By Doug Nesbitt
On Friday, February 23 1996, the industrial centre of Hamilton, Ontario was shut down by a one-day general strike. If it wasn’t for the 300 picket lines across the city, Hamilton would be mistaken for a ghost town. The following day, a huge protest of 100,000 people marched through the city’s downtown in what was then one of the single largest protests in Canadian history.
The Hamilton Days of Action was an early high point in a popular resistance movement against the “Common Sense Revolution”. How did it happen? Who organized it? And what can be learned?
Revolution and resistance
Mike “The Knife” Harris and the PC Party won a surprise majority in Ontario June 1995 election. Blending Reaganism and Thatcherism and Canada’s own homegrown neoconservativism of Bennett, Devine, Mulroney and Klein, the Common Sense Revolution was a blitzkrieg for the business class. They were out to destroy the welfare state, social programs, and democracy. They were out to crush Ontario’s working, poor and unemployed majority.
Through the diligent work of union, feminist and anti-poverty activists after the election, small actions against Harris snowballed into a big and angry protest movement. When the Tories pressed ahead with a deep 21.6 percent cut to welfare rates and a radical rollback of workers’ rights, organized labour really joined the fight. The “Days of Action” were born at the November 1995 Ontario Federation of Labour convention.
The Days of Action was a plan for a series of one-day city-wide general strikes in Ontario. They were designed to build up capacity and confidence for a greater confrontation with the Common Sense Revolution. Their goal was to make the business class feel and fear the pain of strike action, and beg Harris to betray his revolution.
The first Day of Action came three short weeks after the OFL convention on December 11, 1995. With 30,000 people striking or staying away from work, and 15,000 marching through -25°C weather, the London Day of Action proved there was the will and the power among thousands to engage in political strikes. Thousands were ready to fight and defend what working people had extracted from the business and political elites. As one striking janitor and son of a Sudbury miner said in London,
“My dad fought for something and Harris is taking it away. I earn only $4,000 above poverty. More cuts and I won’t be able to afford to live in Ontario…And my father struck in the days there was a shotgun in every doorway.”
Organizing a general strike
With popular rage bubbling over, the Hamilton Days of Action were set to coincide with the Ontario PC Party’s policy convention in the city. The strike day was set for Friday, February 23, and a mass march would follow on Saturday, the day of the PC convention.
Following on the labour-led organized in London, a “community-labour” coordinating committee was formed to build a stronger, deeper opposition to Harris. Wayne Marston, the local labour council president, co-chaired the committee with Andrea Horwath representing community organizations.
A downtown storefront office was rented on York Boulevard. Following London’s success, cross-picketing would be employed again to ensure strikers were not at their own workplace and risking identification by management. Among the other security measures was the CAW’s distribution of thousands of CAW-branded balaclavas to autoworkers.
Ontario’s teacher unions were also getting involved. They had balked at participating in the London Day of Action, but its success had convinced them to get involved. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association called a rally against education cuts at Queen’s Park for January 13. Aiming for 15,000 people, an incredible 35,000 showed up. OECTA’s “bus guru” Ed Chudak had coordinated 380 buses for the rally. For Hamilton, he was paired up with the CLC’s Bonnie Armstrong to prepare for 750 buses.
Buddy Kitchen, an autoworker from the Navistar assembly and president of the Chatham labour council, was tasked with coordinating the cross-picketing at 300 different locations, and ensuring each picket line had enough people to hold them down. Flying squads loaded into vans were also organized for rapid response and reinforcements in case of trouble.
The OFL and affiliate unions put up $30,000 dollars in radio and billboard ads targeting Harris’s damage to Hamilton and Ontario. But the union money was no substitute for street-level organizing. In addition to the unions, over 200 local community organizations mobilized a small army of hundreds to distribute 120,000 flyers door-to-door.
The strikes actually started Thursday evening, February 22. In Dundas, a couple dozen CAW members began picketing the El-Met auto parts plant. The 7pm shift didn’t cross the line. Pickets hit the Wentworth Street and Upper James Street bus depots, shutting down the local transit system. Like their fellow ATU members in London, Ontario, Hamilton’s transit workers were happy to join the strike in defiance of their international leadership.
Postal workers also took action Thursday evening at ten postal depots, shutting down almost all 350 local postal routes, and reducing mail delivery by 60 percent from Kitchener and Oakville through to Niagara Falls. By dawn, CAW members shut down over a dozen other plants, including National Steel Car, Camco, Wabco and Hendrie Transportation.
Absenteeism rates for the City of Hamilton and Hamilton-Wentworth Region were at least 40 percent. The same absentee rate was reported at local Catholic schools. Federal and provincial governments sites, liquor stores, McMaster Universty and Mohawk College were all picketed. A thousand nurses picketed outside St. Peter’s Hospital.
Some employers saw the writing on the wall and decided to coordinate a day off. Public schools did this by moving a professional development day to the Friday.
The big prize, the Stelco steel mill, did not actually face strike action as the company negotiated with the Steelworkers union to move a holiday, Heritage Day, to Friday. A similar negotiated holiday was moved to Friday at the Westinghouse plant, but pickets arrived anyway to stop non-union workers from entering.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!“
With workers strangling the business class, the city was a ghost town except for 25,000 people descending on Dundurn Park. After gathering at the park, they marched through the city to Copps Coliseum for a big rally where entertainment and speeches by unio, religious and community leaders. Even though the co-chairs of the coordinating committee were NDP members, the NDP was kept off the platform. Wounds from the Rae years were fresh and there was no desire to paint the protest movement as an NDP thing.
On Saturday morning, buses rolled into Hamilton’s Pier 4 Park. There were over 1,400 buses from around the province. The rally was a monster, with credible estimates putting it over 100,000. Steelworkers by their thousands joined alongside teachers. Autoworkers in balaclavas mixed with students wearing “I intimidated the legislature” buttons, referring to the government’s legal threats against a student protest at Queen’s Park earlier in the month.
As OFL President Gord Wilson delivered a speech to the park, the crowd got impatient and chanted “Let’s go! Let’s go!” The massive march set off to weave its way through downtown. A popular chant went “Hey Mike! Hey Mike! How’d you like a general strike?”
However, the opportunity to march on the Tory convention was lost. The organizers had diverted the protesters away for fear of a confrontation resulting in violence. A section of the march, reportedly led by postal workers, tried to breakaway but walls of union marshalls held them back. The march again ended at Copps Coliseum for more radical speeches. By 5pm, thousands were boarding the buses again.
The Power and the Promise
The Hamilton Days of Action were an astonishing, exhilarating achievement. For many, it built lifelong commitments to the cause of working people, democracy and justice. For others, it was the latest in a long series of battles going back to the labour rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.
But the radical speeches from union leaders was not matched by what happened next. There was no serious discussion or preparations at the senior levels of organized labour on where to go after Hamilton, the third largest city in the province. Incredibly, there was no plan to link up with the looming province-wide strike of 65,000 Ontario Public Service workers.
The OPSEU strike started on the Monday after the Hamilton Days of Action. Facing deep concessions and a devastating 13,000 job cuts, OPSEU members would fight like hell against Harris and his OPP goons. Yet, even as the strike unfolded, no efforts were made to link it up with the Days of Action.
Only three weeks into the OPSEU strike did the OFL announce the next Day of Action: April 19 in Kitchener-Waterloo. The delayed decision and the distant date was an obvious de-escalation. Few expected the OPSEU strike to last that long. Calls from labour councils and union activists to broaden the next Day of Action into either regional or multi-city strikes, or sectoral strikes, were ignored.
Alex Keeney, president of CAW Local 200 representing Ford Windsor workers told one reporter, “The OFL should get off the fence and shut the province down.” His sentiments echoed one of the other chants in Hamilton: “City by city is way to slow! Let’s shut down Ontario!”
The Day of Action in Kitchener-Waterloo saw a rally of 30,000, and only 10,000 in Peterborough in June. Strike activity declined significantly, limited mainly to CAW members, transit and postal workers. Negotiated shutdowns like the one seen at Stelco and Westinghouse became fairly common. Political opponents of the Days of Action delighted in the protests bringing a lot of business to hotels and restaurants. The protests had become stale and predictable, and the resistance had become a phony war over the summer of 1996.
The Hamilton Days of Action and the subsequent OPSEU strike was the first high point of resistance against the Ontario Days of Action. Resistance against the Common Sense Revolution was not at all over, and incredible strikes and militant protests were coming to take on the Common Sense Revolution and Mike Harris. By 1997, Harris was facing a backbench revolt over hospital cuts, and was seen to be sealing his fate as a one-term premier. Only when the strikes and protests were called off amidst vicious infighting among labour’s senior brass did Harris begin rebounding in the polls.
What was achieved by thousands of people organizing in workplaces and in neighbourhoods, union halls and churches cannot be forgotten. For two days, the bosses and their politicians didn’t control the Steel City. The battles of a quarter century ago are rich with lessons for today. The Hamilton Days of Action proved the power of organized people against organized money, and the promise of a better world.
About the author
Doug Nesbitt is the co-founder and editor of Rankandfile.ca. He is a former union organizer and campaign coordinator, and a labour historian. He is currently writing a book about the Ontario Days of Action and resistance to the Mike Harris government with the aim of publication in 2022.
Credits: Feature photo from the Hamilton Spectator. Check out their retrospective on the protest.