On Monday, April 20, approximately 1,900 secondary school teachers and workers in Durham Region took to the picket lines following fruitless negotiations with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. Secondary school teachers in Sudbury’s Rainbow District School Board followed them onto the picket lines on April 25, while Peel region teachers joined the strike on May 4th.
The OSSTF, representing public high school teachers and other education workers, is also carrying out negotiations with school boards in other regions including Halton, Thunder Bay, Waterloo and Ottawa. Meanwhile, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) overwhelmingly approved strike action, but have yet to set a strike deadline. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has also set a date for its 73,000 members to initiate job action on May 11th.
While there certainly is a knee jerk, reactionary inclination to scapegoat teachers as always “wanting more money”, in reality this is not the case. The key demands of the Durham Region strike have focused on defeating the measures that would undermine the quality of education through increasing class sizes and out-of-class supervising duties. While teachers’ energies are being stretched thin, they are expected to take an unpaid day-off and accept delays in advancing up the income grid. According to a poll conducted by Environics, a majority of respondents opposed larger class sizes and blamed the provincial government for the strike.
Both teachers and educational workers have been working without a contract for eight months in all OSSTF regions. The teacher’s federation has been clear about its willingness to bargain, which the provincial government has been ignoring.
John Drew, the head of arts, music and drama at Ajax High School, discussed the situation at hand. “Well, we haven’t had a contract for a few years now, and our membership went to them and started the process moving forward, and they just stalled, stalled, stalled,” Drew explained. “Right now it’s confusing though, because the Ministry of Education has been running with legislation over the years that’s meddling with the ability of workers to negotiate with their employer. Now, our employer is supposed to be the Durham Board of Education. Well, then, us and the board should come to some kind of reasonable agreement. But then, the ministry can turn around and just say ‘we don’t agree with your contract,’ and start over. So, it’s not very democratic.”
This division in the bargaining process refers to Bill 122, which outlined a new procedure for negotiations between the provincial government and teachers. The new procedure outlined that the provincial government would negotiate salaries and benefits with the unions, while more detailed or specific elements would be negotiated between local school boards and unions. Bill 122 was supposed to be a good-will gesture on the part of the government in order to make negotiations much more impartial, however this turned out to be a completely hollow promise.
This was seen in the last round of bargaining in 2012 where teachers refused to accept cuts and roll-backs being pushed by then-Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. The government responded by passing the draconian Bill 115. This bill permitted the provincial government to impose contracts, while eliminating the democratic right to collective bargaining and banning strikes. The enactment of Bill 115 almost led to illegal strikes by teachers in elementary and high schools. It also resulted in a wave of student solidarity and widespread walkouts in support of their teachers.
This pattern is being repeated in the current round of negotiations. The Liberals are once again demanding cuts and concessions from teachers, while trying to undermine the democratic right to collective bargaining. The threat of back-to-work legislation looms over the current teachers strike.
Kathleen Wynne’s Austerity Agenda
These walkouts are the first provincial labour action since the victorious strikes of academic workers at the University of Toronto and York University. Further labour unrest is expected to follow throughout the public sector as Wynne’s provincial government has committed to a “net-zero mandate” in negotiations with public-sector workers, such as nurses, the public service or the liquor board.
The net-zero mandate means that if wages rise, then that increase must be countered with cuts in another area, like pensions or benefits. Hence, any changes must result in “net-zero”. This is effectively a wage cut when inflation is taken into account. The Liberals are resolute that public sector workers will accept these cuts.
In fact, Education Minister Liz Sandals has been quite adamant that the Liberals will “absolutely not” provide any additional funding, as they claim the money doesn’t exist and that workers must make concessions in order to receive wage increases. The Liberals are carrying out these attacks under the pressure of Bay Street, which insists that spending must be reined in and that austerity must be implemented to eliminate the budget deficit. While the capitalists stock pile and refuse to invest the $600 billion generated by the labour of the working class, they demand tax cuts and breaks for big business. In the meantime, reforms simply cannot be afforded for everyday workers and families, as any substantial reforms would affect the profits being accumulated by the capitalists. The ongoing attempt to privatize Hydro One is part of the same corporate-inspired agenda being carried out by the Wynne Liberals.
While the government is claiming poverty to the teachers, and to workers in Ontario more generally, the provincial Liberals have been very obedient in carrying out the demands of big business. For instance, the provincial government has generously provided billions in corporate tax breaks over the years.
The lack of government revenue originates from the slow-down in the economy since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Due to this, capitalists refuse to make investments, and instead are closing down plants and laying off workers. These same people have also been provided with a reduced tax burden as successive governments have been doing all they can to reduce barriers to private investment. The question workers are beginning to ask is: why should we pay for their crisis and profits?
The labour fight back against the Wynne government’s austerity is just beginning to unfold. Several months ago, University of Toronto and York University workers took bold action and eventually defeated the net-zero mandate. This sent an important message that austerity could be defeated. However, any victory such as this can only be temporary under capitalism. With no economic recovery in sight, this trend will only continue with the burden of the crisis being pushed more and more onto the backs of the working class. It is starting to become clear to millions of people that capitalism is a dead end.
Public sector workers have the potential to repeat these victories on a wider scale and push back the Liberal austerity agenda. The provincial labour movement must come to the aid of the OSSTF and other teachers’ unions, and be prepared to mobilize to defeat any back-to-work legislation being imposed on the teachers. Through bold and militant action, Ontario workers can defeat the austerity, layoffs, privatization and attacks on their democratic rights.