The following is a short preview, the full comic is published in the book, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle, an anthology of Canadian labour history comics edited by the Graphic History Collective and historian Paul Buhle and published by Between the Lines Press in 2016.
Looking Back at the Ontario Days of Action
A quirk of how we deal with history in our society is that we often hear more about events that took place fifty or one hundred years ago than momentous happenings in the not-too-distant past. When it comes to working-class history in Canada some people have at least heard of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 or the strike of Ford workers in Windsor in 1946 that led to the Rand Formula. But how many people who began to become politically aware at some point in the 21st century know anything about the Ontario Days of Action?
In 1995, the Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae – vilified by the corporate media even though it had abandoned its initial agenda of minor social reforms, moved against public sector unions and initiated a crackdown on “welfare fraud,” and facing a racist backlash against its employment equity law fostered by both the Tories and Liberals – went down to defeat in the provincial election. The new Tory government headed by Mike Harris implemented a decisive turn to neoliberal policy in the province, much as the Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien had just done at the federal level of the state. Without delay, the Tories brought in major cuts to public sector services and jobs. They slashed social assistance payments by 21.6% and repealed the Employment Equity Act. They also revoked several pro-worker elements of labour law while adding a few employer-friendly provisions. University and college tuition fees were increased. In September 1995, Dudley George was shot and killed when police moved against a group of indigenous people occupying Ipperwash Provincial Park. All this created a highly polarized political situation in which anti-Tory sentiment was strong. As The Days of Action shows so well, there followed several years of protest and resistance, sometimes on a large scale. The city-wide mobilizations known as Days of Action were at the centre of this popular upsurge.
Very little has been written about the Days of Action, so this comic book from the Graphic History Project is most welcome. Its pages ably recount the key events of the fight-back movement in Ontario between 1995 and 1998. The Days of Action reminds us that hundreds of thousands of people took part in the anti-Tory protests of the time in one way or another. These deserve to be recognized as one of the most important episodes of extra-parliamentary political action by workers in the last several decades, alongside the Common Front strikes in Quebec in 1972 and, more recently, the anti-austerity protests and highly-politicized strikes by ferry workers, health support workers and teachers in British Columbia between 2002 and 2005 and the 2012 student/popular movement in Quebec.
There was more to the Days of Action than large – in a few cases, huge – Saturday marches in the streets to protest the actions of the provincial government. What set the Days of Action apart from most anti-austerity protests in Canada and Quebec was that they also included mass direct action, in the form of political strikes. By walking off the job on a Friday to protest the government’s attacks (and, in many cases, their employers’ support for the government), tens of thousands of people disrupted “business as usual” and defied the tight restrictions on when and how workers are permitted to withdraw their labour that have been central to labour law since the mid-1940s.
It is important to underscore that this strike action was made possible by the efforts of many union activists. It required many conversations with coworkers about what the government was doing and why people should not just go to a rally on a Saturday but stay away from work the day before, even though doing this fell outside the law. For many workers, participating in political strike action meant defying their bosses and losing a day’s pay (there were also cases in which union officials arranged with employers that the day’s production would be made up on another day or that workers would work a holiday in exchange for a day off on the Friday). The activity that went into mobilizing workers for a kind of action that had not been seen in Ontario since the pan-Canadian one-day strike against federal government wage controls in 1976 was important as political education on a mass scale. The strike action itself was a valuable learning experience.
It is also worth emphasizing that the Days of Action were class struggle. Even though most of their organizers and most people who took part would not have described what they were doing in that way (a consequence of the long-term decline of working-class politics in Canada), class struggle is what was happening. Mobilizing under the banner of “labour” and “community” against Harris, organizing through union locals, city-wide bodies like labour councils and coalitions for social justice, student groups and many other organizations, and carrying placards or wearing buttons with messages about the harm being inflicted on women, students, the poor, union members, people of colour, people with disabilities and others, the working class in Ontario moved against what capital — acting through its state – was doing to them.
The movement certainly had many weaknesses, as do all mass movements. As this comic book makes clear, the top leaders of Ontario’s unions were divided. Some (the “Pinks”) were outright opposed to the Days of Action, seeing them as a distraction and an obstacle to replacing the Tories with the NDP at the next election. Others supported the Days of Action. They also saw reelecting the NDP as the goal but thought that the protests would help do that as well as build the capacity of unions to influence government. Loyalty to bureaucratic protocol that treats a union’s members as the property of its top officials meant that they never appealed to members of the “Pink” unions to support the Days of Action. Theirs was not the strategy advocated by the radical wing of the movement (perhaps most notably the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, but also including some union activists): trying to build protest into resistance that could block particular Tory measures and escalate resistance to such a level that the government would be forced from office. This alternative was not merely the vision of a marginal fringe; the demand for a province-wide general strike and chants like “City by city is much too slow, let’s shut down Ontario!” were popular at many Days of Action. Unfortunately, supporters of this “fight to win” strategy were too few and insufficiently organized to have an impact on the direction of the movement. No organized opposition with these politics cohered within Ontario’s unions. Other weaknesses included a general failure to deepen much of the anti-Tory sentiment into anti-neoliberal consciousness (in contrast to what the 2012 “Red Square” movement in Quebec accomplished) or foster a widely shared basic anti-racist and feminist understanding of the Tory assault. Nor did even the beginnings of a left political alternative to the NDP emerge from the experience.
Despite the weakness of the Days of Action, there is no doubt that the government would have pushed through even worse neoliberal measures if it had not faced such mass protests. This is worth bearing in mind today, as governments of all stripes implement austerity programs — more neoliberal restructuring in response to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism that since 2008 has mired the global economy in slump.
Looking back at the Days of Action reminds us that mass working-class struggle isn’t something that only happens in other parts of the world – it happened here, and it can happen again (though it can’t simply be conjured up by radicals, and we shouldn’t expect future upsurges to be just like what took place in Ontario). This history also reminds us that it is a mistake to think that the left wing of the union officialdom will adopt a strategy based on trying to escalate resistance to the level needed to defeat a determined government. It is also wrong to expect that, faced with inadequate leadership, rank-and-file activists will spontaneously come together to take a movement in a more promising direction. To push for an alternative direction with the possibility of winning takes a lot of grassroots organizing. The success of such efforts will be affected by how much has previously been done by activists who have patiently been trying to foster democratic, militant and solidaristic unionism. These are some of the lessons that we can learn from The Days of Action.
 I discuss the reasons for this in “What is Trade Union Bureaucracy? A Theoretical Account,” Alternate Routes 24 (2013) (available at alternateroutes.ca).
We are grateful for the encouragement and financial support we received from the CUPE 3908 and The History of Education Network/Histoire et éducation en réseau and those academics who have previously studied the character of class struggle in 1990s Ontario.
David Camfield teaches Labour Studies and Sociology at the University of Manitoba, and is the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement. During the Days of Action he was a CUPE activist.
Sean Carleton is an activist and educator living in Nogojiwanong, Peterborough, Ontario, Anishinaabe Territory. He is a PhD Candidate at Trent University, a founding member of the Graphic History Collective, and member of CUPE 3908 and the Industrial Workers of the World.
Orion Keresztesi is inspired by the history of working people’s struggles—how they have shaped the world we live in, and help us to do the same today. He is a proud member of CUPE 1281 and currently serving as the Communications Officer on the local’s executive.
Doug Nesbitt is an organizer for SEIU Local 2 and an editor at RankandFile.ca. He is writing a history of the Ontario Days of Action for his PhD in History at Queen’s University.
We see the study of history as an important part of activism. We believe that changing the world today requires a solid historical understanding of the tactics and strategies that other people have used in the past to fight for social change.
As part of our creative process, we consult historical books and articles written about the stories we transform into comics as well as primary source materials from the period under study, including photographs, quotes, song lyrics, etc.
Below is a selected list of primary and secondary source materials we used to create the Days of Action comic book.
For artistic inspiration, we drew on many newspaper articles and images from the period as well as the great collection of photographs by Vincenzo Pietropalo, Celebration of Resistance: Ontario’s Day of Action. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1999.
Black, Errol and Jim Silver, Building a Better World: An Introduction to Trade Unionism in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.
Camfield, David “Assessing Resistance in Harris’s Ontario, 1995-1999.” Restructuring and Resistance: Canadian Public Policy in an Age of Global Capitalism. Ed. Mike Burke, Colin Mooers and John Shields. Halifax: Fernwood. 2000.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Heron, Craig. The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1996.
Palmer, Bryan. Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800–1991. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992.
Panitch, Leo and Paul Swartz, The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms: From Wage Controls to Social Contract. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.
Vincenzo Pietropalo, Celebration of Resistance: Ontario’s Day of Action. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1999.
Rapaport, David. No Justice, No Peace: The 1996 OPSEU Strike Against the Harris Government in Ontario. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1999.