As this article goes to print, Ontario teachers are preparing to battle it out with Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, in the provincial government’s first major confrontation with labour since the “banker’s budget” in April.  Although the Ontario teachers’ unions supported McGuinty’s Liberals in the last three elections, Dalton has rewarded the teachers by stabbing them in the back — outlawing teachers’ strikes and taking away their rights to collective bargaining by imposing a two-year wage freeze.  If this is what the Liberals have in store for their former friends, we can only imagine what they plan for the rest of the province’s workers.

As we outlined back in April, the Liberals’ “banker’s budget” sought to impose the full brunt of the capitalist austerity on the province’s workers, come hell or high water.  Clearly frustrated that their demand to freeze workers‘ wages wasn’t being carried through, the Liberals even declared that moving forward, the provincial government would go around arbitrators and the collective bargaining process to impose unilateral wage freezes and contracts on public-sector workers.

Ontario’s teachers and doctors have become the first victims of the government’s march towards austerity.  In what can only be termed a vicious smear campaign, the Liberal government has attempted to present the province’s teachers as spoiled and obstinate, supposedly refusing to bargain in good faith.  The provincial government is demanding that teachers get on board and do their civic duty in eliminating Ontario’s $15-billion deficit.  (They neglect to mention that all along, teachers have been doing their job and that they had little to do with the fiscal crisis that Ontario is now in.)

Instead, it has been the government who has refused to budge in negotiations.  From the very beginning, the Ontario government has insisted that any contract with the province’s teachers needs to include a wage freeze (amongst other cuts), and that no other offer is worth negotiating.  Throughout the summer, the Liberals have threatened the unions to accept the province’s offer or have it imposed upon them through legislation.

Not only have the Liberals prepared this legislation — they are planning to table it at Queen’s Park on 27th August — but they have also banned any strike activity by Ontario’s teachers, even though none of the teachers‘ unions had threatened to go out on strike once their contract was up on 1st September.  Furthermore, the Liberals are trying to rush the legislation in order to prevent the accumulation of additional sick days and salary grid increases coming into effect on 1st September; if passed, the legislation promises to claw back any increases to pay and benefits, retroactive to 1st September.  Following the pattern set by their federal counterparts, Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals are taking away workers’ democratic rights in order to preserve the bankers’ bottom line.

This has become the new norm in labour relations in Canada — force concessions upon workers by threatening them with massive fines and jail time.  What is also regularly becoming the case is that governments are stepping in with back-to-work legislation even before the old contract has expired!  It is without exaggeration that we can say that workers’ rights have been thrown back one hundred years in this country.  This is why the struggle of the Ontario teachers has to be one taken up by the entire labour movement across Canada.

The Ontario government has been trying its best to play a divide-and-rule game, by trying to set the different teachers’ unions against one another and by setting younger teachers against older ones.  The Liberals reached a deal with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), which secured numerous concessions from the teachers; now, the Liberals have tried to use it as a model and pressure the other unions into similar agreements, arguing that if it is good for Catholic teachers, why isn’t it good for all teachers across the province.  Amongst the concessions agreed to by the leadership of the Catholic teachers was a two-year wage freeze, freezing experienced teachers at their current pay and preventing them from moving up the pay scale, and ending the payout of unused sick days when teachers retire.  New teachers will be allowed to move up the salary scale but in return, all Catholic teachers are being forced to take an additional three days of unpaid leave (amounting to a 2% wage cut).  Two other unions, representing French-language teachers and teachers’ aides, also reached deals which were very similar to the one agreed to by the OECTA.

However, the two largest teachers’ unions in Ontario, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), have refused the Ontario government’s initial offer.  Combined, these two unions represent over half of Ontario’s teachers.  The ETFO has refused to meet with the Ontario government and is insisting that it will only bargain with individual school boards.

Sam Hammond, the president of the ETFO, labelled the McGuinty government’s attack on Ontario teachers as unprecedented.  In a speech to the ETFO convention in Toronto, Hammond said, “Never have we seen such an insidious assault of this magnitude.  No government in Ontario, of any political stripe, has ever, ever made this kind of blunt force strike at the heart of any of its public sector workers.”  Hammond went on to tell his membership, “Our members did not generate this fiscal crisis.”

Unfortunately for Hammond and other labour leaders across the country, workers are going to need to get prepared for these “unprecedented” attacks as they become the norm in labour relations.  It is going to be the working class that will be forced to pay for the capitalist crisis, even though they were not the ones to have caused it.

Earlier this year, the Drummond Report outlined the financial crunch that faces Ontario and the bleak prospects for growth.  Don Drummond, the former chief economist of TD Bank and the author of the report, stated that if the Ontario government hoped to eliminate its $15-billion deficit, then it would have to “reform the way the government delivers virtually every service.”  His report offered over 400 recommendations on how to change the services that Ontario workers would come to expect from their government.  Furthermore, to ensure financial viability, the government needed to ensure that these measures were not simply short-term budget cuts but long-term changes.

It is unfortunate that up until now, the labour movement’s leadership has appeared too dazed to properly confront the threat coming from Canada’s bankers, CEOs, and their allies in government.  The time has come that the workers’ movement have a leadership that is prepared to take on the ruling class, or else risk becoming wholly irrelevant losing every gain that makes life semi-bearable for millions of workers in this country.

This attack may be unprecedented, but it is frequently becoming the pattern.  We only need to look over at what workers at Canada Post, Air Canada, and Canadian Pacific have had to experience in the last year.  As the Drummond Report made clear, the bankers and bosses will use every trick and ruse up their sleeve to restore the system’s financial equilibrium.  They will even do away with democratic niceties if it means that they will get the clawbacks and concessions that they need.

This also means that the labour movement has the responsibility to respond in kind.  If the bosses and the government will not respect workers’ constitutionally-protected democratic rights, then the labour movement needs to be prepared to defy the law, if necessary, to defend our rights to organize and defend ourselves.  Moreover, every sector of the labour movement needs to intervene when other workers are attacked; the capitalist class attempts to divide us precisely because they fear the collective strength of the working class.  If the Ontario government threatens the teachers with fines or jail time, then the rest of the labour movement needs to threaten solidarity action to defend the teachers’ right to fight for a better life.

The McGuinty government is aiming all of its guns on the teachers precisely because it is hoping that this will set a pattern for its future negotiations with other public-sector workers in the province.  Indeed, the fact that there was little solidarity mobilization in previous uses of back-to-work legislation has emboldened governments across Canada to begin to use this tactic as a regular part of labour negotiations.  This just highlights the need for workers, in all sectors and in all parts of the country, to mobilize and support the struggle of the Ontario teachers — otherwise, it will be you who are next on the chopping block!

Although the fight may appear to be a difficult one, the Liberal government is actually in a very tenuous position.  The Liberals barely scraped together a minority government in last year’s provincial election, one that was marked by the lowest voter turnout in history.  If anything, the Liberals are more unpopular today than they were on election day.  Furthermore, the Canadian ruling class has only been emboldened in taking these draconian measures precisely because the labour leadership has failed to mount an effective fight back.  Whenever there has been the scent of a reaction from the labour movement (as we saw earlier this year in Toronto with the anti-Rob Ford movement), they have been pressured to draw back.  This is the lesson that we must take forward in our struggle against capitalist austerity.  If they wish to take away our rights, then they will have to do it over the collective strength of Canada’s working class.

Victory to the Ontario teachers!

Defend workers’ democratic rights!

Workers won’t pay for the bosses’ crisis!