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The largest-ever public-sector strike in Newfoundland quickly turned confrontational yesterday as the Premier warned union members to stay away from his family and a labour leader urged workers to ignore any back-to-work order.

"Let me serve notice right now to anybody out there who is in a union: Don't go near my family, my home or the homes of our ministers or anybody else who is in our caucus," Danny Williams told a news conference in which he said his 28-year-old son, Daniel Jr., had been seriously hurt in an assault in the bar district of St. John's.

"I can tell you right now they will be out until the cows come home if they go near any members of our families," an emotional and exhausted Mr. Williams said.

"How this happened we don't know, but my son was seriously injured . . . that's probably the price that he has paid for having a father who went into politics and is trying to do something to straighten things out."

Union leaders deplored the incident, saying they learned of it only when the Premier raised the issue.

But it's an indication of how intensely personal the strike could become, particularly in St. John's where most people either work for the government or know someone who does.

Earlier yesterday at a rally outside the main government buildings in the capital, a union leader said strikers should defy any moves by Mr. Williams to order them back to work.

"In the event that he resorts to the legislature, I will say to members that you should not go back to work," said Leo Puddister, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees.

Mr. Williams later told reporters that legislation would be a "last, last resort."

The strike, which began yesterday, involves 20,000 civil servants -- two-thirds of Newfoundland and Labrador's public sector, and a sizable chunk of its 525,000 people. It will lead to reduced hospital services, garbage piling up in schools and a halt to bus and ferry routes.

People are deeply divided about whether public-sector wage increases are merited in a province with the highest unemployment rate in the country and a massive $840-million deficit. At his news conference yesterday, Mr. Williams acknowledged that he did not know whether the assault involving his son was linked to either the strike or the job-cutting budget his government delivered on Tuesday. But he said it is unfair if his son was injured because of the political actions of his father.

"I went through the biggest kind of abuse going through the picket lines this morning -- and that's fine, that goes with the job -- but don't go near my family," said Mr. Williams.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary announced they are investigating an incident in which the Premier's son became involved in a confrontation and suffered serious facial injuries after a fracas in the St. John's bar district early Wednesday morning. The injuries include a concussion, broken cheekbones and injuries to his eyes.

Staff Sergeant June Layden said police received the complaint yesterday afternoon and don't know whether the incident is related to politics.

It happened a few hours after the budget eliminated 4,000 civil-service jobs and set the stage for the strike.

The first day on the picket lines passed relatively peacefully as hospitals across the province treated only emergency cases and patients requiring long-term care. Schools remained open, but most of the secretarial and janitorial staff were on the picket lines.

The province's six ferries were making only one crossing a day.

The striking workers, members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public and Private Employees Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, went out yesterdayUnion leaders won't speculate on how long the dispute might last. A similar strike in 2001 was resolved after six days when much of the province was left with snow-clogged roads due to an early spring blizzard.