Source: Chris Young/Canadian Press

In the midst of the COVID-19-related education crisis, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has decided now is the best time to erode teachers’ seniority rights. Instead of reducing class sizes to allow physical distancing, Lecce is attacking teachers literally putting their lives on the line. He has done everything in his power to use the pandemic to try to justify this regressive move. But after last winter’s education strikes, teachers have become used to a steady stream of lies from this education minister.

On Oct. 15, the education ministry announced that the Ford government was repealing Regulation 274. This means that Ontario teachers would no longer have seniority rights in the process of attaining full-time teaching positions. With enough lies to make Pinocchio blush, Lecce said his moves better reward merit, speed up hiring, and increase diversity. However, there can be no doubt that this is a naked attempt to weaken working class organization and resistance.

The way Regulation 274 worked was to stipulate mandatory hiring practices such as publishing job postings publicly, interviewing based on seniority and experience, and updating seniority lists on a regular basis. A head teacher would be able to choose between the top five qualified applicants with the most seniority (and therefore experience). It also allowed for an unsuccessful applicant to request a meeting to learn how they could improve for the next interview. None of these entirely reasonable stipulations stopped management from being able to hire teachers in a timely manner. But they did stop the hiring process from being distorted by nepotism and being used for the victimization of trade unionists.

In one of his more audacious lies, Lecce gave particular emphasis to the need to repeal the regulation because of COVID-19. Putting aside the horrendous underfunding and mismanagement of the pandemic both in general and in the education sector, Lecce is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a smokescreen for his intentions. If, as he explained in his press conference, this was about getting more teachers through the hiring door during the pandemic, why is the removal of the provision permanent and not temporary?  What Lecce never mentions is that the government pressed hard to remove this regulation at the bargaining table during the pre-COVID negotiations with the teachers’ unions in the province (citation here).

Responding to the current timing of Lecce’s announcement, well into the start of the first semester, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, asked: “Why is it that as we are entering the second wave of a global pandemic, when schools are closing and teachers and parents are stretched to the limit, that the minister’s focus and priority is on a hiring practice?” Lecce bringing this up now is a clear indication that it’s not quality education or the safety of students that’s on his mind, but rather a vendetta against organized workers who democratically negotiated this provision in 2012—an organized group of workers who have, within the past year, struggled against Ford and Lecce’s plans to increase class sizes, make online learning mandatory, and reduce education funding.   

The reason the regulation originally came into effect was because of the rampant nepotism and favoritism in the past, where principals and superintendents would dole out full-time teaching positions to friends and family fresh out of teachers’ college while others with less connections but more experience could languish for years in the supply pool. Far from being a dirty secret, it was so out in the open that HR management would openly talk to potential full-time teachers and union members about needing to have the right “genetic requirements” (citation here). Regulation 274 did not eliminate nepotism and favoritism, but by many accounts did do much to reduce it.

The removal of seniority in hiring for teachers should not only be of concern to this group of workers. It is part of a general attack on the rights of trade unionists everywhere. The billions of dollars of debt taken on in the pandemic will eventually have to be paid back, and the capitalists aim to make the working class pay for the bosses’ crisis. In preparation for these struggles, right-wing politicians are doing everything in their power to weaken the ability of the working class to fight back. As shown earlier this year, teachers are on the front line of this struggle. Ford and Lecce were not able to get what they wanted at a democratic bargaining table, so they have decided to use dictatorial methods during the pandemic. The entire labour movement must unite against this repeal and every other undemocratic attack on the rights of workers. An injury to one is an injury to all. We must rebuild the movement towards a one-day general strike to bring down the anti-worker Ford regime.