How Teachers Won the Right to Strike

How Teachers Won the Right to Strike – Dr. Chantal Mancini

The following history of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation’s (OSSTF) fight for the right to strike is provided by Dr. Chantal Mancini, Former President of OSSTF Hamilton Teachers’ Bargaining Unit. It was posted on Twitter in the context of the current discussion over OSSTF’s proposal to enter voluntary binding interest arbitration. Dr. Mancini writes:

On December 30, 1919, 62 high school teachers and principals held a secret meeting in Toronto and formed OSSTF, the second teachers’ federation to form in Ontario. It was a time of increased worker militancy in Canada.

One of the first aims of early province-wide teacher organizations was to secure better salaries and working conditions. Teacher associations had formed before, but they ignored the material interests of their members, who faced poverty wages and precarious work.

OSSTF’s early leaders clung to the idea that ‘professionalism’ would see employers reward them with better pay & more say in their working conditions. They set their sights on a proposal of mandatory federation membership for teachers, hoping this would further their cause.

In 1944 the Teaching Profession Act made public and Catholic teachers members of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, comprised of five affiliates, including OSSTF. It did not grant teachers the right to strike. Boards could just ignore teachers’ demands – and they did.

In 1947, OSSTF began to issue ‘pink letters’ warning members not to apply to intransigent school boards. Teachers also began to resign en masse, unsupported by provincial OSSTF. In 1950, the government enacted the Ontario Labour Relations Act, but it excluded teachers.

Still, in February 1950 a Globe & Mail headline read: “Ontario Teachers Shun Unionism, President Says.” It was T. W. Mayor, of OSSTF. He said the “road leading to professionalism” was “in the best interests of education and the public.” Similar messaging appeared well into the 60s.

Teachers remained frustrated by their inability to have issues addressed. In 1969, OSSTF began to support mass resignations. The Conservatives commissioned a report that declared the right to strike to be unprofessional for teachers and recommended binding arbitration instead.

By 1970, some OSSTF teachers began to push for bargaining rights. Media reports point to internal tensions. On December 10, 1973, the Conservatives introduced bills that imposed compulsory arbitration on teachers. Any hope that they would gain the right to strike would be lost.

Eight days later, 90,000 Ontario teachers walked off the job. 30,000 marched to Queen’s Park. It was the culmination of labour unrest fuelled by rising inflation, increasing class sizes, cuts to education spending, and federal wage caps for public sector workers (sound familiar?)

The government capitulated and agreed to establish a legal bargaining process for teachers. In July 1975, the government enacted Bill 100, the School Boards and Teachers Collective Negotiations Act – finally granting teachers the right to strike that they had fought for.

Today, on Labour Day, I ask my OSSTF colleagues, both teachers & support staff, to consider our union’s history of struggle. Members ARE the union, and our history demonstrates it has been members who have led the way at critical junctures.

Our right to strike has been an essential cornerstone of a strong public education system in Ontario. Our predecessors knew that 50 years ago as they hit the streets. We must protect this right vigorously so that it remains for generations to come.

Mass demonstrations of teachers take place against cuts to and restructuring of education imposed by the Harris government in Bill 160 in 1997.