In the year since Doug Ford took office as Ontario’s premier, he’s increased classroom sizes, cut legal aid for immigrants, rolled back a scheduled minimum wage increase, and more. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, despite being one of the least-liked premiers in the country.
Ontarians could wait three years until it’s time to vote him out.
Or they could call a general strike.
It isn’t unheard of in Canadian history. In fact, this method of protest has successfully been used here before. A century ago, poor working conditions, unemployment, and rising inflation led thousands of Winnipeggers to walk off their jobs, leading to Canada’s best-known general strike.
The Winnipeg General Strike of May to June 1919 saw 30,000 people refusing to work until their voices were heard.
“Workers in the post First World War period were really doing something new and dramatic,” says Ian McKay, a history professor at McMaster University. “They were demanding radical changes. They were often using new forms of organizing that emphasize labour councils and bigger bodies.”
Labour laws as we know them are due in large part to these efforts and other strikes that took place across the country in recent history.
So why not revisit it?
There has been talk of a general strike in online spheres. And there was a May Day rally in Toronto that called itself a general strike. Instead of shutting down all labour until demands were met, protestors left work on their lunch hour.
Unfortunately, one hour of action will not cut it in the current political environment.
Carolyn Egan, president of the Steelworkers’ Toronto Area Council, agrees that “waiting to the next election is way too late. It’s way too late. And I think we have to, we have to move now as strongly, as powerfully as we can to stop the cuts before they happen, or continue to happen.”
Egan was involved in activism during the Mike Harris government in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“At that time, there was a whole series of city-wide general strikes that took place. And the first was in London, Ontario, but there were a whole range of them in Hamilton, in Toronto, St. Catharine’s, North Bay.”
Among the concerns were attacks on health care and labour rights, the likes of which we’re seeing today. But getting everyone onto the same page wasn’t easy.
“It took a while to build,” says Egan. “But there was a very strong response, and community organizations and unions and all these different cities formed an alliance and worked within the communities, worked within the unions. And of course, union members are also community members.”
One such community member is Mackenzie Kay, who also attended the May Day rally at Queen’s Park. “It wasn't a full strike,” he says. “If there had actually been a true strike, I think that we would have actually made headlines in a way that the government really had to be scared of.”
While the most exciting thing about the May Day rally may have been the prop guillotine brought out by some of the protestors, Kay wants to give the government a real reason to fear the people’s collective anger.
“I would love to see an actual general strike, everyone in teaching actually walking off the job the same day, not looking for a permit to essentially have a glorified picnic. I mean, fill the streets, stop traffic. Can’t have school because literally zero teachers are in, you can’t run your business because nobody’s in those businesses. At the very least, everyone actually has to be on the same page and come out together in support of these.”
Calling a general strike isn’t as easy as it sounds. With workers having fewer rights, it would be difficult to get people to walk off the job for a day, or as long as the movement needed.
“It’s hard, hard, hard to make these work. There are a lot of different interests at play,” says Professor McKay. “From the 1970s on, there’s been a conscious effort on the part of business and the state to weaken organized labour.”
“I think we need to look hard at and say, ‘Okay, what worked in the 1880s? What worked in 1919? What worked in 1946? What worked in the 1990s? How can we take that and work with it today?’ It will take some really creative and inventive thinking. I mean, we are in a new global age, everyone’s online, things are dramatically different than they were in the 1940s.”
There would have to be support across the board. Egan said that in the ’90s this was done by cross-picketing. She said workers from one workplace would go to another and set up picket lines in the hopes that those lines would not be crossed.
“So, for example, in Toronto, when the transit system went down, didn’t work, what happened was unionists from many different other workplaces, other unions, went up and set up pickets at varying locations to stop the transit workers from going in. Not physically stopped, but set up a line hoping that they would not cross it.”
Organizers would have to understand that anger doesn’t have to be agreeable in order to be respected. Actions such as seeking permits for a protest may actually hinder the movement.
Of the May Day rally, Kay notes, “I think the only reason that it made any lasting news was the one protester who did bring that faux theatre prop guillotine. That’s a very harsh, awesome left-wing sentiment to bring to … what I felt was a very centrist liberal kind of rally. Everyone’s very angry, but they’re protesting in very palatable ways, and that’s not really going to get us what we want anymore.”
Egan’s advice for anyone who wants to get involved is to simply connect with other people. She says high school or university students can reach out to other students and share information that way. Workers can always look at unionizing their workplaces.
“Otherwise, get involved in community mobilizations, community groups. They’re working on all kinds of questions from local health coalitions, to 15 and Fairness groups. There’s a whole range of anti-racist groups out there, and just connect with a group and become part of this, hopefully building movement and resistance.”
Though it’s unclear what the tipping point will be, the uncertainty felt by Ontarians is growing more each day. On this 100-year anniversary of Canada’s most memorable labour action, maybe it’s time we revisit the action of times gone by.