City under siege: A look back at the 1981 Halifax police strike
Labour Day is a chance for workers to celebrate the gains they've made over the years, but it's also a time to reflect.
High-profile labour disputes, like the one at the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax, aren’t as common as they once were, as most labour negotiations don't lead to a picket line anymore.
But many of a certain generation, who were in Halifax in 1981, will undoubtedly remember a strike by nearly 200 police constables.
It was the first, and last, time Halifax police went out on strike and it paved the way for higher wages and better working conditions for the rank and file of the Halifax Police Department.
The walkout by constables, however, almost immediately led to violence and looting, with most of the action taking place near the central police station on Gottingen Street.
As officers picketed, hundreds of people gathered near the police station where it eventually became a free-for-all.
While the rest of the city was relatively quiet, the crowd there turned into an unruly mob, fueled by booze and a sense of anonymity. Things got ugly.
Windows were smashed, stores on Gottingen were looted, drivers were pulling doughnuts and racing outside police headquarters - all the while, striking officers stood by and watched.
"When you're out here, people doing doughnuts in the middle of the intersection, you hear glass breaking, it was uncomfortable feeling for a lot of the guys," says retired police Const. Tony Burbridge.
Prior to the strike, conciliation talks between the union and management centred around wages and hours of work, but things were dragging on.
It was on Quinpool Road, where a young Burbridge was walking the beat.
It was around 7:30 p.m. when he received a call from a union representative. He, along with the rest of the patrol officers, were told to head back to the station - the strike was about to begin.
It would last 53 days, well into the summer.
According to Burbridge, who went on to rise through the ranks to become the deputy chief of police, the strike was a necessary evil.
"We were a little bit apprehensive. You didn't really know what was going to happen, you were in a little bit of a conflict about pulling your service, but at that time it was the right thing to do," he says.
At the time, police constables were earning about $20,000 a year. They were looking for a 50 per cent raise over three years.
They eventually settled for 45 per cent over the same period. It was the beginning of much better pay for police officers, with first class constables currently earning a base salary of about $89,000 a year.
A recently released so-called sunshine list shows almost 200 Halifax police constables earning more than $100,000 a year with base salary and benefits.
Rick Howe has been on the radio airwaves in Halifax for decades. As a young reporter he covered the police strike.
After the initial violence and looting, RCMP and Halifax Police NCOs took to the street to restore order.
"To watch the RCMP riot squad or any police riot squad in action was really quite something to see," says the radio talk show host. "A girl was walking on this side of the road with an umbrella, just smashing windows that she went by. So people took that as the queue and started following suit."
Dozens of people were arrested, with charges ranging from drunkenness to property damage.
"That was pretty much the end of any significant violence,” Howe added. “Within a day or two, things had calmed right down and the RCMP were patrolling the streets, and that was pretty much it."
One thing that stands out for the veteran broadcaster is that, just days after the strike began, two young girls were reported missing and a man with a notorious past was responsible.
"The police faces, the union went ashen and they decided right then and there to end the strike temporarily and they all dropped their picket signs and went out and got involved in the search,” he said.
That search would take a tragic turn, with five-year-old Darlene Davidson being found dead. A second girl was unharmed.
Jimmy Odo, 36, was arrested. He was eventually found guilty of murder and would later die in prison.
Once the search ended, striking officers returned to the picket line.
One of those officers was Stephen Perrott, who went on to become a clinical psychologist. He now teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
Perrott says the job action caused a rift that lasted years between the constables who went out on strike and those police officers who didn’t.
"Some of that bad feeling probably took, in some cases, seven or eight years to go away,” he says.
After the eruption of violence, Perrott says things quieted down.
"After the initial display that was shown on the corner, people doing doughnuts, bonfires, and so on, I don't have the numbers, but I think things were quieter than they typically were,” Perrott added. “That's when we realized we were in trouble at that point."
As the dust settled, and the streets grew quite, union members felt whatever leverage they might have had was slipping away. Days turned to weeks.
Parts of Gottingen Street most affected by the violence were dubbed 'plywood city.'
Some businesses along the street hired extra security, while others weathered the strike the best they could.
Nick Dimitropoulos has been at the same location on Gottingen Street since 1975. His shop escaped the destruction; he was surprised it even happened.
"Everybody had a little fear, we didn't know what was going to happen, they might come in and smash and grab and leave, but I had confidence in the people,” says Dimitropoulos, who owns Vogue Men’s Wear.
After 53 days, a strike that began with such ferocity ended quietly. Constables would sign a three-year contract. It would be the first and last police strike in the city's history. At the time, union members said the strike cost them whatever gains they made in the new contract, but it laid the groundwork for better pay and benefits down the road.
Police, along with other uniformed services like firefighters, no longer have the right to strike, because they have been deemed essential services. They do go through the bargaining process, but ultimately an arbitration board decides the outcome.
Interesting to note, three members of the Halifax Police who were around for the 1981 strike are still on the job, 35 years later.