Class Action: How Ontario’s Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force by Andy Hanson (Between the Lines, 2021)
Andy Hanson’s Class Action is an accessible and fascinating explanation of the history of public education in Ontario and the battles that made public elementary teachers into a force in the labour movement. The book follows the development of teaching from its origins in the province to the making of teachers as a “distinct class of white-collar, public sector workers who awoke to the power of their collective strength.” This involved several decades that saw a developing labour consciousness and two province-wide strikes.
The book begins with the passage of the Common School Act of 1864 and the appointment of Egerton Ryerson as the superintendent of education in Canada West. Hanson explains, “the white, anglophone elite openly stated that cultural continuity and uniformity were the most important elements of education. The value of paying taxes for an education system for the working class was that it would inhibit social unrest while training a homogenous workforce.”
By the 1800s, teachers fed up with class sizes of up to 100 students and low wages began to organize themselves. Teachers went through many local groupings before creating the first province-wide teachers union: the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (FWTAO) in 1918. The men approached to join in the same union, but the women refused, but agreed to “cooperate by means of a central committee.”
Until 1997, this remained. The elementary teachers in the public system were divided into two unions based on their sex. Female elementary teachers were members of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (FWTAO) and male elementary teachers belonged to the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation (OPSTF). Class Action details the laws and battles that would eventually amalgamate the unions, giving an interesting look into the making of class consciousness for white-collar “professionals.” A few key moments stand out in the journey of teachers towards more militancy and labour consciousness.
Winning the right to strike
Up to the early 1970s, the teachers were outside of the Ontario Labour Relations Act and thus did not have the legal right to strike. The right to strike was not granted by government, or negotiated with the employer at the bargaining table, it was won though a united strike for decent work.
In 1971, the country was going through a period of double-digit inflation and teachers were squeezed by the rising cost of everything and the spending ceilings imposed by the Conservative Premier Bill Davis. At this time, the other teachers unions – Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and Association des Enseignants Franco-Ontariens (AEFO), began to explore more militant labour tactics and closer alignment with other labour unions. As Hanson notes, “Teachers began to imagine how labour tactics could be used to enhance their lives. To do so, they had to redefine their historical understanding of professionalism that equated the welfare of students with keeping schools open, a viewpoint that suppressed collective action and kept all the power with the trustees.”
Teachers unions had begun using resignations as a way to strike: when negotiations stalled, resignation letters would be handed to the School Board Trustees. This drew the anger of both the Liberal and Conservative members of the Ontario legislature. In the Spring of 1972 the government released its Reville Committee Report. The committee was charged with looking into the negotiation procedures in Ontario schools and the findings were horrifying to teachers. “The report recommended that teachers be denied the right to strike or to negotiate working conditions, that principals be encouraged to form their own negotiating entity and that an adjudicative tribunal be established to settle disagreements between trustees and teachers through binding arbitration.”
The Neville Report had the effect of politicizing teachers. Throughout 1972, OSSTF, OECTA and AEFO called for mass resignations and by 1973, all five unions organized the first ever mass march of teachers in Ontario. On May 14, five thousand teachers gathered on short notice to oppose the loss of 1,145 jobs in the Toronto Area. This action helped to build their capacity to organize and one after the other teachers unions passed resolutions supporting their right to strike. The Reville report had angered the teachers and motivated them to start mobilizing their members.
In December 1973, representatives of the government announced to union negotiators that it would be unilaterally changing what they had negotiated and introducing a piece of emergency legislation. The Minister of Education then quickly introduced Bill 274 and Bill 275, which forbid mid-year resignations and required teachers to submit to compulsory arbitration, denied the right to strike and not granted the right to collective bargaining.
However, teachers had been mobilizing for months. “As soon as the two offensive bills were tabled, the unions sent telegrams to all of the three thousand schools they represented. They had expanded the model that had been developed the previous year for the march on behalf of Toronto Teachers. It took them only eight days to connect with every one of their members, advising them of a province-wide strike.”
On December 18, 1973 all the teachers in Ontario walked out of their classrooms, shutting down almost every school in the province. Thousands rallied at Maple Leaf Gardens and marched to Queen’s Park. The political strike was a success, as teachers won the right to strike. Davis reopened negotiations, Bill 274 died and Bill 275 was open for discussion, and negotiations resumed at the local level.
Teachers got a taste of their collective power and moving forward their sense of “professionalism” became merged with the idea of collective action to protect their working conditions and the condition of their students. The success of the 1973 strike also showed what could be accomplished when all five teachers unions acted together. This lesson would be reinforced in the defeat of the teachers in their face-off with future premier, Mike Harris.
Days of Action: teachers learning about class
Hanson writes “the election of the Mike Harris Conservative government on 26 June 1995 would be the apogee of neo-liberalism in Ontario in the twentieth century. Little would be left untouched by the Conservatives’ election platform, the ‘Common Sense Revolution.’”
Harris spokespeople made false claims about the spending and results of Ontario schools and made restructuring, cutbacks and standardized tests his government’s mission in education. Hanson shares the story of how teachers’ unions responded to this, which contains powerful lessons for today’s showdowns with the Ford government.
Bill 7 and Bill 8, introduced in the fall of 1995, cut the NDP’s Employment Equity Act, denying women any legal recourse for workplace equity issues, weakened unions and permitted the use of replacement workers during strikes. Bill 26 would declare all public services “essential” (thereby limiting their right to strike) and establish a funding formula that would cut billions from schools. Leaked documents revealed government plans to cut prep time, sick days and end retirement gratuities previously won.
The unions began to prepare for the worst. It began with a march at Queen’s Park called by OECTA that drew 40,000 people, including parents, students and teachers from all five unions. By the start of 1996, the list of grievances with the government had grown. Harris advocated increasing workload, increasing surveillance on teachers through School Councils and increased disciplinary powers for the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), as well as politicizing the first rounds of the EQUAO testing. The Minister of Education was quoted that he wanted to “manufacture a crisis in education,” as he implemented the Ontario School Board Reduction Task Force, which recommended amalgamating school boards and cutting administrative positions.
Teachers were motivated to resist in numbers and support anyone facing off against the provincial government. The coordinated Hamilton Days of Actions in February 1996 were some of the largest political protests in Ontario’s history. Further Days of Action, held in cities across the provinces, helped bring together workers from various sectors who were feeling the squeeze of neoliberalism. When OPSEU members went on strike, teachers showed up to support their picket lines.
In March, the government announced its tool kit of cost cutting measures, and trustees immediately began laying off teachers. This radicalized a lot of teachers who showed up to the Days of Action in big numbers and became accustomed to rallying, marching, chanting, and holding picket signs as their working conditions became more and more politicized. This was a process Hanson recognizes in which teachers became more class conscious. Professionalism came to mean more than just being in class to care for students, but became about a collective defence of working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students, as well as joining in resistance to cuts to the public good.
As the Conservative government continued to attack the teachers in the media and attack their working conditions at the bargaining table, elementary teachers got closer and closer to the traditional workers’ movement. Attendance at Ontario Federation of Labour meetings became common and the FWTAO and the OPSTF passed motions supporting a province-wide strike at their August 1997 annual general meetings. So, when the Harris government tabled Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act–which undermined funding for boards, gave the minister power to unilaterally end a strike and replace teachers with non-teachers, increase class sizes and removed the school boards’ obligation to collect unions dues–the elementary teacher unions had no choice but to respond.
The 1997 strike began on Monday, October 27. All of Ontario’s teachers walked out of their classrooms and stayed out for two weeks. All five teachers’ unions, representing 150,000 members, presented their “Five-Point Plan to resolve the Impasse Regarding Bill 160.” Three days into the strike, Harris applied for a court injunction against the teachers. However, during the second week of the strike, the courts dismissed the injunction, vindicating the teachers’ strike. Parents and students supported teachers, and the smear campaign by the Harris government seemed to be falling short. That second week, 22,000 parents and students joined teachers for a rally in front of the legislature.
Defeat and legacy: lessons for today
Despite these big wins, three of the unions began to look for ways to wind down the strike. At the end of the second week, the presidents of the FWTAO, AEFO, and OPSTF announced on television that they would be returning to work. The rank-and-file were outraged; local presidents had not been contacted, OSSTF and OECTA had not agreed to participate, the teachers in the Toronto locals demanded a full membership vote before returning to work. Once the teachers went back to work, the power they had to force negotiations disappeared.
The strike had been effective in forcing some changes to Bill 160, but massive cuts to education remained. A subsequent court challenge ended up pitting public school teachers against Catholic school teachers, weakening the solidarity won in the lead up to the strike. The defeat of the teachers was a victory for the Harris government as he extended his cuts far beyond education: his “Common Sense Revolution” reduced the education budget by $2 billion to help pay for his promised tax cuts, making Ontario one of the lowest-spending provinces for education in Canada and below many districts in the United States.
The two-weeks on strike together, and the actions leading up to it, broke down some of the historic tensions between the FWTAO and the OPSTF. If only in defeat, the unions had become aligned and they amalgamated into the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). This amalgamation would become a strength for elementary teachers, as the ETFO became a more powerful union that FWTA or OPSTF had been separately. Issues of equity for women, who outnumbered men in ETFO six to one, became entrenched and principles of social justice would remain a key feature of the ETFO.
Class Action is a valuable tool for understanding how teachers got where they are. It demonstrates how collectively struggling for decent pay and working conditions can change the way people view themselves and the world around them. It also powerfully makes the case that the only way to defend those conditions is with the ability to strike, creating a political crisis for the government. The minute the threat of work stoppage is taken off the table, the power goes back into the hands of the government. For this action to be successful, Hanson makes it clear, united action by all five teachers unions is crucial.
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