Ontario Teachers Under Attack: It’s Our Turn Now

Then came the Orwellian-titled “Putting Students First Act” (PSFA). Now the water is at our knees. 

The PFSA comes out of the refusal of two of the largest teachers’ unions – the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) – to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to voluntarily accept cuts to sick days and benefits, as well as a two-year wage freeze. 

Though teachers’ unions bargain with local school boards, the province has decided to impose its own parameters on local collective agreements, which the unions contend is an infringement on collective bargaining rights. 

The legislation also bans the right to strike for two years, despite the fact that teachers are bargaining with local boards as they are supposed to be, that there have been no threats of a work stoppage, and that teachers haven’t walked out on a strike since 1975. (The 1997 walkout was a political protest against the Mike Harris government’s reforms to education funding, not a strike.) 

Less well known, and not as widely publicized in the press, are provisions declaring the PFSA exempt from the Ontario Human Rights Code as well as court challenges. In effect, the legislation declares itself above the law. 

The unions have launched a legal challenge against the legislation, but this was surely anticipated by the McGuinty government, which might be taking a page from their Liberal counterparts in B.C. The B.C. Teachers Federation spent eight years fighting legislation that limited their ability to bargain collectively, yet when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in their favour and ordered the legislation rescinded, the government did so, only to introduce a new bill that did effectively the same thing. 

It’s a strategy long perfected against First Nations in treaty disputes: ignore the law, drag things through the courts, deliberately misinterpret court rulings, and hope all the while your opponents go bankrupt paying their legal expenses. 

The frustrating part about the situation we now find ourselves in is how predictable it has been for some time. 

In the United States, attacks on teachers have become a bipartisan tactic. Last year, all 1,926 teachers of the Providence school board were fired by the mayor Angel Tavares – a Democrat – then 75% were selectively rehired, effectively wiping out seniority and removing those deemed troublemakers. 

Similarly, in 2010, when the local board of trustees fired all the teachers of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, President Obama himself congratulated them before the US Chamber of Commerce. 

So what have we been doing to prepare for this inevitable day when Mike Harris-style attacks on teachers would resume and become a bi-partisan reality here? Not much. 

Mostly, for the past eight years, our union leadership has focused on lobbying efforts and building relationships with the governing Liberals. Many members of our local executives, as well as some among our provincial executives, were card-carrying members of the Liberal Party, at least until a few months ago. Education Minister Laurel Broten was endorsed by OSSTF in the last provincial election. We even campaigned for her. Many of us – too many – were convinced that the Liberals needed us as much as we needed them, and that as long as this was so, we would be safe. 

For eight years, it seemed to work. Our class sizes were reduced, and local boards were provided funding for fair and steady pay raises for teachers, even as our custodial staff and secretaries were losing their jobs and seeing their workloads increase – since 2007, at least 1,100 custodian, educational assistant, and secretarial positions have been lost in Toronto alone. As long as such measures didn’t touch us, however, we were content. It was a classic case of divide and conquer. 

Though we engaged in some symbolic shows of solidarity with struggling workers in other sectors, occasionally showing up at their demos or raising money for their families during long lockouts, what was missing was an across-the-board labour strategy that would prepare us for the day when it was our turn to be attacked. Public sector labour unions, unfortunately, operate in their own separate silos, secretly viewing each other as competitors for the same shrinking piece of the public sector pie. 

As educated professionals with middle-class incomes, teachers have not been inclined to see themselves as part of the labour movement. Mike Harris jolted many of us out of this illusion, then Dalton McGuinty restored it. Now, once again lacking friends in government, we have only an indifferent NDP and a weakened and divided labour movement to turn to for protection. There is no roadmap forward. 

Unless we can learn how to work effectively together with other workers – and quickly – we’re finished. 

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and active member of OSSTF. This piece was orignally published in the Ryerson Free Press.