting to despicable behaviour, OPSEU lost all moral legitimacy.
Larry Horowitz, writing in a letter to the Toronto Star (April 25, 1996) related the experience of a friend, an entertainer, whose engagement was cancelled due to the strike. “This poor man, like so many others, scratches out an honest living day by day, and has fallen victim to the massive union organization representing people who earn a far more reliable and comfortable income than he. Any protest, in the name of justice, that causes agony to the innocent is void of justice.”
Bully boy tactics hurt not just individuals. Those who spit at the law and stomp on the rights of others demean every one of us. They further erode the veneer of decency and civility so essential for a just society.