Ontario Education Strike: No Union Wants to Walk the Picket Line!

For a brief moment, the Ontario education workers’ struggle imposed itself on the public consciousness. News reporters addressed it with a serious tone, young Trotskyists took to Twitter giving empty slogans, union representatives extended Halloween and put on their costumes as labour leaders, Doug Ford came to tears pleading: “please, and I’m begging you, don’t go on strike!”, and Trudeau spoke of his love of collective bargaining to a stunned audience of postal and port workers!

But now that the strike has been defeated and Karen Watson kept her pledge (not the 11.5% raise, but that the union is “not on a path to strike”), it is necessary for our class to reflect on its struggle and the role the unions played in sabotaging it. For months, the OSBCU (a branch of CUPE) had been working with the province to draw up a new contract. As is clear from the statements of the union leaders, they never wanted a strike. It simply was “not part of [their] strategy.” However, the education workers had something else in mind. Despite their past militancy and a series of strikes over the last decade (2012, 2013, 2019), their situation only deteriorated, facing a 10% decline in real wages over the past decade. Now, with steep inflation, the education workers knew they had to take action and voted 96.5% in favour of a strike.

From there on, the province and the union did their worst to limit and strangle the Ontario education workers struggle. Bill 28, launched by Ford and education minister Stephen Lecce outlawed any future strike and levied heavy fines on striking workers as well as the union. Faced with this draconian bill, the union did everything it could to remain at its post at the negotiating table, desperately cutting the wage demand in half to 6% on the eve of the strike. However, with Ford’s hardline position, they got dragged into the strike, launched on November 4th.

Once forced onto the picket line, the union transformed the struggle for wages into a strike against the bill. Ford, recognizing he had unsettled his partners, offered to repeal the bill and drop the $500,000 fines on the condition that the union sends the workers back to work. CUPE obliged, and the union leaders gave gaudy victory speeches about defeating a back to work bill with the tactic of going back to work, releasing statements along the lines of: “Thank you so much for your support! Because of your solidarity, we are back at work!”

As this was happening, there were rumblings in the channels of union representatives about a general strike. News reports surfaced that the Ontario Federation of Labour was co-ordinating measures to launch a strike across the province on November 14th in an attack on Bill 28. How serious this threat was, as part of the union domination of the workers’ struggle, quickly became clear: as soon as Bill 28 disappeared, so too did any talk of a “general strike” and November 14th passed on as a general workday. There is a general attack on the living standards of workers and thus there is a need for a general struggle by workers. While of course our class must oppose laws such as Bill 28 that directly suppress workers’ struggle, the union only sees this as a threat against its negotiating position. Thus the working class and the union approaches such bills from two opposing standpoints.

With the back-to-work bill defeated and the education workers back at work, the union declared a “breakthrough” in negotiations: a 3.6% annual wage increase! The union was riding high on this “victory for the workers,” having reached a “middle ground” with the province (we suspect some of the math teachers, checking inflation, will disagree). CUPE then turned to the issue of school resources; with any serious strike averted, it was able to return to “normal” negotiating policy.

Getting stonewalled on the point of increased funding for schools and daycare centers, the union went back to a key part of their strategy: giving strike notice with no intentions of ever holding one. To everyone’s surprise, on November 20th, at the last minute before the deadline for negotiations and a strike would be launched, the union and province announced exactly how many new resources would be allocated: bupkis! Throughout the entire course of the education workers’ struggle, the union bargained with the workers over how much they would lose - not with the province. Meanwhile, having defeated this section of workers, the education ministry is setting its sights on enforcing diminished living standards onto the teachers.

Now, when you look onto the streets of Toronto, you find a dizzying gaggle of young Trotskyists, left-wing academics, and militant trade-unionists unable to comprehend their disappointment. How could CUPE do this? Why didn’t the rest of the unions join in? How could the initiative be surrendered for so little? We couldn’t possibly give any answers!

For decades, people have claimed that we do not think in practical terms. Any number of falsehoods have been hurled at us: that we are purists, immediatists, inactivists, members of the ivory tower. In actuality, it is only we who are thinking in practical terms and developing a coherent perspective on the objective conditions facing our class. It is only we who have tailored our tactics to the specific needs of the specific struggle in connection to a wider revolutionary, political movement.

The Ontario education workers’ struggle is one of many historic examples in which the class movement faces a fundamental hurdle in the domination of the unions, which maintain a capitalist interest, over our struggle. Our class will find its victories through its self-organization and self-initiative on a generalized basis. As such, its practical activity must come up against and go beyond the unions. At the same time, we need a political organization that can link this and that struggle of workers to a revolutionary movement that will end the capitalist mode of production and class rule as a whole.

December 2022
Wednesday, December 14, 2022