BY JOANNE PRITCHARD
TORONTO - "No Justice, No Peace!" chanted more than 1,000 Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) strikers, fists in the air, at a rally here on March 8. The 55,000 union members are going into the third week of a province-wide strike. Rallies were held every day in downtown Toronto during the first week in March.
Earlier on the day of the rally, police and private security guards herded scabs through the picket lines at the Ontario Health Insurance Plan building. All indications are that a very small percentage of workers are crossing the lines, and strikers at the rally vowed to "hold the line" in the coming week.
OPSEU picket lines have already been strengthened by members of the teachers' unions, the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the United Steelworkers of America, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Four hundred teachers joined a picket line outside the Ontario Science Centre on February 29.
Strikers also urged 2,000 people attending a March 9 International Women's Day rally at the University of Toronto to come out to the picket lines. The theme of this rally was the fight against cuts in day care, welfare, hospitals, education, and immigrant services. OPSEU strikers were invited to lead the march that followed the rally.
The work stoppage was called in response to Ontario Premier Mike Harris's plan to eliminate between 13,000 and 27,000 jobs in the public sector. New legislation adopted by the government abolishes "successor rights."
As a result, OPSEU members will no longer have the right to keep jobs that are privatized by the government, and those that do are guaranteed neither union protection nor their previous wage rate. Laid off workers will lose existing pension rights.
This is the first strike ever by government employees in Ontario. The OPSEU members were eager to set up their picket lines and begin the fight. Leah Casselman, president of OPSEU, originally proposed the strike start in stages, with government services being withdrawn over a number of weeks. But within two days of the strike's starting, the determination of the rank and file to fight had swept this plan aside, and all eligible strikers had set up pickets lines.
Margo Roberts, who has worked at the Queen Street Mental Hospital for 25 years teaching vocational skills to patients, said she has been "deeply touched by the community support for the strike.
"One lady from the neighborhood brought us a pot of hot soup," she said. "The restaurant across the street gives us free muffins, and a doctor working inside the hospital had three pizzas delivered to our line. I eat better on the picket line than I ever did at home!" Roberts declared to the laughter of other strikers.
A worker in the attorney general's office who participated in the March 8 rally said she saw the strike as "a holy war against the Harris government, with all the groups of people being affected by the cuts coming together." In the week before, high school students walked out to protest education cutbacks, hospital workers organized a meeting to protest hospital closings, and a meeting of 1,000 protested cuts in the Workers Compensation Program.
Dave Johnson, chief negotiator for the government, is leading a public campaign to paint the OPSEU members as irresponsible for striking in the face of the government's fiscal crisis. "The province of Ontario spends $1 million an hour more than it takes in," he said. "The deficit does not go on strike."
The OPSEU officials have said they agree that cuts to jobs are necessary because the government has economic constraints. The union's negotiating position is to accept the layoffs but demand more severance pay for those who lose their jobs and reinstitute successor rights for those whose jobs are privatized.
Many on the picket lines say that cuts have to be made, but argue they should be implemented "humanely and fairly."
A Human Rights Commission worker expressed the resolve of the strikers when she said, "We're not going back until we win; we have too much to lose." Janice Moore, a striker from the Office of the Environment, explained, "We're not just fighting for respect and dignity for OPSEU. What we're doing will have an impact on everyone in society."
On March 12, the Ontario Federation of Labour meets to discuss the next protest against the Harris government's budget. The latest protest was in Hamilton and rallied more than 100,000 people.
Women's organizations are meeting on March 24 to plan an action for June 8, the first anniversary of the Harris government. On March 8, the government announced that it would go back to the bargaining table.
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