The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.40           November 11, 1996 
Toronto Days Of Action Protest Gov't Austerity  


TORONTO - It was the largest political protest yet held anywhere in Canada against government cuts to the social wage, social services, and union rights.

On October 26, wave after wave of demonstrators - unionists, students, youth, and unemployed - marched in the largest of the five citywide protests held in Ontario since last December. While most participants were in organized contingents, thousands of people joined in an outpouring of opposition to the policies of the Conservative Party government of Ontario, headed by Premier Michael Harris.

Police said the crowd numbered 75,000, while organizers of the Days of Action claimed 250,000 to 300,000. Some 1,000 busloads of protesters joined in from around the province. As the march passed the Metro Convention Center, where the Conservative Party was holding a policy convention, each contingent paused to shout their anger at the Harris government, which has:

cut $1.5 billion from health care and plans to close up to 38 hospitals;

cut $1 billion per year from public school funding, with 10,000 layoff notices to teachers and school staff;

eliminated all funding for junior kindergarten, which last year enrolled 100,000 children;

cut social assistance rates by 22 percent and has begun to introduce mandatory "workfare";

canceled 390 cooperative and non-profit housing projects, while moving toward elimination of rent controls;

and raised college fees by 15 percent and university fees from 10 percent to 20 percent.

"Hey hey, ho ho, Mike Harris has got to go!" and "Harris cuts have got to go!" resounded throughout the streets. "Education is our right, we will not give up the fight," was a popular chant among students. Some workers joined in chants of "Hey Mike, hey Harris, we'll shut you down like Paris," identifying with the massive strikes and demonstrations by workers and youth in France. Citywide strike action
Protesters were jubilant about the victory they had scored in the citywide shutdown the day before - Friday, October 25. Similar to the four previous days of protest in London, Hamilton, Kitchener, and Peterborough against the Ontario provincial government, "cross-picketing" was organized for the Days of Action. This is a strategy in which workers picketed not their own factory but a different one, in order to avoid charges of violating the no-strike provisions of union contracts.

Picketing was organized at some 300 work sites in Metropolitan Toronto, many of which were closed by the strike. There was no postal service, garbage collection or other city services. All construction sites in the city were shut down.

The biggest test of strength came at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which carries 1.3 million passengers every weekday. TTC management obtained an order from the Ontario Labor Relations Board prohibiting most picketing of transit facilities. The injunction was simply ignored, as unionists picketed TTC stations, subway yards, and streetcar and bus barns beginning at 2:30 am.

The vast majority of drivers and other TTC workers either stayed home or chose not to cross the picket lines. The handful who tried to cross were turned back by pickets. TTC officials promised to schedule an announcement of when they might try to resume service, but by mid-afternoon they had to admit defeat. "We took our best shot and we lost," said TTC general manager David Gunn.

The contingent of TTC workers, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, was cheered all along the October 26 march.

Picket lines usually included workers from several different unions, who welcomed the chance to greet each other and exchange experiences. Gaetan Shank is a nickel mine worker who had come with his son and a group of other mine unionists from Sudbury, five hours north of Toronto. He told the Militant he is especially concerned about the cuts in compensation to injured workers - a 5 percent reduction in benefits already and threats of bigger cuts to come. He also pointed out that the Harris government is weakening mine safety enforcement and proposes to eliminate the legal limit of eight-hour shifts in underground mining.

Shank added that the government is trying to close two of the three hospitals in Sudbury. "There's a meeting every night" to protest the closings, he said. Companies forced to shut down
De Havilland Aircraft is the largest industrial plant in the Metropolitan Toronto area, with 2,800 production workers represented by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). Like the TTC, de Havilland got a Labor Board order declaring a walkout on October 25 to be an illegal work stoppage. When faced with the pledge by union officials that the plant would be picketed regardless of any injunction, the company backed down and shut for the day.

A similar story unfolded at S.A. Armstrong, a pump manufacturer where 75 members of the United Steelworkers have been on strike for six months. The company has hired scabs - a union-busting tactic they are free to use since the Harris government repealed the previous anti-scab law.

Expecting to be targeted by the Metro Days of Action, the company obtained a three-day injunction against expanded picketing. But as October 25 drew closer, the factory owners decided it was more prudent to close for the day and even welded shut the front doors of the plant.

Some 400 to 500 unionists - mostly from other Steelworkers locals but also groups from the Machinists, Auto Workers and Power Workers, marched single file all around the closed plant on October 25, staying across the street in order not to break the injunction. Education - a universal right
Teachers and members of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), and OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) made up by far the largest contingents at the huge march on October 26. These workers are among the first to feel the impact of government spending cuts.

Several teachers and students interviewed by the Militant described the toll of education funding cuts - teachers laid off, larger class sizes, fewer textbooks and materials, transportation cut, food programs cut, and entire programs eliminated.

Many placards, both printed and hand-made, carried messages such as "Access to education - a universal right," and "Education - just for the rich?"

Contingents from the industrial unions were smaller. Some unionists wore stickers and T-shirts promoting the New Democratic Party, the social-democratic party that formed the Ontario government before losing to the Conservatives in the last election. There was also a small contingent from the NDP itself.

For its part, the Harris government vowed not to change its policies despite massive public opposition. "We will stay the course," Harris told the Tory party convention. "We will not stop, not now, not a year from now."

Harris's show of intransigence failed to daunt the spirit of the tens of thousands who joined the Days of Action.

"We have to do this, we don't have any choice," said Ras Aman, a 17-year-old high school student, originally from El Salvador. "It's for our future."

George Kreis is a tenth grade student at Oakwood Collegiate. "There are 1,200 at our school and only 12 came to class yesterday," he told the Militant. "It was cool to shut the city down yesterday to show we are opposed to the cuts and are not going to stand for it. We gave Mike Harris a message."

Miguel San Vincente, vice president of Steelworkers Local 6917 at S.A. Armstrong, was cheered when he appealed for support. He said people "are being forced off the welfare rolls by the cutbacks to scab in our plant.... If you want to fight the anti-worker, anti-union policies of Mike Harris, the time to fight is now at S.A. Armstrong. So brothers and sisters, come out to our picket lines and give us support so we can win."

John Steele is a member of International Association of Machinists Local 2113 at Ford Electronics. John Sarge, a member of United Auto Workers Local 900 in Detroit, contributed to this article.  
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