By Mina Rajabi Paak
In January 2020, four of Ontario’s major teachers and education workers unions took job action against Ford’s government’s cuts to public education. The strikes gained tremendous public support from parents, students and community members across the province and organized mass resistance to the PC government’s austerity agenda. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic public education unions and the solidarity networks of parents and educators, that formed during the strikes, became sites of resistance. Through campaigns such as #SafeSeptember these groups led the charge against the Ontario government for their failure to protect schools and communities amidst a global pandemic.
Spring Magazine spoke with Muna Kadri, a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), and a community organizer who is running for President of the union, about the experiences of teachers and education workers during the pandemic, the challenges facing the education sector in Ontario and organizing for change.
Could you tell us about what the teachers’ and education workers’ experience has been like during the pandemic? How do you think the government handled the crisis, particularly in the education sector, in your estimation?
The government has largely abdicated responsibility throughout this pandemic on a variety of levels. We have seen it in healthcare and it has been incredibly pronounced in public education. When the pandemic happened they essentially shut down our schools and walked away. And they left school boards and education workers to clean up how they were going to resume education. That was a challenge to begin with, but we made it work for March, April, May and June.
And in June, Stephen Lecce came out and said he was going to offer $29 million for the reopening of our schools, that amounted to 7 cents a day per student.
Not only did they abdicate responsibility, they decided that for September they were going to send back two million students and hundreds of thousands of education workers with almost no funding. That is where community advocacy, through groups like Ontario Families for Public Education, the Ontario Parent Action Network and Ontario Education Workers United mounted a campaign in July to put public pressure on the government for more funding. Week by week we did MPP visits, Twitterstorms, rallies, press releases, press conferences and we got $400 million in extra funding from Lecce. But who we got the most money from was the federal government, Trudeau ended up budgeting $700 million for our schools. And then Lecce forced school boards to spend another $400 million from their school board reserves.
So not only did they abdicate responsibility, they put school boards in a precarious financial situation. The provincial government didn’t come up with the funding. The federations really tried to have a say at the table and to be consulted, they brought in health experts and legal advisors to get the Minister’s attention, but it didn’t work. Where they struggled was when the Minister said no, they tried legal routes to change the answer, but then they didn’t know what to do after that.
And that’s where grassroots organizing picked up the torch and ran with it to say we need to organize families and education workers on the ground to pressure the government to do more. And we did that and we did successfully pull quite a bit of new funding out of them.
We have seen multiple outbreaks in different schools and there are stories everyday of how teachers and staff are risking their health in crowded classrooms with poor ventilation and not enough PPEs. How do you think teachers can organize to resist unsafe work?
Collectively. Teachers and education workers need to harness their collective power to fight unsafe work. Currently, the methods we have are individual work refusals. And they play an important role in all of this. I encourage every education worker who doesn’t feel safe at work to exercise their right to a work refusal.
Where we are stuck is that we have not harnessed that collective power. Stephen Lecce has a press conference every time he changes his shirt. But largely for the federations, we have seen our leaders on the news, we have seen them trying to push our stories, but they haven’t had the same spotlight in terms of press conferences and community outreach for a counter narrative.
We haven’t scheduled townhalls for our local communities and education workers to come together to talk about the situations in schools. So there is this divide between us and our communities. And unfortunately it is Doug Ford filling that divide instead of us providing the dominant narrative on what is happening in our schools.
It’s not because our unions aren’t trying. It is that the tools that we normally have used aren’t as effective in the world anymore. We need to go into our communities and organize at that level, through our school councils, through our mosques, our synagogues, our churches, our temples and our community centres. That’s where we need to be having conversations with the public about what is really happening and how we can fight together for the greater good. We are missing that.
People are struggling to eat right now, people don’t have paid sick leave, they don’t have benefits, some of those people are Education Workers, and we are not doing enough to advocate for all those things, we aren’t doing enough to be seen as the champions of the public good.
You are now entering bargaining again and there’s a provincial election coming up. What’s your vision for the coming year? And what do you see as the biggest challenges facing the education sector?
While the provincial election and bargaining seem to be the imminent threat in the next 18 months, in reality we have more pressing issues we need to deal with. And if we neglect those issues, it will turn the election and bargaining into more difficult challenges.
For example, the $1.6 billion of funding we received to provide a safer return to school this year, evaporates at the end of the year. So in September we are going to have schools potentially reopening with thousands of education workers missing. That means custodians, education assistants, early childhood educators, child and youth workers, teachers and more will be gone if we don’t renew that $1.6 billion pandemic funding that came mostly from the federal government and some from the provincial government and school boards.
If we don’t go into our communities now and talk about the struggles they have had with virtual learning. The struggles our racialized, our Black and Indigenous communities have experienced with how COVID has disproportionately impacted their communities. If we don’t have real conversations about what September is going to look like in terms of the supports we need for our communities, we are going to find uniting the public around our vision for public education during the next election very difficult.
Our challenges in 18 months can be addressed by a deeper commitment to addressing our current struggles and building back a better vision with our members and communities.
You went through over a year of bargaining, strikes and job actions prior and leading up to the pandemic and were among the first large public unions to go head to head with the Ford government. Your fight received tremendous public support and managed to sustain that support despite constant attacks by the government. What do you think contributed to the success of your public campaign? And how do you plan on building on that public support going forward?
I approached the last round of bargaining as a member by maintaining my relationships with grassroots education workers and parent organizers. When the pandemic happened, bargaining stopped and our union reached a deal.
But we kept the work going. That is why our summer campaign of ‘seven cents is not enough’ was so important because we said to our communities it doesn’t matter that bargaining is over, we are here to invest in the common good for the long run.
On a personal level through Ontario Families for Public Education, the Ontario Parent Action Network, and the Ontario Education Workers United, we stayed in our communities and we continued to build a plan for what our schools should look like.
In December, Ontario Families for Public Education launched a consultation with the Ontario Parent Action Network called ‘A Plan for Our Schools’. Thousands of people responded to what they were experiencing in schools and what additional supports they needed.
Sometimes what unions do is that they rally the troops during elections and bargaining and then they go into what we call contract maintenance and protection for the years in between. And in those years in between families are still struggling and our members are still dealing with issues that can’t be solved by a collective agreement. Education funding is annual so even without bargaining happening we can insert ourselves into the funding conversation to increase supports in our schools.
That is what I see us doing, continuously going forward. And that’s what I have been doing for the last year during the pandemic, because Doug Ford has built this relationship with the public that makes it seem like he is their friend. He has gotten away with it because there is no real counter narrative. Everybody is yelling at Doug Ford and not a lot of people are talking to the public. We need to refocus and stop yelling at Doug Ford so much and start turning to the public and asking what would make life better now? How can we work to achieve paid sick leave, pharmacare, stronger schools and communities? How can we remedy the fact that precarious work is a main cause of the spread of COVID in our communities? That is what we need to do.
You have been a public supporter of policies such as paid sick days and pharmacare. We have also seen teachers and parents over the last year and particularly during the pandemic not only calling for school funding and protections but also for broader community issues like childcare, paid sick days, housing and racial justice. What’s your view on this approach? Do you see strength in this Chicago Teachers style of bargaining for the broader common good?
The reality is over 35% of the members in OSSTF are Education Workers, many of which are making between $25-35,000 a year. Some are custodians, education assistants, occasional education workers, early childhood educators, child and youth workers that are often not talked about. Precarity is a reality for us in our union.
One in six of the members in York, where I am, are occasional teachers. And they don’t have access to paid sick leave at the beginning of the year, and they don’t have access to benefits at the beginning of the year. So when I talk about bargaining for the common good, not only does that approach benefit our communities, it benefits many of our members. The things that we could be fighting for that would be good for our members are also good for the public. And we need to articulate it that way.
Last year during the ‘No Cuts to Education Campaign’, through the Ontario Families for Public Education and the Ontario Parent Action Network, we made those connections. Where we have struggled as a federation is continuing those connections going into the pandemic.
I am not talking about a few tweets for paid sick leave or a few tweets for federal pharmacare. I am talking about the same town halls we did for no cuts to education. I am talking about the same MPP visits, the same surveys of our communities around paid sick leave and around pharmacare so that we are fighting for the things that matter to them. So in 15 months when the election happens or when our contracts are up again, we aren’t re-establishing relationships in our communities we are building on the ones we already have.
You’re running for the OSSTF president position. What’s your platform?
My platform is about real change and meaningful action. In the moment of urgency that we are in right now, I see it as we have no choice but to elect a community organizer who is not going to unite just our membership, but the province, around public education and the common good.
I am here to break down the silos, like I have done for the past 15 years of my life as an activist and say we can win, we just have to do it together. And that is what I feel like we are missing in public education. We don’t organize around the common good as much as we should. We mean to, but we just don’t have enough organizers at the leadership level in our unions who see the connections between public education and broader issues. That is why we find ourselves in the cycle of trying to rally people but struggling to do it and therefore losing incrementally.
The last round of bargaining we beat back the cuts, but we lost incremental bits. I want to approach our next chapter as a federation with a new story. One that centres the most precarious Education Workers and is written by weaving together the lived experiences and vision for our schools of our 60,000 members and communities.
You can visit Muna Kadri for President of OSSTF/FEESO website for more details.
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