Ken Coran: Anatomy of a Sellout

by Doug Nesbitt

Recent Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) president Ken Coran shocked many teachers, education workers and trade unionists this past week when it was announced he would run as an Ontario Liberal in the London-West by-election later this summer.

Why would Coran run for the same party that had used the authoritarian Bill 115 to repeal collective bargaining rights and impose historic concessions on his union’s 60,000 members?

It’s no secret that Ontario’s teachers unions, including OSSTF, have supported the Liberals since the battles with Mike Harris during the late 1990s. McGuinty proclaimed himself the “education premier” and reversed certain aspects of the Harris years. But McGuinty never lived up to the hype. In other sectors of education, especially post-secondary, McGuinty has caused nothing but problems. And after the November 2011 provincial election, McGuinty went public in demanding wage freezes and concessions from teachers to ostensibly balance the budget, despite regular cuts to corporate taxes, costly amounts of corruption and flip-flopping, and handing over millions to corporations through public-private partnerships.

With all this in mind, it’s worth having a second look at how the OSSTF leadership, under Coran’s presidency, conducted the battle against Bill 115.

Where ya headed, Ken?
What is clear is that the OSSTF leadership did not take a lead. Shortly after Bill 115 was passed September 2012, OSSTF dragged its heels on implementing a coordinated work-to-rule campaign around extra-curriculars. This led to a high degree of confusion among union members and the public as teachers pulled out of extra-curriculars on an individual basis instead of in a collective, coordinated fashion. You couldn’t fault students and others for believing it was unfair that some students lost their extra-curriculars and others didn’t.

Until late November, Coran’s OSSTF allowed local tentative agreements to be negotiated within the concessionary framework of Bill 115. Despite the strike mandates only a few weeks earlier, some of these tentative agreements were put to ratification votes. When OSSTF members rebelled and rejected tentative agreements in York Region, Niagara and Hamilton-Wentworth, Coran issued a bulletin to members strongly discouraging “no” votes and counseling members to wait for the legal challenge against Bill 115 to be resolved – without mentioning that such challenges take years. Caught between the membership rebellion and ETFO’s decision to hold rotating strikes beginning December 10, Coran and Co. were forced to suspend further ratification votes, and finally execute a coordinated withdrawal from extra-curriculars. It’s worth recalling that OSSTF members, like ETFO members, delivered strike mandates in the high nineties during late September. Only ETFO made use of this mandate.

After its rotating one-day strikes in mid-December, ETFO translated a 92 percent online strike mandate for a day of action into a planned walkout for January 11. OSSTF leaders followed suit but made the mindboggling decision to hold their walkout on January 16 instead of January 11 with ETFO. So much for solidarity!

In late January, after the Liberal leadership convention in which thirty thousand protested Bill 115 and the Liberal record of lies and corruption, the press revealed that the Secondary Teachers Bargaining Unit executive of OSSTF District 12 (Toronto) had donated $30,000 to four Liberal leadership candidates without informing their members. All four of these candidates, including the new Premier Kathleen Wynne, had voted in favour of Bill 115. Coran and the OSSTF leadership did not rebuke this local executive for backing their political enemy, or for failing to submit such a motion to a unit-wide referendum or general meeting as democratic union principles would dictate.

Legal repression
When the Ontario Labour Relations Board made a dubiously rushed ruling that ETFO’s planned walkout was illegal, ETFO balked and called off the action. ETFO leaders can be forgiven for this decision. They faced crippling financial penalties, and had no network of rank-and-file activists capable of leading an illegal strike independent of union officials. Nor did ETFO have reliable allies. OECTA and CUPE leaders had abandoned the struggle by accepting concessions while OSSTF leaders dragged their heels at every turn.

The tragedy of this moment is that the OLRB was being used against the teachers while Bill 115 contained language preventing the teacher unions from using the OLRB to appeal any aspect of Bill 115. This glaring injustice was never used as a basis upon which to defy the OLRB ruling and Bill 115. An illegal strike would have placed the government in the difficult spot of either backing down or increasing repression, both of which could backfire for the very unpopular government.

After Bill 115’s authoritarian aspects were used to impose concessions on ETFO and OSSTF, Coran and Co instructed members to resume extra-curriculars in late February. This left ETFO alone in boycotting extra-curriculars. It opened the door to the OLRB’s historic and also unjust ruling that extra-curriculars was not volunteer work. Because of this ruling, work-to-rule on extra-curriculars is now illegal.

What is to be done?
On several occasions in the months-long battle against Bill 115, it was evident that OSSTF members were ready to take on the government through large-scale protest and strike action not seen since the Harris years. Unfortunately, the union leadership of Ken Coran squandered the public’s general dislike for McGuinty and the Liberals, the enormously positive strike votes, the public outreach opportunities presented by the student walkouts, and the on-the-ground solidarity displayed by OSSTF members during the ETFO strikes. What Coran and Co. offered instead was a bumbling series of decisions that begged the question of whether or not OSSTF even had a province-wide strategy to take on Bill 115 and the Liberals. There was certainly no serious admission to the fact that confronting Bill 115 (and the OLRB) would likely require civil disobedience not unlike the walkout against Bill 160 in 1997. Given his record on Bill 115, one has to wonder if Ken Coran ever even asked himself how OSSTF and its allies could really work together and defeat Bill 115.

Despite all these problems, there was no major groundswell of opposition against the union’s general direction at its March 2013 convention, the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly. There was no reckoning at the convention for the District 12 Liberals or any indication from Coran that he’d soon be running for the Liberals.
These are issues that deserve investigation, but let’s be clear that union conventions, as they are presently organized in Canada, are not the most democratic of meetings. Union conventions are a far cry from the participatory democracy practiced by thousands of Quebec students during their incredible 2012 strike which actually did defeat a government and defied the authoritarian (and also Liberal) Bill 78 which revoked freedom of assembly and expression for students and trade unionists.

The Coran episode ought to be a wake-up call for union activists regardless of where they work. Alliances between unions and political parties have often produced opportunities for union leaders to pursue careerist and other selfish motives at the expense of their union members. Decisions like Coran’s make unions look stupid, hypocritical, and ineffective. To counter this, trade unionists need to work towards creating open, democratic forums of debate and decision-making within their unions to ensure that political alliances actually serve the interests of the membership. Otherwise, the Ken Corans of the world lend credibility to anti-union right-wingers who claim that elected union officials lack accountability and use union resources and its platform for personal advancement.

There is no shortcut in resolving the interlocking problems of undemocratic practices, unprincipled political alliances, and destructive selfish behaviour by elected union leaders. One proven antidote to such problems is the organization and coordination of democratically-minded rank-and-file activists within the unions to educate and activate members, build alliances with parents, and develop the membership’s capacity and confidence in its own abilities to use an array of tactics, including civil disobedience, to defeat concessions and unjust laws.

With the tireless, thankless groundwork laid by rank-and-file networks within their unions, teachers in Chicago, Seattle and Newark have scored important and inspiring victories in the past year. In Ontario, groups such as the Rank-and-file Education Workers of Toronto (REWT) already exist, but given the province-wide character of the struggle against Bill 115, it is apparent that rank-and-file organizations need to emerge outside Toronto as well. Such organizations deserve support from and emulation by labour activists in other unions. Let’s hope that the failed battle against Bill 115 and Coran’s sellout is leading a number of workers, inside and outside the education sector, to begin creating such organizations.

6 responses on “Ken Coran: Anatomy of a Sellout

  1. An excellent article by Mr. Nesbitt. I was particularly struck by the 2nd paragraph on page 2 saying that District 12 of OSSTF donated $30,000 to four Liberal leadership candidates without informing their members.
    I myself would very much like to know if any OSSTF funds have been used to finance Ken Coran’s campaign. Please see below the message that I have just sent to current OSSTF president Paul Elliott asking about this:

    To: ‘ELLIOTTP@osstf.on.ca’
    Subject: Recent Announcement regarding Ken Coran’s nomination to London West and Court Proceeding OSSTF vs. Ontario

    Dear Mr. Elliott:

    As I am sure you are aware, many of us find it concerning that Ken Coran is running for election as the Liberal candidate for London West. To make matters worse, this was not made public until the end of the school year, at a time when many teachers had already made holiday plans and were unlikely to be able to vote.

    I do not need to tell you that the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty, as supported by Kathleen Wynne, passed Bill 115 which was a massive violation of teachers’ rights. Under Coran’s leadership, OSSTF started a legal proceeding against the government to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 115, a matter that still remains before our courts. How can Coran now support the very government which he says acted improperly and unfairly with respect to teachers whose best interests he was required to serve? This is a clear conflict of interest.

    While Coran was still president of OSSTF, I wrote him several times asking why OSSTF had not pushed for the court case to be heard earlier than the scheduled date of October, 2013 – a full year after it was filed. The proceeding was filed as a notice of application, a expedited procedure for which the typical timeline for getting into court is 30-45 days. I received no answer to this question. One of my colleagues asked the same question of her district office and was told that the “court sets the dates”. This is incorrect – the court only sets the dates once both parties have agreed to one.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but the answer seems to be in the recent announcement of Coran’s decision to run as a Liberal candidate. It would not be in his personal best interest to push aggressively for our court case to be heard when he was making his own plans to join the Liberal party.

    In light of these recent developments, I would appreciate it if you could please provide me with responses to the following questions:

    1. I note that there is no longer a link on your website providing updates regarding the court proceeding. Is OSSTF planning to withdraw its case before the courts?
    2. Have any OSSTF funds been used to finance or support Mr. Coran’s campaign? Is it the intention of OSSTF to finance or support Mr. Coran’s campaign?
    3. How long has OSSTF been aware of Mr. Coran’s intention to run as a Liberal candidate?

    I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Vivian Garofalo

    • Thanks for the kind words, and for posting your letter.

      I do not know if OSSTF has donated money to Ken Coran’s campaign but I have heard District 11 (Thames Valley/London) has endorsed Coran.

  2. Reply to Vivian,

    Excellent letter! Would you be opposed to me using a similar version and sending it to Paul Elliot. I am also a teacher and I think there should be a massive letter writing campaign to OSSTF about this.

    Thank you.

  3. Dear T. Moore:

    By all means.

    Needless to say, I have not received a response. I read in the Star last week, that Paul Elliott was out of the country and not answering emails. I also read that OSSTF would not comment on the situation except to say that “Ken Coran was the previous president of OSSTF” – as if to say that they cannot be held responsible for anything that happened prior to his departure!

    Incidentally, Paul Elliott was already a member of the provincial executive before Ken Coran left, as well as both VPs (Harvey Bischof and Cindy Dubué) and the Treasurer (Earl Burt). They all participated in the decision to suspend political activity (i.e. tell teachers that they could return to extracurricular activities) without obtaining any concrete concessions for their membership and to present to them for ratification a dressed-up version of the agreement imposed under Bill 115.

    They cannot use Ken Coran’s departure from OSSTF to distance themselves from the controversy, especially since they have allowed District 12 and possibly even District 11 to contribute members’ money to the campaigns of MPPs of a party that has basically removed teachers bargaining rights.

  4. Folks interested in the above article will be interested in the following appeal:

    Many are familiar with how undemocratic unions can be. After the tribulations of the past year, Bill 115, etc., OSSTF is cracking down on internal dissent. This only compounds the problem of members coping with management attacks. I am now a target only because I organize substitute teachers to fight for jobs and dignity. Who will be next?
    Will you join us on July 25 to strike a blow for union democracy?
    Your support will be a signal to others that grassroots democracy is vital to reversing the austerity agenda.

    In solidarity,

    Barry

    Dear sisters and brothers,
    You are invited to attend a meeting to ‘Rescind the 10 Year Ban and Defend Workers’ Democratic Rights’ on Thursday, July 25 at 7 p.m. at OISE, 252 Bloor St. West, room 2-212.

    Why should you join with substitute teachers, members of OPSEU, CUPE, CAW, UFCW, CUPW, NDP, social justice movements, and others in this effort? Because the extreme penalty imposed by OSSTF Judicial Council aims to silence a strong opponent of the anti-worker policies and practices of the teachers’ bureaucracy. The latter include job security, wage, and benefits concessions to management, and collaboration with the political parties of the austerity-minded establishment. Ken Coran’s candidacy for the Liberal Party of Ontario in the upcoming bye-elections reflects a treacherous course that undermines the interests of education workers and all working people – a direction that is increasingly non-transparent, unaccountable and undemocratic.

    United in words and action we have a better chance of stopping the regression, and beginning to move forward again.

    Questions? Constructive suggestions? Just e-mail me at: barryaw@rogers.com or phone: 416-588-9090 .

    Have a look at the Open Letter below. Please endorse it individually and/or collectively. For more background on the history of OSSTF leadership mistreatment of substitute teachers, visit the web site: torontosubstituteteachers.tripod.com

    Now, please respond. Are you coming to the July 25 meeting?

    In solidarity,

    Barry
    __________________________________

    Open Letter to OSSTF: Rescind the 10 Year ban! Defend workers’ democratic rights!

    It has come to our attention that the Judicial Council of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has decided to ban from participation in the union a founding substitute teacher organizer and former President of the Toronto Occasional Teachers’ Bargaining Unit (OTBU).

    Judicial Council found the member, Barry Weisleder, guilty of the ‘crime’ of speaking out of turn at an OTBU General Membership meeting held November 21, 2012. Barry sought answers to questions about job security – concrete facts about work distribution and the size of the OT dispatch list that leaders of the OTBU refused to provide for over a decade.

    He did finally get an answer, but only after repeatedly posing the question, and insisting on greater accountability and transparency on the part of local officials. This occurred in the context of a three month period in which most substitute teachers at the Toronto District School Board suffered a catastrophic loss of work and income.

    For his persistence, which technically exceeded the time limit for questions, Barry faced an official Complaint submitted to the JC in December 2012 by the Toronto OTBU president, Linda Bartram, and First V.P./Chief Negotiator Vincent Zambrano. That led to a JC Hearing in June 2013. The JC found Barry guilty and imposed a penalty, subject to appeal, which bars Barry from holding office or attendance at OSSTF meetings for ten years!

    Such a penalty is outrageous and totally unprecedented. Under the circumstances, it is equivalent to a life-time ban. Moreover, it is the culmination of a long series of repressive measures taken against the defendant, beginning in 2003 when OSSTF put the Toronto OTBU in ‘trusteeship’, enabling a group of conservative, affluent retired teachers to take control. The latter proceeded to curtail local democracy and to make a number of concessions to management that stripped OT job security, working conditions, paid P.D. and other benefits from the membership.

    The latest Draconian ruling, and the skewed process leading up to it, cause us to question the function of the JC. This situation cries out for a serious review of the ‘Star Chamber’ itself.

    We ask OSSTF officials immediately to rescind the penalty imposed on Barry Weisleder, to dismiss the Complaints against him, and to conduct a full review of the JC with a view towards its basic reform, or elimination.

    The old labour motto remains our guide: An injury to one is an injury to all.

  5. To Barry,

    Sorry to hear about your ten-year ban. I would suggest that you get some friends who are in a local to support a resolution at your provincial AGM to rescind the ban.

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