Protest at Queen’s Park in April 2019. Source: Mary Crandall/Flickr

A recently leaked memo revealed the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s plan to slash $1.6 billion in education funds this coming fall. With an already struggling education system, Premier Doug Ford’s plans will spell disaster for parents, teachers, and students. Beyond the immediate impact, these cuts mark a desire by the government to return to austerity. It was only a year ago when Ford and the Conservatives were being challenged by a growing movement against their cuts to social services and privatization plans. As Ford returns to austerity, we need to revive the movement to bring him down.

Ford is warning the teachers to plan for layoffs as the government will be slashing $1.6 billion in “one-time emergency funding.” Schools will lose all temporary health staff that were hired during the pandemic but also “principals, vice-principals, teachers, education assistants, mental health workers, early childhood educators, professional staff, custodians and other staff” that the government deems redundant. The Conservatives are patting themselves on the back for using the $1.6 billion for a “safe” reopening of schools. In reality, the Ford government failed to hire the adequate number of janitors required to follow the recommended health protocol of cleaning high-touch areas in schools twice per day. Even more significantly, the Ford government has refused to spend the  influx of funding from the federal government on smaller class sizes, which was recommended from health officials and school boards. Schools have been digging into their reserve funding to reduce class sizes and unsurprisingly, the majority of classes still have 25 to 30 students. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation condemned the government last month for zero upgraded masks, no details on mass testing, no physical distancing plans and crowded classes in grades four and up. Now with the threat of new variants, a Toronto teacher summarized the situation well, saying that “it’s exponential exposure that is being ignored.” Large class sizes and poor ventilation made schools a primary source for the second wave and now they are paving the way for the third wave. The cuts will not only degrade safety protocols and quality of education, they represent a serious attack on the whole of the working class as they signify a return to austerity.

Pre-pandemic mobilization

It was just over a year ago in December 2019 that Ontario teachers became a focal point for a wider struggle against Doug Ford and his austerity government. From the moment Ford came into power in 2018, he made it clear that he intended to attack unions, social services and the poor. He cut $200 million in public health, $1 billion in social services and slashed the $15 minimum wage, just to name a few. These attacks created a wave of mass rallies in 2019 including 10,000 in Queen’s Park against health care cuts, 50,000 for education and a 100,000-strong walk out by high schoolers. In the midst of this growing struggle against Doug Ford, the contracts for 200,000 teachers expired. When Ford tried to continue with business as usual and attacked the teachers with wage freezes, 10,000 layoffs and increased class room sizes, he met resistance not only from thousands of teachers but also millions of parents and workers. A one day united strike from the four teachers unions forced the Ford government to back away from cuts. Unfortunately,  the teachers’ union leadership started to deescalate action following the one day united strike and before this could be corrected, the pandemic cut across the entire struggle against Ford. Still, the impact of the movement stuck with the Conservatives at the beginning of the pandemic and Ford’s unpopularity compelled him to more closely follow the advice of public health officials. While 2020 represented a lull in open class struggle, discontent over the botched response to the pandemic has been mounting in Ontario and across the country.

Time to return to struggle 

The year 2020 marked a tense, temporary truce between the working class and the Ford government. The leadership of the unions accepted Ford stepping back from austerity and in turn stayed away from mass work refusals, strikes and any labour action in general. While Ford regained some of his popularity, the mismanagement of the virus spread is quickly shifting perspectives. Already the pandemic popularity Ford gained is wearing off with only 37 per cent of people believing the government is in control of the COVID situation, marking a 25 per cent drop since the first wave. We’ve seen thousands of preventable deaths in long term care and negligent bosses get away with criminally putting thousands of workers in unsafe conditions, all to ensure their profits. While a million Canadians live off a meagre $1500 to $2000 a month from CERB, the capitalists have received over $100 billion in corporate bailouts. The rich have increased their share of wealth during the pandemic while working people are barely making ends meet. Ford is quick to reply that he doesn’t have a “money-printing machine” for desperately needed social funding. However, after rejecting a request from the Toronto school board to hire 300 new teachers, which would have cost $20 million, Ford spent $25 million to hire 200 cops. The Conservatives spent an additional $3 million on police cameras and even managed to find a spare $275 million for tax cuts to the wealthy. Now, Ford is demanding the working class pay for the pandemic slump through cuts and layoffs. Ford’s attack on the teachers is marking an end to the pandemic truce and a return to austerity. Underlying the situation is mass discontent that needs to be organized to reignite the movement to kick Ford out. 

Even while the pandemic cut across in-person mobilization, parents organized a mass online petition for a safe reopening of schools earlier this year that forced the Ford government to revise their plans. Recent polling has shown that 58 per cent of Canadians believe teachers deserve higher pay during the pandemic, including 80 per cent of NDP voters. The Ontario NDP has correctly called out this attack on teachers as a continuation of the austerity Ford was pushing through pre-COVID. However, they have not understood the need to return to mass struggle to stop the cuts. The NDP can support rebuilding the struggle by calling for the wider labour movement to support the teachers.  

When Ford first came to power, Fightback called for organized labour to take the lead in building a mass movement to bring him down. Now, the need for mass struggle is greater than ever before. The $1.6 billion in education cuts is only the tip of the iceberg of austerity to come. The teachers can play a vital role once again in reigniting the class struggle by supporting mass demonstrations against this immediate threat to education. With the support of the wider labour movement, we can build a series of escalating actions in our schools and workplaces including partial strikes, regional and sectoral work stoppages with the eventual aim of a one day general strike to bring down Ford. If we do not prepare now to escalate action, Ford will continue his attacks with impunity.  The mass mobilization of 2019 forced Ford to stumble on his path of austerity and privatization. We can not let him get back up to attack working class people again. It’s time to return to struggle.

Throughout the pandemic, the lives of teachers and children have come secondary for capitalist politicians like Ford. Instead, their prime motivation is the desire to free up parents to get back into the workforce where there are even fewer safety precautions being taken. Now, they are demanding the working class pay for the pandemic. The whole of the labour movement must mobilize to make the bosses pay. The new normal will be austerity if the working class does not get prepared to fight the Ford government through mass action.