They could have backed down. They could have refused to fight. But they didn’t.

Instead, they stood their ground, fought back against attempts to take away their historic gains, fought back against the forces that are trying to bring workers down to the lowest levels. And now they’re on the edge of a new collective agreement. 

In doing so, their struggle has helped other unionized workers across the country.

Several months ago at an historic stewards assembly, 1,600 union activists pledged that they would support each other through solidarity actions, if any one was forced out on strike. That’s exactly what happened in Toronto. So when the strike began, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council established a union solidarity committee comprised of private and public sector unions.

Trade unionists from every union in the city walked the picket lines supporting locals 416 and 79 through the largest strike in Toronto’s history. In the midst of attacks by corporations and governments around the world, workers knew that the only way to survive was to stand up for each other.

“You have not allowed the city of Toronto to make you the scapegoats for their bad decisions,” said Bob Kinnear, President of ATU 113, at a solidarity rally Monday at the North York Civic Centre attended by leaders of the major unions across Toronto and the country.

By standing up for each other, locals 416 and 79 were able to maintain the gains made by previous generations while improving working conditions for their children.

“If CUPE wins in the city of Toronto, we all win,” said Carolyn Egan, President of Toronto United Steel Workers. “You have shown that the working people in this country demand dignity and respect. And they will fight no matter how hard it might be.”

And an arduous fight it has been.

Five weeks without a pay cheque. Five weeks walking in circles several hours a day. Five weeks trying to survive on strike pay. Five weeks of being verbally attacked on the picket lines and in the newspapers. And five weeks fighting with a heavily labour endorsed city council who demanded 118 pages of concessions.

“We know what it’s like to go out there and have your family starving and not knowing where the end’s going to be,” said Yolanda McClean of CUPE local 4400. “But if you hang in, there is hope.”

Other unions have watched and admired the courage, fortitude and strength of locals 416 and 79, whose solidarity has spread from coast to coast, as they’ve resisted the concessions and demands made by the city.

Perhaps the greatest sign of solidarity came when local 416 president Mark Ferguson told the city there wouldn’t be a settlement with 416 without a settlement for local 79 members too. That statement was heard not only by 600,000 CUPE members, but by all workers across Canada.

The message was clear: Canada’s largest union wouldn’t march backwards.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.