Across the country and around the world, major global economic and political challenges — China, COP27, the American elections, recession, inflation, G20, Indo-Pacific relations, Russia — are hitting the fan as tempting targets for columnists looking for fodder. But there’s a little local Canadian news turdle that was sucked into the fan last week that deserves a brief retrospective, in part because it continues to generate tidbits of commentary and enthusiasm among leftists and unionists.
Not just the left is fascinated by the idea that Ontario’s union movement, led by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)scored a major victory early last week when Premier Doug Ford withdrew his Bill 28 plan to use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent the province’s 55,000 education workers from going on strike. Over at The National, the CBC’s flagship news show, the weekly “At Issue” panel last Thursday joined the unanimous media chorus in condemning the Ford government for threatening to take away a right to strike that is imbedded in the Charter. Except it isn’t in the Charter, as noted in this space last week. Rather, the right was invented by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 2015 decision.
Around the water cooler here at FP How, the CBC’s “At Issue” panel is known, affectionately, as the “No Issue” panel, since the four journalists rarely disagree and generally spend their time stumbling over one another as they lurch toward the same conclusion. In this case, the “No Issue” panel unanimously concluded that CUPE had successfully beaten back Ford’s offensive use of the notwithstanding clause by forming a public coalition with other public and private sector unions around the threat to hold a “general strike.”
The idea that a general strike threat, backed by public and private sector unions, forced Ford to back down is now part of Canadian labor relations lore and legend. CUPE’s national president, Mark Hancock, claimed his union “took on the Ford government, and the government blinked.” Another union leader said: “The workers, united, will shut this province down whenever we need to.”
It’s wonderful stuff, classic union rhetoric that fails in this case to acknowledge the facts, which are that the education workers who had threatened to strike did not go on strike and returned to the bargaining table. In essence, the union pulled back from their strike threat after Ford set out to take away their ability to strike. Perhaps the union movement realized that actually getting into a court battle over the right to shut down the school system and plunge millions of parents into a childcare nightmare might not be the smartest option.
Still, the Great General Strike Legend of 2022 continues to spread. Stephanie Ross, the director of labor studies at McMaster University, told CBC Radio over the weekend that a general strike in Ontario could even have spread across the country. During an interview, Ross was asked: “If Premier Ford had not backed down on Bill 28, what would people have been in for on Monday? What would that general strike have looked like?”
According to her web page, Ross’s academic focus is “how ordinary people make social change through collective action in the face of powerful forces to the contrary … (and) effectively create more egalitarian socioeconomic arrangements while also fostering deep forms of democratic participation.” In response to the question, Ross said there were “some indicators” a general strike “could have meant” that the people of Ontario would have seen auto workers, postal workers, service industry workers, transportation workers and others “walking off their jobs in support of education workers.”
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Really? The only real indicator came from the public lineup of leaders from other unions — Unifor, United Steelworkers, Canadian Labor Congress — who seemed to be backing plans to shut down the provincial economy.
With union membership dipping below 30 per cent of Canada’s workforce and an economy girding for a recessionit is hard to imagine how union leaders could organize a provincial or national walkout that would be without precedent in modern times — unless one considers the great Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 a modern times event. Described by the Canadian Encyclopedia as the largest strike in Canadian history, it involved a six-week walkout by 30,000 workers who shut down factories, shops, transit and city services. Despite conflict and arrests, the strike “did not immediately succeed in empowering workers and improving job conditions,” although it may have unified working classes. “Some of its participants helped establish what is now the New Democratic Party.”
Another obstacle to a 2022 general strike, conceded by McMaster’s Ross, is that “sympathy strikes are not formally legal in Canada.” Is the Canadian labor movement, which claims to be rock solid behind the Charter of Rights, ready to mount an illegal picket line around the Ontario or Canadian economies and deny others the right to work?
And now there is talking in activist circles of using general strikes to achieve other objectives. “After Ontario’s labor resurgence, is it time for a general strike for climate?” asked the National Observer. Answer: No. There is no labor resurgence, a general strike would be illegal, and it’s unlikely Canadians would support a general strike — no matter what the alleged motive.
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