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Beating back the anti-labour agenda in Ontario

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Since the summer, the Ontario Liberals have been engaged in a campaign to limit bargaining rights and implement concessions across the public sector. They started with teachers and school support staff in the province by introducing Bill 115. The Liberals were planning on expanding this attack to some 400,000 public sector employees before the legislature was prorogued. Ostensibly, this campaign was undertaken to balance the $15-billion budget deficit, but in reality this has been nothing but a crass ploy to curb the power of organized labour.

Much has been written about the battle over Bill 115; it is not my intention to give a detailed account of the bill, its impacts or the early efforts to fight it. Bill 115 is now gone, its effects are not. The anti-labour sentiment and strategy remains alive and well within both the Tories and Liberals. I would like to briefly discuss where the broader labour battle in Ontario stands today. How can we help beat back the anti-labour agenda and push forward the interests of working people in Ontario?  

On January 11, the Ontario Labour Relations Board declared that a planned day of protest by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) would be illegal. This action -- along with the planned day of protest by the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) a week later -- were abandoned by union leadership.

The OSSTF is still engaged in a coordinated work-to-rule campaign in the province. Extracurriculars are currently not supported by the free labour of teachers. Both ETFO and OSSTF have held a series of demos after work against Bill 115. These protests have been militant in tone and well-attended -- they even shut down Bay Street.

ETFO, OSSTF and CUPE leadership are encouraging their members to attend this Saturday’s Ontario Federation of Labour Rally for Rights and Democracy (#J26) outside the Liberal convention. By all accounts, this will be quite a large demo. I also imagine that a certain element of the OSSTF and ETFO leadership would be more comfortable inside the convention than at the demo.

The segment of leadership that has long supported the Liberals is looking to make a deal with the newly-minted premier. Now that Bill 115 is repealed -- after it has done its damage -- it may just provide an opening for those wanting to sue for labour peace (that peace would clearly be on the employer's terms). However, there are significant numbers of teachers both in local leadership positions and at the rank-and-file level who are angry. They are not ready to accept Liberal crumbs in order to avoid Tory poison.

After January 26, the labour battle in Ontario could either ratchet up or simmer down until the next election. The simmering option -- a return to the dull grind of parliamentary procedure -- is clearly the preference for the NDP and elements within the top union brass across the Province. But the NDP and the union aristocracy don’t completely control the fight-back momentum. Workers on the ground are also driving this struggle. It is important to have a nuanced view: workers, top union brass and the NDP (to some extent) are working together to mobilize for the #J26 Rally. However, they are at times doing it for contradictory reasons -- or at the very least, with a contradictory strategic outcome in mind.

If we are to ask ourselves how can we beat back the broader anti-labour push in Ontario we need to understand the disjointed and often disorganized approach taken by the unions. We need to build a strategy that accounts for the fissures within the labour movement, one that can support the forces within the unions that want to engage in a more effective and militant struggle. We need to recognize when, where and most importantly how to push against our union leaders to further our collective aims, instead of simply just bashing our heads against the wall of union bureaucracy. We need to deepen our rank-and-file networks within and across unions. All of us inside and outside the labour movement can use creative strategies towards these ends.

Those of us who aren’t teachers can start by going to local protests held by teachers or to the #J26 Rally. We can develop contacts, talk about the issues and relate our struggles to their own. Then, we can hold information pickets outside of school where we flyer students, parents and teachers about the need for solidarity. We could also, like some Hamilton activists did last week, picket schools in support of teachers. The community strikes when the workers can’t. We could organize parent councils; we could protest or sit in at MPP offices. We also need to make sure we connect the teachers’ struggle with a broader look at the assault on the working class. If we are in other unions we should be talking about the impact of Bill 115, the need to develop local actions, flying squads and a coherent solidarity strategy. If we are not in unions we should be taking the same approach with friends or other organized groups we are a part of. There are a lot of ways those of us who aren’t teachers can help shore up the front against the anti-labour onslaught.

For those of you who are teachers and who are not impressed with the direction of the struggle against the now defunct Bill 115, there are also plenty of ways to get creative and strategic. The Chicago Teachers Union's strike provides a great recent example of how teachers can beat back concessions. In Ontario,  why not start pushing a line within your workplace and your union that you would be happy to do extracurriculars in lieu of classes? You could have an extracurriculars teach-in day. This way, McGuinty or Buzz Hargrove will have a lot harder time telling you to be quiet and do extracurriculars. You need to be able to open up a discussion at the local level about strikes. Having an honest debate of the pros and cons of this strategy is a good way to assess its possibility. The union movement was built on defying repressive labour laws.

Remember this little adage: “If the law is designed to break the collective power of workers, than workers must use their collective power to break the law.”

It is worth repeating what is at stake here. If the labour movement is not able to turn the tide on contract concessions and anti-labour legislation, we may very well end up with an emboldened anti-union zealot as premier going up against a defeated and dejected union movement. That would be a recipe for disaster. The rank-and-file teachers’ movement can still change the direction of the struggle in Ontario. They just need a little creative help.

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