General Strike Threat Beats Ontario's Anti-Worker Law
Ontario workers delivered a spectacular blow to Premier Doug Ford’s government this week. Just four days after ramming through unprecedented anti-worker legislation, Bill 28, Ford appeared in a hastily called press conference on Monday morning to announce its full repeal.
Ford claimed this was a good-faith gesture to kickstart negotiations with Ontario’s 55,000 education workers, who had entered their second day of an “illegal” strike.
But his actions the previous week had painted a very different picture: of a government hell-bent on stripping workers of their rights to strike and bargain.
The reality is that Ford and his government were spooked by the rapid (and unexpected) escalation of Ontario’s unions, including a plan to launch an indefinite general strike on November 14.
Ford’s stunning reversal wipes out his government’s ambitions to legislate away workers’ rights in the province. This could mark the beginning of a rank-and-file driven renewal of Ontario’s labor movement.
The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), set the stage for this confrontation months ago.
OSBCU represents not the teachers, but a wide range of other school employees—such as education assistants, library workers, administrative assistants, custodians, early childhood educators, cafeteria workers, safety monitors, and social workers.
The union’s systematic approach to engaging, organizing, and mobilizing produced a record-breaking strike mandate vote in early October: 96.5 percent in favor, with an 83 percent turnout.
Outside the union, Justice for Workers organized an impressive solidarity campaign, including calls for supporters to “paint the province purple” by putting up posters and purple ribbons all over.
In the same spirit, the Ontario Parent Action Network began to organize supportive parents and resist Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s attempts to pit students and their families against education workers.
These initiatives, coupled with the union’s success in bargaining for the public good, produced a wave of support that swept the province. By the time education workers went on strike November 4, the public was firmly in their corner.
But the fuse that lit the tinderbox of Ontario’s labor movement was Bill 28, the so-called Keeping Students in Class Act.
Besides imposing a concessionary contract on the lowest-paid workers in the education system, it invoked the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent any challenge to the bill, criminalize all strike activity, and override rights protected in Ontario’s Labour Relations Act and Human Rights Code.
Special 5 a.m. sessions were scheduled to force the bill through in record time. Tory (Conservative) legislators laughed, backslapped each other, and mocked the opposition throughout the proceedings. Their mouthpieces in the media predicted that parents would reward them for being so decisive.
Without a doubt, they thought they would face no opposition from labor. After all, the pundits said, Ford had managed to secure the backing of several unions during the June 2 election.
But they were dead wrong. The backlash was immediate.
FROM BACKLASH TO ESCALATION
Within hours of Bill 28’s introduction on October 31, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) launched its “Hands Off Workers’ Rights” campaign and called an emergency rally for the next day at the Ministry of Labour in downtown Toronto.
Almost 4,000 people turned up, giving confidence to labor’s most progressive leaders to push for an escalation. The rally marched to Queen’s Park, the site of the provincial legislative building, where thousands chanted for Ford and Lecce to resign.
Legislators from the province’s New Democratic Party caucus joined the rally and march, giving speeches from the back of a pick-up truck. The next day in the Assembly they called Ford a liar and, one by one, were kicked out.
Throughout the week, thousands of people joined online and in-person events to support education workers. Almost 600 participated in a phone zap; tens of thousands sent emails to Tory legislators; and hundreds of parents and students rallied outside a downtown Toronto hotel on the eve of the strike.
On Thursday, Bill 28 passed, although Ford was conspicuously absent for the vote.
A MASSIVE, ‘ILLEGAL’ WALKOUT
From the moment of the bill’s introduction, reports were leaking about a deep division in Ford’s caucus. One faction, led by Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, opposed Lecce’s “nuclear option”—leading to heated confrontations between the two ministers. McNaughton was under intense pressure from the unions he had courted in the last election.
Despite Ford and Lecce’s attempt to intimidate and threaten workers, the walkout on Friday was massive: 126 active picket lines, including more than 10,000 people at Queen’s Park and tens of thousands in dozens of communities across the province. Parents, students, teachers, and other unionists flooded the lines throughout the day.
The giant Ontario Public Service Employees Union sent a letter to its 8,000 members in the education sector, encouraging them to walk off the job and join CUPE’s pickets: “Your union will have your back. You will not have to pay any fines. And you will have the full force of [the union] behind you should your employer attempt to enact any discipline.”
OPSEU’s move led to the closure of schools that initially tried to stay open despite the strike.
GENERAL STRIKE PLANNED
The groundswell of support was growing rapidly, both among the public and within unions, where rank-and-file members were calling on their leaders to join the strike.
The pressure was so intense that the executive board of the Ontario Federation of Labour held an emergency meeting on Saturday morning where it voted unanimously to call a mass protest the following Saturday, November 12, and to launch an indefinite general strike on Monday, November 14.
In the 48 hours that followed, Ontario was hurtling towards its biggest labor protests since the 1990s.
Immediately after the vote, labor leaders rushed to “Solidarity Saturday” actions, including one where hundreds of protesters occupied a downtown intersection. CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn hinted at further escalation in his speech: “We were delayed in joining because we were meeting with other heads of unions. More will come on that, friends, but let me tell you this, a sneak peek: Yesterday was the beginning. It is not the end.”
Hours later, a strike planning committee met to organize actions over the next two weeks. Word of the vote was already leaking on Twitter and Reddit, and #GeneralStrikeON was trending all day.
On Sunday, OFL affiliates including the teachers unions began calling emergency meetings to discuss or vote on joining the strike.
Hundreds of CUPE staff representatives joined a conference call to prepare locals—in every sector of the union, not just school boards—to discuss the possibility of walk-outs. The leadership assured members that the union would protect them from any fines. Commitments to strike immediately came from large locals in the post-secondary and municipal sectors.
By noon, Unifor made public a letter it had sent to Ford’s office, hinting that its members in the auto sector might go out on wildcat strikes to protest Bill 28: “We issue this notice that Unifor’s Auto and Independent Parts Supplier Councils, in coordination with affiliate local unions, will be exploring all options in the coming days to respond to these actions. We stand in solidarity with CUPE members.”
Beyond unions, the public was preparing to join the lines on Monday, including non-union workers who were planning their own workplace walkouts. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario was issuing calls to its locals to join the lines.
Support was also building outside the province. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation voted to donate $1 million to the strike.
Things were moving incredibly fast, with major developments coming every hour.
In the early afternoon on Sunday, CUPE announced a press conference on Monday at 10 a.m.
Later that day, a polling firm released the findings of an Ontario-wide poll where half of respondents supported more unions joining the picket lines; 71 per cent wanted Ford to change his approach and give education workers a fair deal.
On Sunday evening, the Toronto Star broke the news that labor was planning to escalate to a province-wide general strike on November 14.
On Monday morning, CUPE’s lines were even bigger than ever. Spirits were high and members could feel the momentum. Everyone was waiting for labor’s announcement. It felt like a tsunami was building.
The first sign of a curveball came early on Monday, when Ford’s office announced he would speak at 9 a.m.—one hour before labor’s press conference.
Ford spoke slowly and deliberately. His tone was conciliatory, despite some cheap shots. He said Bill 28 would be repealed, but only if education workers called off their strike.
At first the magnitude of Ford’s defeat was not obvious. Many unionists were anxious to announce the escalation and turn their attention to building it. But as Ford’s announcement began to sink in, and as education workers started celebrating on the lines (and online), the scale of labor’s success came into view.
Bill 28 had turned out to be a gift from Ford: an existential threat that helped unite the leadership of Ontario’s unions and stiffen their resolve to take dramatic action. But with the bill gone, the sense of urgency among some leaders started to fade.
The debate within CUPE was whether to keep the lines up or take them down in response to Ford’s announcement—a debate that continues, despite the decision to collapse the pickets and return to work the next day.
This was a difficult decision, and ultimately a tactical mistake. Workers should not give up their leverage until a deal is in hand. And the leverage that all Ontario workers held at that moment was truly unprecedented.
There will be many “what if” questions. But whatever disappointment we feel about what might have happened should not overshadow the huge victory that education workers made possible. It is a massive defeat for Ford, and one we should not soon forget—especially as we keep up the pressure to help education workers get a good deal.
Nearly 30 national and provincial labor leaders joined OSBCU and CUPE leaders on stage at the union’s press conference, an impressive display of solidarity by public and private sector unions.
OSBCU President Laura Walton made clear that her union’s members won’t hesitate to return to the lines if they have to. Other speakers emphasized that their unions would be “standing by, not standing down” to get a good deal for education workers.
“When you come for one of us, you come for all of us,” said OPSEU’s JP Hornick. “The Ford government may not know what it started, but I know that, as trade unionists, we will finish it. I know that workers united will shut this province down whenever we need to.”
Later that day, the Ministry returned to the bargaining table with OSBCU. Fourteen solidarity actions are now planned at Tory legislators’ offices on Saturday. (Sign the petition: Good Deal Now!)
Without a doubt, unionists across Canada are energized about this victory and already discussing what they could do to replicate it. The momentum could build labor’s power everywhere.
Peter Hogarth is an Ontario public school teacher. A much longer version of this article, including lessons for the labor movement, first appeared at Spring Magazine.