55,000 education workers in Ontario, Canada (organised by the public sector union CUPE) are waging an inspiring struggle against the rotten provincial government of Doug Ford. Defying legal threats and dirty constitutional attempts to force them back to work and impose wage cuts, the workers are on indefinite strike action to protect their living standards against soaring inflation. This example is drawing other layers into the fight, and there is talk of an Ontario-wide general strike.
The cost-of-living crisis is bearing down hard on Canadian workers. General inflation has peaked at over 8 percent, the highest level in almost 40 years. At the same time, Ontario education workers have already faced a 11 percent pay cut over the past decade. Public education workers in Ontario are some of the worst-paid in their sector, and their collective bargaining rights have been whittled away by successive Conservative and Liberal administrations.
For months, CUPE has been demanding a pay rise of roughly 11 percent a year to catch up on lost wages. The Ford administration, which is intent on slashing public sector pay, offered a raise of around 2 percent, which amounts to a 6 percent pay cut when inflation is factored in. While negotiations were still ongoing, Conservative Party Education Minister Stephen Leece tabled back-to-work legislation to prevent CUPE workers from striking, stripping them of collective bargaining rights, and imposing a new four-year contract with a 2.5 percent pay increase (i.e. a pay cut). This outrageous manoeuvre was presented as protecting the interests of parents and children by “keeping the schools open” at all costs.
The so-called Keep Students in Class Bill 28 was fast-tracked as negotiations broke down and the CUPE strike began last Friday (4 November). CUPE faces a penalty of $500,000 CAD, and $4,000 CAD for every individual striking worker per day: totalling hundreds of millions in fines that would bankrupt the union. At the same time, Ford is attempting to use a so-called ‘notwithstanding’ clause to override any appeals to these penalties based on the constitutionally protected right to strike. The Ontario government is going all in: threatening to tear up constitutional rights and using financial blackmail to force the workers to submit. It needs to make an example of CUPE to impose further cuts and attacks, but it might have unleashed forces it did not reckon with.
Rather than bow to these bullying tactics, CUPE members are enraged and have stood firm, pushing their leaders to fight these penalties and continue their action. This courageous example has inspired solidarity action, with a number of unions having given a combined sum of over $1 million CAD to CUPE’s fighting fund, including a $100,000 CAD contribution from Unifor, Canada’s biggest private sector union. Other unions will also participate in a political protest on Saturday (12 November), and there is talk of a mass walkout across multiple sectors next Monday (14 November), which carries the potential for the struggle to escalate into an Ontario-wide general strike.
This explosive situation has rattled a section of the ruling class, with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wringing his hands over the Ontario government’s decision to “suspend people’s rights and freedoms”. Justice Minister David Lametti has hinted the federal government could challenge the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause. These Liberal grandees are no friends of education workers: the Liberal Dalton McGuinty administration in Ontario passed the so-called Putting Students First Bill that froze their pay in 2012. But Trudeau and Lametti are no doubt worried about the implications of this strike escalating, and the effect this could have on workers throughout the rest of the country, amidst a brutal cost-of-living crisis. This situation has the potential to electrify the labour movement in Canada.
We publish the following report from our Canadian comrades of Fightback about the Ontario strike (originally uploaded 6 November), and will continue to publish their analysis of this important struggle as it develops. Solidarity with CUPE! General strike! All out against Ford!
The inspiring “illegal” strike by 55,000 Ontario education workers sets the stage for a decisive showdown. This struggle is no longer only about the just demands of school staff to keep up with inflation, it has become a struggle for the very right to strike and bargain. This is a fight that affects the future of every union in Canada, and by extension the entire working class.
If Ford can get away with this monstrous violation of democratic rights, then no unionized worker is safe. The 55,000 CUPE workers are no longer striking just for themselves, they are illegally striking for everyone. And therefore it is the duty of every union in Ontario to support the education workers. They cannot be left to fight alone.
We need to spread the strike to other locals, with the aim of bringing out every local in a general strike. We need to restore free collective bargaining and the right to strike. And we need to bring down the Ford regime to protect workers from future violations.
Ford and Lecce have poured gasoline on the flames of working class anger by use of the notwithstanding clause. Education workers have already suffered a more than ten per cent erosion of their living standards over the last decade, and now face even more rapid erosion with heightened inflation in the coming years. Workers cannot afford to be five per cent poorer every year, and will not stomach Ford stuffing an imposed contract down their throats.
To add insult to injury, Ford also imposed a gutting of the sick leave and short term disability provisions of the workers – the same front-line workers who just sacrificed and put their lives on the line in the pandemic. Ford is removing the provisions that allow workers to stay home when they are sick. The government is taking actions that show it doesn’t care about the health and welfare of working class people.
Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause shows that he is fully aware that his legislation violates the rights of workers. His government, and every other right-wing government, would like to normalize this procedure. The addition of $4000 daily fines for workers is an attempt to terrorize workers into submission. Daily, $4000 amounts to over ten per cent of the average wage of these workers. The government doesn’t view workers as people. Instead it views us as little better than serfs to be ordered around at will. Thankfully, this intimidation is not being accepted.
For decades, we have been told that it is impossible to break the law to fight back-to-work legislation and the violation of workers’ rights. Even those supposedly on the left of the labour movement cowered at the prospect of fines and legal sanction. But now the Ontario education workers have blown up that conservatism by real world action. CUPE strikers have followed in the footsteps of the pioneers of the labour movement and shown that the right to strike is a right that is taken, not given. Fightback has been explaining that someone, somewhere, has to defy or the right to strike is not worth the paper it is printed on. The education workers have the honour of being the first in modern times to stand up. But they must not be the last and they must not be left alone.
Polls show there is huge support for the strikers. Sixty-two per cent of Ontarians support the workers, and this rises to 72 per cent of parents, the group Ford pretends he is protecting. Significantly, 48 per cent support other unions walking off the job to support education workers, while only 34 per cent oppose this. There is a popular groundswell to take sympathy strike action and overturn this violation. It must be done now.
Union locals need to walk out in support. This starts with unions in the education sector and in CUPE. OPSEU education workers have courageously joined the illegal strike. They understand that their necks will be on the chopping block if this legislation is not defeated.
Unfortunately, some of the teachers’ unions have been directing their members to cross picket lines saying they are not in a legal position to strike. They seem to have not noticed that CUPE is not in a legal position to strike either, having had their right to strike torn up! This is not normal routine bargaining, this is a struggle to preserve the right to bargain. Whatever is rammed down the throats of CUPE will be forced onto teachers’ too – therefore it is the height of stupidity for the teachers’ unions to stand aside now. This is a struggle for teachers’ contracts just as much as it is a struggle for support workers.
Thankfully there are talks of walkouts and extreme anger by rank-and-file teachers. It is vital that that anger be mobilized to force the leadership to act and join the walkout.
While the movement progresses, it is important that the workers be wary of any sellouts from bureaucracies in the unions. This has occurred in many other struggles. The Liberal-friendly leadership of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation recently suggested binding arbitration as a solution. The Ontario NDP education critic also asked the Ford regime if it had considered arbitration, before being forced to backtrack when faced with anger from the workers.
Binding arbitration is no solution and takes away the democratic right of workers to decide whether a contract is sufficient for themselves and their families. It also often leads to bad contracts. Workers should reject any proposal of binding arbitration, which seeks to rob workers of their power and democratic rights.
It is absolutely essential that the rank and file control the strike and do not allow it to be called off or eroded from the top down. Leader of the education workers Laura Walton and CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn are to be commended for committing to open bargaining and for reflecting the pressure of workers to not call off the illegal strike until workers say so. But they also made the mistake of violating open bargaining by cutting the wage demand in half without the authority of the membership. This backtracking actually had the opposite intended effect as the government became emboldened and refused to bargain.
Weakness invites aggression. The rank and file must insist that any calling off of the strike or lowering of demands cannot occur until there is a full discussion and vote of the membership of the union.
Education locals, and CUPE locals, do not have to wait for anybody to tell them to organize sympathy strikes. But obviously the movement for sympathy strikes would be far stronger if it is supported and coordinated by central leaders. Fred Hahn of CUPE Ontario has hinted that there is further action to come. He needs to stop hinting and start clearly supporting and organizing a walkout of all CUPE locals in Ontario. We shouldn’t forget that these sympathy strikes are supported by the general population. The die has already been cast with an open-ended illegal strike and there is no backing down now. The question is either that of stagnate and lose, or escalate and win.
As we have said, this struggle is no longer about the just wage demands of the education workers. It impacts the entire working class in Ontario and Canada. It is about the very right to strike and bargain. Quebec trade unions have even said that if they have to come to Toronto they will come to Toronto! This is an amazing statement given the traditional national divisions between English and French Canada. But people are beginning to understand that the statement “an injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slogan. Right wing premier Legault is surely watching Ontario and licking his lips. Ford must be stopped in his tracks right here and right now to stop the cancer of back-to-work and notwithstanding from spreading.
Therefore, it is not sufficient for sympathy action to stop with just CUPE or the education sector. The walkouts must be generalized until Ontario is shut down. We need a general strike, and the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour has a duty to facilitate making this a reality. But calling for a general strike does not mean waiting for bureaucracies to get off their asses. Locals should go out and CUPE should go out without waiting. This will in turn build the momentum for a general strike with the aim of defeating the government.
The mass support for the workers is in effect a vote of no confidence in the Ford regime. Combined with the anti-democratic actions of the government, this means they have lost their right to rule. They have gone all-in in violating the rights of trade unionists, and labour needs to meet their bet and show them that there is no better hand than millions of mobilized workers.
The logic of the situation points to there being very little prospect of a compromise outcome for either side. Either Ford isolates and crushes the education workers, or he is forced to withdraw his regressive legislation and restore free collective bargaining and the right to strike. If we defeat the legislation, we will have irreparably damaged the Ford government that will have lost all its legitimacy. In this situation it would be the height of irresponsibility to demobilize the workers and allow this regime to sit a single extra day in office.
Ford and his reactionary government must go. More and more workers are shouting “BRING DOWN FORD” in demonstrations, and in addition to spreading and generalizing the strike this must be added as an aim for the movement. Only by being uncompromising can we push back the regime and mobilize the maximum number of people.
We have to understand that the current struggle is an inevitable consequence of capitalism in crisis. Right wing governments cannot live with workers having economic and political rights as the weak and totterring capitalist system can no longer afford them. They rely on pushing down the wages of workers while corporations make billions and billions in increased profits. They need to crush us in order to assure the stability of their system.
This is why this system has to go. Workers will never have a secure existence while capitalism is maintained, we will always be under attack. That is why, in addition to fighting for victory in the present movement we must strive to overthrow capitalism and win our unions to a socialist perspective. This is what Fightback aims to do. Join us in this fight.
SPREAD THE STRIKE, MAKE IT GENERAL!
BRING DOWN FORD!
FIGHT FOR SOCIALISM!