There are moments when the incredible power of united working class action is driven home sharply and the fight that Ontario’s education workers and their allies have taken up counts as one of them. 

An astounding struggle of 55,000 workers has unfolded over the last few weeks. Some highly exploited workers, including predominantly female and racialized education assistants, librarians and custodians, sought better pay but were met with a heavy-handed attempt to crush their right to act in defense. Then a push-back emerged, with workers walking off the job last Friday and Monday, prompting hundreds of schools to close to in-person learning. Their defiance of brutal legislation generated a groundswell of solidarity that defeated the effort to drive them into submission and forced the Conservative government into a retreat. And yet the workers have now returned to negotiations without a fair contract in sight, and with the incredible momentum of a fledgling movement contained.

This extraordinary sequence of events calls for an assessment of what was achieved and the potential it has shown, but also to consider the weaknesses that have been revealed. It is both inevitable and healthy that this will involve some debate. In my view, it is highly unfortunate to disregard or downplay what has been accomplished. On the other hand, the decision to call off such a dynamic struggle and demobilize an emerging movement of solidarity can’t be presented as a harmless tactical adaptation.

In these turbulent times, with working class living standards under assault, the Ontario education workers have posed the possibility of fighting back in a way that truly defends workers and communities. 

CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn speaks at a rally of education workers in early November. Photo: CUPE

Goliath’s miscalculation of David

In order to appreciate the importance of this fight back, we need only consider the key elements of what has taken place. These 55,000 workers had seen their real wages forced down and their working conditions deteriorate. Between 2011 and 2021, they had endured an effective wage cut of 10 per cent. After such a sustained attack, the present cost of living crisis was devastating.

It was clear that the Ford government intended to deepen this attack and had no intention of bargaining in good faith with the education workers and their union, CUPE and its Ontario Council of School Board Unions (OCSBU). Then, with the workers ready to strike on November 3, the Ford government set in motion its plan to crush any resistance in its path.

Bill 28 removed the legal right to strike, imposed a contract with concessions and unleashed the “nuclear option” of the infamous notwithstanding clause, rendering the attack on constitutional freedoms immune from appeal. To those who don’t appreciate the enormous latent strength of working people, it appeared to be a situation where Goliath had little to fear from David.

However, it rapidly became clear that the Tories had severely miscalculated the level of opposition they would set in motion. CUPE was prepared to defy the bill and key union allies were ready to act in solidarity. An indefinite strike by education workers began and CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn was openly talking of the prospects of a general strike.

We can imagine the alarm within Ford’s inner circles, as media reports warned of “mass protests and widespread disruption” involving multiple Canadian unions ready to “bring the province to a standstill and apply maximum pressure on the Progressive Conservative government.” “We didn’t really think that they’ll just say, ‘We’ll strike illegally’,” one government official told CTV News. “We just didn’t take that into account.”

Just as the alliance of unions was set to declare its precise intentions, Ford made the remarkable offer to withdraw his reactionary legislation if CUPE would take down their picket lines and return to the bargaining table. Once it was confirmed that this would be put in writing, Laura Walton, OCSBU president, announced that her union would accept the deal and suspend strike activities.

Workers march in Toronto on November 2. Photo: Chris Nadon via Facebook

Sudden leaps in thought and action

For some years now, many have looked back on the Days of Action that unfolded against the Mike Harris Tories in the 1990s as the product of a golden age that simply couldn’t be matched today. Recent events suggest that this view failed to take something rather important into account.

The class struggle is so explosive precisely because it involves periods of relative quiet and even retreat that conceal accumulating anger and increasing social tensions. At such times, it is easy to draw pessimistic conclusions but these may be refuted by a sudden leap in thought and a readiness to act that almost no one saw coming. I think it would be hard to dispute that the incredible defiance of the education workers and the chord they struck indicated that we were on the cusp of such a moment in Ontario.

If the mass protests and city-by-city strikes that marked the Days of Action are our benchmark, it’s worth noting that these also involved a readiness to struggle that few had anticipated. The immediate response to the election of Mike Harris had been bleak and many opposed the attempt to rally mass resistance. Yet, despite major problems in how the campaign was conducted, the power that was unleashed was breathtaking.

I remember standing outside a closed subway station when the Days of Action reached Toronto, suddenly realizing that the largest city in the country had been brought to a standstill by the power that working class people could collectively assert. As the huge cavalcade that marked the Thunder Bay Day of Action followed the route of the funeral procession for Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen, the two Finnish union organizers who were murdered in 1929, that sense of strength took the form of a seething solemnity. These past weeks, the education workers were unleashing the same powerful but unstable force, as they evoked fear and loathing in Doug Ford.

The withdrawal of Bill 28 was no token gesture and Ford is back at the table with those he thought he had crushed. Moreover, his government will have a reduced appetite for another round of confrontation with workers and their unions. Very real gains have been made and the possibility of large scale working class resistance has been shown at a vital time.

The “Days of Action” in the 1990s channeled mass anger against Mike Harris’s austerity measures.

The costs of compromise

If the class struggle is explosive, however, it must also find a way through some considerable contradictions. These were to be seen in the decision to call off the strike and compromise with Ford.

OPSEU president JP Hornick said that “180,000 members of OPSEU are not standing down, we are standing by.” However, the demobilization that has taken place is considerably more problematic than these words suggest. A workers’ struggle isn’t a mechanical device that can be turned on and off at will. It involves momentum and the creation of a collective sense of hope and possibility. More than this, the decision to take down the picket lines removed an immediate threat that had the Tories on the ropes.

If CUPE, with the full support of its allies, had responded to Ford’s offer by informing him that there was no basis for calling off the strike but that an offer that addressed its demands would be considered, the threat of a concessionary settlement would have been much less than it presently is. Moreover, the role of the education workers’ struggle as a catalyst for broader united action in the face of the cost of living crisis would have been assured.

The readiness to avoid a major confrontation and broker a compromise speaks to a very deeply ingrained factor in how unions have functioned for many years. The titanic workers’ struggles of the 1930s and 1940s produced substantial concessions from employers and the state but the retreat they made was highly tactical. In return for a readiness to negotiate with unions, the process became thoroughly state regulated. This led to a very much more contained and compartmentalized class struggle.

During the neoliberal decades of the past 40 years, this system of “labour relations” became a progressively less favourable deal for workers, as the other side made fewer concessions. Today, as the inflationary crisis continues and central banks impose interest rate increases that amount to a class war, the de-facto social contract between workers and employers goes from being a bad deal to a very dangerous impediment.

More than two decades ago, Ontario’s trade unions hesitatingly pushed against the limits of this compromise, under the impact of a major austerity attack by Mike Harris. The power that the Days of Action revealed was astounding but it is also true that the campaign was conducted in ways that seriously limited its impact. No clear purpose, beyond an appeal to Harris to change course, was ever articulated, when the need was to escalate the struggle to a province-wide action to stop the austerity attack and defeat the government. In the end, after considerable vacillation, the campaign was called off, when it could have been taken so much further.

It is remarkable that, once again, we stood at the edge of an all-out working class fight back. But it is enormously telling that Ford’s cold feet evoked among labour union leadership an eagerness to return to the patterns of failed compromise. It’s not clear what the results of the present struggle will be. We can say the education workers are in a stronger position because of the fight they have taken up but they could have been in a considerably better place had the Ford offer not been grabbed so readily.

On a wider front, notions of the trade unions as a spent force are clearly wrong. The contradictions are deep and the problems considerable but a great potential is still there. The burden of social and economic crisis is being put on working class people to a degree that drives them to fight back collectively. In this context, rejuvenated unions, with an energized rank and file, can still be institutions of struggle that, united with communities under attack, unleash the mass social resistance we so desperately need in these harsh and uncertain times.

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