The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) began negotiations in January to replace its long-expired contract with the province. Teachers in Ontario are facing severe staffing shortages, increased violence in schools resulting from overcrowding and underfunding, and wages that are not keeping up with inflation.
With historic strain being placed on Ontario’s public services from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ford government has stepped up its efforts towards privatization, diverting funding from public education to private tutoring. Funding has been reduced so much that the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario has projected an education spending deficit of $12.3 billion over nine years. Ford has spent the pandemic doing all he can to render our education system dysfunctional at best, in utter crisis at worst.
School boards such as the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) have already absorbed much of the costs from the pandemic, resulting in massive shortfalls (over $60 million in the case of the TDSB) and the complete drain of emergency reserve funds. In its March 23 budget, the Ford government provided no additional funding for education despite this pandemic-driven shortfall, effectively leaving the school boards on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. This coupled with a $17-billion backlog of necessary repairs has left the boards with little choice but to carry out layoffs and further cutbacks to programs and supports for students. The public education system is being broken intentionally, and coupled with the recent “catch-up” payment scheme in which the government dispensed funds directly to parents for the hiring of private tutors, it is clear that the Ford government is attempting to privatize our educational system.
Luckily, we have seen the fallibility of the government’s plans when faced with a militant labour movement based on solidarity between major unions. The illegal CUPE education workers’ strike that occurred late last year successfully overturned Ford’s attempt to impose a contract on the workers through legislation. It drew support from not only education unions, but most of the major unions in the province, regardless of field or discipline. Workers on the front lines knew that the CUPE workers’ interests were also their own.
So have the leaders of the OSSTF drawn any lessons from this experience?
In that strike, CUPE successfully mobilized its membership and public support around clear demands. In sharp contrast, the leadership of the OSSTF has been notably quiet about what demands it is seeking, even keeping their own membership in the dark. Even worse, the union leadership has already confirmed its unwillingness to engage in job action, saying that it is “committed to staying at the bargaining table.” Bargaining only works for parties with leverage. In the face of an opponent determined to impose cuts on schools, giving up the threat of job action signals tremendous weakness.
With historic inflation and an economy entering recession, the leadership should be rallying the troops to fight for serious demands such as a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) clause, an increase in school support resources to help students set back by the pandemic and relieve beleaguered teachers, and an end to the defunding and haphazard amalgamation of schools to cut costs, which has led to an increase in violence in schools. Instead, OSSTF leaders have made no bold demands. In fact they have made no public demands whatsoever.
The negotiations between the OSSTF and the Ford government are being conducted quietly, and with minimal input from the membership. In fact, in the personal experience of the author, most teachers were not even aware that anything had been discussed until very recently. The only official communications regarding bargaining have been vague bulletins, and a virtual town hall held on Dec. 14, right in the middle of the busy pre-holiday rush of marking, last-minute assignments, and one-on-one support.
These meetings also did not include an explanation of what the OSSTF would seek in bargaining. Considering the membership has been working on an expired contract for months, the fact that few teachers were even aware bargaining had started speaks volumes. Since the start of the pandemic, most large-scale union meetings have been conducted virtually, in a tightly controlled environment in which few questions are answered and no one can make their voice heard without pre-approval. This, combined with little effort on the leadership’s part to prepare and mobilize the rank and file for job action, has resulted in negotiations that will inevitably lack whatever teeth the relatively more democratic negotiations practiced by CUPE had.
The explanation given for the secrecy around negotiations was that it would help protect the union from negative public opinion. The implication was that in the eyes of the public, teachers are overpaid, and therefore would not garner the same level of sympathy as the CUPE workers did. Never mind that for the majority of new or occasional teachers, the going rate of pay is barely enough to survive in or near Toronto (with annual wages as low as $48,000 before taxes and deductions, in a city with a median rent of $2,300 a month). Moreover, these wages have been further eroded by enormous inflation. Teachers are far from overpaid, and the fact that a union which is supposed to represent the interests of educators seems willing to bow to this government-perpetuated myth does the rank and file no favours.
OSSTF leadership also outright stated that keeping membership in the dark about the negotiations would allow them to have greater “flexibility” to negotiate. They explained that by not informing members, they could more easily walk back or reduce demands without facing backlash. This is a shockingly open admission of their willingness to sell out! The “flexibility” described is nothing more than the flexibility to present a bad deal to the membership. If the goal of the union leadership is to win a good deal, then the pressure of an informed membership is an asset in negotiations, not an obstacle. Given the fact that the OSSTF has already sworn off job action, leaving it with zero leverage, a bad deal is certainly what will be presented.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Strikes are not guaranteed to win, but they offer the possibility of victory. By refusing to fight the OSSTF has already guaranteed that it will lose.
Anxiety over public opinion is a mere excuse. In fact, public opinion has more often than not fallen on the side of the teachers. Ford is less popular with every passing day, and parents overwhelmingly blamed his government for CUPE workers going on strike. The working class is beginning to rediscover a fundamental truth of labour organizing: a win for one is a win for all. With workers everywhere being rocked by record-high inflation, a fight against Ford could spark great enthusiasm—if the union shows that it’s serious about fighting Ford.
So far the OSSTF’s attempts to engage the public have been limited to encouraging letter-writing to MPPs. The leadership has also issued a series of “New Year’s resolutions” for Ford which acknowledge the danger of Ford using legislation against teachers, the disrespect and contempt Ford holds for the profession, and the government’s dogged determination to slash public investment. These are certainly demands that the broader working class can get behind. But appealing to the very MPPs who are attacking teachers, asking them to help instead, is a losing strategy. The union needs to be mobilizing its membership and preparing for struggle. Instead, the union leadership is tip-toeing around the bargaining process, and keeping its rank and file minimally informed.
There has been a multi-year trend of union leadership across the country failing to mobilize their membership and then recommending weak deals. We see the results in the 4.25 per cent pay increase over four years given to Alberta nurses at the start of last year, the 3.75 per cent increase over two years given to Alberta teachers, or the measly 3.59 per cent annual increase accepted by CUPE education workers here in Ontario. Across the board, union leaders have been underselling the immense power their members hold and goading them into wage decreases as the consumer price index sees costs rising around seven per cent per year. The OSSTF leadership has already confirmed it is unwilling to take any action that would defy this trend. An active, engaged, and informed membership would likely not stomach whatever deal is being proposed if given time to think about it and discuss it democratically. Instead the leadership hopes the membership will accept their hand-wringing and fear-mongering about public opinion and take whatever deal Ford is willing to give them.
The OSSTF requires a leadership that will not hesitate to bring out the rank and file membership, to listen to their demands, and that will use every tool at its disposal to win. Stop hiding behind “public opinion” and start taking an interest in public demands! The leadership of a major union must activate the rank and file, prepare for a fight, and rebuild the solidarity between unions and the public that brought down Ford’s back-to-work legislation!