Over the last several weeks, an astounding confrontation has unfolded between education workers and Ontario’s Conservative government. The government unleashed brutal legislation that threatened the right of 55,000 education workers to strike and slashed their real wages. In response, an alliance of unions came together that was poised to unleash a wave of sympathy strikes that would have shaken the province.
In the face of this, Ontario Premier Doug Ford retreated ignominiously and agreed to withdraw his reactionary legislation if the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU) would agree that its members would return to work while the bargaining process resumed.
Ford’s offer was accepted, the strike was halted, the movement of solidarity demobilized and weeks later a settlement was finally accepted that failed to address the impact of inflation and austerity on public education.
It is clear that considerable implications flow from this confrontation, the more so since it unfolded in the midst of a cost of living crisis that raises questions about how workers and communities can fight back effectively. This struggle shows both the enormous potential for defiant mass struggles by workers but also the degree to which the mechanisms of compromise and constraint stand in the way of such vital action.
Act of Defiance
The education workers at the heart of this struggle include education assistants, librarians and custodians who are disproportionately women and people of color. Both their standard of living and working conditions have been under attack for a considerable time. Between 2011 and 2021, they faced an effective wage cut of 10% and the recent inflationary crisis has dramatically worsened their situation.
CUPE entered the present round of negotiations anxious to recapture lost ground but the Ford government, with its austerity agenda aimed squarely at the public education system, had no intention of giving ground or even bargaining in good faith. What was not immediately clear, however, was just how ruthless the attempt to crush these workers would be.
On November 3rd, the Ford government adopted Bill 28, the ‘Keeping Students in Class Act.’ Imposed before any strike was underway, the bill denied these workers the right to withdraw their labor and forced a concessionary settlement on them. When it came to questions of constitutional rights and freedoms, Ford, knowing he was sailing rather close to the wind, employed the infamous ‘Notwithstanding Clause.’ This rarely-used legal provision gives governments in Canada the ability to enact regressive measures while exempting them from constitutional challenge.
CUPE, armed with an overwhelming strike vote of 96.5%, responded by defying the legislation and, as an indefinite strike by education workers began, it rapidly became clear that several other unions were ready to act in solidarity. CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn stated that a province-wide general strike was “absolutely a possibility.” Speaking at a rally, he declared that “We will build resistance — we will bring others to this resistance, we will keep going.” Media reports also stressed that impending solidarity strikes were being prepared that would “bring the province to a standstill and apply maximum pressure on the Progressive Conservative government to repeal Bill 28.”
Doug Ford is often described as a right-wing populist and even compared to Donald Trump. It is true that he shares not only Trump’s vile politics but his erratic decision-making as well. He is particularly prone to attacks of cold feet when his destructive political agenda provokes serious resistance. In this case, his legislation provoked a response from the unions that took him and his inner circle completely by surprise. One government official told a reporter that “We didn’t really think that they’ll just say, ‘We’ll strike illegally.’ We just didn’t take that into account.”
Just as the alliance of unions was about to publicly announce its plans to escalate the strike action, Ford offered to withdraw Bill 28 if CUPE would call off their strike and return to the bargaining table. Once this was offered in writing, CUPE agreed to the terms. The legislation was indeed repealed, but subsequent events offer little reason to celebrate.
While the government negotiators did increase their wage offer, they remained utterly inflexible on demands for improved services and staffing that were critical in terms of job security and working conditions. Despite having set another strike deadline, union leaders instead decided to put the meager offer forward for a ratification vote.
The result of the vote was announced on December 5th, with some 73% of the membership voting to accept, over four years, a $1 flat rate hourly wage increase, or about 3.59 per cent annually. CUPE’s national office issued a statement that acknowledged that “No deal contains all we seek,” but gamely insisted that “a breakthrough wage settlement’ had been achieved.” With inflation in Canada running at 6.9% and, in light of the massive cut in real wages education workers have faced over more than a decade, this is open to question.
It is also clear that a significant section of the members were not at all convinced that any breakthrough had occurred. Even when faced with a recommendation to accept the deal and a union leadership that clearly had little desire to continue the fight, more than a quarter of the workers rejected it.
OSBCU president Laura Walton, herself an education worker, revealed a great deal about the dynamics of the strike and the tensions within the union leadership when she told the media that “As a mom, I don’t like this deal. As a worker, I don’t like this deal. As the president of the OSBCU, I understand why this is the deal that’s on the table. I think it falls short and I think it’s terrible that we live in a world that doesn’t see the need to provide services to kids that they need.” While expressing the frustration and dissatisfaction of her members, Walton accepted the view of the union apparatus that the deal would have to be imposed on the education workers.
Strengths and Weaknesses
In making an assessment of this extraordinary struggle, it is necessary to draw some harsh lessons. However, it would also be a mistake to take an entirely pessimistic view and discount the importance of what took place
The readiness of the education workers to act so decisively shook Ford profoundly, forcing him to abandon his legislated attack and return to the bargaining table. Though he was unfortunately given the opportunity to regain his equilibrium when the strike was called off, Ford still had to provide a wage settlement greater than he had intended.
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.