Ontario Public Service Strike Ends

Right up to the end, it was a strike marked by bitterness, distrust and a disturbing degree of violence.

Ontario Public Service Strike Ends

Right up to the end, it was a strike marked by bitterness, distrust and a disturbing degree of violence. Even as union and provincial government negotiators met at a downtown Toronto hotel to put the finishing touches on a tentative deal to end a five-week strike by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, trouble brewed a few blocks away at the Ontario legislature. Conservative MPP Terence Young got into a confrontation with two pickets, one of whom chased the politician into the building and exchanged heated words with him before being escorted outside by a security guard. It was a minor scuffle, a far cry from the riot that had erupted between 5,000 strikers and police on the same spot only 10 days earlier. But that it took place at all when a settlement seemed so close at hand underscored how high emotions had been running throughout the strike - and how much was at stake for both sides.

Predictably, both government and union negotiators claimed victory in the tentative deal that was reached last Friday night - an agreement that was expected to be ratified over the weekend by the 67,000-member union. "I don't think anyone caved in," said Ontario Management Board chairman Dave Johnson, the cabinet minister overseeing the talks. "I hope union members will consider this a very fair deal to them. I think it's a fair deal for taxpayers." Similarly, OPSEU president Leah Casselman said that her members should take heart from what they had achieved on the picket lines. "What this union has done is swim up Niagara Falls," she said. "Our message to the rest of the unions and the groups in Ontario is, 'Come on up, the water's fine.' "

But the celebrations may be short-lived, especially among union members. That is because Ontario Premier Mike Harris's Conservative government remains determined to lay off at least 13,000 civil servants as part of its effort to eliminate Ontario's $9-billion annual deficit within the next five years. For OPSEU, the strike was mainly about negotiating better conditions - a so-called softer landing - for those whose jobs will be phased out. On that score, at least, the union appeared to have wrung some concessions from the government.

One of the most contentious issues had been over "bumping rights" - or the ability of laid-off employees to use their seniority to push more junior employees out of a job. At the start of the strike, the government sought to ensure that employees could exercise that option only once, while the union wanted an unlimited right to bump. Last week, the two sides agreed to a total of three bumps. That meant that Worker A who is being laid off can choose to take the job of junior Worker B, who in turn can bump a more junior Worker C, who can replace an even more junior Worker D. In addition, while the previous contract limited bumping to within 40 km of the employee's current workplace, the new provision will allow workers to bump anywhere in the province within their own ministry.

The government also agreed to provide some protection for civil servants who work in areas that are handed over to private-sector employers. Under the deal, such employers will have to make reasonable efforts to offer jobs to union members on the basis of seniority and to provide them with comparable wages and benefits.

But according to analysts, the most lasting benefit for OPSEU - and by extension, for the entire Ontario labor movement - was the degree of solidarity that the strikers demonstrated. Many observers had expected the union - a group of mainly white-collar workers who had never before waged a strike - to fold if the dispute did not end quickly. Instead, five weeks into the struggle, less than 10 per cent of the strikers had crossed picket lines. "One of the things we've learned is that when people feel their jobs are on the line, they will hang tough," said Gene Swimmer, a professor at Carleton University's School of Public Administration in Ottawa. The example set by OPSEU, added Swimmer, might well inspire other unions targeted for cuts by the Harris government - including teachers, hospital workers and municipal employees - to take a harder line in upcoming contract negotiations.

That view was certainly echoed last Friday by a small group of pickets who huddled around a bonfire outside the Ontario legislature. "Harris wanted to show his business friends that they could crush the union," said Leo Rosa, a 48-year-old government clerk. "But we stood up to them and set an example for other unions."

In the court of public opinion, though, the strike appeared to end in a draw. An Angus Reid Group poll released last week showed support for the Harris government at 45 per cent - identical to when the Conservatives were elected last June. According to University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman, that means that neither the government nor its critics had made the kind of breakthrough that they had hoped for. Wiseman said Harris had clearly hoped to follow the example of his Alberta counterpart, Ralph Klein, who actually enjoyed an increase in popularity in the early days of his deficit-fighting campaign, and who met with only sporadic resistance from labor. But, added Wiseman, "Ontario isn't Alberta. You couldn't have had a strike like this in Alberta, which has a long history of electing right-wing governments. In Ontario, governments have traditionally succeeded by hugging to the centre." For Harris, the test for the future may be whether the centre still holds.

Maclean's April 8, 1996