Which way forward for Ontario teachers?

By Richard R

It has been over a month since the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) held their one-day protest of the provincial Liberal Party leadership convention, mobilizing some 15,000 people on the streets of Toronto and then sending them all home again around 4:00 PM. The protest was part of the trade union response to Bill 115, which enabled the provincial government to circumvent collective bargaining and mandate the terms of new “collective agreements”. Within the bill were draconian provisions for any attempt to challenge the legislation, through the courts or in the workplace. It is worth noting that while the union leadership were pushing for this day of action, they were also cynically hedging their bets in the form of thousands of dollars in union dues being funnelled into contributions to Liberal leadership candidates. In one case $10,000 was donated to Eric Hoskins, a leadership contender who had in fact voted in favour of Bill 115.

After their preferred “social justice” candidate Kathleen Wynne won the Liberal nomination it seems that the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation (OSSTF) leadership thought the time was right for a rapprochement. On Friday February 22, members were surprised to hear that their union had advised them to resume extra-curricular activities. This was not in response to any good faith offer by the province. I've never sat at a bargaining table, but it strikes me that giving up something for nothing is a pretty poor strategy. Members were not consulted in advance of this recommendation and had to spend the weekend in suspense, awaiting a press conference the following Monday, some venting their frustrations over a Facebook group called “We ARE the Front Lines In Education”. The decision by the OSSTF also breaks solidarity with the Elemantary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) who have continued their abstention from extra-curriculars. This allows an opportunistic press to play the “good” teachers in the OSSTF and OECTA (Catholic teachers who were the fist to submit to the province) against the quarrelsome rebels in the ETFO. We have seen just that in the editorial pages of the Globe, Star and Sun.

Community groups, who mobilized in support of all education workers throughout January and supported the union's day of action have been left hanging without an effective escalation path or any visible means of advancing the struggle. Worker militancy is not a tap that union leadership can simply turn on and off whenever it suits their negotiation strategy. If you mobilize tens of thousands of people and proceed to lead them ineptly and achieve nothing, its likely that less of them will volunteer to participate in future. It is demoralizing, and it burns out organizers to no purpose. It must be reversed.

If similar anti-labour legislation is to be stopped, unions must be willing to defy unjust legislation and be seen to be doing so. To do otherwise is posturing and this has been shown time and again to be insufficient. Work currently being undertaken by groups like the Rank and File Education Workers of Toronto, such as canvassing in working class neighbourhoods, show potential for broadening the struggle and taking the power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. The task for militant rank & file workers in this situation is to build on this work and find ways to move forward without and in spite of union leadership, and make possible mass defiance of laws like Bill 115.

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