Monday, February 4, 2013

Where next for Ontario teachers?

Written for the Leveller, January 13 2013
By Doug Nesbitt

In the early hours of January 11, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that the planned walkout by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario would be an illegal strike. ETFO quickly called off its action for that day, with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation following suit with regards to its January 16 walkout.. It appears that the months-long struggle by teachers and education workers against Bill 115 will now shift from the workplace to the legal and electoral realms.

ETFO and OSSTF are challenging Bill 115 in the courts, arguing it is a violation of Charter Rights which protect collective bargaining. Bill 115 allows for and was recently used by Ontario’s Minister of Education Laurel Broten to impose concession-laden contracts on these unions, ostensibly to save $2 billion to combat a $14 billion deficit (the Liberals have not reversed their corporate tax cuts implemented since the recession began). Bill 115 allows the cabinet to unilaterally impose contracts and stop strikes without legislative oversight – a convenient provision when the same government prorogues the legislature on dubious grounds.
The Bill also bars the unions from appealing any decisions made under the Bill through Human Rights legislation or the Ontario Labour Relations Board – the very body that the government turned to in order to declare the teacher walkouts illegal.

Laurel Broten and other government officials, including the media, continue to call the imposed contracts “collective agreements” despite there being no bargaining involved, let alone ratification from the union membership. With the help of a sometimes hostile, sometimes stupid mainstream media, the government has also continued with its claims that this is about getting a wage freeze. It is not. ETFO and OSSTF leaders and members have been extremely clear that this about the right to collective bargaining, not wages. All teachers unions agreed to a wage freeze rather early in 2012, long before Bill 115 was introduced in September.
The final insult has been Laurel Broten’s announcement that Bill 115 would be repealed [it was] once the contracts were imposed. The obscene absurdity of this move is reflective of how unjustifiable Bill 115 is with regards to basic democratic principles.

From now on, OSSTF and ETFO will stick to their work-to-rule campaign. This simply means a strict adherence to what responsibilities are outlined in the (imposed) contracts. For all the whinging about extra-curriculars being lost, this work, carried out by so many teachers, is voluntary and unpaid.  It falls outside the purview of their contract. Employers and those of an anti-union/anti-teacher disposition appear satisfied with this arrangement until extra-curriculars are the first to go in any work-to-rule campaign. Furthermore, high school students have walked out against Bill 115 – not the teachers – in their thousands at dozens upon dozens of high schools. They were clear with their message: repeal Bill 115 and extra-curriculars will return.

Work-to-rule will be a largely symbolic protest action and have no immediate affect on Bill 115 at this point. The unions are now counting on the courts to repeal Bill 115. Given precedent, the likelihood of this is very high, but such challenges take many, many years to reach a conclusion. Court challenges also have the affect of demobilizing the membership.
The biggest untold story about this struggle has been the re-emergence of rank-and-file opposition within the teachers unions; opposition which holds the promise of democratic renewal and a reorientation of the unions towards more effective mobilizing strategies against employers and the government.
This is most apparent within OSSTF where the union leadership consistently dragged its feet through the fall in advancing a coherent, effective strategy of escalating action. ETFO always took the lead when coordinating province-wide work-to-rule, calling one-day strikes, and mobilizing for the now aborted January 11 “illegal” walkout. It took a revolt of OSSTF members in late November rejecting a number of tentative agreements made within the framework of Bill 115, to force the OSSTF leadership to follow ETFO’s lead. It was rather obvious at the time that the OSSTF leaders wanted to approve such tentative agreements and keep the challenge within the realm of the courts. Dissenting OSSTF members took their leaders to task, arguing that reaching tentative agreements with school boards within the framework of Bill 115 was the antithesis of the union’s stated opposition to Bill 115. Caught between ETFO’s lead, and a rank-and-file rebellion, OSSTF leaders were reluctantly forced to follow a course of escalation.

As a result, OSSTF may witness the healthiest renewal of rank-and-file organizing and democracy amongst the teachers unions. Their convention in March will demonstrate how extensive this renewal is. ETFO, whose leaders were far more clear and focused in confronting Bill 115, saw a much more cohesive union and very little reason for rank-and-file members to organize in opposition or simply independently of the leadership. Such rank-and-file engagement is absolutely necessary if unions are to have the bargaining muscle to take on austerity-driven governments and greedy employers.
Meanwhile, there is a very real reckoning in order for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. In early July, OECTA leaders sold out their members and allies in ETFO and OSSTF by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the McGuinty government. The MOU was the framework for the concessions in Bill 115 which have now been imposed on OSSTF and ETFO. The OECTA leaders are without a doubt traitors to democratic principles, members and allies, and to the labour movement. Not only did they collaborate with the government in providing them the legitimacy to pass the authoritarian Bill 115, but the OECTA leaders never put the MOU to a ratification vote by the union’s 55,000 members.

With job action limited to symbolic work-to-rule, and Bill 115 now facing a court challenge, the unions have only the electoral field to work with. Prospects are grim. While the Liberals will likely lose the next election, the Hudak Tories have a lead in the polls. If they form a majority government, they are keen on pushing thoroughly anti-union “right-to-work” laws that have devastated workers rights and amped up inequality and poverty in so many American states. Labour’s traditional political allies, the NDP, are a few points behind Hudak. However, Andrew Horwath and the party caucus of eighteen have been remarkably silent on Bill 115 despite the party’s Provincial Council passing a motion in favour of repealing Bill 115. At her end-of-year media interviews, Horwath went on to say she is still willing to work with the Liberals and wants to avoid an election this year. In such a situation, the unions ought to be placing demands on the NDP to make Bill 115 central to their campaign as a condition of electoral support.

Hopefully, the struggle against Bill 115 has done enough to stoke the fires of democratic renewal and reform within the teachers unions which will in turn sharpen and reorient the labour movement towards mass mobilization and popular education campaigns with the public and other unions. With austerity measures being rammed through our archaic “representative” democratic structures through increasingly unjust and undemocratic means, the future of labour will require a return to the time-honoured principles of democratic, membership-led unions and a willingness to defy the law.

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