Sixty thousand teachers with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) hit the picket lines on Dec. 4 and 11. During these one-day strikes Labour Fightback members were out in force to show our solidarity. After numerous conversations with hundreds of teachers, we can report that there is an overwhelming sentiment for escalating the strike action against the Ford government beyond one-day strikes. Teachers want to up the pressure to get the job done.

One-day strike on Dec. 4

Dec. 4, 2019 was the first time in 20 years that Ontario teachers represented by OSSTF went on strike. This was a historic moment and the militant energy could be seen and felt on the picket lines. However, the enthusiasm of the day was also mixed with some organizational confusion. Initially the OSSTF had organized a mass rally at the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park, but at the last moment the police removed the rally permit due to “weather conditions”, which was unusual as the forecast was getting better. Regardless, the union leadership mistakenly obeyed the police and told its members to picket high schools and school board offices. This directive was not completely successful as we witnessed some high schools did not have a picket line set up, likely out of confusion about the last-minute change of tactics. 

Regardless, the strike continued, and we joined a rally of about 1,000 teachers at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) headquarters. One high school teacher on the picket lines here told us that she was excited to finally stand up against the Ford Conservatives: “Stephen Lecce has no shame lying so openly on television, him and Ford deserve to be kicked out of office.” Another told us that she was disappointed the Queen’s Park rally had been cancelled, as it would have been a massive show of force. One teacher told us that he was disappointed that the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) had not joined the strike: “I wish ETFO was here with us, we need to be united with more numbers!” Another teacher questioned why ETFO and OSSTF were two separate unions: “We have the same employer, I don’t understand this setup, it just weakens us. We would be much stronger with our fellow elementary teachers out with us.” When our activists asked where the teachers thought the strike should go, we got many comments explaining that it should “escalate” and lead towards bringing out more unions and more workers in support: “We need a longer strike,” said one teacher, “I appreciate that we are finally on strike, but a one-day strike is not enough.” The idea of escalating towards a general strike was also popular, as many teachers understood the Conservatives’ attacks on children, students and the poorest in Ontario over the past year and a half: “They’re attacking everyone,” another teacher said. “We have to keep fighting to win our demands and to use it to enthuse others to defeat this government.”

With ETFO not involved in the strike campaign, the impact of the strike was weakened. Scandalously, education workers with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) were also directed to cross the picket lines by their union leadership and continue work in the high schools during the strike. Labour Fightback outlined the mistake with this divisive policy that forces education workers to obey the law and not refuse struck work. Our response to CUPE also included a statement from a member of CUPE 4400 and explained that in British Columbia, the BC Teachers’ Federation refused to cross CUPE picket lines. This was an inspiring example that CUPE Ontario needs to replicate. It should be obvious for all unions and honest labour leaders that picket lines mean do not cross! 

One-day strike on Dec. 11

On Dec. 11, another one-day strike was organized by the OSSTF after the Tories did not budge on the teachers’ key demands, which included stopping class size hikes, stopping the one-per-cent wage cap and stopping mandatory e-learning. Outrageously, while legislating a one-per-cent wage cap on public employee salaries, the ministers under the Conservative government have had their wages raised by 14 per cent! Faced with two-per-cent inflation, many strikers asked why should hard-working teachers face a continued erosion of their standard of living while rich Tory ministers get rewarded.

Our activists bolstered the lines at several high schools and the TDSB office. However, instead of escalating the strike action, the union leadership only decided to strike at half the schools in the province. This de-escalation was a real mistake. Also, the schools themselves were not completely picketed and we witnessed CUPE staff cross the picket lines. However, this lack of solidarity was not due to the rank-and-file members of CUPE who come out and show support on their breaks. It was obvious that CUPE workers did not want to cross the lines, but were forced to by their union leadership. 

On the lines at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, more than 30 of our activists came to support the line from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Our activists included union and non-union workers and students and the teachers were excited to see us out in support. We had placards saying “Strike to win” and “Picket lines mean do not cross”. OSSTF members gave us gloves, coffee and donuts in the frigid weather. Many of us learned a lot from teachers who shared their experience with us from the Mike Harris-era Days of Action. On this same day we also came to show solidarity at the TDSB headquarters, where we were introduced with: “Hey, it’s you, the Marxists. Great to see you again!” Vibrant conversations ensued around international politics, socialism and how to organize general strikes. Who said workers aren’t interested in theory? We asked some how the struggle against the Conservatives was going. One teacher very pointedly replied: “We need to escalate the strike and involve more workers outside our union.” 

The next day, on the morning of Dec. 12, the presidents of four educator unions (OSSTF, ETFO, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and l’Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens) held a press conference at Queen’s Park to announce a court challenge against the Ford Conservatives’ one-per-cent public sector wage cap. The presidents said that they were “waiting for the legislation to pass” before launching their court challenge. When asked why CUPE and other unions were not present, they said that those unions can do their own challenge. This move implies that union leaders are taking the legal route, rather than organizing comprehensive picket lines and escalating strike action. To the Ford regime, this is a sign of weakness. Any court action will take years and years to resolve, by which time the legal result will be irrelevant. It also distracts from the best way to defeat Ford—by escalating strike action.

The vibrant conversations with teachers over the past few weeks confirms Labour Fightback’s perspectives around the desire of rank-and-file workers for escalating actions towards a general strike. It is not an accident that teachers are striking after 20 years of inaction in the context of Liberal and Conservative cuts to education. The Ontario Conservatives have stepped up austerity measures and made a clear distinction between the rights of working class Ontarians and the wealthy elite. While attacking students and teachers, they have doled out tax cuts and benefits to the richest Ontarians. 

Last week we published an article entitled “How Ontario teachers gained the right to strike by defying the law”. The example of Ontario teachers defying the law to win the right to strike in 1973 became a topic of discussion on the picket lines as well. Our article became widely popular as it was shared by the OSSTF Toronto Facebook page. It was also shared by teachers active in 1973 and Laura Walton, resident of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, and was viewed and shared by hundreds of others within a few days.

When the labour movement was strong and militant, it was unthinkable that any honest worker or workers’ leader would cross a picket line. But today during the one-day strikes of OSSTF members, CUPE Ontario leadership allows it. However, this lack of solidarity is not one-sided. During the CUPE negotiations with Doug Ford’s government a few months ago, OSSTF President Harvey Bischof also made a scandalous statement when he said to the media, “My members will be going to work on Monday as they have active collective agreements in place, and not to do so would put them in jeopardy of discipline from their employer.” These acts of disunity only weaken the OSSTF and CUPE who both share a common enemy in the Conservatives. Some leaders seem to trust the legal system more than the power of their own rank-and-file members.

There is an old saying in the labour movement that “weakness invites aggression”. Limiting the locations and directives of the Dec. 11 and 18 one-day strikes is a sign of weakness. In the past it was the solidarity of multiple unions and thousands of workers joining together in the same fight that won the right to strike and benefits in Ontario. To honor the militant labour traditions of the past and those workers who fought tirelessly to gain victories for the working class such as the right to strike, we must carry the lessons forward and give this new generation of workers the methods and tactics we need to win.