Irate At Right-Wing Premier, Unions Paralyze London, Ontario
LONDON, Ontario (AP) _ Angered by the budget-slashing, pro-business policies of Ontario’s conservative government, thousands of workers shut down auto plants, government agencies and other businesses here Monday in a rare general strike.
The walkouts in this city of 320,000 were the biggest, most militant protest yet against the six-month-old government of Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Although it was to last only one day, the strike served notice that Canada’s labor movement will be on the front lines as budget cuts deepen nationwide.
``Mike, you have awakened the giant,″ Gord Wilson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labor, told a boisterous rally after a march through a frigid winter wind.
Harris has fueled a broad protest movement by reducing welfare payments 21 percent, cutting public spending more than 10 percent and scrapping a law that prohibited the use of strike-breakers. Thousands of public employees are losing jobs due to the cuts, while a promised boom in private-sector employment has yet to materialize.
The first picket line went up late Sunday outside a General Motors plant that produces train cars and armored personnel carriers.
Ford obtained a court injunction to oust pickets from company property around its car plant, and estimated the strike cost it $36 million in production.
There was no immediate overall estimate of how much the strike cost the local economy, but London Chamber of Commerce spokesman John Redmond put the lost payroll in the millions of dollars. Estimates of the number of striking workers ranged from 15,000 to 30,000.
Most businesses on the main street closed, and downtown resembled a slow Sunday, with only a trickle of vehicles and shoppers. ``There’s nobody. Nobody,″ said cafe owner Rose Johnston.
Downtown filled up at midmorning when thousands of union members and social-service activists gathered there, then paraded to a fairground auditorium for speeches, music and free chili.
``It’s not as cold as Harris,″ one marcher’s placard read.
London city employee John Madden dressed up as a tuna, a jibe at Social Service Minister David Tsubouchi’s suggestion that welfare recipients haggle with storekeepers for dented, low-cost cans of tuna fish.
``The banks are posting their greatest profits in history, but children are going hungry,″ Madden said. ``Something’s wrong.″
The strike idled buses, though essential services such as health care and fire protection were unaffected. Libraries, liquor stores, the main post office and several schools were closed.
Many residents seemed indifferent to the protest. Others were angry.
``Those union people have good jobs, good pay,″ said Elsa Arnold, sitting at her desk in a tax return office watching a crowd parade past her window.
``The (government spending) cuts have to be made,″ Arnold said.
At the Ontario legislature in Toronto, Harris said he regretted the strike but indicated he was unsympathetic to the unions’ grievances.
``Yeah, they’re not happy. They’ve lost some power,″ he said. ``I thought they had too much and I thought we needed to restore the balance.″