Michelle Campbell felt “no fear” when she joined the picket line at her local mall’s plaza in York Region, even with a fine of $4,000 a day hanging over her head.

“It’s funny, considering how nervous we typically are about making ends meet,” the bubbly educational assistant said, recalling the strike against Premier Doug Ford in early November.

Despite having just $20 in her bank account the week before payday, she felt empowered by what was at her back: the power of an organized union.

It wasn’t always that way. Before this year, Campbell had never been involved with the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), which represents the mostly female education workers whose battle with the government dominated headlines throughout the autumn.

Over a 17-year career, Campbell had voted on contracts but nothing else. She “complained on social media,” but had never been to her union local’s office. She didn’t even know where it was. 

“What we heard from the union in the past,” she said, “was, ‘Here’s what we did for you. Here’s what we’re telling you to do. Take it.’”

What they took was a decade of imposed, nearly frozen wages. Now, soaring inflation has forced many to take second jobs or visit food banks, while Campbell ended up selling her house and moving into a rental because she couldn’t afford to live in the area she works.

But this past year, she and thousands of her co-workers heard a different message: an invitation to join their union’s new grassroots approach, which would culminate in organizing at a scale not seen in the Canadian labour movement in decades.

Known as “deep organizing,” the approach would turn pissed-off but passive workers into militant, active organizers, transforming the union into a political force that could take on a majority Conservative government everyone thought unbeatable.

The Breach interviewed more than fifteen people about the campaign, from members to the union’s president to officials throughout OSBCU’s parent organization the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), for a 360-degree view of this historic effort.

Michelle Campbell speaks to a rally in York Region. Six months earlier, she didn’t even know where her union local’s office was. Credit: Michelle Campbell

At the start, the union crowd-sourced its demands, then trained thousands of organizers in each of its 67 locals in every corner of Ontario, from Cornwall to Kenora.

When negotiations produced little movement, Ford’s government criminalized the union’s pending strike, overriding their Charter rights in the process. 

But workers went on strike anyway and Ford backed down, repealing his draconian legislation.

“A lot of unions in Canada talk about doing this kind of deep organizing, but the education workers put them to shame,” said Larry Savage, a professor and Chair of the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University who followed the union’s activities closely. “Others say they want to do it. This union actually did it.”

Their unstoppable organizing force, however, met a partially immovable object—not Premier Ford, but CUPE National’s central office and a broader labour bureaucracy whose cautious, strike-averse culture would act as a dampener on their escalating action.

Amidst the chaotic build up toward a general strike and Ford’s jockeying for advantage, some members say the union brought down its picket lines early and missed a chance to use its leverage to win a better deal. But with the union planning to expand on their initial achievements, they have already proven the success of an organizing model that—if spread widely—has the potential to be a game-changer to the lives of unionized workers across the country.

‘No shortcuts’ to building power

Susan Sainsbury is an educational assistant and hockey coach in Lindsay, Ont. whose voicemail prompt chirps, “It’s Sainsbury. You have 30 seconds to impress me. Go.”

If she appreciates concision, it might be because she has a lot of phone calls to make. Sainsbury became famous in the union for making more calls to members—thousands of them—than anyone else did. 

Booked off from her usual job to work as a “member organizer” in January, she was an early participant in contacting workers to solicit their views about the contract negotiations starting later in the year. 

Susan Sainsbury, centre, says OSBCU’s approach shifted to a focus on empowering ordinary members. Credit: Susan Sainsbury/Facebook

“That was different from my experiences in the past, where it was mostly the thoughts of the executives that counted,” Sainsbury told The Breach. “This time around, we were reaching out to regular, on-the-ground members that just go to work every day, and asking for their thoughts.”

Sainsbury was soon joined by educational assistants, office workers, early childhood educators, and custodians, including Patrick Laplante, who’s based in Ottawa. 

Laplante, a librarian worker in his 50s, speaks with equal passion whether he’s talking about spreadsheets or the look on a child’s face when they first read Scaredy Squirrel.

Each conversation he did—always initiated by phone instead of email and tracked methodically in a database—started with questions about the member’s own experiences.

“Every single person that I talked to said, ‘No one has ever listened to me,’” Laplante said. 

The organizers constantly agitated. “‘You said you wanted to get more respect?’ we would ask. ‘How do you think we’ll get it—by sitting around and waiting for it to happen? How has that worked out the last ten years?’”

It really worked. “I mean, I’m a library worker, we tend to be pretty quiet, not leading the charge to the barricades, right?” Laplante said, pausing to laugh at himself.

“But people who would start off by telling me, ‘What’s the union done for me lately?’ after a half-hour conversation, they’d be saying, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

Ottawa library worker Patrick Laplante called hundreds of OSBCU members in a a year-long organizing campaign. Credit: Patrick Laplante

The “secret sauce” of their strategy, Laplante recalled excitedly, was the “Jane McAlevey playbook.” 

‘I think this is it’

McAlevey, a feisty, no-bullshit American labour organizer and the author of books like Raising Expectations, Raising Hell, doesn’t quite claim to have invented a new playbook. But she has taken the lessons of the mass-movement unionism of the 1930s and 40s that won major victories, and distilled them into a methodology to revive working class power in the 21st century.

A one-woman proselytizing machine, she has in recent years trained thousands of labour activists around the world—including some of the key organizers involved in this campaign.

An encounter with McAlevey’s writing was the origin of OSBCU President Laura Walton’s new approach. It was 2019, one year after Walton had been elected, and Ford’s government brought down legislation—Bill 124—to freeze wage increases at one per cent.

“We knew the courts weren’t going to save us,” Walton told The Breach. “It just struck me that there had to be another way, rather than accept what was happening.”

The educational assistant by trade who captured the province’s attention with fiery denunciations of Doug Ford is also a self-described “labour history nerd.”

During a break from bargaining, she read McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age—“cover to cover, with a highlighter”—while on a camping trip with her kids, she told The Breach. 

“My kids were like, ‘Mom, you’re on holiday,’” Walton said. “I said, ‘No. I think this is it. I think this is what will work.’”

OSBCU President Laura Walton wears a Rosie the Riveter costume to Queen’s Park on Halloween. Credit: OSBCU

In 2021, CUPE workers in New Brunswick provided more inspiration. Twenty thousand public-sector workers went on strike for better pay and fair treatment against a Conservative government—and won.

Walton and others visited the East Coast during the strike and returned convinced that their deep organizing approach could make the difference.

Later that year, the union embarked on its strategy, adapting McAlevey’s model to build the most power on the shortest timeline possible.

They conducted an extensive survey of their members, which helped staff researchers back up the stark reality they knew education workers were living: their average income was $39,000, below the livable wage needed to survive in cities like Toronto. 

At a conference at the end of 2021 attended by elected officials as well as members, which kicked off a more open bargaining approach, the union landed on their demands: they would propose raises of $3.25 an hour every year for three years to keep up with inflation, $100 million in new funding to address school understaffing, and equal pay for casual and temporary employees. 

39K is Not Enough” became their campaign slogan.

Starting this past January, they recruited activists like Sainsbury and Laplante, asked union locals to identify lead organizers, and conducted one-day online trainings for thousands of members. 

The goal was to build infrastructure in each workplace that could deploy the most powerful weapon of any union—withholding workers’ labour through a strike.

As they organized, they conducted what McAlevey calls “structure tests.” These were actions that allowed them to track member involvement, as they worked toward a “supermajority”—the threshold at which member participation was high enough that they could truly flex their power.

The first test happened in late spring, when workers were asked to sign a letter addressed to the next premier; they were assured their names would only appear if at least 60 per cent of their local’s members also signed.

In June, Walton arrived with tens of thousands of signed letters to Queen’s Park and members delivered letters to MPPs across the province, the day before Ford swore in his new cabinet. 

OSBCU President Laura Walton delivers tens of thousands of member letters to Ontario’s next premier, demanding increased staffing and wage increases. Credit: OSBCU

As the union expanded their recruitment and training of organizers through the summer, Walton came through the Newmarket office for a phone-banking session.

That’s when Campbell, the York Region educational assistant, showed up out of curiosity, and got a glimpse of the new union.

At the end of that meeting, she volunteered to become an organizer. By the fall, Campbell was spending late nights at the office that she’d never previously visited, eating pizza and Swiss Chalet, making phone calls, and staying in regular touch with other workers in a group chat. 

In October came the second structure test: a vote on whether the union would have a mandate to strike.

Whereas three years before, only 40 per cent of members participated, this time more than double that turned out—with 96 per cent of them voting to be ready to strike. 

“What is so spectacular about the union’s organizing is that they were able to bring so many people together to support an ambitious bargaining mandate in a difficult setting,” Savage said.

OSBCU is highly decentralized, with nearly 55,000 workers spread across 2,000-odd schools and 67 separate union locals.

“The large strike mandate is not unheard of, but what’s remarkable is the size of turnout for that vote,” Savage said. “That stands as a testament to the hard work that the union did around organizing.”

Solidarity ‘like nothing I’ve ever experienced before’

A few months before, in mid-August, some of the union’s staff had already gotten a taste of how much popular support might exist for education workers.

They had sent an ad to be played on radio, and were soon contacted by several radio station’s legal departments. 

According to one message from a Bell lawyer viewed by The Breach, lawyers vetting the ads wanted proof that workers were only earning an average of $39,000.

Union officials quickly provided their research.

“Wow,” the Bell representative replied. Other radio stations expressed sympathy, and even wished them good luck on the campaign.

If unexpected allies were expressing support, the union’s most likely allies were also beginning to mobilize.

Pam Frache, an organizer with Justice for Workers, knew that one big win could set a precedent for all workers. 

In 2017, Frache saw food service workers at York University win a $15-an-hour wage by going on strike. She believes the precedent made it easier for other workers to get higher wages and built pressure on the former Liberal government to hike the minimum wage for everyone.

Justice for Workers join a solidarity rally for the education workers on November 2, 2022 in Toronto. Credit: J4W

With that history in mind, Justice for Workers leapt into action as soon as it heard OSBCU members had voted to strike in October.

They made the posters available for anyone to download and emailed supporters. 

Within 15 minutes of sending the email, requests for posters were pouring in from across Ontario—including from towns Frache had never heard of, like the township of Alfred.

“That’s when I knew this government was going to get more than they bargained for,” Frache said.

When it looked like a strike was looming, Justice for Workers sent volunteers to schools to speak to parents.

What they found was overwhelming support for workers that was “like nothing I’ve experienced before,” Frache said. “There was literally no opposition.”

Frache said parents immediately understood the value of the work done by education workers because their children interact with them every day.

A placard from a parent’s rally in support of education workers in Toronto. Credit: Shutterstock/Eli Unger

And it was no accident that one of the union’s initial demands—funding for more staff—related directly to parents’ experiences.

Jess Lyons, a mother of three in Toronto and organizer with Ontario Parent Action Network, said the group organized roundtables with the union back in the spring so that parents’ priorities would be on the bargaining table. 

The primary feedback from parents was that they wanted more staff in every school, Lyons said.

Families have offered support to education workers since Ford’s agenda to cut education funding became apparent, she said. 

“They have your back and you have theirs because we’re doing this together from day one.”

Taking the ‘genie out the bottle’

When CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn turned up at Queen’s Park on Friday, Nov. 4, he was astonished by what he saw.

On the first day of the education worker’s strike, thousands of workers packed the lawn, eventually reaching as many as ten thousand, encircling the legislature in an unorthodox picket line.

More than ten thousand education worker and their supporters gather on Queen’s park on Friday, November 2. Credit: CUPE Ontario

Hahn, who started his career as an advocate for children living with disabilities, knew then that the union’s preparations had paid off.

“I will never forget it,” he said. “I literally talked to hundreds of people, and the vast majority had never done anything like this. They were nervous, happy, feeling their power for the first time. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

In York Region, Campbell stayed all day on the picket lines at a local Walmart plaza, bolstered by the sense of camaraderie. 

“It was a good feeling, and we just knew it was a huge moment in time,” she said. 

Sainsbury visited picket lines in Lindsay, Kingston, Barrie and Peterborough and was struck by the level of public support she saw. All day long, she said, people were dropping off water, coffee and doughnuts.

Years ago, Sainsbury remembered her mother being on strike with other teachers, and seeing people drive by and give them the middle finger. 

“That was not the case this time around.”

Michelle Campbell stayed on the picket line all day on Friday, November 2, bolstered by the camaraderie. Credit: Michelle Campbe

Knowing the enormous pressure that education workers might face, earlier that fall Hahn had been part of sessions educating members about how they could defy potential back-to-work government legislation.

“These were not easy conversations,” he recalled. “It required building peoples’ confidence, and answering myriad questions from people worried about their rent, their mortgage, their kids.”

Hahn and CUPE Ontario had moved a resolution at CUPE National that the parent union would “take all actions necessary within our financial capacity” if the government cracked down on workers with heavy fines.

Despite initial hesitation in parts of CUPE National, the motion passed.

“It allowed us to start saying, ‘They can’t arrest us all,’ Hahn said. “‘Your union will back you.’”

CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn addresses education workers in October, 2022. Credit: CUPE Ontario

Their efforts would prove worthwhile.

With OSCBU being offered insulting deals at the bargaining table, they prepared to go on strike, and Ford brought down legislation to pre-empt them.

Bill 28 would have imposed a contract on workers that clawed back their sick leaves, a meager 1.5 per cent pay increase over three years, and even more job insecurity.

Hundreds of pages long, Hahn said it was proof that it had been written weeks, if not months earlier. 

The legislation would not only force education workers back to work and bar them from striking, but used the “notwithstanding clause” to strip them of their right to even legally challenge it.

This posed an existential threat not just to OSBCU, but the entire labour movement.

But driven by the foundations they had laid, OSBCU forged ahead with a strike that was now considered “illegal.”

With round-the-clock coverage in the media of $4,000-a-day fines, Sainsbury said she received many calls from workers who were “terrified.” 

At one small local in eastern Ontario, Laplante said a number of workers didn’t show up on the first day of the strike. 

But thanks to their new approach to organizing, the team had the names and phone numbers of the workers who didn’t show up. Reaching out, organizers were able to alleviate their concerns. They would be back on the picket lines the next Monday.

And the public was with them. A poll showed 62 per cent of Ontarians saying they blamed the Ford government—not the workers—for schools being closed. 

Alongside support from parents, activists, and the broader public, there was one other crucial ingredient that laid the foundation for an effective showdown with Ford: a new constellation of socialist and feminist labour leaders like Unifor’s president Lana Payne and the president of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union JP Hornick, both recently elected.

As the broader labour movement reckoned with the implications of Ford’s constitution-smashing legislation, they led the charge.

Unifor President Lana Payne and OPSEU President JP Hornick at Queen’s Park, November 2, Toronto. Credit: JP Hornick

Within the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress, support for a general strike was initially lukewarm among some of the affiliated unions.

“Leaders like Hornick and Payne standing up and speaking out quite forcefully about a general strike helped to bring some folks over to that position,” Savage said. “They deserve a lot of credit for that.”

That Friday, OPSEU’s own 5,000 education workers, who were still in early stages of bargaining, decided with Hornick that they would walk out of work. Unifor’s education workers walked out too.

Remarkably, Ontario’s public appeared to be with them on their path of escalating action: 48 per cent said other unions should join the strike to protest the government’s actions, including a surprising 29 per cent of Conservative voters.

In a Zoom session on Saturday with heads of unions from across Ontario, debate stretched a short meeting into three hours. 

“In all my years,” Hahn said, “I’d never believed that we would get people saying that a general strike is what we have to do. And it will be chaos, but we need to cause chaos, because chaos is what will stop this.”

As part of the general strike planning to repeal Bill 28, CUPE readied locals around the country to take direct action, including shutting down access to Toronto Pearson airport. CUPE’s Quebec wing—reportedly more willing than ever before to engage in solidarity for something playing out in Ontario—discussed shutting down bridges. Hornick promised the support of OPSEU’s 180,000 public sector members in the province. And Unifor’s leaders put in calls to major auto assembly plants throughout Ontario. Were workers willing to shut them down? The answer was yes.

With huge swaths of Ontario’s economy now at stake, the pressure on Ford had built to an extraordinary pitch.

‘What the hell?’

On the morning of Monday, Nov. 7, a room in the basement of the Toronto Sheraton hotel was stuffed to the brim with almost every notable labour leader in the country, as well as their staff.

Their plan, hammered out over the weekend, was set: they were to announce plans to move toward a general strike.

But when Ford staged an emergency press conference just two hours before their own announcement, it upended their schedule and sent them scrambling to get around laptops to watch his remarks.

The premier announced an astonishing climbdown: he would repeal the legislation he had passed just a few days earlier, in exchange for an end to the strike.

According to several people in the room that The Breach spoke to, JP Hornick was the first to speak. “We can’t trust Ford,” she said. “This changes nothing. We continue with the plan.”

A leader from one of the trades unions responded. “We’ve won, you’ve won,” he said. “I saw a promise to repeal, let’s take them up on it.”

With Bill 28 seemingly defeated, the united front that Ontario’s labour movement had assembled was already showing cracks.

OSBCU President addresses media at the Sheraton hotel in Toronto on Monday, November 7. Credit: OPSEU Local 1546

Upstairs in the hotel, OSBCU president Walton and CUPE National President Mark Hancock and their closest staff were meeting with lawyers.

According to sources familiar with the conversation, Walton felt cornered. 

The poster on the podium they were due to speak on had only one demand—Repeal Bill 28—and it had just been met. 

This was what had brought many of the labour leaders together, brokered in part by the national president. Continuing the strike, those advising caution argued, could jeopardize the repeal of Ford’s legislation.

In the end, the decision was made: the union would take down its picket lines and return to negotiations.

Sainsbury, the educational assistant who had made thousands of phone calls, was taken aback.

“I was like, ‘What the hell? We have the government exactly where we’ve been working for 10 months to get them.”

Brock University’s Savage agrees this was the most important strategic moment. 

“The key question is what power and leverage at the bargaining table was potentially abandoned when the decision was made to take down the picket lines?” Savage said.

“What would have happened if they said, ‘We’ll keep the picket lines up, and Doug Ford has 24 hours to offer a better deal to the union?’”

“As much as Ford blinked, so too did the union leadership.”

When OSBCU returned to the negotiating table in the days afterward, government negotiators shifted, but not by much.

The union set another strike deadline for late November, but on the final day before expiring came to a tentative agreement. While not offering any funding to deal with understaffing, it doubled the initial wage increase offered by the government and restored job security.

“As a worker, I don’t like this deal. As the president of the OSBCU, I understand why this is the deal that’s on the table,” Walton told the media on Nov. 22 as the agreement went to members for a vote. “I think it falls short and I think it’s terrible that we live in a world that doesn’t see the need to provide services to kids that they need.”

The threat of elevated expectations

In late November at the Intercontinental hotel in Toronto, CUPE National president Mark Hancock gathered with 150 CUPE staffers, including a dozen who had worked on the OSBCU campaign.

Reflecting on the education workers’ struggle, he joked, “I think what we did was motivate the workers too well.”

The joke didn’t land.

At the question-and-answer session, a CUPE staff official who had been centrally involved in the education workers’ campaign stepped up to the mic.

“I disagree strongly,” he said. “We do need to be raising expectations. That’s what our organizing model does. We need to be building worker power and we need to be investing in this model. I want to be part of a fighting union.”

According to several people The Breach spoke to in attendance, almost the entire room broke into applause.

CUPE National President Mark Hancock speaks to the media at the Sheraton hotel on November 7. Credit: CUPE

The exchange was the latest sign of the simmering tensions between the education workers’ union and CUPE’s national leadership.

According to CUPE officials who were not involved with the OSBCU campaign, the education workers’ strike set off a turf war that would see CUPE’s national office “manage and moderate” the struggle. The Breach is leaving them unnamed because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“I think the national office put pressure on OSBCU not to go out on strike initially,” one of those CUPE officials said. “It’s part of a long-standing defensive orientation that if you’re striking, you’ve already failed. And it’s part of a mentality of not believing the public could be onside, not believing workers will follow through, and not believing that once a bill is passed you can beat it.”

The national president’s executive assistant was assigned to Walton when the strike loomed, the national office engaged in an unprecedented level of interference once a tentative agreement was put to a vote by members, and a top national official complained privately about OSBCU being a rogue local.

While Walton said that CUPE National invested important resources in their organizing and “did a lot of work assembling support at a national level,” she acknowledged that they had “different labour philosophies about how the work gets done.”

CUPE’s media relations said Hancock was not available for an interview and did not respond to questions sent by email.

Right after the agreement was signed, the national office sent a letter to all of the union’s Ontario locals, asking for it to be forwarded to membership. It described the deal as a “breakthrough,” far more positive than OSBCU’s assessment. 

In online sessions, CUPE national lawyers warned about how the dollar-an-hour won would be at stake if members voted “no.”

“That’s not a typical move within CUPE,” Savage said. “You don’t often see a national leader making a strong pitch to ratify an agreement.”

The National and OSCBU later extended the deadline for the vote by two weeks. According to many members The Breach spoke to, the closer the date got to Christmas, the harder it became to imagine rejecting it and going back to the picket lines. 

More than 70 per cent ended up voting in favour.

A vocal minority within the union encouraged members to vote no, including Toronto custodian Hermes Azam, a member of OSBCU’s largest local, CUPE 4400.

Members of a rank-and-file group within OSBCU’s local CUPE 4400 in Toronto, who campaigned against the recently ratified contract. Credit: Tremaine Nour

He didn’t understand why the union wasn’t using its right to strike—which it had just won back after an unprecedented government attack—to win its original demands.

“It really did feel like back to the status quo, back to normal, back to carrying on behind closed doors with men and women in suits.”

President Walton was the first to admit the contract didn’t get workers “everything that we need or deserve.”

“I acknowledge not everyone is saying this is the best thing since sliced bread,” she told The Breach. “But it’s a step in the right direction, and the power that workers showed set a bar for everyone else.”

And a lot else has changed, she said, including a commitment to year-round, long-term organizing that “raises expectations.”

“Bargaining for too many people has become like elections, going out to talk to workers once every four years,” she said. “But you don’t just organize around a contract. You’re building power every single day. This was only a start.”

Brock University’s Savage says the agreement set a “positive pattern” for the labour movement and inspired union activists.

“One thing that is underappreciated is that they got the best deal in the broader public sector in Ontario since the imposition of Bill 124 in 2019,” he said. 

Michelle Campbell, back at home in York Region, told The Breach it was “the hardest vote” she’s ever had to make. 

She thought about voting no, but finally settled on yes because of the financial impact of striking before the holidays.

But in the end, she said, the fight was about more than the contract, and it changed her life.

Winter months are always the toughest for her, when her fibromyalgia flares up. But this year, she feels healthier and more energetic than usual.

She plans to stay involved with her union, using her voice as “a regular old worker” to embolden others. Her hope is that other unions will follow OSBCU’s example.

“Workers’ power will be unstoppable,” she said. “I think there’s a quote that says, ‘I’ve grown a backbone where my wishbone used to be.’ It’s a powerful feeling.”

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