The Canadian Tories have been forced to retreat on anti-union laws, but now teachers need to press home their advantage, argues John Clarke
The struggle of 55,000 education workers in Ontario has shaken the province, created a crisis for the governing Tory Party and sharply revealed the dangers and possibilities we confront, as we build resistance in the face of the present cost of living crisis.
The challenges faced by education workers were set out very clearly in a recent article by David Bush. He showed how their wage levels and workplace conditions had been undermined over a long period and that this had been greatly compounded by the inflationary upsurge. In this harsh context, the workers and their union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), were pressing for significant improvements.
Faced with a lack of good faith bargaining, a strike deadline was set and the government responded with ‘legislation that imposed a concessionary contract on education workers and (took) away their right to strike.’ The measure that was adopted by the Tories, went so far as to include the infamous and rarely used ‘notwithstanding clause’ that actually enables governments in Canada to adopt measures that might violate constitutional protections.
It was immediately apparent that the Conservative government and its Premier, Doug Ford, had miscalculated with their reckless use of such heavy handed tactics. Sections of the Canadian establishment were perturbed by the overriding of constitutional rights, even if the imposition of austerity on workers was to their liking. It also became rapidly clear that the anti-worker legislation was highly unpopular, as opinion polls indicated. A clear majority took the side of the education workers.
With a powerful mood to resist in evidence and, with other trade unions ready to offer Ontario strong support, a readiness to defy the legislation emerged. CUPE Ontario president, Fred Hahn, publicly declared that a province wide general strike was “absolutely a possibility.”
By 6 November, as an alliance of unions developed plans for an escalating fightback, the media was talking in terms of ‘Mass protests and widespread disruption’ and suggesting that ‘multiple Canadian unions plan to take part in sympathetic strikes.’ It was reported that ‘The aim..was to bring the province to a standstill and apply maximum pressure on the Progressive Conservative government to repeal Bill 28.’ Though it was presented as an act of ‘protest,’ an indefinite ‘illegal’ strike, bolstered by a massive wave of solidarity actions, was about to be set in motion.
On 6 November, shortly before CUPE and its allies were about to hold a press conference to declare their precise intentions, Doug Ford made his own public announcement. Though he is an impeccably right wing Tory, Ford’s political behaviour is frequently erratic and he is not known for his intransigence in the face of serious challenge. Faced with formidable working class resistance, he demonstrated once again that he’s no Margaret Thatcher and that he most assuredly is for turning.
In an incredible display of political weakness, Ford declared that he would withdraw the legislation if CUPE would call off the strike and return to the bargaining table. His only cover for this retreat was the laughable assertion that his pressing concern was for “letting our kids back into their classroom.” With the assurance that this commitment would be put in writing, Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, announced that the workers would return to work, as negotiations resumed.
This sudden turn of events, on the very cusp of a major class battle of historic proportions, has sparked a variety of reactions among union activists and on the left here in Ontario. Certainly, a clear assessment of what has taken place and a firm sense of the way forward are of great importance. In my view, we should recognise that the return to work has significantly undermined the huge momentum of the struggle but, at the same time, appreciate that there have been major gains and that the fight is still entirely winnable.
On the first side, union leaders have suggested that returning to work, in order to obtain the elimination of the threat posed by Bill 28, comes at little or no cost. JP Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), whose members had already come out in support the previous week, stated that they were ‘not standing down, we are standing by.’ The problem with such a perspective is that workers’ struggles aren’t taps that can be turned on and off at will. They involve hope, inspiration and escalation and the powerful forward movement of the education workers and their formidable support base has been dangerously arrested.
I would argue that the needs of the strike and its capacity to develop the broader struggle that must be taken up in face of the cost of living crisis, would have been better served by responding to Ford’s offer with an announcement that the strike would continue, with CUPE ready to consider any new offer he put on the table.
As serious as the suspension of the strike may be, a despondent sense that nothing has been gained and that all is lost is completely unjustified. It had long been widely believed that the Ontario Days of Action, the city wide strikes and mass protests that confronted the brutal austerity measures of the Tory government that held power during the 1990s, had become impossible to replicate under present conditions. Yet, the education workers, with their defiance, showed that this was far from the case. Powerful mass struggles are still possible and even inevitable.
Though the Ford Tories have been able to regain their equilibrium because of the calling off of the strike, they are hardly in robust condition. The balance of forces has needlessly been allowed to shift their way but not to a degree that will give them any great appetite for another confrontation with province’s trade unions in the near future.
The most pressing issue before us now is what the Ford government puts on the table when negotiations resume. If no serious offer is forthcoming and no basis exists for good faith bargaining, it will be essential that the strike resume without delay. If this doesn’t happen, the loss of real wages and deteriorating working conditions that were to have been obtained by Bill 28 will simply be achieved by less dramatic means. Delay, equivocation and needless compromise must be opposed at all costs.
As I have already suggested, the astounding developments that have marked the education workers’ struggle up to this point are unfolding in the context of a cost of living crisis that demands new forms of struggle. The reactionary legislation that Ford directed at these workers is part of a whole edifice of state regulated dealings between workers and employers. These were shaped largely during the postwar years and their object was to broker very limited concessions to workers, while compartmentalising their struggles and constraining their militancy at every turn.
Having the state determine when and how workers can fight back has always been a huge obstacle but in these crisis ridden times, with working class living standards under the most brutal assault, it has become an intolerable impediment. The Ontario education workers have posed the possibility of breaking out of these constraints so as to fight back in a way that corresponds to the needs of these times and the value of this is hard to overestimate.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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