COVER

Showdown in Ontario

The unions challenge the Harris revolution

TOM FENNELL March 11 1996
COVER

Showdown in Ontario

The unions challenge the Harris revolution

TOM FENNELL March 11 1996

Showdown in Ontario

The unions challenge the Harris revolution

A driving winter rain turned the Victorian facade of Toronto’s Don Jail from forbidding to outright depressing. Inside, tensions were running high: Prisoners fought with each other and hurled at the small crew of guards left behind. From their windows, prisoners could see the rest of the staff outside picketing and huddling for warmth by bonfires. The guards were part of the 67,000-member Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which went on strike last week to gain better separation packages for 13,000 civil servants who may be laid off over the next year. Premier Mike Harris insists that the cuts are needed to help balance Ontario’s books. But the province’s once-powerful economy has been in a long slump, and the future looks increasingly grim for corrections officers like Archie McQueen, 50, who has spent 20 years patrolling the prison. “I do a dirty job,” said McQueen as he puffed on a cigarette and warmed his hands over the fire. “If I go, I will end up on welfare.”

McQueen and thousands of other government workers are being rocked by one of the most far-reaching plans to restructure government in Canadian history. Whether Harris succeeds could very well hinge on the outcome of the strike. Both publicand private-sector unions in the province are aware of the high stakes: they are trying to help the 55,000 striking OPSEU members wring more lucrative concessions from the government, and sent some of their own members to beef up picket lines. The government is offering a termination package that includes six months’ notice and two weeks’ of severance pay for every year worked, to a maximum of 52 weeks. While some compensation experts say the government’s offer is more than adequate, unionists say the strike is also about maintaining the dignity of workers, and they want a much richer package from the province. Said OPSEU president Leah Casselman: “This strike is about fairness.”

The standoff, the first public servant strike in Ontario’s history, also quickly turned into a test of wills between Harris’s vision of the future and organized labor across the province. Ken Signorettig, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said that several large unions have agreed to lend OPSEU $22 million to help it continue the strike. The Ontario branch of the United Steelworkers of America alone made $10 million available. Signorettig said that in 1981, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan broke a strike by air traffic controllers by firing them, it sent a signal to the private sector that union contracts could be ripped up • and wages rolled back. “Harris must not be allowed to break this strike,” said Signorettig. “We can’t let that happen.”

Harris, however, is determined to press ahead. To create jobs, the premier says the province’s $9-billion deficit must be erased; taxes must be slashed to put more money into the hands of consumers; and unions must be weakened. Within weeks of being elected last June, his government repealed NDP labor legislation that outlawed the hiring of replacement workers during strikes. Now, as part of his strategy to slash spending, Harris wants to radically reduce the size of the government—by cutting and privatizing ser-

vices and axing thousands of workers. The Tories are confident that once the government crushes OPSEU, Harris’s popularity will soar. “It’s going to be a tough couple of years, but it’s going to get Harris re-elected,” said a top official in the premier’s office. “Three years from now he will get credit for being a tough leader who did what had to be done to solve the province’s financial crisis.”

If the strikers fail, the battle with labor could make Harris even more popular with voters. A poll carried out by Decima Research of Toronto on Feb. 27 showed that the public was generally tilting towards the government in the strike’s early days. Sixty-four per cent of those polled said the government’s layoff provisions were fair, while 62 per cent said the amount of severance pay being offered was adequate. Casselman has stated that she hopes the public will turn against Harris when the strike inconveniences them. But 87 per cent of poll respondents said they had not yet been affected by the work stoppage. Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said that if the strike continues to merely irritate Ontarians rather than plunging the province into chaos, Harris will emerge as the clear winner. “The public believes the bureaucracy is bloated and soft,” said Wiseman. “The Tories are playing to that.” Still, the strike did make it more difficult to get a birth certificate or a driver’s licence or to complete real estate transactions. Some people who showed up at government offices in downtown Toronto left empty-handed and angry. Cecily Thompson needed a birth certificate for her six-month-old baby so that she could get a passport to visit her family in Tunisia. “I don’t know if we can go now,” said Thompson. “I just didn’t think the strike would affect me.” Minutes later, John Loure arrived at the same building looking for a copy of his driver’s record so that he could apply for a job. “I think I’m losing a chance at a job,” said a disappointed Loure.

About 12,000 union members were classified as essential or emergency workers, and were required to work during the strike. They included snowplow operators, some prison guards and ambulance workers. Last week, the prison guards were the busiest of the emergency crews, as they tried to contain unrest in several of the province’s prisons. Inmates, angry over being locked in their cells for long periods because there were fewer staff members to watch them, set fires, smashed windows and flooded toilets. At the Don Jail, striking guards even left the picket line to go inside and break up fights. By the fifth day of the strike, the situation had deteriorated to the point that managers from several government ministries were ordered to replace the striking guards. And many of the correction officers left behind in the prison feel their lives were on the line. “These prisoners are desperate,” said Lawton Calender, a corrections officer at the Don. “I don’t want to put my life in danger.” The stress level in the province’s psychiatric hospitals was also running high. To placate the 421 patients at the Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto, staff provided extra desserts and dinners. And instead of undergoing therapy, patients were watching videos. As a scuffle broke out when an outpatient tried to cross the picket line, Beryl Campeau-Larose, a recreational therapist at the centre, blamed Harris for the tension. “It’s the public the government is hurting,” said Campeau-Larose. “Those are the ones who are going to suffer.” Some parts of Ontario’s economy also began to show signs of

strain. Real estate agents complained that they were having difficulty closing deals without government documents. And with unionized meat inspectors on strike, some processing plants were forced to shut down and lay off hundreds of workers. To reopen the plants, the Ontario Independent Meat Packers and Processors Society asked the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) to force the meat inspectors back to work by declaring them an essential service. But on Friday, the issue remained unresolved when the court ruled against the association’s application. Said Ronald Dancey, manager of Morrison’s Meat Packers Ltd. in Cambridge: “The financial impact is severe.”

Striking union members say they are willing to face the potential wrath of the public and business to obtain a better layoff agreement, similar to those offered by other government agencies and Crown corporations. Two years ago, Ontario Hydro gave departing workers one year’s pay, and two weeks’ salary for every year worked up to 10 years, and three weeks’ salary for every year of work past 10 years. The federal government is also trying to reduce its labor force by 45,000 workers; it is offering a minimum of 39 weeks and a maximum of 90 weeks of severance pay to many of its workers.

By comparison, the Ontario government offered two weeks’ pay for each year worked, up to a maximum of 52 weeks. While some larger corporations such as Bell Canada have offered similar incentives to entice workers into leaving, Howard Levitt, a leading Toronto labor lawyer, said that unionized workers in the private sector usually receive the minimum under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act. Under the act, a worker at a midsized company would receive one week in severance pay for each year worked, up to a maximum of 26 weeks. Executives with larger firms are treated much better, often receiving packages that include three years’ pay. A senior manager with a large firm would receive about a month’s pay for every year worked. And Levitt said the OPSEU demands are more in line with those offered to top executives in a large private sector firm.

The union is also incensed over retirement provisions and the socalled 80 factor. In most public sector layoffs, if an individual’s age

and the number of years worked add up to 80, he or she is eligible to collect a full pension immediately. But Casselman said Bill 26, the contentious omnibus legislation that the province forced through the legislature in January, exempted the government from this requirement. As a result, the union claims that an employee who is laid off at age 55 and has worked for 25 years would previously have immediately qualified for a full pension. But under the government’s package, the worker will have to wait until age 65 to collect full benefits. “These are people who don’t make a lot of money,” said Casselman. “They want to be treated fairly.”

Before the strike, Ontario management board chairman Dave Johnson did increase the amount of separation pay that the government was willing to give its workers from one to two weeks for each year worked. But Johnson insisted that the government simply cannot afford to put any more money in the pot. And when given the opportunity, Johnson constantly restated the financial problem facing the government: it is spending $1 million more an hour than it is taking in in revenues— producing an annual deficit of $9 billion—leaving Ontario with a per capita debt of $8,800, the third highest in Canada.

More than just balancing Ontario’s budget is at stake for Harris. Sid Noel, a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, said the future of Harris’s government hinges on the outcome of the strike. He said that unlike previous Tory governments in Ontario, which tried to hold the middle ground,

Harris believes he has a strong constituency on the right that wants him to reduce the size of government and lower taxes. As the strike began,

Harris said his tough stance with the unions sends a positive signal to business. “The people of Ontario are determined to have a better business climate,” said the premier. “They will not be held hostage.”

Harris’s quick move to reduce the size of government is also a key part of his strategy to deliver on his promise to cut the provincial income tax rate by 30 per cent. Wiseman said cutting the deficit and freeing up revenue to finance the tax cut will antagonize many groups. But he added that Harris hopes to survive the initial wave of anger and spend the rest of his mandate building his popularity. In the meantime, Noel expects Harris to bulldoze ahead. Said Noel: “Harris won’t be deterred by a few speed bumps on the road to the promised land.”

Opposition politicians were still hoping that public opinion will turn

against Harris. Peter Kormos, who is running to replace Bob Rae as leader of the Ontario NDP, said that when he visited picket lines last week he sensed a growing resolve to fight the Harris revolution. He predicted that as the public becomes increasingly irritated by the strike, they will vent their anger against Harris. “As it causes more disruptions,” said Kormos, “it demonstrates to people how important the public sector is to their dayto-day lives.”

In the end, much will depend on whether the striking union can hold together. A growing number of government workers who cannot afford the strike, or who apparently believe that they cannot win, began to return to work last week. Concerned strike organizers responded by bolstering picket lines with reinforcements from other unions including the Canadian Auto Workers Union. And outside a government building in downtown Toronto, picketers chanted “scab” and “shame” as union members crossed their line. In the crowd, Margaret Dore, a civil servant who works for the NDP, said those who were heading back simply did not know what is at stake. ‘They are lambs going to the slaughter,” said Dore. ‘This is their last chance to stand up to the government.” Last • week, though, Harris seemed to be enjoying the fight.

TOM FENNELL

PAUL KAIHLA