Unions flex muscles as strikes hit Toronto

Hugh Winsor in Ottawa reports on the mass protest against public sector cuts
Most public services in Canada's largest city were closed down yesterday as members of the Ontario Federation of Labour organized a mass protest against cuts by the province's Conservative government, led by Premier Mike Harris.

Officials of the OFL, which represents more than one million workers, claimed the pro- test will be the largest in Canadian history and the first time organized labour has attempted a general strike since the 1930s.

Picket lines brought public transit services to a halt, most schools were closed, and postal services were suspended. Many employees of private companies took a day of annual leave rather than attempt to travel into the centre of the Toronto urban area, whose total population now exceeds 3.5 million people.

Every hotel room was booked and some employees of stock broker firms and banks slept in their offices on Thursday evening to avoid the congestion. As a result, the Toronto Stock Exchange, Canada's largest, opened on schedule and banks were open.

The strike has been more successful in closing down public services than private firms, most of which have remained open for business, if on a reduced level. Many companies have ad- opted innovative ways to get their employees to work.

The Globe and Mail newspaper, for example, chartered a cruise ship which normally takes sightseers around Toronto harbour, and used it to ferry employees living in suburban communities along the shore of Lake Ontario to Toronto in order to ensure production of its large weekend paper went ahead without disruption.

Labour is protesting against the Conservatives' plans to cut $9 billion (pounds 3.73bn) in services, almost 20 per cent of the total provincial budget, in order to keep an election promise for an across-the-board income tax cut.

The Conservatives won an upset election victory in June 1995, promising a "commonsense revolution." Many of the cuts in public services are only now being implemented, but the timing of the protest was geared to the first anniversary of the implementation of a 23 per cent cut in the level of social assistance (welfare) payments.

Labour is arguing that the tax cuts benefit those in higher incomes the most, while it is the poor who are hit hardest by the cutbacks.

The Conservatives have ended support for any new public housing, reduced subsidies for day-care for the children of working parents, and made major reductions in funding for the correctional service, meaning that parole and half-way services have been reduced in favour of incarceration.

The protest, which will continue today while the Conservatives are holding their annual convention, is intended as a show of strength for organized labour whose proportion of the total labour force has been declining.

The Conservative government has been targeting the unions representing civil servants and other public services, and recently broke a strike by jail guards.

The unions selected 300 sites around the city, a mixture of private businesses and government buildings and transit depots, for picketing.

But the provincial government was successful in obtaining a court injunction pre- venting the unions from blocking access to Pearson International Airport on the outskirts of Toronto.

As a result, the airport - which operates as the hub for 40 per cent of all of the flights in Canada - was operating normally but with reduced passenger loads because many travellers decided to delay or advance their travel plans rather than take the risk of being grounded.

While Friday's labour activities were spread around the city, today the unions plan to surround the provincial parliament buildings and the convention centre, where the Con- servatives are meeting with a crowd of 250,000 protesters. If successful, it will be the largest demonstration in the country's history.

Premier Harris has already announced that the protest will have no influence on his policies, and his government is determined to push ahead with cuts which could include the closing of one in every five hospitals around the province.

The provincial government is already in a fight with doctors over fee schedules applying to the publicly financed healthcare system. The government has also said it will limit the number of new doctors permitted to register in the system.

The premier also advised delegates to the Conservative conference not to be intimidated by the protesters and promised that police will escort them through picket lines if necessary.