Faced with the threat of a general strike on November 12 and an inter-union rally on November 14, Doug Ford rescinded his strike busting bill 28.
It is with a little delay that we return here to a mobilization of education staff at the beginning of November and publish the content of the interview granted to us by Julius Arscott, member of the executive committee of the union of employees of the Ontario Public Service.
This movement was remarkable for the pressure put by union members on their union leadership, not to make concessions to employers in a context of inflation (5.6%). The other remarkable feature has been the solidarity of the whole trade union movement towards education workers. A revolt… which calls for others!
55,000 education workers (technical and administrative staff) in Ontario, unionized by the Cupe (Canadian union of public employees) mobilized in a massive strike considered illegal on November 4, leading to a solidarity movement of the provincial trade union movement. This mobilization concerned wage increases but took on a political character when the Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, proposed a law (Bill 28) to prevent strikes by public employees. Doug Ford comes from the “Progressive/Conservative” party, a conservative right-wing party.
Faced with the threat of a general strike on November 12 and an inter-union rally on November 14, this law was withdrawn by Ford on November 11. Announced strikes have been called off, the union leaders considering that the battle had been won on Bill 28 and reserving the possibility of calling a new strike in the context of wage negotiations. Julius Arscott, member of the executive board of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO which organizes local government employees), who also participated in the mobilization and member of the executive committee of the League of action sociale (Socialist Action Canada) comes back with us on this landmark mobilization.
Before giving him the floor, let us specify that in the province of Ontario, the working conditions (hours, remuneration, etc.) are fixed by a contract between the union and the employer, when a union exists. The union, elected by a majority of the company’s workers, represents all the employees in the negotiations which take place periodically (every two or three years on average). The contract often includes a no-strike clause. The strike is illegal except when it takes place during the periods of negotiation between two contracts. The Ontario labor movement (which represents 26.8% of workers) is highly bureaucratic and at best tries to negotiate better working conditions with employers by threatening to strike but rarely calling on its members to do so.
What was the political atmosphere before the strike?
Progressive Conservative Party Leader Doug Ford was elected Premier of Ontario in 2018. People on the left were quite disappointed. Doug Ford has gone through several scandals, including that of the cocaine consumption of his younger brother Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. Despite all this, he was re-elected Prime Minister. However, in total, only 18% of the electorate voted for him, abstention being very high. The main left-wing, union-based New Democratic Party lost a million votes between 2018 and 2022. Their political platform was mainly to say that the Liberal Party was worse than them. Doug Ford is a Trump figure. The period was also marked by the “freedom convoy”. Small truck owners and larger corporations have rallied around an anti-vax conspiratorial platform.
This movement ended with a camp in front of the government palace in Ottawa, the federal capital. This initiative federated the extreme right and even if it claimed to be “popular”, no union supported it. Convoy also took issue with Doug Ford saying the pandemic wasn’t real. Despite this, Doug Ford’s daughter, married to a policeman, supported the convoy. Polls showed that only 15% of the population supported the convoy. no union supported it. Convoy also took issue with Doug Ford saying the pandemic wasn’t real. Despite this, Doug Ford’s daughter, married to a policeman, supported the convoy. Polls showed that only 15% of the population supported the convoy. no union supported it. Convoy also took issue with Doug Ford saying the pandemic wasn’t real. Despite this, Doug Ford’s daughter, married to a policeman, supported the convoy. Polls showed that only 15% of the population supported the convoy.
Why have Ontario education workers mobilized?
The sector was already in full contract negotiations. As everywhere, pay is low. Technical staff such as janitors are paid below the poverty line. The administration proposed salary increases between 0 and 1%, which is well below inflation (by 5.6%). There was a member vote authorizing the union leadership to call a strike. It was then that the Premier of Ontario, the Conservative Doug Ford, tried to pass Bill 28. Bill 28 is a law whose purpose was to prevent the strike.
What were the highlights of this strike, in your opinion?
The workers and their union (Cupe) succeeded in overcoming Law 28! Then what is important is that my union (OPSEU/SEFPO), which organizes 8,000 workers in the public sector (local authorities), launched a surprise strike, therefore illegal, in support of education workers on 4 November. Once rid of Law 28, however, the management of the Cup stopped the strike. The other noteworthy element is that the entire labor movement in the province was ready for a general strike even though it did not take place.
What was the driving force behind this strike?
It was the rank and file of the union that pushed its leadership into action. The base was really fed up. Then Law 28 would have created a dangerous precedent. The union leaders surfed on the mobilization which was the fruit of grassroots activists. The union leaderships have nevertheless organized good things such as strike funds. In the Canadian labor movement, each union operates somewhat independently, and it’s very different depending on whether you work in the private sector or the public sector. For the public, Bill 28 would have taken away the right to strike for workers. A dangerous precedent for the entire trade union movement.
The Ontario parliament did not pass Bill 28. The battle for the wages of the Cupe union and the education workers begins again: there will be a next day of strike on November 21 [ 1 ] . The OPSEU is also fighting on its side for wages and against the privatization of public services.
The Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP, a sort of Canadian Labor Party based on the unions) fought on the side of the workers, particularly in Parliament. However, the party line was to ask for the arbitration of the state in social conflicts, which is not a good thing, because the state is always on the side of the bosses.
What is the political atmosphere after the strike?
The strike gave self-confidence to the working class. A judge has just ruled that Law 124 of 2019 which prohibited salary increases of more than 1% per year in the public service was null and void. This law affects 700,000 public workers who could well start moving. The labor movement is discussing using this judgment to restart fights for wages.
Interview by Stan Miller on November 17, 2022
[ 1 ] A temporary agreement was reached before November 21, the strike was called off. The final agreement was ratified by 73% of voters on December 5. This agreement notably provides for increases of 3.59% (or one dollar per hour) per year.