On Feb. 21, for the first time in 24 years, all four major teachers unions in Ontario went on strike, shutting down the province’s public education system for a day. This was in response to cuts by the Doug Ford Conservative government. Unfortunately, instead of taking the strike to the next level, union leaders are deescalating the struggle. This is the road to defeat – we need to escalate the strike to defeat the government!

The unions represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), L’Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), and Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) brought out 200,000 teachers on strike. On the same day, 30,000 teachers demonstrated at Queens park, forming a massive rotating picket line encircling the parliament in a massive show of force. Not since the Metro Days of Action in 1997, when the Toronto general strike included 1 million workers, has Ontario seen a strike of this size by teachers or any other layer of the working class.

Fightback activists participated in the picket line at Queens Park and spoke to many teachers. The mood was electric and rank-and-file teachers are clearly starting to feel their own power. One teacher said, “this is amazing to finally see all four unions together, we need this type of unity to beat the government”. There was a strong sense of militancy amongst the thousands at the legislature, and teachers and their supporters are clearly looking to ramp up the fight to defeat the Conservative cuts.

Escalate the strike!

Logically, after such a successful show of force, the strike should escalate to bring Doug Ford and his Conservative ministers to their knees and end the cuts. In a recent poll by CTV news, when asked, “As the teachers strikes escalate, which side do you support?”, over 70 per cent of respondents sided with the teachers. On top of this, Doug Ford’s approval rating has taken a tumble and he is now the most unpopular premier in the country. All indicators point to the fact that the government is hated and the general population is looking for a way to fight back. The time for escalation has never been more ripe.

However, on Monday, Feb. 24, ETFO revealed the highly anticipated “Phase 6” of its job action plan -and it does not include any actual strikes. Instead, it falls back on work-to-rule action, “online picket lines” and other previously used tactics. This is a clear de-escalation of the movement. Scaling back the fight is a big mistake and is not what is needed to force the government to back down. Even the Globe and Mail commented, “It is unclear how this new phase of job action [Phase 6], which does not involve strikes, will put pressure on the government to return to the bargaining table.” 

The ETFO leadership hopes to find a settlement with the government at the bargaining table by Mar. 6. If this fails, they will proceed to “Phase 7” of their plan by Mar. 9. Similarly, OECTA has suspended their planned rotating strikes this week. The OSSTF, after two months of stalled talks and rotating one day strikes, will only continue rotating strikes on Feb. 28. AEFO will restart a rotating strike on Feb. 27 and then resume classes on Feb. 28. What could have been the start of a powerful united strike movement capable of shaking the government to its very core, has now been downgraded to isolated actions by the various leaderships of the big unions. 

After a couple of decades of cozy relations with the Ontario Liberals, union leaders have become accustomed to cordial relations with the education minister, resulting in negotiated settlements. But as the ruling class seeks to place the burden of a flagging economy on the backs of the workers, the era of class collaboration is over. This is true across the country, as well as at a federal level, and the Doug Ford government is an especially clear example of the bosses’ thuggery. This is not a government that can be reasoned with – they only respond to a show of force. The de-escalation will only be seen as a sign of weakness by Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce. As the old saying in the labour movement goes, weakness invites aggression. The best bargaining chip at the negotiating table is a mass militant strike movement.

Feb. 21st was an amazing show of force but much more is needed to force the government to back down. Instead of deescalating, we should be preparing for an all out strike which does not end until the cuts are withdrawn. With hundreds of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of parents and Ontarians in support, this is an astonishing amount of power just waiting to be tapped into.