At the annual Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) meeting, union President Karen Brown announced that strike votes would be held in schools across the province this fall. Delegates to the meeting greeted this news with a standing ovation.
After working without a contract for the last year, seeing the Ford government bargain in bad faith, and remembering the power we all felt when the labour movement forced Ford to back down on Bill 28 last year, there is clearly an appetite among teachers to send a message.
This is a positive development. The ETFO annual meeting saw members pushing their executive to find ways to end the epidemic of violence in the classroom; looking for ways to combat the growing anti-2SLGBTQAI+ hate in our communities; and demanding better funding for libraries.
Amidst bargaining for lower class sizes, safer working conditions, increases in the number of non-teaching support staff, and wages that can keep pace with inflation, a strong strike vote is a powerful tool in getting the deal that teachers, students, and parents deserve.
But what will it take for teachers to win?
Lessons from November
Ontario workers delivered a spectacular blow to Doug Ford’s government last year. Just four days after ramming through unprecedented anti-worker legislation, Ford appeared in a hastily-called press conference to announce Bill 28’s full repeal. This was a capitulation to Ontario’s 55,000 education workers, who went on “illegal” strike and were backed by the threat of a general strike from the rest of the Ontario labour movement.
Remembering November, teachers greeted NDP Leader Marit Stiles with a standing ovation when she told the audience, “This government saw what happens when they mess with education workers.”
Ford and his government were spooked by the rapid (and unexpected) escalation of Ontario’s unions in response to Bill 28. This kind of organization, power and support has to be replicated to push back against his government’s most recent attacks against teachers and public education.
Represented by CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) and led by president Laura Walton, education workers set the stage for this confrontation months ahead of the illegal strikes and tense press conferences. Their systematic approach to engaging, organizing, and mobilizing their members produced a record-breaking strike mandate vote in early October: 96.5 percent in favour with an 83 percent turnout.
The success of OSBCU was the result of two years of organizing and one-on-one conversations with as many members as possible. Members were listened to and their concerns fed into bargaining. This helped achieve the high level of buy-in and cohesion among members that was required to face down a government hell-bent on forcing them to take what was on offer.
Outside the union, a vibrant, well-organized solidarity campaign built support, as well as union members’ confidence. Justice for Workers (J4W) launched numerous calls to “paint the province purple,” which created opportunities for trade unionists and non-union workers alike to build support for education workers in their workplaces and communities.
In the same spirit, the Ontario Parent Action Network (OPAN) began to organize supportive parents and pushed back on Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s attempts to pit students and their families against education workers. These initiatives, coupled with the union’s success in bargaining for the public good, produced a wave of support for education workers that swept the province.
By the time education workers went on strike on November 4, the public was firmly in their corner.
Bill 28 also represented an existential threat to all unions’ right to strike. This pulled in more workers into the movement behind the education workers. All of this built massive pressure from below that pushed union leaders to act (even if they didn’t really want to). The result was the planned announcement of a political protest followed by unlimited general strike in the province of Ontario.
Binding arbitration won’t deal with core issues
Complicating matters for teachers is the announcement on August 25 that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) plan to enter into binding arbitration if a negotiated contract is not reached by October 27. The plan still has to be agreed on by OSSTF members.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce had hoped that the other unions would sign on to it, but thankfully ETFO, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) have rejected that offer.
A joint statement issued in response explains that binding arbitration “is not something that AEFO, ETFO, and OECTA can consider at our respective bargaining tables at this time…Entering into binding arbitration at this juncture would not support the students we serve in elementary and secondary schools – as binding arbitration would all but guarantee that the key issues we have brought forward at our respective bargaining tables, which are critical to learning and working conditions in our schools, would not be addressed. Furthermore, the decision to enter into binding arbitration now impacts the opportunity for meaningful local bargaining on key local issues.”
Many teachers from inside and outside OSSTF have taken to Twitter and private Facebook groups to explain the dangers of binding arbitration. While it may get short-term wage gains, issues around class sizes, professional judgement, violence in the workplaces, and other working conditions will likely suffer.
What should teachers be doing?
So, the big questions now, especially for teachers, are: How do we replicate the conditions that allowed OSBCU to prosper? How can we apply those lessons to our fight? What is different about our situation?
First of all, teachers unions are less prepared. None of the big unions, including ETFO, OECTA and OSSTF, have engaged or mobilized their members over the last year the way that OSBCU did. In fact, the leadership seems to have been actively slowing members down and tamping down frustrations. This is a missed opportunity. However, widespread anger in the education sector still exists and people are even angrier at Ford a year later. His government has been nakedly corrupt, opening up the Greenbelt to developer friends and donors, making ongoing attacks on public healthcare, all while sitting on $22 billion in reserve funds.
We have also seen in the wider working class movement an appetite for strikes. Metro workers are striking for higher wages, many construction trade unions won big raises by walking off the job, Hydro Workers in Ottawa are still out on strile, and dockworkers in Vancouver rejected several agreements and held up billions in commerce are just some of the examples of recent labour disputes around the country. Good examples of workers fighting and winning, combined with the sting of inflation has led to increased militancy.
So what is to be done? What should teachers unions be doing?
It’s great there’s going to be a strike vote. This shows that even the leadership recognizes the “go slow, be nice” approach was a failure, even though members were saying this all along. But just because the leadership has now called for a vote, doesn’t mean they will lead an effective campaign for a yes vote. Saying “vote yes to avoid a strike” without preparing anyone politically or organizationally for the possibility they might actually have to carry one out will simply not be enough.
Rank-and-file members shouldn’t wait for a strong, confident yes campaign to emerge out of thin air, or for the leaders to launch one. And, even if the leadership does launch such a campaign, it will probably be a series of emails, not the kind of real conversations we need with each other.
Activists in the union need to find each other, and start the work now of campaigning for a strong yes vote, building new networks of militants and activists along the way, and winning the wider membership to these positions:
- We need a strong strike mandate, and a strong turnout.
- We must prepare for a strike, get organized, do strike training, cover off all the logistics.
- We need to review our own political history, so we see how militant action and effectively organized strikes can win. What are the real lessons of the OSBCU strike? Chicago teachers? LA education workers? The origins of ETFO?
- As teachers, we also need to actively build solidarity with strikes outside our sector already underway–if those strikes win, and are seen as effective tactics, it builds the case for striking among teachers.
- Finally, we must make it clear to the public what is at stake: violence in the classroom has become an epidemic, educators are leaving the profession in droves, classrooms are swelling, inclusion without support (abandonment) for students with special needs is rampant, and many schools have repair and mice issues.
Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. This fight could be a powerful struggle for essential public services in Ontario, but only if teachers make it happen.
Anyone interested in being part of a network to take these next steps should contact Larry at: rankandfileteacherON@gmail.com.
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