by Barry Weisleder
For the first time in 23 years, the four main teachers’ unions in Ontario went on strike at the same time. They did so to challenge the anti-education agenda of the Doug Ford Conservative government at Queen’s Park. On February 21 nearly 200,000 school system workers picketed and held protest rallies across the province, joined by some of their 2 million students who were out of class for the day. The largest gathering took place in downtown Toronto where thousands circled the Ontario Legislature.
Still at issue is the government’s determination to increase class size in secondary schools from an average of 22 to 25 students, and to require each student to complete two e-credits (internet courses without teachers). Thousands of teaching positions are at risk. Likewise, elementary teachers are up against the Ford government over caps to class size. They demand more support for students in special education, improvements to health and safety protection in the classrooms, and a written guarantee that full-day kindergarten will continue with support from early childhood educators. Education Minister Stephen Lecce, in an effort to divert attention from his exceedingly unpopular policies and his intransigence at the bargaining table, publicly portrays teachers as greedy because they seek a pay increase close to the rate of inflation. In addition, Lecce offers the parents of students impacted by strike action up to $60 a day for childcare. Why spend millions of dollars in that way? Because the Tory agenda aims to effect permanent job cuts and to curtail collective bargaining rights. Bill 124 makes anything more than a 1 per cent wage rise non-negotiable.
Commercial media coverage continues to feature parents, students and members of the public walking the line with teachers. In countless recorded interviews, people state their solidarity with the fight to defend the quality of education. Protests in the Fall forced Ford to roll back cuts to spending on autistic children and others with special needs. It is increasingly clear that this struggle has the potential not only to defeat the government’s cuts to education, but to defeat the Tories by forcing an early election, well before 2022.
Following the February 21 united job action, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), is putting the government and Education Minister Stephen Lecce “on notice.”
“Minister, you have two weeks — the ball is now in your court,” Hammond said on February 24 after announcing a number of new work-to-rule measures and increased political action, along with the hiatus on walkouts. The Catholic teachers and the union of French-language teachers went back to the bargaining table, while the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation held one-day strikes at a few school boards. In the absence of a good deal (or a sell-out by weaker leaders) before March 6, the simmering brew may boil over the pot.
But where in this fray is the Ontario Federation of Labour, its major affiliated unions, and the labour-based New Democratic Party, Ontario’s Official Opposition?
The union central rallied thousands to a protest outside the Progressive Conservative Party convention held in Niagara Falls on February 22. OFL President Patty Coates told media there that a general strike may yet occur if Ford doesn’t change course. This ‘threat’ would have more impact if it was part of a serious plan to conduct cross-union and sector-wide strikes, leading to an unlimited, province-wide work stoppage aimed at removing the Tory government.