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.
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.