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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 781
March 12, 2013

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Dissent Brews in the OSSTF

David Bush and Doug Nesbitt

Over a month has passed since Bill 115 was repealed by the Ontario Liberals, but the contracts imposed on the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) remain intact and effectively unchallenged. This has led to several incidents of open dissent from the ranks of OSSTF in particular.

Outside Maple Leaf Gardens after 30,000 protest outside the Ontario Liberal leadership convention, January 26 2013. Photo: David Bush.

Throughout the short life of Bill 115, OSSTF members have pushed their union to take a more defiant direction such as that taken by ETFO. Dissent boiled over in November when a number of OSSTF districts rejected tentative agreements being negotiated within Bill 115's framework. In response, OSSTF leaders were compelled to cancel future ratification votes and finally implement province-wide work-to-rule, as ETFO worked toward rotating one-day, district-wide strikes in December.

However, the provincial leadership of OSSTF is still showing an unwillingness to pursue any sort of collective protest against the effects of Bill 115. On February 22, the OSSTF Provincial Council, at the Provincial Executive's recommendation, voted to suspend the boycott of extra-curricular (EC) and voluntary activities. This has left ETFO as the only union still refusing to budge on boycotting ECs in protest. The OSSTF decision is yet another example of how union leaders have one-by-one capitulated to the government, undermining any prospects of cooperative and united efforts to defeat the government's attacks on education workers and collective bargaining.

United Course of Action?

This is a point pondered by Jeff Kanter, an Ottawa high school teacher, who writes,

“Here's a thought: how about the leaders of OSSTF and ETFO sit down with each other and come up with a collective, cooperative, collaborative, and united course of action?

“The most effective weapon teachers have – unified action – was seriously weakened months ago when OECTA leaders caved in to governmental pressure and accepted, without permitting a vote by membership, the now infamous MoU (Memorandum of Understanding). In spite of this setback, the elementary and secondary panels of the public system seemed to be on the same page moving forward. Now, that has suddenly changed, as the nightmare has become a dream.

“A dream for the new Liberal minority government: dissension among the teachers’ ranks. OSSTF has inexplicably caved in to provincial pressure and has supported a return to voluntary activities for teachers while getting absolutely nothing in return for these teachers other than vague notions of continuing to have meaningful and polite dialogue. What the hell does that mean?”

As Kanter points out, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) leaders didn't just sell-out ETFO and OSSTF, they also sold out their own membership. The MoU involved no consultation of local bargaining units, and no ratification vote from the membership. The problems of the labour movement have not simply been the lack of solidarity between unions, but a question of democratic decision-making in the unions themselves.

Thirty Thousand Dollars

The necessity of locally-organized groups of workers focused on internal union democracy and the elementary union principle of solidarity isn't lost on the Rank-and-file Education Workers of Toronto (REWT). On January 26, the REWT blog reported that the Secondary Teachers Bargaining Unit executive of OSSTF District 12 (Toronto) had donated $10,000 to Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Eric Hoskins. Hoskins had voted in favour of Bill 115. As the REWT blog read:

“On Wednesday (Jan 23) it was revealed via a Global News story that OSSTF D 12 had donated (sometime last December) $10,000 to the campaign of the Liberal party leadership contender, Eric Hoskins. The source for the story was factual information posted on the Ontario Elections website. Prior to the Jan 23rd story, there had been no information about this in any D12 communication to members (e-mails or website). Even in Doug Jolliffe's president's report to the monthly Secondary Teachers’ Bargaining Unit Council meeting of Jan 24, there was no mention of the donation. And when asked a direct question by REWT member, Luis Filipe of Parkdale Collegiate, Jolliffe's reply was evasive, just admitting to offering ‘support’ to three of the contenders for the Liberal Leadership.”

At the time, left a message with Doug Jolliffe, president of District 12's STBU. We requested an interview, but we received no reply.

Because the STBU executive effectively kept their decision secret, most OSSTF members found out about this donation scandal on February 5 when the Toronto Star published an editorial revealing that OSSTF District 12 had in fact donated an additional $10,000 to Kathleen Wynne and $5,000 to both Gerard Kennedy and Glen Murray. As The Star editorial commented,

“There's nothing illegal about the donations, perhaps even nothing improper. But it's a cynical approach – especially when the same union demanded that teachers withdraw their involvement in students’ sports, chess clubs and theatre productions because of anger at the Liberals’ approach to contract talks. The four candidates criticized that approach, but only Kennedy promised to reopen contracts imposed on the teachers under Bill 115.”

REWT has since launched a petition circulated throughout District 12 protesting this decision and expressing non-confidence in the STBU executive.

Demands for Democracy and Membership Input

On February 27, Jim Stringer, a Manitoulin Secondary School teacher and strike captain published an open letter to Ken Coran, OSSTF president. The letter highlights a number of problems with the OSSTF strategy, as Stringer sees them. On suspension of the EC boycott, Stringer comments,

“As a result of communication issues outside your control, exacerbated by media that are unable or unwilling to report these matters factually or accurately, by Friday evening many members, and most of the public, were convinced that we had been directed to resume xc's [extra-curriculars]. That erroneous impression has been somewhat ameliorated amongst us via subsequent communications, though not amongst the general public, including our students. In any case, the withdrawal of xc's, the lone remaining weapon in our fight against Bill 115 imposed working conditions, is in serious question. Members feel betrayed and abandoned. This outcome was neither accidental nor unforeseeable. In fact, it should have been anticipated.”

The open letter also reveals a lack of confidence in the leadership, but plenty of confidence in the membership:

“Earlier drafts of this letter suggested that you and the PE [Provincial Executive] should resign. That was based on what I and many others see as a failure of leadership evidenced by an effective rollover on key bargaining issues, an apparent abandonment of a membership committed to a long term struggle to regain what was lost and the adoption of a strategy guaranteed to create major rifts and internal strife amongst that membership. On reflection, that seems both excessively confrontational and unhelpful to the situation. What I ask instead is that you undertake at the earliest possible opportunity, and certainly before you proceed further down the path of discussion with the province, to survey the membership on the issue. Are we willing to accept the strips [concessions]? If not, are we prepared to stand firm until we achieve a satisfactory resolution. I am confident that you will be surprised by the strength of the resolve of the membership.”

Another petition is also being circulated by OSSTF members calling upon Coran and the provincial executive to halt all negotiations with the government until there is input by the membership. Like Stringer's letter, this is in direct response to the OSSTF provincial leadership abandoning the boycott of ECs.

The OSSTF Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly

The extent to which the membership is willing to challenge the leadership and push for more membership participation, will be put to the test at the upcoming OSSTF Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA) held in Toronto from March 8-11. The body is the “supreme legislative body” of OSSTF and will be determining policy, bylaws and holding provincial executive elections.

There is at least one electoral challenge being mounted from the general perspective of the dissident voices cited in this article. Tim Heffernan, a high school history and social studies teacher and REWT member who blog-posted about the District 12 donations, will be a candidate for the provincial executive.

What happens at AMPA will provide some important insights into how Bill 115's effects are being fought, if at all. It was clear in January that in the face of an Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling against ETFO's planned one-day strike, that both ETFO and OSSTF leaders were unwilling to endorse legitimate civil disobedience against profoundly unjust and illegitimate laws, including the outrageous use of the OLRB against the unions while Bill 115 barred the unions from contesting any aspect of the bill through the OLRB. These are of course difficult decisions to take, but it is obvious that capitulation has become all too easy even when all signs point toward a real commitment to strike from the membership.

The alternative has been attempts at negotiating with the government in the absence of job action as a weapon. The perception of Wynne as being somehow more labour-friendly than McGuinty has allowed her to do what McGuinty couldn't – quell the labour unrest to a fair extent in Ontario's public schools. Wynne has made no concessions or promises and she has managed to isolate ETFO and neutralize OSSTF.

Portrayed as somehow more progressive on labour issues than McGuinty, it's worth reminding ourselves what Premier Wynne said about why she voted for Bill 115:

“If I hadn't voted for Bill 115, as I've said to my teacher friends and colleagues, the premier would have had to ask me to leave cabinet. And I determined that it was more important for me to be there to continue to voice my opinion than to vote against the bill and leave cabinet. But that does not mean that the decisions were all good. They clearly weren't.”

To put in another way, Wynne would rather stay in cabinet and express dissent behind closed doors after the bill has become law, instead of voting on principle in an open, democratic manner. Somehow, some labour leaders think this lack of principle and backbone is worthy of support.

The future of the labour struggle in Ontario's education sector is still up in the air, but the saga of Bill 115 does not inspire confidence in the broader labour movement's ability to fight off right-to-work legislation being proposed by the Hudak Tories who continue to lead most polls. If teachers and the rest of labour movement are to change course toward a more effective fightback strategy then a clearer understanding of the balance of forces of all the actors is needed. What are the strength and weaknesses, divisions, strategies and motivations of the three major parties, the union leadership and the rank and file workers?

The current dissent within OSSTF points toward signs that the labour movement can be renewed through rank-and-file organizing around greater democratic participation and accountability in unions, and more principled stands against anti-union and anti-worker legislation. •

David Bush is a community and labour activist based primarily on the East Coast. Currently he is finishing his Master's in Labour Studies at McMaster University.

Doug Nesbitt is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Queen's University. He is co-editor of where this article first appeared.


#6 Eric D from T.O. 2013-03-13 16:17 EST
No loss in teaching positions
Merging the Separate and Public systems wouldn't result in lost teachers. The province funds the systems based on the number of students in school desks. That number won't change!!!

#5 Eric D from T.O. 2013-03-13 16:16 EST
Merging Catholic and Public Systems
Whether or not money is to be saved is irrelevant. Currently we have the farcical situation in which one religious group is guaranteed DOUBLE the publicly funded teaching positions that their percentage of the population would predict.

Separate schools employ roughly 32% (2009 or 2010, IIRC) of Ontario's publicly funded FTE (full time equivalent) teaching positions. Separate schools can a do hire ONLY PRACTICING Catholic teachers. Occasionally a non-Catholic may slip through the cracks if a Catholic cannot be found BUT the Catholic school boards can discriminate against non-Catholics in any promotion decisions once hired.

So, while less than 25% of Ontarians could be considered to be practicing Catholic they already are GUARANTEED exclusive access to 32% of publicly funded teaching jobs with no fear of competition from non-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics. Add to that the fact that these same teachers can compete ON EQUAL FOOTING for teaching jobs in Public publicly funded schools and you end up with the farcical situation where being a practicing Catholic gets you into 32% + 25% of 68% = 49% of jobs.

49% of teaching jobs for a group that makes up less than 25% of the population.

This also sets up a discriminatory situation in which members from minorities already underrepresented in teaching and not from a Catholic background (Pakinstani-Canadians who are by-and-large Muslim, for examples) are systemically discriminated against in publicly funded teaching jobs.

The Separate school system is a bastion of discrimination and that discrimination must end. If the Public and Separate systems were to be merged and the discrminatory hiring practices of the Separate system were to end tomorrow it would still take OVER THIRTY years before the over-representation of Catholics and under-representation of EVERYONE else in 100% PUBLICLY funded teaching jobs would end.

Plus, merging the system would likely save 100s of millions, if not billions annually. Assuming that even a modest 5% savings could be achieved by merging the two systems that would be an annual savings of 1 BILLION DOLLARS!! And, I would be shocked if there was ONLY a 5% duplication of services over the two systems.

Merge the two systems and fix two problems. Fix the biggest and most costly publicly funded social inequity in the country (on the order of billions of dollars in salaries) and save a substantial amount of public funds that could instead be devoted to doing other public goods like poverty reduction or health programs.

#4 Eric D from T.O. 2013-03-13 16:03 EST
This certainly is not a consensus opinion
The authors speak of dissent brewing in the 'rank and file' of the OSSTF.

They may be right on the count of those who are inclined to militancy at the drop of a hat but there is certainly no unanimity in the membership [of OSSTF] about the 'next steps'.

This time around is not the time to fight. Our fight starts in a year and a half. Teachers have the public on their side despite the general antipathy towards our profession fed by a never-ending round of cynical teacher-baiting and -bashing by certain political parties and news media outlets.

But, we do not have, nor did we have the momentum to fight a protracted labour battle. The changes to our working conditions and remuneration were arbitrary and capricious but the injustice thereof wasn't immediately visible to the public, and, thus also not useful to us.

The abuse of legislative power will come back to haunt the government in the long term. If our Charter challenge succeeds that will return some of the losses (I'm not convinced it's a slam dunk because gov't leaders aren't stupid (despite populist slurs, and, in the case of Rob Ford, fact ;-)--they'll have had a legion of lawyers trying to stay just within the confines of the law).

That said, in two years is when I think is the time to fight. Up to this point we have public sympathy because of the government's HANDLING of the "negotiations" but not because of our working conditions. In two years we will have a better argument to present since there will be some history. The gov't bungled things. Teachers stayed above the fray and did their due diligence while Hudak and McGuinty played politics. We'll have some credibility to stand up at that point.

Had we stood up in 2012/2013 we'd have handed popular support over to Hudak and then we'd be dealing with a gov't whose core has an ingrown hatred for the teaching profession (for whatever reason) and believes that teachers are overpaid and underworked and that teacher unions are the root of all evil with their pesky ability to bargain collectively according to free market principles (rather than the regulated environment that the US conservatives have created where they seek to eliminate employees' ability to bargain as a collective, and, instead allow the employer to have all the bargaining power).

Their decisions would be costly to us, and, as Harris showed, costly to our economy and our future citizens in terms of harming the future education of our children. But, to many of Hudak's supporters the future is irrelevant when it comes to settling scores with those pesky teacher unions that allow teachers to bargain collectively according to free market principles.

In 2014 the real tough battle will start. The court case will have started its long slog through the courts. The government will still be 'suffering' from a deficit and the public will be feeling the pinch and quality drop in public services. At that point there will be need to rally the troops.

We will need all the good will we can get. To that end the gov't and the OSSTF (and ETFO, though I am not an ETFO member) need to "kiss and make up".

A protracted labour battle is not in the best interest of either the teachers or the gov't at this point and little is to be gained. In two years the story will be different and teachers and their unions will need all the public support that can be rallied to maintain decent working conditions, and, thus decent learning conditions.

#3 Anonymous 2013-03-12 14:04 EST
Catholic Ed and OECTA
A merger of school systems is not the way to go. It would result in thousands of teacher and educational worker layoffs. Anyone who doesn't see this is living in La-La Land. As for OECTA - there was a big change in leadership this weekend.

#2 Errol Sharpe 2013-03-12 08:43 EST
I read with great interest the article by David Bush and Doug Nesbitt "Dissent Brews in the OSSTF." The article clearly points out that the OSSTF leadership is solidly in the service of the neoliberal austerity program which accumulate wealth for large corporations and their rich directors by squeezing money out of rank and file Canadians, privitising public enterprises and weakening the people's organizations. The donations to Liberal candidates clearly show where the OSSTF leadership wants to go. While, as the Star article says, it may be legal - legal that is according to the laws enacted by the neoliberal state but clearly illegal in any moral or ethical sense. Because of this illegality the membership of the OSSTF needs to exercise their legal rights and defy the pseudo legality of the corporate neoliberal state.

#1 Barry 2013-03-12 08:41 EST
fight for democracy in our unions
Good analysis. The conclusion should go one step further. Not only rank and file organizing for union democracy and an end to concessions bargaining, but an organized, cross-union, class struggle formation that challenges the existing labour leadership in virtually all of the unions is urgently needed.

Here is what happened this past weekend:
The winds of change rippled through Ontario teacher union conventions held this weekend in Toronto.

The President of the Catholic teachers' union, Kevin O'Dwyer, who was the first to break with the education common front formed last Spring, and who capitulated to the Ontario government's austerity agenda in July, went down to defeat. See the OECTA news release copied below.

At the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation convention outgoing President, Ken Coran, did not seek re-election. His was probably a wise move. Pro-establishment Vice-President, Leslie Wolfe, suffered a stinging defeat, and incumbent Treasurer Earl Burt came within 25 votes of being knocked off by a challenger from his own Toronto District. Both Wolfe and Burt are associated with the provincial team that has been playing footsie with the austerity and cutbacks-inclined Liberal government. Both were complicit with the hostile takeover of the Toronto Occasional Teachers' Bargaining Unit by conservative retired teachers who killed job security and democracy in the OTBU in 2003.

Left wing oppositionists got respectable votes, but did not manage to win any posts. Toronto-based Tim Heffernan ran for one of the five Executive Officer positions. He effectively publicized his criticisms of the current leadership and its wavering stance on 'austerity'. Tim got just under 20% of the votes cast. Daniel Kudamaveneka, a new activist from Peel District, ran for President and got about 15% of the votes cast. The new President is Paul Elliot, a right of centre NDPer and OSSTF V.P. The new executive takes office on July 1.

In other news: OSSTF delegates adopted a policy resolution calling for a single, secular public school system in English and French in Ontario. The union is committed to the proposition that in a merger of existing public and Catholic school facilities following an end to public funding of the religious separate schools, no support staff jobs currently represented by OSSTF should be lost. Revulsion at the sellout by OECTA leaders last summer, their agreement to the infamous Memorandum of Understanding that incorporated the government's two-year wage freeze, its slashing of paid sick days, and suspension of collective bargaining and the right to strike in the education sector, helped to power the call for a single public system that would inevitably put the separate school system and OECTA out of business.

See OECTA news release: "New OECTA Provincial Executive Elected"

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