by Doug Nesbitt
One of the most pernicious myths circulating in Ontario’s labour ranks is that the Days of Action – the big protests and strikes against the Harris Tories in the late 1990s – somehow led to the re-election of the Harris Tories in 1999.
This is complete nonsense. Let’s examine why the Tories were re-elected in 1999 before we take a deep dive into the Days of Action themselves.
From recession to recovery, again
The worst of Ontario’s 1990s recession fell under the NDP regime from about 1990 to 1993, but the province’s economic crisis lasted well into 1997. After a strong recovery beginning in 1994 thanks to a recovering American economy, the Harris Tories were elected in 1995 and sent the economy back into recession, raising unemployment and driving growth downward to zero by 1996. Their “Common Sense Revolution” did this by slashing infrastructure spending by billions, decimating labour laws, drawing up massive austerity budgets, and the cutting 13,000 out of 65,000 Ontario Public Service jobs.
The Harris recession was made worse by the 1995 federal budget under the Chretien/Martin Liberals which deepened Mulroney’s squeeze of provincial transfers and made them permanent. With unemployment going over 10 percent in 1992 and 1993, Ontario’s welfare rolls also exploded as the Mulroney Tories and Chretien Liberals halved UI/EI eligibility from 80 to 40 percent of unemployed between 1990 and 1996. This added massively to the province’s welfare rolls, peaking at 1.3 million people (12 percent of the province) between 1993 and 1995 as a consequence of a much weakened unemployment insurance system.
While the Tories took Ontario back into recession, the American economy was booming in terms of GDP growth, hitting 4.5 percent in 1997 (and over 4 percent annual growth rates until 2001). With its biggest trading partner sucking up imports, this helped revive Ontario’s bruised manufacturing sector and in late 1997, and the unemployment rate began a four year decline. At the very same time, the Toronto-centred housing price crash bottomed out in 1996-97 after an incredible 8-year slide.
The housing crisis was one of the forgotten factors of why working-class people in Ontario felt so insecure during the 1990s recession. In the absence of good jobs and real social security programs, home ownership and growing home prices became the new family pension and income security plan for large sections of Canada’s working-class. This was especially true after the Harris Tories and Chretien Liberals destroyed publicly-funded housing projects, including co-ops. In this leaner, meaner Canada created in the 1990s, homes were not just something to live in, but an investment plan for the survival of small but important working-class fortunes…but only if you could afford to get your foot in the door.
As unemployment fell and the American boom went into overdrive in 1997, the federal Liberals won a decisive majority promising to reinvest in shredded social programs. Some mild reinvestments were made but nothing that brought back what was lost. Instead, the Liberals and media were busy declaring victory against the deficit with a 1998 balanced budget. The cuts were worth it, they said. But the Liberals only accomplished a balanced budget through a huge UI/EI surplus coming from the 50% cut in UE/EI eligibility, and by dipping into federal public sector pension surpluses.
By the spring of 1999, Ontario’s economic fortunes had largely reversed thanks to an American boom, and the lessening of federal austerity measures. Despite causing the 1995-96 recession, the Harris Tories were quick to claim their Common Sense Revolution was responsible for the subsequent recovery.
The Best Election Money Can Buy
The Harris Tories were not going to count on the economic recovery to sweep them back into power. They set an Ontario election record in by spending $23.5 million during the 28-day election campaign. By comparison, the NDP and Liberals spent less than $6 million combined. The much-vaunted and record-breaking “third party” spending was just above $6 million across 29 registered advocacy groups. In other words, the Tories spent double what the two other parties and all advocacy groups spent combined.
The Tories made this possible by rewriting election campaign spending laws, campaigning through public money under the guise of ministerial advertising, and getting exceptionally fat donations from the business class and the wealthy. More than two-thirds of the money raised by the central Tory campaign came from corporations, a number of them six-figure donations.
The Tories raised the limit on individual donations from $14,000 to $25,000. Working-class people can’t possibly donate $14,000 today, let alone $25,000 back then – but this is chump change for the wealthy. They also effectively exempted party leader expenses from any limits. The Tories would spend $1.6 million on the leadership tour, the Liberals $392,000, the NDP only $65,000.
According to Robert MacDermid’s groundbreaking study of the election’s spending, the overall campaign spending limits were raised by 114 percent.
To maximize their money advantage, the Tories deliberately shortened the campaign period from 40 to 28 days in order to allow maximum unrestricted campaigning before the restricted formal campaign period. The Tories spent as much money on advertising during the month before the election as they did in the formal 28-day election campaign itself.
On two of their weakest fronts, healthcare and education, the Tories spent at least $20 million in public money leading up to the election to advance their agenda through what was formally ministry advertising. With the economy recovering, unemployment falling, welfare rolls declining by hundreds of thousands, and a massive war chest, the Tories only had to worry about their opposition.
NDP betrayal, labour divided, right-wing Liberals
There was no effective electoral opposition to the Tories in 1999. After the disaster, disappointments and betrayals of the 1990-95 NDP government, the NDP vote in Ontario plummeted to historic lows. From 1.5 million votes in 1990, the party fell to 850,000 in 1995 and 550,000 in 1999. The NDP also suffered a dramatic collapse in its Ontario federal vote as well, from 20.1 percent in 1988 to 6 percent in 1993 and 10.7 percent in 1997.
To some, voting NDP was a principle. The leadership of many major unions remained loyal and lined up behind the NDP during the 1990s. However, many unions had broken with the Ontario NDP over the 1993 Social Contract, a plan to cut $2 billion out of government labour costs to fight a $13 billion deficit. The Social Contract was unprecedented legislation which unilaterally opened up collective agreements of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and imposed concessions. Of all the concessions, the forced unpaid days off – “Rae Days” – came to symbolize the entire disappointment and betrayal of NDP rule.
The Social Contract was a catastrophe, a betrayal and a massive gift to the right. As Bob Rae recalled in his memoirs, Canadian autoworkers president Bob White tore a strip off Rae and the other NDP premiers, Romanow of Saskatchewan and Harcourt of BC, saying “Why the hell should working people see all their benefits and everything we’ve been fighting for all these years go down the drain because you guys have bought into all this neo-conservative economics. You’re elected to fight for our people, not to stick your nose up Mulroney’s ass.”
The NDP’s Orwellian “Social Contract” split the labour movement in half. The “Common Front” unions of the public sector and the autoworkers (CAW) voted successfully to pull the Ontario Federation of Labour out of the Ontario NDP at the 1993 OFL convention. The unions loyal to the NDP, the so-called “Pink Paper” unions, walked out of the convention in protest. In the 1995 election, the Common Front unions didn’t put a lot of muscle behind the NDP which never recovered from its collapse in support. The NDP were never a threat to the Tories in 1995 or 1999.
The 1995 election was a surprise because the Liberals went in with over 50 percent support in the polls. However, they cratered as the Tories were elected on a Common Sense Revolution platform of “tough love” austerity, scapegoating welfare recipients, repeal of employment equity (what Harris called “the quota law”), as well as big promises like a 30 percent income tax cut and a plain-as-day commitment to not cutting healthcare. The Tories would decimate healthcare with cuts, but they did deliver the income tax cut – over half the cut went to the wealthiest 10 percent.
Once elected, Harris declared war on everyone and everything. It took a few months for labour leaders to scramble a response – they initially thought they could talk Harris out of his Common Sense Revolution. As the protest movement grew in the fall of 1995, the November 1995 OFL convention saw an uneasy peace struck between the Common Front and Pink Paper union leaders: everyone was back in the NDP again as the Pink Paper unions wanted, and the Days of Action protests and strikes would begin as the Common Front unions wanted.
But the Pink Paper unions spent the next two years refusing to organize their membership for the Days of Action, and undermining it through a strategy of taking over labour councils. Days after the massive Metro Days of Action in October 1996, the Pink Paper unions came out publicly against the entire Days of Action campaign. Their expressed strategy for defeating Harris was shelving the Days of Action and waging a “union education” campaign to get workers to vote NDP again.
But the NDP never disavowed the right-wing turn under Rae, and never apologized for the Social Contract. This was one reason the CAW and CUPE leaderships remained critical and hostile to the actions of the Pink Paper unions during the mass protest movement against Harris. This is a huge reason why almost a million people who voted NDP in 1990 didn’t vote NDP in 1999.
When the November 1997 OFL convention arrived, long-serving OFL president Gord Wilson had decided not to seek re-election. The Pink Paper and Common Front factions put up competing candidates. At the last moment, the OPSEU leadership broke ranks with the Common Front and threw its support behind the Pink Paper candidate, Wayne Samuellson, who won by a close margin. While convention delegates voted for a province-wide general strike in 1998, the Days of Action were formally shelved by a meeting of OFL union affiliate leaders in July 1998 – a full year before the expected election date.
While CUPE eventually decided to endorse the NDP for the 1999 election, the NDP campaign was without enthusiasm. Nobody expected a miracle as the party had been languishing in the polls, at the mid-to-high teens, since 1993 with no signs of life. Many unions, notably CAW, OPSEU and also the teachers, opted for strategic voting to block another Tory majority. Whether strategic voting or voting only NDP, both union election strategies failed miserably. The Tories were re-elected with 100,000 more votes, while the NDP vote collapsed further from 850,000 to 550,000.
Whatever desperate hopes people had in the Liberals in being elected were also dashed, even though the party gained 460,000 votes and shot up from 31 to 40 percent of the vote. Their new leader, Dalton McGuinty, was an unknown figure and won the party leadership in 1996 on a right-wing platform. This followed the Liberal campaign promises in 1995 that were just as bad as the Harris Tories. The Liberals couldn’t bring themselves to campaign on reversing the Common Sense Revolution because they ultimately agreed with too much of it. This is exactly how they would rule during their 2003-2018 regime.
Did the Days of Action get Harris re-elected?
From early 1996 through early 1999, the Harris Tories largely trailed second in the polls. They were pushed down at the height of the Days of Action and opposition to the Common Sense Revolution between late 1995 and late 1997. The protest movement of mass rallies, strikes, petition drives, high school walkouts, and countless small local protests was an ongoing political crisis for the Tories. This sprawling and sometimes chaotic movement kept all the crucial issues on the front burner: hospital closures, school cuts, attacks on injured workers and the poor, downloading of costs and services, the destruction of the housing program, anti-democratic attacks on municipal and school board governance. The list was long.
The protest movement scored important defensive victories that have since been forgotten. The campaigns against hospital closures in 1997 forced the government to cancel a $500 million cut to hospital funding and declare all 66 rural and northern hospitals safe from mergers and closure. Bill 136, which would have completely suspended the right-to-strike for all public sector workers over four years, was defeated when CUPE started holding hugely successful strike votes for a province-wide shutdown. Mandatory workfare for welfare recipients was also defeated when CUPE boycotted the United Way for its participation in the workfare pilot. This destroyed the workfare pilot and forced the government to adopt a non-mandatory voluntary workfare program. Toronto-wide and province-wide one-day childcare worker strikes in July and November 1995 derailed potential government plans to wipe out crucial low-income subsidies and childcare worker wage subsidies.
This largely union-led movement was not loved by the media and was not actively supported by the Liberals, but both the media and Liberals were being led by the protest movement into taking positions and actions that legitimized protest and civil disobedience. The corporate media rarely had good editorial positions, and were often anti-union, but there was often firm opposition and denunciation of Tory policies and ideology.
On several occasions, the much-vaunted Tory media strategists were in fact routed by aggressive journalism, such as the exposure of the OPP violence against the OPSEU strike rally at Queen’s Park, or the amplification of popular support for the teachers’ movement and strike against Bill 160 in late 1997. At times, the corporate media was being pushed and pulled – but never won over – by the movement into taking meaningful oppositional stances on important issues and incidents.
The same is remarkably true of the Ontario Liberals. In the hot autumn of 1995 when the Days of Action strikes began, Liberal MPP Alvin Curling (the only black MPP at the time) conducted a one-man filibuster and sit-in against the Omnibus Bill 26 which the Tories intended to ram through the legislature with no consultation whatsoever. Bill 26 was like a blueprint for Harper’s later omnibus bills. Introduced at the end of 1995, Bill 26 was the keystone legislation of the Common Sense Revolution, modifying 47 piece of legislation over 2,200 pages of legislation and appendices. The bill was designed to massively centralize power in cabinet to carry out its brutal restructuring and cuts. Curling’s sit-in won a crucial concession, forcing the Harris Tories to concede public consultations over the coming 6 weeks, which in turn provided a crucial window of time for the movement against the Tories to build. It is in fact during this 6-week reprieve that the Tories began to slip significantly in the polls, falling behind the Liberals for the first time.
Last but not least, the McGuinty and the Liberals were pulled into effectively supporting the teachers’ strike against the government. While too spineless to openly support strike action, McGuinty barnstormed the province in the weeks leading up to the strike, speaking to mass meetings of teachers about the necessity of defeating Bill 160, with its massive assault on working conditions, teacher unions, classroom resources, student learning, and education funding. While Rae’s former Minister of Education Dave Cooke publicly admonished the teachers for threatening a strike against Bill 160, McGuinty at least offered tacit support and served to reinforce the righteousness and legitimacy of the teachers’ actions.
The teachers’ strike (which was called a “protest” by teachers for legal purposes) was the last decisive direct conflict between workers and the government over the Common Sense Revolution. It also proved the end of the Common Sense Revolution, in part because the struggle was so bruising for the Tories. Midway through their mandate, they were driven down to the low 30s in the polls, and following a backbench rebellion over hospital closures earlier in the year, they again faced caucus dissent over Bill 160. By the end of 1997, it was widely believed that this was a one-term government.
The teachers’ strike was defeated when three of the five teacher union leaderships called off the strike at the end of its second week – with absolutely no concessions on Bill 160 from the government. Huge numbers of teachers were upset and local rebellions erupted against the leadership, but within three days of the sell-out, the all five unions had called off the strike. The defeat was incredibly hard because the public was clearly behind the teachers, and the government had just lost a court injunction against the strike.
Retreating From Action: Harris regains the momentum
A great tragedy was the absence of any sympathy strike with the teachers. This meant the teachers could not gain any more leverage against the government beyond their all-out 126,000-strong strike. This was likely a significant factor in the decision by some union leaders to throw in the towel. Education workers with CUPE were best poised to join the strike, and CAW President Buzz Hargrove had strongly suggested autoworkers would join them in sympathy, but this was not to be. CUPE’s illegal strike mandates a few weeks earlier in September had succeeded in defeating Bill 136, but there was never an effort to forge a solidarity pact that would link the fates of Bill 136 and Bill 160.
In the wake of the Bill 160 defeat, the November 1997 OFL convention mandated a province-wide general strike. Delegates who called for a fixed strike date were ignored. As if to ensure demoralization and defeat, union leaders let six months pass before the next Days of Action in St. Catharines. After one more Day of Action in Kingston, the whole project was quietly shelved at an OFL affiliates meeting. The general strike never came.
There were some efforts to revive the movement, such as the 10,000-strong Ottawa demonstration of October 1998, but by then, the politics on offer from the union leaders was all about voting in the coming election. It wasn’t about stopping the Harris agenda through mass action: hitting the private and public sector with strikes, mass marches and disrupting “business as usual” for the government and their business class pals.
The union leaderships may have remained divided over what to do in the election – NDP or strategic voting – but they all agreed that the movement on the streets, in the workplaces, and in the schools was over. Fighting the Tories was no more, no less, than casting a ballot.
If the teachers’ strike was, perhaps, a missed opportunity for an escalation of struggle against the Harris Tories, there were other missed opportunities, too. The OPSEU strike of 1996 kicked off in late February, 1996. Leading up to the strike, the movement was still escalating to dizzying heights. The London Day of Action in December 1995 had been a huge, unexpected success. The city’s public sector and manufacturing was shut tight and 15,000 marched in -25 weather. In January, 35,000 marched on Queen’s Park in defence of public education. The Hamilton Days of Action had a big strike on Friday and a march of 20,000, and then put 80,000 on the streets on Saturday. The OPSEU strike kicked off two days later on Monday.
Facing 13,000 job losses (out of 65,000 jobs), massive contracting out, and an assault on pensions, the strike was the Ontario Public Service’s first. The union had only been awarded the right-to-strike in 1994 in what was one of the few lasting labour reforms from the NDP government. Taking a page out of the Reagan and Thatcher handbook, the Tories were happy to go to war with this union. But the Tories were arrogant and OPSEU proved far stronger than expected. Advance organizing and education, detailed in OPSEU member David Rapaport’s excellent history No Justice, No Peace, ensured the union defied the government’s expectations. OPSEU minimized scabbing, too, not long after the Tories repealed anti-scab legislation with their Bill 7 assault on workers’ rights.
There was a major opportunity during the OPSEU strike to use the Days of Action as a vehicle to ramp up OPSEU’s leverage, but also increase the pressure on the Tories and their Common Sense Revolution. The Days of Action were originally predicated on building capacity towards a province-wide shutdown. However, only two weeks into the OPSEU strike, the OFL announced a Day of Action for April 19 in Kitchener-Waterloo. As many OPSEU members pointed out, there was a good chance their strike would be over by April 19. Furthermore, calls from local labour leaders and others to expand the Days of Action across a region or multiple cities were ignored by the senior union leadership. There was simply no effort to link up the OPSEU strike with the Days of Action.
Even after the OPP ran riot at Queen’s Park against hundreds of OPSEU pickets on March 18, no protest action was called in response to the police assault, let alone a strike. The riot hardened the resolve of the strikers and the movement but this was not channelled into a political counterattack.
The general strike that never happened will be talked about endlessly. Could it have happened? Was there a moment when it should have been called? Would it have worked? Rather than getting hung up on this general strike what-if game, the real question is what was required to deepen the political crisis for the Tories.
The Days of Action strategy, as it was originally conceived, was sound: build up working-class organization and confidence through a few city-wide one-day strikes and mass marches, and then expand that disruption so as to increase the pressure on the government. The public sector unions would disrupt the government, while the private sector unions would pressure the business class to see the Tory agenda as too costly, thus pressuring the government itself to back down.
The strategy lost its dynamic threat to the Tories when union leaders decided to throttle it during the OPSEU strike – just when it needed to grow. Several months after the OPSEU strike, when the Metro Days of Action shut down Toronto and put over 150,000 into the streets, Harris was able to say with some comfort, “good show, good parade, good numbers.” Originally terrified and outraged by the Days of Action, the media was now happy to mock the protests as empty symbolism.
Nevertheless, the Days of Action strategy was instrumental in driving down Tory support until the aftermath of the Bill 160 defeat. It drove forward and gave coherence to a movement of hundreds of thousands, and the sentiments of millions. It also pulled in the opportunistic Liberals and fairweather media behind the only opposition the Harris Tories ever had: a workers’ movement. But union leaders never raised the stakes. Their pessimism about the membership, blind party loyalties, petty sectional pissing matches, or just shitty politics, all got in the way of using mass action as the only means of actually halting the Common Sense Revolution as it unfolded. As one sympathetic columnist would write after the Days of Action were quietly shelved, the unions turned out to be a “paper tiger”.
Worker mass activity is the only hope
In the absence of this movement, the media narrative soon changed. The health of the Tory government became a question of polling data and the game of message control, not issues forced on to the front page through strikes and protests. An economic recovery driven by an American boom and a lessening of federal austerity measures also began to drive down unemployment, providing favourable conditions for the incumbent Tories.
But Ontario’s economic recovery had nothing to do with the Tories. The Common Sense Revolution’s brutal cuts to jobs, social programs and infrastructure had in fact delayed the recovery by two years with the 1995-96 Harris recession. With the pressure dissipating, the Tories were freed up to focus their corporate and taxpayer resources on an unprecedented election campaign.
The class war receded, the Tories recovered, and the untested Liberals and unpopular NDP couldn’t mount a serious, convincing electoral challenge. The Tories won re-election and proceeded to carry out their hydro privatization plan, which proved disastrous and cost them the 2003 election (just as it later did the Liberals). The deadly Walkerton E.Coli poisoning in May 2000 caused by water safety privatization also destroyed the government’s credibility. The death of Kimberly Rogers and the OPP murder of Dudley George haunted Harris, who resigned in 2002. His replacement, Premier Ernie Eves, led the party to defeat in 2003, losing ten points and over 400,000 votes. The Liberals launched into a 15-year dynasty of keeping the pro-business permanent austerity agenda intact.
The most significant damage of the Common Sense Revolution – the entire restructuring of how the provincial state operated – was done primarily between 1995 and 1997. This was precisely when the movement was hottest. Unfortunately, the Days of Action strategy was undermined from start to finish despite being the only hope we had to stop the Common Sense Revolution in its tracks. Defeating the Common Sense Revolution never fundamentally hinged on the 1999 election. But if there is blame for Harris being re-elected, the electoralist strategy of shelving workers’ mass activity – protests, rallies, strikes – in favour of a narrow focus on the ballot box is what lost the 1999 election.