By Gerard Lefebvre
In 1995, Mike Harris was elected Premier of Ontario, bringing an end to Bob Rae's five year NDP government. The province was ailing under a deep recession, which had seen many manufacturing and public service jobs threatened by what the governing NDP had referred to as “a new economic reality”. Elected into office by a population thoroughly dissatisfied with status quo responses to these economic maladies, the NDPs crafted a wholly inadequate response to the situation: a meld of traditional Keynesian anti-recession spending mechanisms and hard-line cuts to programs and services; Rae instituted a "welfare fraud" policing task force and new policies on student loans that ensured students would be saddled with debt years after completing their education. They also began what amounted to an attack on unionized public sector workers, demanding rollbacks and wage freezes.
These measures were perceived, quite correctly, as Rae capitulating to the broader political climate of austerity. The 1980's saw Reagan in the U.S. and Thatcher in the U.K slash social spending as an ideological response to a slow economy; these measures, and the electoral successes they yielded, provided a cue to conservatives around the world. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative party had traditionally been a relatively centrist body, emphasizing growth in sectors like health care and education. The electoral wins of ideological Thatcherites around the world, coupled with the homegrown failures of an NDP government characterized by half-measures and capitulation, provided the impetus for a hard right shift in the body of the party, a shift that was finalized by the election of Mike Harris to party leader in 1990.
Harris, in typical conservative fashion, vowed to slash spending while cutting taxes, a move that can only come from attacking the services utilized by vulnerable communities. Public anger with Rae's indecisive response to the recession rose steadily. To make matters worse, his government's shift to the right had split the party's base: students, the poor and unionized workers all found themselves abandoned. It was this split within both the labour movement and the broader left that allowed Harris and his PC's to coast to a majority government on June 8, 1995, virtually unchallenged. For the first time, the stage was set for the policies of Reagan and Thatcher to be played out on Canadian soil. Ontario had became an ideological terrarium in which plutocrats and their managing class could test their pet theories.
Harris wasted no time in implementing his agenda, euphemistically called the Common Sense Revolution (CSR). Mere days after being inaugurated, Harris announced reviews on public housing spending, with the goal "of getting [government] out of the housing business." Weeks later, social assistance was slashed by 21.6%, new non-profit childcare spaces were frozen and payments to social services agencies were cut – effective the upcoming fall. The speed and scope of these cuts, the first of many, took most in the labour movement by surprise.
Outside the labour bureaucracy, anti-poverty groups – led by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) – daycare workers, students and LGBTQ activists had already begun mobilizing against Harris. The summer of 1995 was characterized by small-scale protests and demonstrations against the PC agenda – protests that were largely ignored by organized labour and the broader left. It was these small-scale acts of resistance to the austerity plans of the provincial Tories that put in motion the events that led, eventually, to the Days of Action (DoA) against Harris.
A protest was called for September 27, 1995 – the day the legislature reconvened from summer recess. Labour leaders, including ranking members of OPSEU, CUPE and the United Steelworkers, refused to endorse it. However, the enormous success of this protest – called by a coalition of community groups organizing under the banner of "Embarrass Harris" – pressured the union leadership into action: between 7000 and 10000 people crowded the lawn at Queen's Park, including large numbers of rank and file workers who simply walked off the job that afternoon. Labour could no longer ignore the drive to fight Harris. In November 1995, the OFL called for a demonstration outside the Tory convention – a protest sparked, in part, by the government's repeal of anti-scab legislation. At this point, Harris' government was engaged in open class warfare against the poor, students and unionized workers – among myriad others.
This was the political climate that birthed the DoA against Harris – a rotating series of strikes, work stoppages and demonstrations that took place between 1995 and 1998. In total, 11 days of action were called during this 3 year period, with hundreds of thousands of Ontarians walking off the job and paralyzing major urban centers throughout the province – including London, Hamilton, Toronto and North Bay, among others. From the perspective of the community groups now working with labour to challenge Harris, the strategy behind these days of action was simple: show that popular resistance to Harris was possible, build that resistance using the ranks of organized labour and have it culminate in a general strike to shut down the Tory agenda and bring down the government. But despite the enormous popularity of these rotating shutdowns, the general strike to bring down Harris never occurred; how was it possible to have hundreds of thousands of people on side but still prove politically ineffectual? There are several factors to consider, with the most salient being the sluggish and overly cautious response of organized labour to the Harris government.
As was noted earlier, the leaders of the labour movement were slow to resist Harris. In the summer of 1995, when community groups and activists were staging protests, many leading members of the labour movement were preaching dialogue with the government. As the cuts intensified and it became readily apparent that dialogue would prove impossible, labour came to realize that it needed to ally with the existing resistance to Harris and it was this coalition that staged the DoA. But the call to build the DoA into a general strike went unheeded. Indeed, for several leaders in the labour movement, the DoA functioned more as a bargaining chip, a showcase of the potential power of people to disrupt the economic and political workings of government. During the Hamilton DoA (Feb 1996), an OPSEU strike was called. OPSEU had been working without a contract and was facing job cuts proposed by the Harris legislature. Their strike vote, passed with two-thirds majority, became a rallying cry for unionized workers across the province and support for a general strike mounted. Indeed, in Hamilton, over 100,000 people, the largest labour mobilization in Ontario history, came out to demonstrate against Harris. But union leaders were reluctant to even discuss a general strike, much less call one. In hindsight, we can see how the two primary poles of anti-Harris action, namely organized labour's leadership and coalitions of community groups and rank-and-file workers, had radically different conceptions of what this resistance ultimately meant. For union leaders, the mobilizations were no different than traditional strike tactics used to demonstrate capacity to disrupt and thereby open dialogue from a position of power. For the rank-and-file workers and activists involved, the end goal was to actually disrupt the government and their business allies – to force them from power. This dichotomy, between those who see disruption as an opening to further discussion and those who see it as a tactic in an of itself, proved to be the undermining of the DoA; they never reached their logical next step – forcing Harris out of power – and this is largely attributable to labour leaders' inability (or unwillingness) to see these broad mobilizations as part of an intensifying class struggle. This political blindspot cost the anti-Harris movement momentum and squandered the opportunity for a province-wide general strike. Indeed, by the time Harris left power in 2001, and Ontario Finance Minister Ernie Eves took over as Premier, the austerity agenda of the provincial conservatives was well-entrenched and has been carried on by the current Liberal government: welfare rates were never restored, service cuts continue, unionized workers are still scapegoated... and the list goes on.
The ultimate lesson we, as anarchists, take away from the experience of the DoA, is the importance of organizing outside of existing labour/political structures. Indeed, it was the success of initial, small-scale protests against Harris that compelled organized labour to act, creating the necessary preconditions that convinced union leadership that active resistance to Harris was both viable and popular. The lackluster response of both the provincial NDPs and many of Ontario's unions provided the impetus to community/worker coalitions to organize their struggles together in the first place. It was this misreading of the Harris agenda – an agenda that union leaders assumed compromise was possible with – that led to what can only be termed the failure of the DoA. A union leadership that ignores the element of class struggle, that ignores the stated intentions of a repressive and callous government in the hopes of some illusory "dialogue" or "compromise", can only lead us into defeat.
It is this mixed bag – the complicated mingling of cautious reformism and revolutionary aspirations – that represents the ultimate legacy of the DoA. The capacity to pull hundreds of thousands of people, from all walks of life was undoubtedly a huge success, and reminds us that small-scale organizing can produce large-scale gain. But the failure of labour leadership to fully endorse this popular rage, to help carry it to its next step, remains the most pronounced lesson from the DoA: we need workers on our side, but we (and they) don't need their reform-minded leadership, who are far too concerned with maintaining their own interests to mount an effective struggle for broader social change. Our organizing needs to reflect that reality if we are to take the lessons from the DoA to heart; militant, creative resistance to power isn't something that comes exclusively from unions anymore – and indeed, it can spur unions into action they might not otherwise take.
In summary, the DoA against Harris can only really be called a failure – if an instructive and ultimately useful one. The moment was not seized and Harris felt safe in pursuing his class-war agenda. There was a glimmer of possibility, of widespread frustration and dissent lying beneath the surface of daily life – and it burst forth for a moment, only to be shoved back into the corner by a union leadership too afraid to rock the boat. In our current struggle against austerity measures and the states that push them, this is a valuable lesson: change comes from below and forces the hand of the powerful – not vice versa. A mass movement with a sense of history will not allow these mistakes to be replicated. The rage and dissent is still there; it is our task to effectively mobilize it in a way that does not duplicate the top-down, union-leadership driven model at the heart of the DoA. In this regard, it is perhaps fitting that the DoA share an acronym with a term familiar to health-care practitioners the world over: dead on arrival. We must ensure that the next time (because there will be a next time, as we stare down the barrel of austerity yet again) our resistance will be more lively.