Teachers strike against Liberals’ austerity agenda

Durham region teachers on strike
Durham region teachers on strike

By Tim Heffernan (retired Toronto secondary school teacher)

Monday was the start of an important strike by secondary school teachers in the Durham District School Board. Six other boards could soon be joining them on the picket lines, depending on the speed of the negotiations. Together they (Durham and the other 6), make up what the OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation) has called “the magnificent 7.” There is the potential for the development of rolling (not rotating) strikes by a good chunk of OSSTF members across the province over the next few weeks, which involves building sustained actions in selected school boards. Durham began strike action this week. Peel and Sudbury will likely join them next week to be followed by others at a later time If they are successful, a significant dent could be made in the shield of the Liberal austerity agenda.

Traditionally, but more in name only, collective bargaining on teacher issues took place between individual school boards and their local union counterparts. However, over the last 20 years, the Ontario government  – being the sole funding source of education – has taken a more assertive role by centralizing bargaining so that the big-ticket item in negotiations, salaries, is determined by “discussions” between the government and the leaderships of the provincial unions. The declared rationale for the government intervention, under the guise of tackling the Ontario deficit, is to reduce the wages of teachers and education workers. However, reducing the debt is just a cover for the Liberals. The real end game is to break the power of the unions in order to open up the education field to the privateers.

The formal centralization process began in 2004 with the voluntary co-operation by the unions and the establishment of “provincial discussion tables.” In 2012, this process was formalized forcibly via legislation with the imposition of Bill 115 which led to a number of strips in previously negotiated local contracts:

  • Zero % wage increase;
  • Reductions in sick leave entitlements;
  • Delaying the movement of new teachers up the salary grid;
  • Eliminations of retirement gratuities.

 

Formalization was consolidated further with the passing of Bill 122 a year ago. This is the law that has laid the framework for the current “negotiations” – a central table for the big ticket items: salary, benefits, workload (including class size and supervision) with a local bargaining table for the remaining scraps.

At the central table, the government and OPSBA (Ontario Public School Boards Association), in addition to issues of salary and class caps, have put forward the following:

  • Elimination of prep time for non classroom teachers (e.g. library, guidance, special ed. etc); Supply teachers would get no prep time, i.e. they would be fully assigned for the entire work day;
  • More on-calls and supervision duties to be assigned to teachers;
  • Teachers’ professional judgement to be further devalued by giving Boards the power to tell teachers what/when/how to assess/evaluate student work.
  • Allowing principals and VPs to be reinstated into the teachers’ bargaining unit (think school closures and downsizing), ahead of BU members, allowing them full seniority and without payment of union dues. Thus a principal, “surplus to requirements”, could be placed into a teaching position which might lead to a “regular teacher” being laid off.
  • Further cuts to sick leave and other benefits;

 

If the government gets away with the above, it’s not just the teachers and education section that is in trouble. They’ll be coming after all of us.

OSSTF seem to be setting the pace in terms of militant action and I can only speak for them. Their strategy is to start with rolling strikes (see above). An innovative strategy being employed by OSSTF is that members who are not striking will be levied extra union dues to finance enhanced strike pay for those who are on strike. It remains to be seen how effective the rolling strike strategy will be. Up in the air is what elementary (ETFO) and Catholic (OECTA) teachers do. And the big question will be how the government plays it – sit it out or introduce back to work legislation with binding arbitration? And if back to work legislation is introduced, does OSSTF and the other unions have a plan B?

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