In 2018, the Ontario government forced York University teaching assistants back to work after weeks on the picket line. They threatened to do so again if it ever proved necessary — a warning to others.

Fast forward to today. Ontario secondary school teachers are in the midst of their first strike since 1997. Other teachers’ unions may soon join them. Unlike Doug Ford, the teachers have the broad support of the public. The government, however, has yet to revoke its unpopular cuts to education. They fear the precedent a victorious strike may set for others in the labour movement. The conflict has reached an impasse, with few options left. A year after teaching assistants had their right to strike removed, Ontario teachers may be next. The question is, what then?

By law, most unionized workers have the right to strike in Ontario. In practice, however, strikes are routinely declared illegal, at least insofar as the strike is of any significance. 

To most union leaders, the idea of defying the law is a taboo subject, even though governments frequently tear up workers’ rights to suit their fancy. Illegal strikes, they say, will result in steep fines, if not prison sentences, and are therefore not worth the risk. However, they forget that the right to strike would not exist if not for workers defying the law — including Ontario’s teachers. In light of recent events, that history has taken on a renewed importance. It warrants revisiting.

From professionals to militants

Before the 1960s, most teachers were untouched by the labour movement. Teachers then were considered professionals, often with a salary that reflected it. Instead of unions, most belonged to different professional associations, of which in Ontario there existed at least five. The “mild mannered teacher” became a popular stereotype, in contrast to the rowdy militants of the private sector.

However, things soon changed. Throughout the 1960s, wages of civil servants started to fall behind that of blue collar workers. As the post-war boom receded, governments meanwhile sought to balance their budgets on the backs of public sector workers. 

In 1970, Ontario Premier Bill Davis imposed spending caps on education. Before 1970, funding had increased by an average of 13.1 per cent a year. By 1974, the increase had dropped to below eight per cent — hardly more than inflation. Teachers soon began to complain of increased class sizes, as well as a reduction in pay.

Even by the early 70s, Ontario teachers did not have the right to strike. Instead, they resorted to periodic “mass resignations,” a semi-legal measure, in order to back up their bargaining demands. However, this soon reached its limits.

On Dec. 10, 1973, Davis’ Conservatives tabled Bill 274, legislation that declared mass resignations illegal. Fines of up to $500 were to be levied on those who defied the law. Also introduced was Bill 275, which forced teachers into compulsory arbitration. 

The response from teachers was swift. In the coming days, all five of Ontario’s teacher associations joined forces, with a plan to hold an illegal one-day strike and rally on Dec. 18. 

Slander and support

As Dec. 18 approached, Ontario’s political elite did their best to discredit the movement. Davis accused teachers of trying to “intimidate” the government using “mob rule tactics.” Mayors from Toronto, York, East York and Etobicoke also spoke out against the walkout, with one accusing teachers of “using students” and “trying to brainwash them.” The corporate media was not far behind them. A Toronto Star editorial from Dec. 18 concluded that “strikes are inappropriate in public service situations.” Unsurprisingly, many of these same arguments are heard today — and often from the same sources.

Despite this, teachers were widely supported by the general public. This included students, principals, doctors, dentists, trustees, and even Toronto’s city council (with the exception of the mayor). Readers of The Star wrote in to defend the teachers, with letters like the following:

“Legislation denying the freedom to resign amounts to slavery and indicates a bully mentality. A bully gets what he wants by fear and brute force. Both Nazi and Stalinist regimes nullified their countries’ laws whenever such law became politically embarrassing. This they could do because they had absolute power to act outside the law — responsible to no one. It appears these are the methods adopted by the Davis administration.”

Inside Queen’s Park, teachers had the backing of the NDP. During the debate, one NDP MPP accused Education Minister Thomas Wells of being “incompetent, stubborn, and stupid,” which he then withdrew for being “unparliamentary language.” Not to disrupt decorum, he referred to him as “unintelligent” and a “megalomaniac” instead.

The Liberals, unsure of where to stand, voted for Bill 274 on the first reading, only to reverse their position during the final vote. Much like a chameleon, they were prepared to change colours as it became politically convenient for them — but lizards they remained. In any case, their “support” was not needed.

The 1973 strike

The participation on Dec. 18 defied all expectations. Out of 105,000 teachers, around 90,000 joined the strike. In Toronto, nearly every teacher took part, with The Star reporting that “many of [Toronto’s] 750 schools were practically deserted today.” Similar results could be seen in places like Ottawa, Hamilton, Windsor, and London.

In response, the government dug their heels in. Schools were kept open, with principals, parents and even caretakers asked to supervise classrooms. It was all for naught. Few students turned up for class, with attendance as low as six per cent in certain regions. Premier Davis’ own children were sent home for lack of teachers. 

An 11 a.m. rally at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens had to be delayed for an hour, as long lines of teachers entered the arena. At its height, 20,000 crowded the enormous venue — well beyond capacity. Another 5000 stood outside for lack of space, listening intently via loudspeaker. 

As the meeting began, The Star reported, “teachers were in an exuberant but orderly mood. Signs were everywhere.” Their messages included: “New Credit, Fascism 274,” “Abhor Bill 274, Expel Wells” and “The Giant Awakens,” among others. 

Among the first to speak was Geoff Wilkinson, president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation. He declared: 

“I come to bury Davis, and the sooner the better … The government has a divine right to believe it is divinely right. This legislation is not divinely right, but devilishly wrong and will lead them all to political damnation.” 

The crowd, in turn, roared in approval. Other speakers included labour leaders, civil rights figures, and the NDP’s Stephen Lewis, all of whom were well received. 

After the rally, teachers held a 30,000-strong march to Queen’s Park. Chants included “Down with Bill 274″ and “Down with Davis.” To keep things orderly, some 700 teachers volunteered as marshals. In the words of one teacher, marshals were necessary “in case any of our colleagues get a little exuberant and try to break down the doors of Parliament.” In that respect, they served their purpose. Police later admitted that the teachers’ demonstration was “the largest and most orderly” in Ontario’s history. It was also one of the most effective. 

Lessons of victory

Fearing escalation, Davis withdrew the legislation within days. However, perhaps more important was the impact the strike had on teachers. The government’s actions had “politicized the teachers more in three days than any other move in the past three decades,” to quote Wilkinson. “The teachers have been transformed — they were not what they were a week ago and will never be the same again.”

He was not far from the truth. In the coming years, Ontario’s teachers would go on to occupy a dominant role in the labour movement — no longer as “mild mannered” professionals, but as trade union militants. It was under these conditions that, by 1975 — two years after the strike — teachers at long last obtained the right to strike. As such, their rights and traditions are owed to the legacy of 1973.

Forty six years later, teachers are faced with a similar situation: dramatic cuts to education, a supportive public, and a government poised to deny their civil liberties. In the past, teachers defied the law to secure the rights they now have. As those rights are called into question, they may find it necessary to do so again. As anti-strike legislation looms ahead, teachers should look to their past for solutions.