On Sept. 15, 93 per cent of the 55,000 education workers with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) voted to authorize a strike. These workers could potentially be in a strike position on Sept. 30. This marks the first significant step towards possible strike action in the fight against Ontario Premier Doug Ford, more than a year after his relentless attacks on workers and students began.

CUPE represents custodians, clerical staff, and educational assistants in public, Catholic, French and English school boards across Ontario. They are fighting back against increases to average class sizes and a deliberate reduction of working teachers by the Ford government. The president of CUPE’s bargaining unit, Laura Walton, explained that their plan for job action was about “standing up for students and protecting the services that CUPE education workers deliver across the province.” 

Ford’s education minister, Stephen Lecce, announced that he wants to see “a deal that puts students first.” But since taking office in the fall of 2018, Ford’s government has cut $1.4 billion from public education, which includes eliminating $100 million in desperately needed school infrastructure repairs, funding cuts to francophone schools, and rolling back sex education. The list of cuts goes on and on. There is no question that the Ford Conservatives do not have the interests of students in mind despite Lecce’s claim.

What is at risk and what is being done by CUPE, OSSTF and ETFO?

Some of the attacks on rank-and-file members of CUPE are directed at job security, with a risk of layoffs, reduced sick leave, decreased benefits, and wage cuts in relation to inflation. Members started taking strike votes on Sept. 3. The union is looking for a better deal for its members, who earn an average of $38,000 per year. As an example of the current conditions of workers, cuts to the caretaking work force have led to unrealistic workloads and have endangered the sanitary conditions of schools.  This situation has become so bad that workers have been put in a position to miss hazards such as needles in the play areas on more than one occasion. Both staff and students will be prone to sickness and a worsening of an environment critical for the next generation.

In a news conference at Queen’s Park on Sept. 9, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn announced a province-wide campaign called “Communities Not Cuts”. The campaign, he said, will include actions such as petitions, pressure on MPPs, funding other “like-minded groups”, as well as a strike. Hahn said the campaign would be an “aggressive multi-year campaign” to “build resistance” and to “pressure” Ford to “reverse his attack, right up until the day three years from now…”

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) also face attacks by Ford and could be in a legal strike position in October. Both unions represent about 150,000 members. Teachers are already protesting the class size increases which are also the fault of the former Liberal governments of the past:

In case you thought the government's announcement of high school class sizes being 22.5 on *average* meant…

Posted by Melissa Therrien on Friday, September 6, 2019

In the tweets above, more than a dozen teachers give a first-hand perspective of the consequences of class size increases. Although a class size increase from 22 to 28 may not seem significant to an outsider, it is just an average number. As seen above, some classes are already going as high as 40+ students, and many are in the low to high 30s. Thousands of teaching positions will remain empty as a result—essentially a deliberate job cut by Ford’s government. There will be at least 3,475 fewer teachers in the system over four years due to not filling vacancies.

On Aug. 15, ETFO President Sam Hammond told his members that negotiations were “respectful” and “slow but steady”. But when referring to general negotiations with Ford he said:

“Unfortunately, this is probably the calm before the storm. Already we are seeing clouds on the horizon.” 

The secondary school teachers with the OSSTF tried to go to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) for help in negotiations but were rejected, not surprisingly given that the OLRB has a history of inaction and putting up barriers for workers and unions. OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said a strike is “certainly not our goal, but it’s not something we haven’t ruled out either.” Now OSSTF is organizing its own strike vote.

What needs to be done?

Parents and teachers are already fuming at Ford. His popularity has nosedived and his current attacks have galvanized a militant mood to fight through a strike—the 93 per cent strike vote is a clear indication of this. Instead of waiting to get rid of Ford three years from now in an election, the CUPE leadership should grasp this mood and not be afraid to call a strike. This government is weak and can be defeated.

In the event of a strike, it is likely that Ford will use “back-to-work” legislation. He already did it less than a month into his term against CUPE 3903 York University teaching assistants last summer, and is not afraid to use it again. Therefore it is vital that CUPE and the teachers’ unions develop a plan to defy back-to-work.

In the spring of 2019, CUPE held its Ontario convention where it adopted a resolution drafted by Fightback’s CUPE activists to defy “back-to-work” legislation. Unfortunately, after agreeing with the need to defy in principle, the union leadership resisted all attempts to put in place a real plan of action to fight this threat. Now there is a strong likelihood that Ford will implement “back-to-work” legislation against the school workers. The time to implement this resolution is now. We remind our audience of what we wrote, which was adopted unanimously by 1,000 delegates at the convention in the spring:

CUPE Ontario will:

  • Develop a plan of action, in coordination with local leaders, to resist future impositions of “back-to-work” and “essential service” legislation, including solidarity strikes and mass political protests.
  • Bring a resolution to the upcoming Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention, calling on the OFL to do the same.”

The time to implement this resolution with concrete dates is now. With the OFL convention coming up in November, there is a real opportunity to generalize the movement against Ford. His government has attacked literally every part of the working class and the movement in the schools has the potential to spark off a wider struggle. We have to adopt the perspective of spreading this struggle in solidarity with education workers. We need to build escalating actions leading up to a province-wide general strike by CUPE, ETFO, OSSTF, and other unions and workplaces already under attack by Ford. This massive pressure would cripple and bring down the Ford regime.

In an editorial attacking teachers, the infamously right-wing Toronto Sun newspaper made it very clear that they do not think teachers should have a say in the hard work that they do:

“Here’s my message for the teachers and their union representatives: Change is coming. Whether they like it or not, the teachers’ unions don’t run the province and they don’t dictate education policy.”

The question before Ontario’s education workers is this: will Doug Ford and his corporate friends run the province undemocratically from on high, or will the workers shut it down to show who really runs things? The only way to protect workers from attacks and gain anything in negotiations is to take the next step further towards a strike. A strike of education workers this fall can ignite a real movement towards a general strike across the province to bring this hated Ford government down. The other option is sitting and taking three more years of attacks on students and workers. There is no time to waste!

Strike to win!

Defy back-to-work legislation!

No sell-out contracts!

Spread the movement!

Towards a province-wide general strike!