I remember it like it was yesterday – Ontario’s public sector workers standing strong to proclaim those four famous words: no justice, no peace. It’s simple and it still holds true today.
This year marks 25 years since 55,000 OPSEU/SEFPO members working in the Ontario Public Sector (OPS) walked off the job and onto the picket line for the first time in Ontario’s history.
Going on strike was uncharted, and sometimes dangerous, territory but these members were compelled by a fierce sense of duty to public service. And they were driven by their opposition to the Harris government’s so-called Common Sense Revolution – a platform of austerity that was gutting Ontario’s public sector.
The plot wasn’t new: create a crisis, then privatize.
It’s why deficit mania was running rampant and talk of deficit reduction was in fashion. It was all part of a plan:
- try to make the public sector ineffective through deep cuts;
- offer privatization and contracting-out as the solution.
Harris’ public sector sell-off remains one the greatest scandals in our province’s history. But the 1996 OPS Strike remains one of the greatest stories of rebellion and success.
Because of the five-week walkout, members achieved contract language that stalled the government’s sell-off scheme. In the following years, our union pushed that language to the limits and saved thousands of OPS jobs and countless public services.
25 years after this monumental feat, the battle for respect still rages on. While public sector workers continue to hold the front line, “deficit” remains a powerful buzzword and austerity remains some governments’ simple-minded solution.
But the tides are turning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided new perspective on the importance of the public sector – on the health care, education and social services that support each and every one of us. It has shone a spotlight on the role of essential front-line workers – our contributions and our worth.
So, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the 1996 OPS Strike, we find ourselves at a crossroads; a dead end toward austerity and cuts or the path toward prosperity and recovery. The choice is clear.
It’s important to keep this in mind as our union prepares for provincial budget season and a big year of bargaining, including the thousands of OPSEU/SEFPO members working in the OPS.
We have reason to remain hopeful. The Ford government has shown some real promise of late; they’ve listened to our calls by investing millions for PSW training at Ontario’s public colleges and by improving safety precautions and staffing levels in our Correctional facilities.
They’ve taken the first few steps toward economic recovery and rebuilding our public sector. But after a quarter century of cuts, we’ve still got a long ways to go. Repealing Bill 124 and its unconstitutional wage cap and legislating paid sick days should be the next steps.
That’s why OPSEU/SEFPO will continue to fight for a better Ontario, where all workers are respected.
25 years ago, our union sent a strong message to the decision-makers at Queen’s Park: without justice, there will be no peace. We were willing to fight toe-to-toe then and when necessary, we’re willing to fight smart now.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas