Ontario’s Education Workers Are on Strike
Ontario’s conservative government refused to bargain with its public education workers. But the decision to impose a contract on the workers appears to have backfired — it has increased worker solidarity and organizing and provoked an “illegal” strike.
On Friday, fifty-five thousand Ontario education workers with Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) walked off the job in an “illegal” strike. They were joined by Ontario Public Service Employee Union (OPSEU) education workers, who also “illegally” walked off the job. Over 2.1 million students were out of school as school boards were forced to shut down schools.
Picket lines were up outside Conservative provincial parliament member offices and elsewhere in the province. In Toronto, a massive all-day picket line and rally was held at Queen’s Park, which the media estimated reached ten thousand people. But it wasn’t just striking workers — a huge number of parents, students, trade unionists, and other workers showed up. The mood was electric and defiant, and it was clear the fight was much broader than just education workers’ demands. Their strike has turned into a class-wide fight over fundamental workers’ rights and the right to fight for a better life.
How We Got Here
Education workers have faced legislated wage suppression for more than a decade. This wage suppression was enabled by the passage of Bill 115 and Bill 124, issuing from a Liberal and Tory government respectively. During the height of the pandemic, education workers were told they were essential, but their pay checks didn’t reflect that fact.
Between 2011 and 2021, education workers experienced an effective wage cut of over 11 percent. Their average annual wage is $39,000. More than half of Ontario’s education workers are forced to work a second job (or more) to make ends meet and over 25 percent regularly use a food bank.
With a worsening cost-of-living crisis underway, it was clear there was a strong demand for higher wages and better working conditions as a bargaining approach — a strategy that has deeply resonated with other workers. The union was asking for a $3.25 per-hour increase to catch up with inflation. After months of intensive and systematic organizing, and literally tens of thousands of member-to-member conversations, members gave a resounding mandate by voting over 96.5 percent to strike, with a turnout of 82.6 percent. This from-below, rank and file–focused approach has built a massive movement inside the union, and has bolstered the strikers’ confidence.
The government played hardball during negotiations, arriving with anti-strike legislation in hand. When they finally came to the table, they offered workers a well-below-inflation wage increase of 1.5 percent (with some getting 2 percent). In the middle of negotiations, the government announced it was taking money out of public education by issuing checks for $200 to $250 per child to parents to spend on educational services. These so-called “catch-up payments” were an overt attempt to bribe the public and, worse, to accelerate the privatization of public education. All that money could have been used to meet the workers’ demands and dramatically improve students’ learning conditions.
After the “no-board” report was issued, November 3 became the earliest possible date the workers could go on strike. Negotiations and mediation were ongoing, but it was clear the government had no intention of bargaining. CUPE was preparing for a strike, holding regional meetings and discussing with their members the potential government response to their strike.
The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) issued its strike notice last Wednesday, triggering a November strike deadline. Within hours, the government responded with the declaration that that they would introduce legislation that imposed a concessionary contract on education workers and take away their right to strike.
The following day, when the government introduced Bill 28 (the so-called “Keeping Students in Class Act”), they inserted the notwithstanding clause into the legislation. The government knew that its legislation was an unprecedented violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but didn’t care. It was meant to add fuel to the fire, by attacking all labor rights, not just education workers.
But their plan appears to have backfired — spectacularly. In the last month, there has been a burgeoning solidarity campaign with education workers, rank-and-file teachers, and work activists, led by the Justice for Workers campaign. Education workers themselves have been extremely organized and have reached out at a rank-and-file level to community members and fellow trade unionists. Their #39KIsNotEnough campaign has energized and organized their members and inspired the wider public.
Justice for Workers initiated a “Paint the Province Purple” campaign and began to coordinate solidarity days outside schools. Supporters postered schools, tied purple ribbons on fences and street lights, posted solidarity messages online (such as this inspiring video from the Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change), and engaged parents to sign pledge sheets to support education workers.
Throughout October, these actions were repeated and grew. OSBCU provided leaflets and Justice for Workers “Support Education Workers” posters started to appear across the province. Rank-and-file teachers and parent groups, such as the Ontario Parent Action Network (OPAN), played a key role in building and amplifying these actions, as did the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), Ontario’s central labor body. These actions helped create a network of supporters who were ready and willing to take action to support education workers.
A Week of Struggle
When the Tories doubled down with the introduction of Bill 28, there was already a layer of activists beyond the union’s fifty-five thousand education workers ready to mobilize and build on the months of previous organizing. On Monday, the OFL called an emergency rally in Toronto in response to Bill 28, and over 3,500 people took to the streets in under a day’s notice. This number far exceeded everyone’s expectations, but quickly showed there was a large appetite for action.
On Wednesday, the day after the emergency protest, as Bill 28 was being forced through the legislature, New Democratic Party (NDP) MPPs were tossed out of the legislature for calling Premier Doug Ford a liar. The mood was defiant and helped build the confidence of NDP members and voters to resist the attacks on education workers and workers’ rights. That night, over five hundred people joined the Justice for Workers phone zap, making over two thousand calls to Conservative MPPs.
On Thursday, OPSEU also announced it would support its education workers walking off the job on Friday. This was a clear message of defiance and a real escalation of the struggle. The evening before the strike, OPAN organized a rally of parents and families who gathered outside a downtown Toronto hotel in which bargaining was underway. Hundreds of parents and kids showed up, again exceeding organizers’ expectations.
OPAN has been crucial in helping push back against the narrative that parents are opposed to the education workers’ strike. By late Thursday, it was clear the mediation had completely collapsed and education workers would be out an “illegal” strike.
School boards announced their closures. Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce’s claim that they would do anything to keep kids in school had completely blown up in their face. The momentum was clearly with education workers and their supporters.
On Friday, education workers walked out in defiance of Ford’s law. In Toronto the big picket line at Queen’s Park drew tens of thousands. Education workers put up picket lines right across the province in a stunning show of force. Numbers everywhere far exceeded expectations as education workers were joined by parents, students, community members, and fellow trade unionists. On Saturday another emergency rally was called by the OFL with just hours’ notice. This last-minute rally shut down Toronto’s main intersection of Yonge and Dundas.
The week of actions helped build the confidence of people to act and put the Conservatives on the back foot. Early polling has shown broad public support for the education workers. This has steeled the resolve of those inside the labor movement who wanted to take the fight to the Tories. Unions which had previously supported the Conservatives, like Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), have started to publicly distance themselves from the Ford government. Elementary teachers who were bargaining with the government have walked away from the table.
Whatever reservations some union leaders have had about publicly supporting education workers, the growing pressure from below, including from their own members who are leading the call for a fight, has pushed them closer to action. An important section of the labor leadership in Ontario — CUPE’s OSBCU, CUPE Ontario, OPSEU, and UNIFOR — has been leading and supporting the fight for education workers, and pushing other unions to follow them. The massive outpouring of support from their members, other workers, and the wider public has vindicated their principled approach.
Things are moving extremely fast and could escalate in the coming days. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1587, representing GO Transit workers in the province, has rejected their tentative deal by 81 percent and are set to strike on Monday at 12:01AM. This strike, provoked by a rejection of a subpar contract offer, could bring Toronto’s public transportation to a standstill. Such a disruption would add to the sense that the Conservatives are losing control of the province. Discussions have been underway in all of CUPE Ontario — not just the education workers — about what they can do to join this fight. If the entire union takes action, it could unleash a massive response from the rest of labor.
For socialists and activists, the key task is to deepen and expand rank-and-file solidarity across all unions and among nonunion workers and the wider public. It is this energy that has pushed reluctant leaders into action and that has built support and backing for the progressive, left-wing leaders who were already ready to fight.
The massive “illegal” strike by CUPE education workers and the “illegal” OPSEU education worker walkout has set the stage for a huge fight. ATU’s GO transit strike on Monday will escalate it further.
It’s only a few days into the inspiring strike of education workers, but it looks as if it could grow into a much bigger fight — not just for a fair settlement for those workers — but to repeal Bill 28 and to fight for decent work for all workers in the province.
Tories are faltering. Splits in the Tory party are real but thus far are only occurring in the backrooms. We need to keep the heat on to crack the party. That means supporting increased worker action, public protests, and continuing to build solidarity everywhere. We have to widen the struggle. We can win this, but we can’t let up even for one second.