Education workers win fight with Ford for the right to strike (and get better wages along the way)
On Friday, November 4, and Monday, November 7, over fifty thousand education workers went on strike across Ontario in a battle reminiscent of the hard times imposed by Premier Mike Harris in the late 1990s.
Their popular and damning campaign slogan was based on the average wage of Ontario’s non-teacher education workers: “$39,000 is not enough.”
What was a dispute over the cost-of-living crisis plaguing Ontario’s working majority quickly escalated into a battle over basic democratic rights. In what can only be described as dictatorial, Premier Doug Ford and his Minister of Education Stephen Lecce responded to a legal strike threat by the union with the quick passage of the extraordinary Bill 28.
Bill 28 banned the looming strike and imposed a terrible contract. In a move never seen before in Canadian labour relations, Ford pre-emptively invoked the “notwithstanding clause,” a loophole in the Canadian Constitution allowing provincial governments to suspend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Furthermore, any violation of Bill 28 was backed up by $4,000/day fines for every individual striker. Ten days on strike would see the average annual wage of education workers, members of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), robbed by Ford’s fines.
However, the November 4 strike shook Ford and his government. The strike elicited majority support among Ontarians. One survey showed 48 per cent of those polled supported sympathy strikes by other unions against Bill 28.
Rumours of a general strike spread, and preparations were being made. Every single one of the unions that endorsed Ford’s re-election in June, including the large construction union LiUNA, demanded Ford repeal Bill 28.
Watching the storm unfold around him, Ford held a press conference on Monday, November 7, half an hour before labour leaders had their own presser planned. He offered to scrap Bill 28 if the workers called off their strike. Within a few hours, the union leaders agreed to Ford’s offer. The controversial deal saw bargaining resume.
When another strike deadline was called, a deal was reached at the last minute on November 20. An abnormally-long 11-day contract ratification voting period followed. On December 5, the union announced 73 percent ratification with about 41,000 of 55,000 union members voting.
Education workers inflicted the first serious defeat on Doug Ford since he came to office in June 2018.
Their 3.59 per cent annual wage increases are still below the current rate of inflation (around seven per cent), and so can be seen as a wage cut in real value. There were also no gains on getting more people hired to help chronically under-staffed schools.
The wage settlement is in line with increases being won up and down the Windsor-Quebec corridor. In warehouses, food processing, and manufacturing, a rash of inflation wage strikes have generated a year-long strike wave that, while small, has flown under the radar. Until now.
It took months of diligent and coordinated work within the education worker ranks by dedicated union activists to make this November’s dispute what it was. And they were limited by the prevalence of online learning, which undermined the impact of strike action as teachers could keep teaching. Real escalation would have required sympathy strikes from teachers.
However, other unions have been in a bad state in the Ford era. When his government brought forward Bill 124 in 2019 to cap public sector wage increases at 1% per year, there was no defiance by the unions, only a legal challenge through the courts (which was recently successful but is likely being appealed to a higher court). These legal challenges do not build membership muscle for more disruptive tactics. As such, public sector unions were not sufficiently organized to execute timely sympathy strikes in support of the education workers.
The cost-of-living crisis is going nowhere. Governments like Doug Ford’s are doubling down on handouts to corporations while shifting the tax burden on to the working majority. And the wealthiest get a free ride.
This article appears in the December 2022 - January 2023 Issue.