Ontario Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Unions to Hold Strike Votes
All teachers in the K-12 publicly funded education system in Ontario and many education workers have been without a new contract since August 31, 2022 when their previous contract expired. The previous contract was negotiated under the conditions of the Ford government’s unconstitutional wage-suppressing legislation, Bill 124, and then the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in which teachers and education workers unions paused strike actions that were underway province wide to respond to the conditions of the pandemic.
To date, only education workers represented by CUPE-Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) have been able to achieve new collective agreements acceptable to them following their refusal to submit to the Ford government’s use of the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract by force. This refusal showed that it is possible to go beyond the limitations the government and the courts attempt to impose on workers’ actions and thinking about what is and isn’t possible or legal.
Since that time, the Ford government has refused to negotiate substantive issues with the remaining unions that represent teachers and education workers. Meanwhile it has been making changes to the powers of locally elected school boards, putting them more directly under the control of the Minister of Education. As well, it has been changing graduation requirements for secondary students, releasing new curricula, and recently dictated that elementary students from kindergarten to grade two will be subject to a new province-wide testing regime for reading. All of this has been done without consultation, let alone negotiation, with either school boards or teachers’ and education workers’ unions.
At the same time, the government has refused to accept the November 29, 2022 ruling of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on anti-worker Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019, that suppressed wages in the public sector by dictating one per cent limits on annual compensation increases outside of any legitimate negotiated process. Justice Markus Koehnen concluded that Bill 124 was unconstitutional and declared it “void and of no effect.” He argued forcefully that the government had not engaged in good faith bargaining and that its legislation had caused serious damage to Ontario’s public services and, by extension, those who rely on them. At the request of the parties, the court had deferred the consideration of any remedy to a future hearing.
Shortly after, the Ontario government filed an appeal of the decision that was heard June 20-23. No timeline was established for when the decision will be rendered.
In its factum for the appeal, the government gave the spurious argument, among other things, that Bill 124 didn’t violate Section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in part because its limits on bargaining were “time-limited,” as if this justified the widespread violation of rights. The government also argued that if Bill 124 did limit bargaining, the Court should still have deferred to the government on a matter of substantial public policy. Justice Koehnen argued that the government had not made a legitimate case for a financial crisis to justify the legislation given its pursuit of tax cuts for large companies at the same time it claimed it must limit public spending.
With its appeal the government is trying to make a case that it can do as it pleases and operate outside of the existing constitutional arrangements because a) it is only temporary and b) it is the government and irrespective of the legitimacy of its rationale should be able to do as it pleases without anyone having any recourse to the courts. None of its arguments convince anyone, however it is using its power to try and circumvent being held to account at the same time that it is once again refusing to negotiate in good faith with teachers and education workers.
With the school year set to begin September 5 in Ontario, and with the government engaging in such dishonourable schemes, two unions representing teachers and education workers, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) — have announced that they will hold strike votes in early fall if the government continues refusing to negotiate. The strike votes will be held after mass meetings of the unions to inform their members of the state of bargaining and why they feel a strong mandate for strike action is required. ETFO has announced that these meetings for its members will begin mid-September after the start of school putting them in a position to take strike action if an agreement cannot be reached through negotiation. Since the announcement of the strike votes the government has agreed to new bargaining dates with some of the unions during September.
At ETFO’s annual meeting August 14 to 17, union president Karen Brown explained that the changes being made to education by the Ford government are reminiscent of those made by the Harris government in the 1990s. Those changes resulted in teachers and education workers organizing the largest political protest and strike in North America which forced the government to back down on its vicious assault on school boards and education. She noted that the Harris government cut $1 billion from education as part of its restructuring, and today the Ford government “has cut $2.5 billion out of public education in real dollars since the 2018-2019 school year, all while sitting on $22 billion in unspent funds.”
This shows that the overall aim of the restructuring is to remove public funds from education, which the government in power then uses to pay the rich in various ways. The resistance to these attacks by teachers and education workers is, in fact, a matter of preventing the theft of public funds for private gain. Brown emphasized that in the past year, the entire labour movement stood with education workers in saying No! to the use of Bill 28 to impose contracts and invoke the notwithstanding clause and that this is what forced the government to back down.
In a bargaining bulletin to its members, OSSTF notes that the annual Grants for Student Needs, the mechanism for funding school boards based on enrollment and facilities, has fallen by $1,200 per student when adjusted for inflation since the Ford government took power in 2018.
The bulletin adds, “Much might be said about the need for stability in schools in these upcoming weeks: the fact is that it is the daily contributions of OSSTF/FEESO members and other teachers and education workers across the province that provide stability to Ontario’s students. Future stability, however, requires that this government provide the resources necessary to ensure schools are staffed by qualified teachers and education workers. The Ford government continues to starve the education system of funding for the supports, programs and professionals that students need to meet their full potential. In addition, this government’s approach of implementing initiatives at the last minute and ignoring the input of parents and education professionals is the opposite of stability.”
Ontario teachers and education workers have learned through their own experience that the only way to establish a pathway to a negotiated agreement which recognizes their rights is by refusing to submit to dictate and threats.