The McGuinty government is gambling that Ontario education workers — indeed public sector workers in general — are going to roll over.  

Hearkening back to the the halcyon days of education labour relations under the corporate stooge Mike Harris, the McGuinty Liberals have manufactured their own crisis in education by taking a hard, winner-takes-all, my-way-or-the-highway approach to dictating the terms of working conditions for Ontario teachers through Bill 115. 

This is an obvious about-face for a provincial government that has styled itself as pro-education, and supposedly non-confrontational when it comes to working with the education system (where working conditions are, in fact, ‘learning conditions’).  This past spring and summer have put the lie to this reputation quite nicely, and shown that the Ontario Liberals are completely willing to play the part of prophets and priests for austerity.  

McGuinty and co. are betting that by going to war with the teachers, they can outflank the Conservatives on the right and score points, perhaps, with voters in their continued attempt to sell austerity snake-oil.

If I was a betting man (which I’m not), I’d put my money behind the idea that the Ontario Liberals thought they could win a majority government out of declaring war on teachers in the recent round of byelections. Of course, they were wrong on that score, but they are still working on a strategy that banks on austerity as a key plank in their platform, from the Drummond report on.  

The snake-oil consists of a fairly simple, business and bank-approved message: we can’t afford social programs anymore. We need to retrench them and cut everything in the public sector. We don’t have the money (repeat that last five times or more to get the general point). Meanwhile, Ontario sports some of the lowest corporate taxes in any developed economy.  

Rolling over sends a message to the political prophets and priests of austerity. It says to them: ‘well, maybe we have things too good after all. Maybe the rights, benefits and working conditions/learning conditions we’ve won are too much. Maybe we don’t deserve them.’ Rolling over under assault is giving up, and giving up is interpreted by employers and governments as simply acknowledging that they’re right, that austerity is the default, inevitable, unavoidable, a universal fate of retrenching social programs.   

The sleight of hand in all of this is that austerity is not necessary.  As citizens and workers we can choose to either roll over and accept the neoliberal austerity agenda, or reject it and demand social and economic policy that not only advances public programs and goods for all, but moves toward models of investment, lending and finance that require the rich and corporations to contribute more to the common good, and toward a sustainable future.  

Austerity is not inevitable (repeat as many times as necessary). Citizens and workers can choose the shape of our economy for the better of all, not for the enrichment of the few and the stagnation of the many.  

Just as they did in Wisconsin when the right attempted their coup against public sector unions there, Ontarians have the choice to stand up, or roll over in response to the ongoing assault on social programs and workers’ rights.  

Unions are only as strong as the solidarity of workers and their leaders, and their links to the communities in which they live.  By forging these links further, unions can help give voice to alternatives to austerity across all communities, and especially alongside the underprivileged who bear the brunt of its snake-oil. 

Education workers’ momentum in Chicago offers hope of this. In defending one another’s rights and the hard-fought victories of the past, we can work to try to create a better future for everyone.  


Adam Davidson-Harden lives in Kingston, Ontario with his family and is a writer, teacher (substitute high school and part-time university), and musician.

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