The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which represents high school teachers and education workers across Ontario, has announced that it will hold a one-day province-wide strike on Wednesday, Dec. 4 unless a deal is reached with Premier Doug Ford’s government. The plan marks an escalation of job action by secondary school teachers, who on Nov. 26 joined the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in a work-to-rule campaign. Two days later, OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said that the work-to-rule tactics of not filling out report cards or attending unpaid meetings had failed to move the government, and that a one-day strike would take place the following week in the absence of a deal.

Four of the five major education unions in Ontario are currently in contract negotiations with the Ford government. Teachers are balking at the government’s cuts to education funding, its shift to larger class sizes and mandatory online courses (or “e-learning”) for secondary school students, and a law limiting annual wage increases to 1 per cent.

In the face of Ford’s intransigence, teachers are ready to fight. Elementary teachers, high school teachers, and English Catholic school teachers have all provided overwhelming mandates for strike action, with 99 per cent of the ETFO, 95.5 per cent of the OSSTF, and 97 per cent of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) voting in favour of a strike if necessary. The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), which represents teachers in Ontario’s 12 French-language school boards, will be holding strike votes on Dec. 18-20.

After the announcement of the one-day OSSTF strike, Education Minister Stephen Leece shamelessly posed as the defender of students and parents, while blaming teachers for the failure of negotiations. “Strikes hurt kids,” Leece said. “For teacher unions to leave the table, to turn their back on our children, and to escalate to the point of compromising their education, is deeply troubling for parents and our government.” Leece’s pathetic spin insults the intelligence of parents who have largely sided with the teachers. Survey results from the province’s own education consultations show that approximately 70 per cent of parents feel an increase in class sizes would negatively affect students’ learning, while a majority of parents also oppose more e-learning for students.

In truth, it is the Ford government that is hurting kids and compromising their education. The government plans to increase education spending by an average of 1 per cent per year, but inflation and rising enrolment are set to accelerate costs by 2.7 per cent annually. The government’s spending limit therefore represents an effective cut and decrease in funding per student.

Larger class sizes are one of the main grievances of teachers, parents and students. In spring 2019, the Ford government announced that it would be increasing class sizes — a move that would lead to the elimination of 10,054 teaching positions. The government claimed this action would save the province $900 million per year once implemented.

Funded class sizes in Grades 4 to 8 have gone up by about one student, from 23.84 students on average to 24.5 students. The effect is even worse in high schools, where school boards have been told to increase class sizes from 22 to 28 students. Such an increase would significantly add to the workload of teachers while decreasing the amount of individual attention each student receives. Many schools have already had to cut classes with smaller enrolment such as drama and music. Some larger-enrolment classes threaten to balloon to 40 students or more. Leece says that the government has offered to modify class size increases by making classes “only” 25 students on average instead of 28 — still a significant increase that would burden teachers and worsen the education experience for students.

Mandatory online courses are another issue driving teachers toward strike action. The government initially announced that high school students would be required to take four of their 30 credits online. On Nov. 21, it changed this requirement and said that students would only have to take two online courses instead of four. Each online course will have an average of 35 students. Once again, the government’s new, “softer” position still represents a significant decline in the quality of students’ education. As the Ottawa Citizen reported, “Unions have opposed the plan, saying not all students learn well online, no other North American jurisdiction requires so many online courses in high school, and those in rural areas or poor households might not have their own electronic devices at home or Internet service.”

Finally, teachers oppose a new law, Bill 124, that imposes a pay cap limiting wage increases for public sector workers to one per cent per year for the next three years. In Fightback’s analysis of Bill 124, we noted that “Canada’s annual inflation rate is more than two per cent, meaning the legislation promises an effective annual pay cut of one per cent going forward every year. In Ontario, this comes in the context of rising poverty rates, food bank use, and already stagnating wages.” A statement by Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley also debunked the government’s rationale for these policies in the name of saving money, pointing out that Ford has given away billions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and is spending $3 billion to cancel cap-and-trade.

Negotiations between the OSSTF and the Ford government appear to be at a standstill. When Bischof announced the one-day strike, he expressed frustration at the government’s continued obstinacy after the start of the work-to-rule campaign. “What the Crown brought to the table today was absolutely nothing,” Bischof said. “Not even one single proposal to place on the table even after we had begun a very mild withdrawal of services and some political action.” He added, “The Crown continues to insist on raising class sizes by 14 per cent and the minister continues to characterize this as an improvement.” Stressing that “there’s time to reach a deal,” Bischof said that the one-day strike “is intended to draw further attention to this government’s destructive cuts to the education system.”

The Ford government is weak and unpopular. A September poll put Doug Ford’s approval rating at 26 per cent, the second lowest of any premier in Canada. But to make any major concessions to the teachers would open the floodgates and make it clear, as suggested by the government’s concessions to education workers in October, that workers can fight Ford and win. Meanwhile, the leadership of the teachers’ unions is under enormous pressure from their members not to capitulate in the face of the government’s attacks.

If Ford refuses to make any concessions after the one-day strike, high school teachers must prepare escalating strike action. In the event of an all-out strike, Ford will almost certainly attempt to use back-to-work legislation to crush the teachers and force them back to work, in which case teachers must be prepared to defy that law. The use of back-to-work or “essential services” legislation has become routine by federal and provincial governments, meaning that the democratic right to strike effectively no longer exists in Canada.

Sooner or later, workers must defy these unjust laws. With the Ford government increasingly weak, defiance of back-to-work legislation by the teachers could spark a mass movement that offers the finishing blow and brings down this wretched government once and for all. The wider labour movement must support the teachers and help build towards a province-wide general strike that can reverse Ford’s attacks and destroy his regime.

Strike to win!

Defy back-to-work legislation!

No sell-out contracts!

Spread the movement!

Build the general strike to bring down Ford!