Ontario Public Service Strike Violence

When David Harris, a 40-year-old Toronto elementary school teacher, arrived at the Ontario legislature last week, the ornate building was surrounded by almost 5,000 striking members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

Ontario Public Service Strike Violence

When David Harris, a 40-year-old Toronto elementary school teacher, arrived at the Ontario legislature last week, the ornate building was surrounded by almost 5,000 striking members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). To show support, Harris joined the protesters, who are demanding better severance packages for 13,000 civil servants who expect to be laid off by the province's Conservative government. But Harris got more than he bargained for when violence erupted soon after Tory MPPs arrived to open the spring session of the legislature. In the melee, several cabinet ministers and MPPs were spat upon and roughed up before a 32-man Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) riot squad - dressed head-to-foot in grey body armor, carrying Plexiglas shields and wielding wooden batons - charged into the crowd to open a path into the building. Harris and three other people were hurt in the fracas. Later, a shaken Harris said: "They looked like storm troopers."

The bloody confrontation - one of the most violent in Ontario's political history - will not be quickly forgotten. After a heated debate, deputy premier Ernie Eves called an inquiry into the incident. The OPP also faced sharp criticism from other police officials who said the riot squad may have even provoked the confrontation. Premier Mike Harris expressed deep regret over the violence, telling reporters that "maybe it's time we looked at ourselves and started behaving in the 21st century like adults in employer-employee relations." All the same, his critics say that there could be more trouble as Harris presses ahead with his party's so-called Common Sense Revolution.

Over the next three months, the Tories plan to introduce a series of bills that will radically reduce the size of government in a bid to eliminate Ontario's $9-billion annual deficit within five years. They also hope to have a workfare program in place later this year that will force able-bodied welfare recipients to work for their benefits. To help make the stiff fiscal medicine more politically palatable, Eves, who is also finance minister, has promised that his inaugural budget in May will contain the first of a series of tax cuts that will reduce provincial income tax rates by 30 per cent over the next three years. But as the Tory revolution gathers steam, Liberal house leader Jim Bradley said he expects more blood to flow. "If they proceed as quickly and drastically as they have," said Bradley, "we will see more confrontations."

The strike that led to last week's clash with police began on Feb. 26 when most of OPSEU's 55,000 members walked off the job. By last Saturday, the two sides were still at an impasse over job security, severance pay and pensions at the end of the strike's fourth week. Two weeks ago, there seemed to be a breakthrough when provincial mediator John Mather brought government and labor negotiators together and ordered a news blackout. But last week the union was still seeking a termination package that included three weeks' pay for every year worked, while the government was still offering two weeks' pay. OPSEU also wanted to ensure that if government work is privatized, civil servants will move with their jobs and still be covered by the terms of their government contract. In a speech in front of the legislature just after last week's confrontation, OPSEU president Leah Casselman insisted that the union will triumph. "We are their worst nightmare," said Casselman, to a roar of approval from strikers. "We'll be on their case day in and day out."

The OPSEU strikers mustered last week on the muddy lawns surrounding Queen's Park at around 8 a.m., on the opening day of the spring sitting of the legislature. Under an arrangement with the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service that has been in place almost since the outset of the strike, picketers were supposed to delay MPPs and their staffs for only 15 minutes before letting them into the building. But as the crowd chanted "hold that line," chaos broke out and that agreement broke down, as many of the MPPs decided to force their way into the legislature.

By 11 a.m., more than 100 MPPs and their staffs had made it into the building. But the strikers, determined to send a message to Harris, still held back a number of Tory cabinet ministers and backbenchers. And as the crowd's anger grew, Metro Police officers waded in and escorted the politicians and their staff to safety - but not before some of them were roughed up. Bill King, the caucus liaison in Harris's office, claimed that he was even thrown backward into some shrubbery. Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach also tried to make his way through the crowd, but he was spat on, doused with coffee and bombarded with paper cups. "Are you crazy walking into this?" shouted the police officer who finally rescued him. Solicitor General Bob Runciman, also had to be escorted out of the crowd. "It was scary," said Runciman. "My heart was in my mouth when I got out of there."

The politicians who were unable to cross the line refused to give in and continued to demand to be let in. But when the strikers still refused to co-operate, the OPP riot squad made the first of two forays at about 11:30 a.m. Shouting "move, move," they charged forward pummeling anyone who refused to step back. Steve Giles, a striking probation officer, was knocked unconscious by one blow. "That was totally unprovoked," screamed striker Bob DeMatteo as he stood over Giles. "This is Mike Harris's goon squad."

With the riot squad then holding open a path through the strikers, the remaining MPPs raced through police lines into the legislature. "Our physical being was at risk," said Tory MPP David Tilson. "The police told us to run, and run like heck."

The violent clash later dominated debate in the legislature. Harris said he respected the strikers' right to picket, but added that the people who work in the legislature have a right of entry. But opposition MPPs demanded an inquiry into the OPP's actions. Initially, Eves turned aside their requests. The following day, however, he surprised the legislature by announcing that there would indeed be a full inquiry. Eves is expected to appoint a retired judge to head the investigation, which will likely cost at least $2 million and take six months to complete. "The accountability and behavior of all individuals involved should be dealt with," said Eves. "We owe it to ourselves to look at what went wrong."

Witnesses in the crowd said police taunted the strikers by blowing kisses at them. And Paul Walter, president of the Metro Toronto Police Association union, which has been battling government cuts to the police budget, said that just before the bloody clash members of the OPP riot squad boasted that they would "whack 'em and stack 'em." Some Toronto police officers later contradicted Walter, saying the members of the riot team behaved professionally. Top ranking OPP officials also defended the actions of the riot squad. "Members of parliament were being illegally detained from getting into the legislature," said OPP Supt. Bill Currie. "It was our job to get them into the House."

The melee underscored just how polarizing Harris's revolution is proving to be. Many analysts say that to carry out its cost-cutting crusade, the Tories will have to take billions of dollars out of health and education spending and cut or sell off a number of government operations, including the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which operates a vast network of liquor stores across the province. University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said the looming cuts will only further divide the province. "They want to get government back to 1985 when the Tories were in power," said Wiseman. "But the province has changed a lot since then." Eves's determination to phase in the promised 30-per-cent cut in tax rates is also drawing fire, with opposition critics claiming that it will force the government to cut even more drastically to meet its deficit targets.

Last week's clash with police may also strengthen organized labor's resolve to oppose the cuts. The government's own estimates show that only about 5,000 of the 55,000 striking workers were crossing picket lines by week's end - confounding the predictions of those who said that OPSEU, which has never been on strike before, would quickly crumble. "I'm surprised by their solidarity," said Wiseman. And the images of police bludgeoning strikers may now play into labor's hands. According to Wiseman, Ontario voters normally pay little attention to the legislators at Queen's Park. He added, however, that the clash with police has focused attention on the Harris agenda and that, if the violence continues, the public may yet turn against the government. "We are in a more polarized environment than I can recall in Ontario politics," said Wiseman. But last week, at least, Harris seemed unwilling - or unable - to defuse the tensions.

Maclean's April 1, 1996