Toronto Media Co-op

Local Independent News

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!
Not reviewed by Toronto Media Co-op editors. copyeditedfact checked [?]

Ontario Teachers’ Struggle Continues

CLASSroom interviews C. Hewitt-White

by Classroom

IWW newsletter CLASSroom recently published the following interview with C. Hewitt-White, a Toronto-based teacher and member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) about the ongoing education-sector strike. Her views are her own, and do not necessarily represent those of OSSTF.

CLASSroom: I understand that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) has been escalating its strike actions. Why is this happening?

C. Hewitt-White: The Toronto district of OSSTF started its official legal strike action on Monday November 12. Many other districts have joined in since then. In Toronto, we are striking in response to two levels of attack: local and provincial. At the local level, each union district bargains directly with its employer – the local school board. School boards usually seek an increase in on-call supervision every round of bargaining. This means that they want principals to be able to take away more preparation time from teachers so they can supervise their absent colleagues’ classes. This is a crass cost-saving measure (it costs less than hiring occasional teachers) with nasty consequences. For example, teachers have less time for preparation during their workday, so they intensify their prep work in the limited time they have, work longer hours, or come to class less prepared. Students clearly don’t benefit from increasing on-calls.

The issue that everyone has been hearing about is the provincial attack. The provincial government and the OSSTF Provincial team started talks months before local bargaining began in order to agree on the money available to boards during local bargaining. In early spring of this year, the government announced that it would cut education funding for a two year “period of restraint,” and that it would enforce cuts through legislation if the education unions did not accept them. In the months that followed, negotiations crumbled between the government and all unions save for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government in July – behind the backs of its members and allied unions. Minister of Education Laurel Broten introduced Bill 115 to legislature in August and provincial legislature passed it on September 11.

Bill 115 imposed terms and conditions on OSSTF members retroactive to September 1, identical to the terms and conditions in the OECTA MOU, which are: a two year wage freeze, a 97-day salary grid movement freeze for teachers who have been teaching less than 10 years, cutting our sick days from 20 to 10, and deleting accrued sick days as well as the ability to cash out a percentage of accrued sick day value upon retirement. Furthermore, Bill 115 stipulates that it is above existing law: it cannot be found by arbitrators or courts to be in contravention of the Ontario Labour Relations Act, Employment Standards Act, or Ontario Human Rights Code – even though it contravenes all of these.

The Bill stipulates that any collective agreement the union and local employers come up with cannot improve on what is outlined in the MOU. Every collective agreement must be approved by the Minister of Education, who is given the right to amend collective agreements. Effectively, collective bargaining no longer exists for OSSTF, CUPE and ETFO members affected by the Bill because it is hamstrung by austerity parameters and the Minister of Education has ultimate say over our agreements.

If we do not come to agreements that are satisfactory to the Minister of Education by December 31, the government will impose on us agreements identical to the MOU.

CLASSroom: Why is OSSTF striking in response? What sorts of actions are taking place?

C. Hewitt-WhiteAs far as I can understand from OSSTF communications and discussions with my coworkers, our strike action is a tool designed to put pressure on our local boards to cease their attempts to increase on-calls and other attempts to dismantle our contract. But we are also putting pressure on the province to allow us to negotiate beyond the parameters of Bill 115.

However, union members have reason to suspect that OSSTF negotiations with the province are actually attempts to implement the decreased funding scheme under BIll 115 by making the cuts differently. For instance, we know that OSSTF already, in the spring, offered a general wage freeze in exchange for not freezing newer teachers’ movement up the salary grid, and offered to take on the unfunded liabilities of members’ benefits plans. In our current negotiations, OSSTF basically accepts austerity measures, but tries to implement them on the union leadership’s own terms, including union-proposed cost-saving measures, in order that OSSTF can come up with an agreement that does not cost the government more than what the MOU does. In other words, our current negotiations are aiming for contracts that would be approved by the Minister of Education on the basis of being “substantially identical” to the entirely concessionary and undemocratic agreement that OEACTA leadership signed.

The union decided on a strike strategy that would have little to no impact on students. Teachers are continuing to provide teaching-related labour but are withholding administrative labour. We are not attending meetings with administrators and we are also not doing parent-teacher interviews after school hours. We are not handing in our attendance sheets at the end of the day and we are not handing out to the students any material the administrators want them to take home – principals and vice-principals must do these tasks themselves. Administrators must also cover “on-calls” – must supervise colleagues’ absences in situations when occasional teachers have not been called in.

Last week, we did not write comments or learning skills on our report cards, and handed our marks into the administrators instead of uploading them using a marks computer program. Administrators had to enter the marks themselves. Contrary to media reports, this is not a work-to-rule action, and we have not collectively withdrawn extra-curriculars (though some individual elementary teachers have). We are continuing to mark, prep, teach, offer extra help outside of class time, contact parents during our work day, informally monitor student behaviour in the hallways, and supervise extracurriculars.

CLASSroom: What do you think that the union is capable of accomplishing?

C. Hewitt-White: There is a difference between what the union should be capable of accomplishing and what the union is capable of accomplishing.

The union is a wealthy and well-oiled political machine that has helped many Liberals and NDP candidates to win their seats in parliament. In the past, at both the provincial and local levels, OSSTF has mobilized tons of its members to work on election campaigns, to attend rallies, and to attend our provincial conventions. OSSTF has the infrastructure and means to mount an intense fight-back outside of the courtroom and beyond the negotiating table, but lacks the political will to do so.

For instance, OSSTF could run train-the-trainer sessions for door to door campaigning, allowing us to engage directly with the public about how Bill 115 sets an anti-democratic precedent for all workers. It could hold public assemblies. It could publish literature for the general public about how education workers’ unions have won improvements for the school system through the very process of collective bargaining that has come under attack. It could hold educational events that bring workers from the three main education unions together. In short, it could use organizing methods to build broad support for our case and against Bill 115. Engaging with the public and other workers could build momentum needed to take the fight beyond December 31 – at which point the MOU can be imposed, the opportunity for this fake negotiating will be over, and strikes and lockouts will be banned. Right now, rank and file members are trying out these methods because official union bodies are refusing to.

We’ve been told that one of the reasons why we are taking this particular strike action is to bait the Minister of Education into invoking Bill 115 and ordering us back to work – just so we can use this as evidence in our ongoing charter challenge that Bill 115 breaches the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

I believe that the core reason why OSSTF has developed this strike-to-lose strategy is because it cares more about cooperating with the state and capital to create “labour peace” than about doing whatever it takes to defend the working class. Even using the word working class would make most OSSTF leaders’ eyes roll. This is a longer conversation, but my point is that OSSTF, like many unions, sees power as emanating from parliamentary seats and not from regular people at the point of production. Organizing makes little sense to these people, but lobbying, backroom deals, and election campaigning do.

Also at work here is a deep disdain for regular folks. OSSTF members who have listened closely to what OSSTF leadership says when asked about its public relations strategy knows that it has shamefully low expectations of the general public – low expectations of their intelligence, and of their capacity for empathy and solidarity. OSSTF members have been told that advertising campaigns and media interviews don’t actually change people minds – they are merely one more vehicle for the union to communicate to the government that we are open to negotiating within the paradigm of austerity.

Broad education and engagement now will help us mobilize beyond December 31, when Bill 115 will come into full effect and strikes and lockouts will be banned. For education workers, what I mean by mobilization is “illegal” labour action, like a full walkout. Workers are scared of wildcat action because of fines and disciplinary action. They also lack confidence, knowledge, and skills, and union leaders are directly to blame for this by having failed to direct resources to rank-and-file education or training over a period of many years. Union leaders are also quite effective at stoking fears any time someone asks for information about these options at union meetings. But the risks won’t be that high if tens of thousands of people, alongside students walking out and parents protesting, take the risks together. This kind of mobilizing can only happen if the union presents itself as caring about more than themselves, which I believe its members certainly do. The union has to represent us accurately. Unions need to talk about austerity and reject Bill 115 altogether for pragmatic reasons – namely, so that they can get public support and actually win. But they need to do it on principle, too, if they actually care about students and education workers, and working in our interests.

We are facing a situation in which there are few ways to overturn Bill 115 in the next year, other than by creating a situation in which the public is mobilized, and students, parents, and workers take to the streets. This creates the same kind of pressure and purposeful chaos that a strike does – it disrupts business as usual and shifts consensus, as we saw happen in Quebec last spring.

The unions have launched a legal challenge that experts agree will win. But it will take from three to six years to finalize the case. That’s three to six years of destructive ripple effects throughout the public sector, of wages lost, of people losing income when they are sick. Some OSSTF folks are hoping that Liberal leader contenders like Kathleen Wynne and Gerard Kennedy [former Ministers of Education] will make amends to OSSTF and repeal the Bill if elected. I think this is redundantly naive.

In short, with its current strike strategy, the union is capable of accomplishing a back-to-work decree from the Lieutenant Governor, a lockout by boards, some public support, and generally demobilized and demoralized members. OSSTF needs to quickly move to a member and public mobilization strategy if we don’t want this to spread throughout the public sector.

CLASSroom: How do you anticipate that the government will react, specifically in light of Bill 115?

C. Hewitt-White: I don’t expect the Minister of Education to approve any tentative agreements that districts submit to her. Based on her previous rejection of “creative solutions” presented by the unions, I predict the Minister wants agreements to look exactly like the OEACTA MOU. So I see the strike action continuing until boards lock out their workers, which is more of a reality in rural boards than in Toronto, or until Bill 115 is invoked to ban our strike action. If that happens, teachers will probably spontaneously withdraw extracurriculars because that is the only aspect of our labour that we would still have control over in the case of a strike ban, as it is completely voluntary. There are many possible implications of this for public support and long term government backlash in regards to teacher control over their volunteer labour.

If strikes aren’t banned, and lockouts don’t happen, I’m sure that the strike action will continue until December 31 at which point the MOU essentially and officially becomes our contract and all teacher strikes are from then on illegal.

If the Minister of Education does approve any agreements, it’s likely that they will not be good deals for members. I hope that members will have access to details of the deals, and if the deals are unacceptable, that they will mobilize “Vote NO” campaigns leading up to ratification votes.

Want more grassroots coverage?
Join the Media Co-op today.
2171 words

Join the media co-op today
Things the Media Co-op does: Support
Things the Media Co-op does: Report
Things the Media Co-op does: Network
Things the Media Co-op does: Educate
Things the Media Co-op does: Discover
Things the Media Co-op does: Cooperate
Things the Media Co-op does: Build
Things the Media Co-op does: Amplify

User login

Subscribe to the Dominion $25/year

The Media Co-op's flagship publication features in-depth reporting, original art, and the best grassroots news from across Canada and beyond. Sign up now!