Ontario teachers gear up for battle — despite divisions

By BARRY WEISLEDER
TORONTO—Labour Day 2012 inaugurates a season of intense class conflict between public service workers and the Ontario Liberal government. Teacher union officials are now locked in battle with their erstwhile supposed-ally, Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose Spring budget demands major concessions to balance the books at the expense of education and other social amenities.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) will conduct a political day of action in the fall if the Legislature attempts to impose a settlement on its members. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) is taking strike votes from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7, and is also considering a day of protest.
ETFO and OSSTF are working in concert with the French teachers’ association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents many school boards’ support staff.
Sadly, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) broke ranks with the other organizations in early July when it reached a deal with the Ontario government. It conceded three unpaid professional development days (i.e. a 1.5 per cent cut in pay), and cancelled funding for more secondary school teachers, in exchange for partial annual increments up the existing wage grid. Tellingly, OECTA forfeited the right of its members to vote on the deal.
OECTA members are still stuck with the reduction of paid sick days (down to 10, from 20 per year), an end to compensation for unused sick days, and a two year wage freeze – which McGuinty still seeks to impose on all teachers. OSSTF has already agreed to freeze wages, but it seeks to preserve movement up the experience grid (particularly important for teachers in their first 10 years) and to keep the current sick-leave provisions.
“We tabled a proposal to the government back in April that would give them additional cost savings …. a provincial benefits plan proposal that would save the government hundreds of millions of dollars. We also offered the government a four-year deal that included a two year wage freeze, and modest cost-of-living salary increases in years three and four. The government rejected those proposals without any consideration,” OSSTF President Ken Coran told a July 6 news conference.
But this concessionary posture curried no favour with the government, which proceeded to play the “divide and rule” game. Premier McGuinty picked off the weakest union already plagued by the deeply unpopular resistance of Catholic high schools to the formation, by its students, of gay-straight alliance clubs.
Substitute teachers, who comprise over 7000 of OSSTF’s 60,000 members province-wide, have reason to be apprehensive of any provincial deal—which likely will fail to address deteriorating classroom conditions and declining daily job opportunities. Poorly funded students increasingly lash out at substitute teachers. Frustrated full-time teachers retire early. Many return to work as subs, “double-dipping” to augment their pension income. This practice, condoned, even encouraged by OSSTF officials in some districts, leaves many substitutes at the brink of destitution.
It is crucial to be cognizant of these divisions in order to overcome them—which is possible, but only if unions fight for the interests of all members and employ more militant tactics in the workplace and in the political arena.
Many teachers feel betrayed by the Ontario Liberal Party, which enjoyed their tacit support in recent provincial elections—to fend off the rhetorically more right-wing Tories. The current collective bargaining battle demonstrates the foolishness of “lesser evil” politics. The latter includes the mistaken idea that the big business-backed Liberals would do anything other than act in the interest of capital, especially in the throes of a global capitalist economic crisis.
Instead of concessions bargaining and “lesser evil” capitalist politics, all education workers should unite public and private sector workers in a campaign that follows the mass mobilizing example of the Quebec students’ movement.
Needed are escalating job actions that lead to an unlimited general strike to stop the rulers’ austerity drive, and to make capital pay for the crisis it created. Required is a fight for a Workers’ Government, a process that starts with teachers and all working people taking control of the existing labour party, the NDP, and demanding it fight for the vast majority.