Canada: Conservatives back down on anti-worker law in face of general strike threat

November 16, 2022
Ontario strike 2022
There was strong community support for wildcat actions by education workers in Ontario. Images: @CUPEOntario/Twitter

Ontario’s Conservative government officially repealed its anti-worker, anti-union legislation, known as Bill 28, on November 14.

The Keeping Students in Class Act suspended human rights in an effort to prevent education workers in the province from striking. The government had introduced the bill only two weeks earlier — on October 31 — sparking a wave of union mobilisations and protests.

When word began to circulate about cross-union plans to launch a general strike across Ontario — with a tentative start date, coincidentally, of November 14, the government backed down.

The government’s targets were low-paid education workers, including educational assistants, custodians and early childhood educators, all members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). By invoking the “notwithstanding clause” in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms the provincial legislature sought to override CUPE members’ ability to strike for a five-year period and impose a contract (enterprise agreement) on education workers.

Working class people broadly, and the union movement, across the country saw this as more than an attack on CUPE. It was attack on fundamental organising rights and collective bargaining — indeed the rights of workers, and their collective freedoms generally.

Strikes and protests began almost immediately. CUPE education workers stuck to their initial strike date, walking out on November 4 in what had become an illegal, wildcat strike. They were joined by education workers in other unions including the Ontario Public Servive Employees Union (OPSEU). Rallies, marches, and pickets involving tens of thousands of people were held across the province.

Only a week into the strikes, with a broadened general strike looming, the government backed down, announcing on November 7 that they would return to the bargaining table and repeal the legislation.

By November 14, the capitulation was complete. Not only did the government kill its own bill. It passed wording that said the law had officially never been in effect.

Rank-and-file rebellion?

While the government’s decision to repeal Bill 28 was wildly hailed as welcome news and a victory for organised labour, many rank-and-file education workers were concerned and dismayed that CUPE agreed to call off the strike before the legislation had been officially repealed.

In their view, this was simply a return to the status quo ante in which workers, who were in a legal strike position on November 4, returned to the bargaining table with pickets down — precisely what the government had demanded when it threatened to pass Bill 28.

The Ontario Education Workers Rank-and-File Committee (OEWRFC) held an online meeting to discuss strategies going forward. That meeting passed a resolution pledging to continue organising “mass defiance of [Conservative Premier Doug] Ford’s strike ban” and to fight for “a contract with inflation-busting wage and benefit increases, and secure tens of billions in investments for public education”.

Perhaps more significantly, the OEWRFC pledged to “fight to build a network of rank-and-file committees in schools and workplaces to conduct this struggle”. In doing so, rank-and-filers made the important distinction between a strategy of working-class mobilisation against a right-wing austerity government and the calls for political protest coming from the CUPE leadership.

Working class mobilisation recognises that the Conservative government is an anti-worker government driven by aims of union busting and privatisation. Political protest to get the government back to the bargaining table is not enough. The government has already harmed collective bargaining and put workers in a defensive position. Use of the notwithstanding clause and willingness to suspend human rights to break a strike preemptively shows how they view working-class rights.

OEWRFC later released a statement criticising the decision by union leaders to take the pickets down while returning to bargaining. This, it said, would strengthen the government now and in ongoing negotiations with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) and OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation). In the words of OEWRFC:

“Teachers and all workers should join the education support workers in preparing a general strike. All workers have an interest in defending public education and preventing the government from establishing a precedent, as it did with the unrepealed Bill 124, for real-wage cutting contracts.

“To secure victory, we must seize the leadership of our struggle from the corporatist trade union apparatuses through the building of rank-and-file committees, uniting education workers across sectional lines in schools, and workers at every workplace — public and private sector alike.”

Lessons and challenges

The decision to take down the pickets, before Bill 28 had even been repealed, and while negotiations continue, should be recognised as a tactical misstep. It has also taken much of the wind from the sails of worker organising that was occurring on a scale and with a militance not seen in Ontario in years.

The threat posed by the Conservative government continues and we will have to see how this plays out with the teachers’ negotiations. Certainly, a mobilised, and indeed radicalised, labour movement would have served the teachers well, putting the government, rather than the unions, in a defensive position.

Even with this, however, important lessons have been learned. As one rank-and-file commentator has pointed out, the mobilisations against Bill 28 should show us that “the path to a general strike is shorter than we think”. One thing is clear: “Our task is to keep building in between these moments of mass upheaval, and to be open to the possibility — if the conditions are right — that each struggle could grow rapidly into something much bigger. At that point, a general strike would be possible again, and we wouldn’t need months or years of preparation to call it.”

In the present context, the challenge is with rank-and-file workers to carry on with their day-to-day organising to build networks inside their unions, between unions, and with community movements. This as much as anything will determine how far the stirring of working-class energies can push forward and overcome the limits of management orientations within union movements and collective bargaining.

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