On Tuesday, March 3, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced his new offer for striking teachers. The government now says it will limit class size averages in secondary schools to 23—down from the previous proposal of 25, and an even further drop from their initial plan to raise class size averages to 28. The government also says it will allow students to “opt-out” of e-learning courses instead of making them mandatory.
However, while making partial concessions on some issues, Lecce has stood firm on others. Pay increases must be kept at one per cent, he says, despite demands from teachers for an increase of two per cent. Moreover, Lecce has called for an end to seniority in hiring, an issue which he has focused more on in recent weeks.
What is the significance of this most recent offer?
Few options for Ford
The teachers’ strike represents the single greatest challenge to Doug Ford since his election in 2018. As such, his government has focused all of its efforts on ending the strike on their terms. So far, they have not made much headway.
In the past, Ontario governments have resorted to anti-strike legislation to force teachers back into the classroom. The Ford government has been no exception. In 2018, his government introduced legislation to end a strike of university teaching assistants. However, Ford has proven more reluctant to employ such measures this time around.
The teachers enjoy widespread public support, while Ford’s premiership has sunk in the polls. An ill-timed use of legislation, he reckons, may risk further backlash, including defiance by the teachers (as in 1997), and the spread of supportive actions by those in other sectors and the broader public. The legislative option has thus been sidelined, at least for now.
Ford’s second option was to employ a “divide and rule” tactic. In Ontario, teachers are represented by four separate unions. Ford may have hoped to isolate the weakest one, sign a sellout deal, and use it to demoralize the others. However, despite multiple rounds of negotiations, and months on strike, this has yet to come to pass. Instead, on Feb. 21, all four unions held a joint one-day strike, as a display of unity. This dampened any hopes Ford may have had of playing on internal divisions, again, at least for now.
The logic of concessions
Having reached an impasse, the government has resorted to its third and least desirable option: to make concessions. Lecce is in effect proposing changes from above to prevent further escalation from below. The teachers have, for their part, demonstrated the power of strike action, since without it absolutely no concessions would be on offer.
However, it would be wrong to interpret this latest offer as a total, or even near capitulation by the government. It is not.
For one, the offer was not raised at the bargaining table, but at a press conference. There is no guarantee that concessions being presented publicly will find their way into the actual offer. Still, even at face value, Lecce’s “podium offer” leaves a lot to be desired.
The proposal for class sizes, though reduced, would still represent an increase over the current figure, thus resulting in layoffs. More importantly, it fails to include a cap on class sizes, meaning they can be increased by any amount in the future. As for e-courses, the “opt-out” option offers a slight improvement, but still falls short of the “opt-in” model demanded by teachers. The government has thus moved on its demands, but only slightly.
As for salaries, however, Lecce has not moved whatsoever. The new proposal offers the same one per cent salary increase as before, which, given the rate of inflation, would result in a net pay cut. The proposal is equally as stingy when it comes to seniority in hiring.
By offering some concessions on classrooms, but none on pay, Lecce is attempting to reframe the narrative of the dispute. “See! Those greedy teachers only ever cared about their salaries. They never cared about students!” In doing so, he is hoping to undercut public support for the teachers, foster demoralization, and force a demobilization of the strike.
One more push
However, to demobilize now would be a serious mistake for the teachers. Lecce’s offer is not a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness. He has made it, not because he’s sure it will work, but because his government has no other option to prevent a total victory by the teachers. Should that happen, the “contagian” will certainly spread, as other workers try to emulate what the teachers have done. Lecce understands this, but he hopes the trade union leaders do not.
As of now, public support is still decidedly on the side of the teachers. The government, meanwhile, loses legitimacy by the day. The teachers should take advantage of this situation, and move towards an unlimited and united strike that finishes the government off, and achieves their full demands. Delay or de-escalation risks drawing the dispute out further, exhausting its supporters, and providing breathing space to the government and its false narratives.
Lecce’s climbdown, his second now, proves definitively the power of strike action in resisting Conservative austerity. However, the battle is not yet won, and cuts are still on the table. By issuing a fresh compromise, the government is hinting at its weakness. Teachers must now seize the moment, step up their action, and deliver the final blow.