Most importantly, the workers’ effort prevented the utter humiliation that Ford sought to inflict on education workers as a lesson to other public sector workers. An example has been set for challenging and defeating strikebreaking laws, which must be taken to heart and acted upon. We must also recognize how hugely important it is that an alliance of unions formed around this fight and that plans were underway for a wave of major work stoppages. Opinion polls show a clear majority on the side of the “illegal” strikers, demonstrating the extent to which the confrontation struck a chord in these harsh times.
Still, despite the tangible gains and even greater possibilities, the calling off of the strike was a setback that points to some very fundamental problems in trade unions and their leaderships. Had Ford’s offer been met with a clear statement that the strike would end when his government put an offer on the table that was acceptable to the education workers, the unions would have been much more able to force better terms out of the Conservatives. Ford was already in a weak position and an ongoing strike, backed by escalating sympathy actions, would have been more than he could withstand.
Perhaps the most galling element of this demobilization lies beyond the immediate struggle of the education workers. Other unionized workers, both in the public and private sectors, were preparing to take action in solidarity with the education workers. Unorganized workers and communities facing the impact of attacks of social cutbacks could have been drawn into the struggle. The fact that this emerging movement of solidarity and social resistance was demobilized rather than set in motion is a great loss.
Why was the offer from a clearly weakened and rather desperate Conservative Premier so readily accepted and compromise so eagerly embraced? This brings us face to face with a factor that has undermined union power throughout the neoliberal period: Since the post-war years, union struggles have played out, for the most part, within the confines of state enforced class compromise. In return for recognition and systems of bargaining, workers’ struggles have been severely limited and compartmentalized inside collective agreements.
The objective of this ongoing compromise was always to limit the ability of working class action to disrupt and destabilize capitalist economies, but the deal was struck at a time when substantial concessions were possible. The neoliberal decades saw workers contained while employers went on the offensive and the deal became far less favorable. In this period of multi-layered crisis within capitalism, the need to embrace forms of struggle beyond the confines of the enforced compromise becomes an urgent question that union leaders are reluctant to consider.
When Doug Ford overplayed his hand as crudely as he did, he created a situation where the choice for workers became one of acting defiantly or accepting a crushing defeat. This led to an extraordinary readiness to set the rule book aside and prepare for a round of undisguised class struggle. Once the Premier offered to put his sledgehammer away, however, rather than press the advantage, union leaders, whose thinking and methods reflect the regulated forms of class struggle they have been schooled in, returned to more predictable ways of proceeding, and made the concessions that were necessary to make this possible.
The incredible events around the education workers’ strike are a reflection of the present period, and the possibilities raised by what took place have to be grasped and taken forward. We need to defy restrictive and repressive laws, break out of systems of state regulation, and build a capacity for united mass action by workers and communities.
Had the awareness of this need been much more deeply rooted in rank and file education workers and within the unions they were allying with, the course of this struggle might have been very different. If a rank and file movement with a militant class struggle perspective had been involved in this struggle, the minority of workers ready to reject this deal would have had the capacity to act and an ability to win over a majority to their side. This could have blocked the retreat and created the basis for a major defeat for the Ford government and its reactionary agenda. That may be the most important lesson of all to draw from this vital struggle.