Nearly 20 years ago, after months of strenuous bargaining, OPSEU engaged in one of the most political, most intense strike actions in its 114 year history. On February 28th, 1996, 50,000 members walked off the job to protest the collective agreement proposed by the Mike Harris government. His “Common Sense Revolution” included an agenda of mass privatization and the loss or out-sourcing of 15,000 public sector jobs.
Former Local 503 President David Rapaport played a major role in mobilization. He secured the legal right to picket high-profile sites such as subway stations and the tunnel entrance to Queen’s Park. His efforts were among the most highly publicized of the strike. Through organization, leadership and intuitive tactical planning, this IT professional from the 23rd floor of Mowat Block was able to influence public opinion and increase solidarity within the ranks of OPSEU to ensure better severance packages and the continuation of Successor Rights.
Mr. Rapaport graciously consented to dinner and questions with me. I wanted to hear directly from him how some of the historical events unfolded, and to learn from his experience some of the tried and true tenets of effective member representation.
Despite having earned his Ph. D. at Trent University earlier this year, David (as he has repeatedly asked me to call him) struck me as a pragmatic, approachable guy. We began by jumping right in to some of the stories in his book, No Justice No Peace: The 1996 OPSEU Strike against the Harris government in Ontario. I learned from him that the right to strike is protected by our Constitution, but the right to picket on private property needs to be secured by a court ruling.
On the opening day of the spring sitting of the legislature in 1996, picketers mobilized to Queen’s Park to greet MPPs. This would have been ineffective if the tunnel connecting the subway to the legislature was accessible. It was imperative that the tunnel be blocked for the main strategy aboveground to be effective.
The first stop en route to a legal picket of the underpass led through the offices of TTC headquarters, so David and Local 503 President Gary Shaul attended a board meeting at 1900 Yonge Street. Despite the fact that our contingent’s request was backed by committee vice-chair Howard Moscoe and board member Joe Pantalone, all motions moved were 5-2 against allowing a picket line. Not even an impassioned plea from the articulate City Councillor Jack Layton could persuade the obstinate majority to permit the picket.
“The blockade landed us with an injunction. The arbitrator didn’t take long to figure out that the employer (Mike Harris), with the collusion of the TTC, was pushing the envelope way too far.”
It was ruled that OPSEU and its allies could picket the tunnel to prevent managers and strikebreakers from entering the legislature surreptitiously. All entrants to Queen’s Park needed to use the main entrances, which were clogged by 5,000 active protesters and all the media presence they commanded.
At this point it was decided that OPP Riot Squad would be brought in to escort these individuals through the crowd. One officer was famously overheard saying they were going to “whack ‘em and stack ‘em”. At least six were injured that day in the fracas; it was one of the most violent days in Ontario’s political history.
Public opinion shifted in a big way as a result of the events of that icy March day in ’96. David made sure the media was aware that the Conservative government authority had been undermined by the courts in the decision to overturn the injunction preventing the tunnel blockade. The bigger scandal of the day was the apparent overreaction of provincial police in injuring those engaging in their Charter-protected right to strike.
We sought three weeks of severance per year worked for every job lost, and that’s what we got. We were after the retention of successor rights, which we received once the dust had settled.
After speaking with David I got the impression that these positive outcomes would not have come to pass were it not the tactics of militance, and the courage to be ‘just defiant enough’.
In researching this article, this aspiring activist came across a newsletter David published, The Rapaport Report. In this issue (November 2006), there is a quote that’s inspirational and, I think, relevant:
“The only way I know how to organize is to talk to one person, and then you talk to another person, and then you talk to another.”
On behalf of the Local, Brother David: Thank you.